See studies by A. Donagan (1962, repr. 1986), M. Kraus, ed. (1972), and L. O. Mink (1987).
The land in the area was originally inhabited by the Iroquoian Petun nation, which built a string of villages in the vicinity of the nearby Niagara Escarpment. They were driven from the region by the Iroquois in 1650. European settlers, including freed Black slaves, arrived in the area in the 1840s, bringing with them their religion and culture.
The area originally had several other names associated with it, including Hurontario (because it lies at the end of Hurontario Street which runs from Lake Huron — of which Georgian Bay is a part — south to Lake Ontario), Nottawa, and Hens-and-Chickens Harbour, because of one large and four small islands in the bay.
In 1855, the Ontario, Simcoe & Huron (later called The Northern) railway came into Collingwood, and the harbour became the shipment point for goods destined for the upper Great Lakes ports of Chicago and Port Arthur-Ft. William (now Thunder Bay). Shipping produced a need for ship repairs, so it was not long before an organized ship building business was created. On May 24, 1883, the Collingwood Shipyards, formerly known as Collingwood Dry Dock Shipbuilding and Foundry Company Limited, opened with a special ceremony. On Sept. 12, 1901, The Huronic was launched in Collingwood, the first steel-hulled ship launched in Canada. The Shipyards produced Lakers and during World War II contributed to the production of Corvettes for the Royal Canadian Navy. Shipbuilding was one of the principal industries in the town, employing as much as 10% of the total labour force. Overseas competition and over capacity in shipbuilding in Canada led to the demise of shipbuilding in Collingwood in September 1986. The creation of government incentive programs and a fully serviced industrial park made it possible for Collingwood to attract eleven new manufacturing firms to the town by 1971. Eight additional manufacturing companies had located in the Town by 1983, making Collingwood the largest industrial employer in the region.
In June, 2007, Collingwood Ethanol began production in the former Nacan facility. The company expects to produce 50 million litres of ethanol annually to satisfy regulatory requirements on ethanol content in gasoline mandated by the provincial and federal governments. Collingwood Ethanol also produces byproducts of the ethanol manufacturing process, including an organic corn gluten fertilizer There is significant concern about the effects of ethanol production on the environment in the east end of Collingwood. Petitions have been submitted to the town by east end residents in an effort to force Collingwood Ethanol to reduce the amount of odour and noise that they are causing during the times when they are in full production.
Collingwood has focused on establishing itself as a four-season tourist area. Nestled on the southern shores of Georgian Bay and located in proximity to Blue Mountain, a promontory of the Niagara Escarpment, the Town has become the major recreation area for the southern part of the province. Blue Mountain itself is noted for skiing, and also for the Scenic Caves. The town is also a short distance from the popular Wasaga Beach Provincial Park, an attractive destination that received the title of Biosphere Reserve in 2004, and is the world's largest freshwater beach.
Since 1981, Collingwood has been home to the Thomson Tennis School, an elite tennis training academy operated by Richard Thomson (former Davis Cup Captain & Coach) and his son Michael.
Blue Mountain Ski Resort's association with international resort developer Intrawest Corporation began in 1986. In 1999 Intrawest purchased 50% ownership of the resort from the family of late Blue Mountain founder Jozo Weider. Together, Intrawest and the Weider family have accelerated development at the mountain, and the cultural and economic focus of Collingwood has increasingly shifted towards providing services for the resort trade.
The Barrie-Collingwood Railway (BCRY) is a short-line railway operation involving a partnership between the City of Barrie, Town of Collingwood, current Shippers, CP Rail and the railway operator - Cando Contracting Ltd. The BCRY mandate is to provide rail service to all industries in and around Barrie and Collingwood.
Local media include the Collingwood Enterprise-Bulletin and Collingwood-Wasaga Connection community newspapers, and radio station CKCB-FM (95.1, "the Peak," hot adult contemporary). The Barrie-based regional television station CKVR (now part of CTVglobemedia) maintains a bureau and the Owen Sound-based Bayshore Broadcasting radio group maintains an office in Collingwood. Collingwood is also known for its annual Elvis Presley festival, which attracts Elvis impersonators from the world over.
The town of Collingwood also started a public transportation iniative in 2007.
In addition to Collingwood's position as a lake port, it is also served by Collingwood Airport (CNY3), a medium-sized airport located about 4 miles (7.4 km) south of the town.