Conservation initiatives of 1913 failed to get action

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

Perhaps the most important theme in the history of Wellington County is the story of the Grand River and its tributaries.

With a few exceptions, every significant town and village developed on a stream that initially provided power for its industries, and later served as a convenient outlet for sewer and garbage. Crossing all those streams with roads was an expensive proposition. The locations of early bridges had a lot to do with the development of the transportation system.

By the late 19th century the river system, and its major spring floods every four or five years, became more enemy than friend. Those floods resulted from massive clearing of forested land, and ill-advised drainage schemes.

Every flood stirred up talk about remedial action of one sort or another, but each year the attention of local politicos soon shifted to other subjects. Few severe floods affected the entire river system in any one year, and consequently the large number of political jurisdictions was not conducive to a united effort. Everyone, it seems, was afraid that they would be paying money for river improvements that might benefit those living in another municipality.

Decades passed before municipal officials began to view the Grand basin as a single entity. The most important period in that change in attitude occurred a century ago, in 1912 and 1913.

Advocates of flood control were as vocal then as they had been for more than 20 years, and were gaining in strength. Many of those people had come to realize that flood control would require a system of dams, not just one above their municipality.

A second group might be called pioneer ecologists. Unlike the flood protection advocates, the ecologists took a broader perspective, relating unwise land clearing to erosion problems, the extinction of fish species and wildlife, and even climatic changes.

What was different in 1912 was a new, third group. These were proponents of hydro-electric power, and they viewed the Grand River system as a potential source of electrical power. The dams they wanted to build would provide flood control as a secondary benefit.

The ecologists were also supportive: they saw electrical power as a pollution-free means to power industry and light homes, and they believed that their plans for reforestation and erosion control would help ensure a more regular year-round flow of water to the generators.

Sir Adam Beck’s Hydro Electric Power Commission (HEPC), the forerunner of Ontario Hydro, was particularly interest in the Grand system. Beck was proposing to build a network of electric-powered light rail lines across southern Ontario, powered by locally-generated current to augment the supply from Niagara Falls. Those rail lines would provide corridors for power transmission lines linking the villages and towns they passed through.

During the summer of 1912 Beck sent a survey crew to investigate the power potential of the Grand below Fergus. During September engineers from the firm of Elsin Roberts and Company, with assistance from a team headed by Horace Beck, nephew of Sir Adam, conducted flow measurements at Elora, Blair, Glen Morris and above Brantford.

Meanwhile, the HEPC transmission network continued to grow. The first major line in Wellington brought Niagara power to Guelph. In the fall of 1912 crews constructed a branch line, from the man transformer station on Guelph’s Edinburgh Road to Eden Mills, Rockwood and Acton.

A thunderstorm and torrential downpour early in September of 1912 in the Galt area underlined the need for action. That storm caused major damage before the city had completed repair work from the heavy spring floods earlier in the year, which also caused problems for Paris and Brantford.

W.K. Breithaupt of Waterloo County, scion of the leather manufacturing family and a trained engineer, had been writing on the subject for years. Suddenly everyone was eager to hear what he said. He advocated a whole system of dams, not only on the Grand but also on the major tributaries: the Conestoga, Nith and Speed.

He viewed power generation as a secondary benefit to flood control, but his plans meshed well with those of the HEPC men. And Breithaupt was not some wild-eyed radical; he was a qualified and experienced engineer, and had figures, based on measurements made at his own expense, to back up his arguments.

Before the engineers could get back into the field in the spring of 1913, the Grand watershed experienced yet another flooding disaster. A thaw on March 14 sent most of the ice and backed-up water out of the streams in the upper valley, and all that water quickly did its work farther downstream.

At Fergus the situation was particularly bad. A January thaw had caused some minor flooding. At Fergus, though, a major pile-up of ice near the Tower Street bridge froze into a solid mass. More ice piled against it with the March 14 melt, and the entire river gorge filled with ice and water, spilling onto what is now the parking lot at the Fergus Market.

Ice damaged the wall of the Beatty factory, and wrecked a wall of the Broomfield Flour Mill on the north side of the river. Upstream, there was a foot of water on the main floor of Dr. Groves’ electrical plant, and water surrounded the building. Virtually every building in the flood plain in Fergus suffered some damage.

Eventually the ice jam broke. The wall of water demolished the dam at the linseed oil mill at Aboyne, caused significant damage at the T.E. Bissell factory in Elora, and wrecked the flume and turbine at the Mundell Furniture Company. The story was repeated in Galt and, to some extent, in Paris and Brantford.

Total damage ran into many thousands of dollars, more than any previous flood. Reluctant converts to the cause realized that flood control was a necessity, out of pure economic self-defence.

Realizing that the Grand River floods were having a negative effect on the provincial economy, the Ontario government sent another survey team into the field a few weeks after the March 1913 flood. Engineer W.P. Christie, a HEPC employee, headed the team, with three assistants. Beginning at Dunnville, Christie’s staff did a preliminary survey, measuring the drop in the river and identifying potential locations for reservoirs.

Locally, Christie’s men identified the stretch of the Grand below Elora as a prime location for a dam and reservoir, a location that would tame both the Grand itself and its minor but volatile tributary, the Irvine. The crew drove stakes all over the countryside, largely in farm fields, and instructed farmers not to tamper with them.

Both the HEPC men and provincial government officials focused their attention on the Grand below Fergus, believing that the upper reaches of the river and its minor tributaries would not be significant in the larger picture of flood control and power generation. Two Fergus men disagreed. The 1913 flooding in Fergus proved their point that the upper reaches of the river system were vitally important.

Arthur Perry recalled the days in the early 1890s when what had become the Luther Marsh had contained a large lake. Drainage and tree clearing had reduced its size and volume considerably. His proposal was that a large nature preserve be set aside and allowed to reforest itself. At that time he believed the marsh contained about 4,000 acres. He would add 8,000 acres or so to it, in an area that included the sources of the Irvine and Conestoga, and some of the Grand’s water. Dams on each of those streams would raise the water in the restored lake, providing a year-round source of water to all three streams.

Robert Kerr of Fergus, who knew as much about the river as anyone, with the possible exception of W.K. Breithaupt, took that proposal one step further. His view, which he presented at a meeting with three provincial cabinet members in late April 1913, was that a very large area, in Arthur, East and West Luther, Proton and Melancton Townships, be set aside as a nature preserve, and reforested by the provincial government. Kerr believed that no dams were necessary. Beavers would soon take charge off matters, constructing a network of waterways that would be more effective and safer than man-made dams, at no cost whatsoever.

The fear of dam failure was a real one. By 1913 the most powerful argument against dams was the fear that they might fail, sending a wall of water to wash civilization from the banks of the river downstream.

In the end, those fears were premature. No dams would be built for another generation.

The provincial government had a pile of studies to consider. They continued to listen politely to delegations and proposals, but the Sir James Whitney government took no steps toward construction.

Perhaps Whitney thought it best to defer to Sir Adam Beck’s plans for the Grand. But Beck was fully occupied, visiting smaller municipalities to convince them to hook up to the province-wide power network, and pushing his electric railway plans.

Within a year the First World War intervened. After the war an inflationary spiral shoved major government projects to the back burner. Beck was preoccupied with the big Queenston generating station and its massive cost overruns. And by then the local momentum for Grand River projects had been lost.

Another cycle of severe drought and flooding in the 1930s revived conservation initiatives, culminating in the opening of the Shand Dam in 1942, fully 30 years after the 1912-13 burst of activity.

Though they accomplished little of a concrete nature, the conservationists of the 1912 era certainly affected public opinion, and laid a course for those who follow.

Today, it is fascinating to read their arguments and proposals. Most of them were revived in later decades, and some were actually carried through to completion. These were truly men far ahead of their time in their understanding of ecology, and in their desire to see the Grand and its tributaries as a source of clean, efficient power.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Sept. 22, 2006.

Thorning Revisited