The construction of storage dams, combined with careful monitoring of conditions, has virtually eliminated the danger of serious spring flooding in the Grand River basin.
That was not the case three-quarters of a century ago and more. Back in those days, during late February and March of each year, residents kept their eyes on the snow pack, the ice on the river, and the thermometer. An unfortunate combination of river conditions could mean disaster.
Such was the case in 1934. An extended spell of extreme cold weather in January and February produced a very thick layer of ice on the Grand and its tributaries. In some places, the rivers were frozen solid, all the way to the bottom. Potential trouble appeared in the first few days of March that year, with milder temperatures and rain.
Initially, the flooding risks seemed to be greatest on the Speed River, in Guelph. Runoff found its way to the river, some flowing atop the ice, and some penetrating beneath it. The water underneath the ice helped to break it up into large chunks. On March 4, some of the ice around Allan’s Dam, beneath the Canadian National viaduct, broke up, and floated downstream, piling up at the Neeve Street bridge. In 1934, that was a main thoroughfare, conveying Highway 7 across the river and also carrying streetcar tracks.
City engineer H.S. Nicklin grew more alarmed by the hour, fearing flooding and significant damage to buildings and infrastructure. He deployed a large gang of men to work all that night, breaking up the ice into smaller pieces that could float beneath the bridge. He also dealt with other, smaller ice jams at the bridges farther downstream.
The river was not Nicklin’s only problem. Many of the storm drains in the downtown area were frozen solid. There was no easy way of opening them up. Much of the storm drainage system had been poorly engineered and built, with shallow pipes and inadequate slopes. Rain and meltwater puddled up on the streets, and then froze. The result was deep ruts in solid ice, making some streets virtually impassable.
One advantage Nicklin had that year was manpower. Under a cost-sharing plan with senior governments, Mayor Bev Robson had persuaded his council to hire unemployed men to work on infrastructure projects in Guelph, largely the replacement and extension of water and sewer lines. The program, while costly, certainly helped the unemployed. In early 1934, some 475 men were employed by the city. Nicklin arranged for those men to work on the streets and river, chopping up the ice on the streets in the Woolwich-Wyndham Street downtown area, and assuring that ice did not pile up at the downtown bridges.
None of the rain, which fell intermittently for the best part of a week, could soak into the frozen ground. Nicklin had his men on patrol all night again on March 5, breaking up ice blocks as they piled up. There was good news from farther south: the ice had gone out of the river at Brantford.
A reprieve came on March 6, as the thermometer dropped through the day. Nicklin, though, felt no relief. He realized that problems would appear again in a matter of weeks.
The early thaw and rain caused troubles in most areas of the city. Dozens of residents experienced wet basements, as water took the course of least resistance – through basement windows.
Though conditions improved on the middle and lower stretches of the Grand, such was not the case to the north. As usual during a thaw, some ice had piled up at Glenlammond and at various places farther upstream. The biggest danger was at Elora, where the Grand River, and the Irvine, the most unpredictable of the tributaries, had frozen solid in many places. Huge quantities of water rushed through the village and into the gorge on top of the ice.
Buildings on Elora’s Mill Street suffered rising water in their basements. The streets of Elora and Fergus offered motorists the same challenges as those in Guelph, with deep puddles and ruts in the ice that made driving a battle, and in some cases, damaged tires. The Fergus-Elora highway was in particular bad shape. A grader spent the best part of two days breaking up the ice and plowing it to the side of the road.
There was an ice jam above the Bissell dam at Elora, but that was nothing new. The Grand narrowed significantly at that point, and ice piled up there most years. It was only a problem when water could not get through, and the last time that had happened was 1908.
Problems at Salem were more acute. Ice had piled up there at the mill dam, the only one then remaining of the four that once powered industry in the hamlet. It was (and still is) located almost directly beneath the main bridge. The ice had jammed to the degree that it was less than two feet from the bottom of the bridge. Both the dam and bridge were in danger. As in Guelph, residents breathed easier with the arrival of cold weather and an end to the rain on March 6.
Also serious was the situation at the Victoria Street bridge in Elora. The structure consisted of four spans, with three support piers in the river. When broken ice chunks flowed down the river, those piers were excellent snares for them. Ice could pile up quickly, and endanger the bridge itself, which was then the only one in the village.
Those dangers quickly passed after March 6. Two days later the thermometer stood firmly below freezing. But that only mark the start of a brief reprieve.
The extreme conditions of 1934 were not unique to the Grand River and its tributaries. The mild weather and rain had produced flooding conditions over much of Ontario, and especially so in the eastern part of the province. The situation was even worse south of the Great Lakes, where floods claimed a number of lives and caused much property damage.
In 1934, no government or official body monitored conditions in the Grand River watershed. Each municipality dealt with flooding dangers on its own, supplemented by informal contacts with other jurisdictions. Guelph was indeed fortunate that its engineer, H.S. Nicklin, was an acute observer of conditions on the Speed, and acted pro-actively to minimize damage in early March.
As well, there was no central repository of historical information on previous floods. A few amateurs had collected such information over the years, beginning with Rev. James Middlemiss, the Elora cleric, in the 1860s. But those were all isolated observations.
Robert Kerr, the Fergus tinsmith who had been obsessed with the Grand River system for decades, knew as much about the river, in its upper reaches at least, as anyone then living. His protege, Hugh Templin of the Fergus News Record wrote weekly during the spring of 1934 as the buildup of ice threatened the communities in the Grand valley with potential destruction.
By coincidence, members of the Grand River Board of Trade were meeting that month. The conditions that month underlined the urgency of flood control measures on the Grand, and helped push them to take action. During the last week of March 1934 they announced their recommendation: a large dam near Waldemar. The project cost was immense for that time: roughly $750,000.
Kerr, Templin, and other close observers of the river realized that floods were invariably more intense in years with a late thaw. The weather remained cold through all of March, and on the evening of the 26th a major snowfall blanketed the area. The best people could hope for was a slow, gradual melt.
Next week: Nervous residents during the first week of April 1934.