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.
Many Elora residents were awakened by a low rumble and a palpable tremor in the ground early in the morning of March 20, 1903.
Many probably dismissed the noise as the ice going out of the river; others shrugged and rolled over and went back to sleep.
Daylight revealed this was no ice jam: The entire riverside wall of the Elora mill had fallen into the river! The riverbed between the north shore and the islet rock was completely filled with rubble.
No one denied that the mill was in a poor state of repair. The building had been rebuilt too hastily after a fire 33 years prior. Walls weakened by the fire had been reused in the haste to get the mill operational.
With the decline in local flour milling in the 1880s and 1890s, the value of the property had diminished. Several proprietors had gone bankrupt. George Fergusson, of Fergus, had provided a loan of $12,000 in 1886 to install a then-new roller process for flour. He foreclosed on the property in 1895 and had been unable to find a buyer for the mill.
Naturally, no maintenance had been done on the building for years. Now there were more problems.
Fortunately, no one was injured. However, the tenant lost a carload of grain, and the turbine was washed downstream. The building was considered too unsafe to enter to remove the other equipment. The river was still high, threatening further damage. And there was no insurance.
A month later, Fergusson interests approached Elora council proposing that the islet rock be dynamited out of existence. Their claim was that the rock diverted water against the foundation of the building.
There was, undoubtedly, a great deal of truth in the argument. Before the construction of the Shand dam in Belwood, spring floods could be frightening spectacles. In addition, the flow of water past the mill had been altered by the use of the riverbed as a quarry for building stone.
Sentiment in Elora was generally in favour of the removal of the rock.
The Elora Express editorialized, “A grist mill in operation in the village is of far more importance than a lone rock in midstream – the one is a tax producer and a public convenience, the other simply a portion of rock indicating the height of land over which the Grand River tumbled in past ages.”
What saved the rock was the tight-fistedness of Elora council members. They balked at the cost of removing the islet. For a while, the Fergusson interests threatened a lawsuit, but in mid-May, they found a buyer for the mill and were happy to take a loss to get the property off their hands.
Udney Richardson secured title to the property for $2,500, or about 5 per cent of the value of the property when the mill was new. Richardson immediately announced plans to rebuild the wall. He also planned to remove the top two storeys of the building.
The wall was rebuilt during the low-water period in the fall of 1903, but Richardson never did get around to removing the top two storeys; they were filled in temporarily with wood. This “temporary” construction remained in place for over 70 years.
Richardson had no intention of removing the islet rock, which had been a local landmark since the founding of the village.
It has since become the identifying symbol of Elora, but few people know how close we came to losing it in 1903.
*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on Aug. 21, 1990.