Fish, clean rivers a concern in Wellington 165 years ago

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.

Most historians are aware the conservation movement in North America began with recreational anglers, who became distressed at the decline in watercourse vitality and decided to do something about it in order to sustain their opportunities to fish.

In Wellington County, the evidence of major watercourse damage appeared early. In his reminiscences, written in 1866, A.D. Ferrier recalled that the Grand River once teamed with trout, but that they had become very rare. This was only some 30 years after the beginning of industrial development at Fergus and Elora. Ferrier recalled that in the 1840s, when he worked as the office manager at the Elora Mill, he would regularly fish for trout near the mill.

Most local residents assume that watershed rehabilitation and the stocking of young fish in streams began at the time of the construction of the Shand Dam on the Grand River, in the 1940s.

Over the years I have turned up evidence that sporadic fish stocking and riverbed rehabilitation was made much earlier, as far back as 1900.

Recently I stumbled upon some newspaper stories that push this date back even further. In the spring of 1875 a group of recreational anglers met in Guelph to undertake the systematic stocking of local streams with fish. The leaders were men with a high profile in Wellington.

President of the group was Archibald Macdonald, the county judge. A youthful Acton Burrows served as secretary. A brilliant journalist, Burrows had recently been editor of the Elora Standard, and had just assumed the editorship of the daily Guelph Herald.

The group directed its initial effort at the Eramosa River. They purchased 400 young black bass and placed them in the stream.

A week after the Guelph group held its founding meeting, the Craig brothers, publishers of the Fergus News Record, penned a lengthy editorial under the title of “Our Local Fisheries” in their May 20, 1875 issue. They called for the formation of similar groups across the province.

Although some readers may find it tedious, I believe this editorial is sufficiently important to quote at some length:

“When this section was first settled, and for a number of years afterwards, the Grand, Irvine and Speed Rivers, and even other smaller tributary streams, abounded with fish – especially speckled trout – the catching of which furnished excellent sport to those whose inclinations led them to engage in it, and also contributed to supply the breakfast or tea table with most excellent food.

“At the present time, however, for all practical purposes, either as regards amusement or table supply, the fish may be said to have become exterminated in our local streams …

“There were several causes which led to the extermination of the fish. The erection of mill dams, which prevented them coming up the rivers, no doubt did much towards it. The custom of disposing of saw-dust, tan-bark and other rubbish by putting it into the river for the sake of convenience, has, however, been much more destructive. Fish of nearly all kinds to do well must have pure water. Speckled trout especially, which is perhaps the most dainty of all fish, cannot live without it …

“But the saw-dust, tan-bark … are even more destructive to the fish spawn than they are to the fish themselves. The spawning beds must be clear of all such rubbish, or if not the young fry will never come to life; and to this cause especially we attribute the disappearance of fish from our local streams.”

The Craigs concluded their editorial by calling for a similar group to take on the Grand and Irvine Rivers, clean them up, and to stock them with speckled trout.

Although no such group was formed, the Craigs began a tradition of activism in conservation matters by Fergus and Elora newspapers that continued to the work of Hugh Templin and Katherine Marston in the 1940s and 1950s.

Being settled at a later date than centre and south Wellington, we might expect the area to the north to have lagged behind the Guelph anglers group. Such is not the case.

A year before, in 1874, a similar volunteer group of fishermen stocked the Saugeen River with salmon. Some of these were observed two years later. According to published reports they looked like small trout, but were lighter in colour.

The Paisley Advocate, in April 1876, noted: “The fact that salmon can exist in clear, cold, fresh water has already been established in the States, where of late much attention has been paid to fish culture. Many lakes and rivers in the United States are stocked with shad, trout, salmon, whitefish and bass.”

At the time these remarks were published, fish cultivation on a major scale had been developed by Americans for more than two decades. Dr. Garlick’s 1857 treatise, “The Artificial Reproduction of Fishes,” became a standard reference for a generation. By 1870 there was a society of fish scientists in the U.S. that published technical articles.

Fish farming in Wellington County began even before the early stocking projects. In 1870, an angler named Wellington Hull built a pond at Erin for raising trout. Hull was successful with the project. By 1875 he had five ponds, containing about 4,000 fish.

This fish farm became something of an attraction. Hull happily demonstrated feeding and fishing techniques to visitors. On Victoria Day 1876 he took 19 fish from one pond, weighing 23 pounds in total. These he sold for 50 cents a pound, a fortune in the days of 10-cent-an-hour wages. Some of the fish in his ponds weighed as much as three pounds.

Other than a few sketchy newspapers items, little information seems to have survived concerning Hull’s fish farm of the 1870s. It is not clear whether he raised fish for stocking projects or as a completely commercial venture for table consumption.

Through the 1870s fishing grew in popularity in Wellington County, despite the low numbers of fish in the major local streams. Guelph seems to have been the centre of activity. The group led by Judge Macdonald and Editor Burrows shows that at least some of the Royal City’s anglers were willing to support financially a program to build a sustainable fishery.

A half dozen stores in Guelph advertised the fact that they stocked fishing tackle. Most were hardware stores, but other retailers also jumped on what appeared to be a bandwagon.

Anderson’s Cheap Bookstore was among these. One of their advertisements read “Death to Trout! Anderson has a large supply of fishing rods, fly hooks, minnow tackle, gut casts, spoon baits and floats of every description. A large and cheap stock of fishing material at Anderson’s Cheap Bookstore.”  In the 1870s the term “cheap” meant inexpensive and good value; it had not yet acquired negative connotations.

Even amongst enthusiastic anglers, the “death to trout” sentiment prevailed. The catch-and-release practices were still many decades in the future. These fishermen wanted to eat what they caught, on the thoroughly understandable notion that, if they got up early to stand in unpleasant weather to fish, they at least deserved a sumptuous dinner as the fruits of the exercise.

When they could not arrange a trip farther afield, Guelph’s anglers favoured the small streams of Erin and Eramosa Townships. One of their number, Robert Ballantyne, in company with a friend from Erin, caught 402 trout in a stream in Erin in one day in May 1876. The news was reported in local papers in the form of a challenge to other fishermen.

Obviously, the connection between overfishing and the depletion of fish had not yet been made in many minds. This catch of one day equalled the number of fish planted in the Eramosa by the Guelph anglers a year before.

I have been unable to find any reports of the Guelph group after its initial season of 1875. From other reports, it seems that Acton Burrows published regular items in the Guelph Herald, the daily he edited, but no copies survive from this period.

Later generations of anglers made occasional plantings of fish, in the Grand River in particular, after 1900. Regrettably, none of them undertook a long-term program, or spent much effort on the evaluation of their activities.

The major streams of Wellington improved somewhat after 1900, but this was due as much to the closing of sawmills and tanneries, and to pressure from public health officials, as it was from an impulse for environmental improvement.

There is no doubt that recreational fishing has been a popular pastime for as long as any recreational activity in Wellington. Major problems with the state of the river due to pollution were already obvious 165 years ago. The 1875 editorial of the Craigs shows that the cause could be identified, and a plan for rehabilitation could have been formulated at that time.

It is, therefore, something of a tragedy that more than a century elapsed before any long-term fish stocking programs were developed. We do not yet have anything close to a thorough scientific understanding of Wellington County’s river ecology.

Even so, we should be grateful for the interest that has been shown by anglers as early as the 1870s in attempting to restore the rivers and their fish, and for their continual campaigning against watercourse pollution.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on April 19, 1999.

Thorning Revisited