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.
Over the years since I began exploring local history in the early 1980s, I have become increasingly fascinated with the changes settlement have made on the Grand River.
As the major river in this part of Ontario, the Grand attracted settlers for its power potential. It also served as a transportation route for timber, and as a sewer and garbage dump. These uses produced many unintended consequences, and changed the course of the river forever.
Before settlement there were annual spring floods, but normally these were much less severe than those at the end of the 19th century. Still, they were sufficiently strong to damage the early dams at Fergus and Elora, if not remove them completely.
Changes in the annual cycle of water levels were observed by mill owners as early as the mid-1850s: heavier spring floods followed by low water in summer and early fall. Consequently, mills could only operate at their full capacity for a portion of the year. Nevertheless, industrialists continued to construct new dams, and heighten existing ones.
By 1870 there were dams at Glen Lammond, two in Fergus, at Aboyne, and another two in Elora. Four more were situated on the Irvine in Salem, even though the Irvine had water flows more erratic than those on the Grand.
Competing uses of the river produced inevitable conflicts. To allow timbermen to get their logs downstream, mill owners had to construct slides over or around their dams. Raising a dam could cause a reduction of power to a mill owner upstream.
A suit between William Robertson and James Wilson in Fergus dragged through the courts for three years in the 1860s. In the end, Robertson was forced to lower his dam because it was reducing the available drop at Monkland Mills.
At this stage of settlement virtually all farms had been taken up, but virgin forest still covered at least half the land upstream from Fergus and Elora. The pace of land clearing accelerated through the 1870s, pushed by a stronger local grain market and a bottomless demand for saw logs and firewood.
Because of the market for wood, land on slopes and along the banks of the river was cleared, even though it was useless for agriculture. A few photographs of the Grand and its tributaries survive. They show a desolate landscape, littered with stumps and stones, and very obvious evidence of erosion.
After floods, the banks of the river were strewn with saw logs, slabs of bark, uprooted shrubs and trees, and the occasional squared timber from an upstream sawmill. The lumbermen would come around and try to recover their timber, but scavengers gathered most of it up. Most found its way to the household firewood pile, but better logs could always be sold to one of the sawmills in Fergus or Elora.
During the 1870s water flows became so unpredictable that most mill owners added supplementary steam power by 1880. This produced yet another market for firewood, and further stimulated the unwise clearing of land.
Some industries located along the river not for power but as a convenient way to dispose of waste. Tanneries were the worst example, dumping kettles of acid daily into the river. Their effluent included heavy metal contamination. Woolen mills dumped their dye vats into the river. Their discharges became more toxic with the adoption of aniline dyes.
Society had little sense of aesthetics or environmentalism. Few voices were raised when industrialists used the river as a convenient dump. Sawmill operators often pushed piles of sawdust into the flowing waters. Feedlots operated in conjunction with riverside distilleries produced mounds of manure, which could be conveniently shovelled into the river.
At Elora, Mill Street outhouses connected directly with the river, and bakers cast stale bread on the waters, all for the downstream benefit of residents of Galt and Brantford.
John Smith of the Elora Observer noted in 1873 that a visitor could smell the Grand long before he could see it.
All this had a devastating effect on life in the river. Regrettably, no one did any kind of survey on the kinds and numbers of fish in the Grand in the early years. The impact of industry on fish was already evident in the mid-1860s. A.D. Ferrier, among others, noted that few trout could be caught at Elora. Twenty years earlier, when he had worked as the accountant at the Elora mill, the river had been teeming with them.
For the most part, residents turned their back on the river through the 1880s and 1890s. No one can blame them: it was an open sewer. Still, there were some efforts to reverse the situation. Volunteers at Elora cleaned up the Irvine gorge in the 1880s when the village began to pursue tourism. They hauled up all kinds of scrap, dead livestock, and hundreds of baskets of nameless decaying organic matter.
In 1899 two men came to Elora from Galt with the intention of canoeing home. This was such a novelty that it received extensive press coverage. The trip took them 13 hours. They encountered the remnants of several dams, plus 46 fences across the Grand, most of barbed wire. Farmers were encouraging their cattle to tread through the river. In the process they churned the banks and river bottom into mud, and largely destroyed the ecological system.
At the turn of the century anglers began to eye the Grand River. There had been a number of efforts, particularly in the United States, to stock rivers and lakes with fish. The Ontario government, in an experiment, stocked the Grand and Irvine in the spring of 1903 with “game fish.” I have not been able to determine the size and variety of these fish, or the number released. There is ambiguous evidence that individuals and private groups attempted some stocking a few years earlier.
Provincial authorities monitored their efforts for several years. They were most interested in seeing the fish begin to reproduce. To aid the experiment, they placed a ban on fishing in the Grand and Irvine. They also urged mill owners to put fish runs around their dams.
At the same time, there were scattered voices urging that a system of conservation areas and game bird sanctuaries be set up along the Grand River watershed. It is something of an irony that hunters and anglers were the pioneers in conservation on the Grand River.
Various fishing groups and individuals continued stocking the river through the 1920s. There seems to have been little scientific monitoring of these efforts. The evidence suggests that they were only marginally successful, though by 1930 trout in the 16 to 18 inch range were being caught regularly in the Grand, particularly above Fergus.
After 1910 the focus of the provincial government moved from fish stocking to flood control and hydro-electric power generation.
Not until the creation of the Grand River Valley Board of Trade in the 1930s, and the passing of the Grand River Act in 1938, did the various threads come together: wildlife conservation, flood control, reforestation and tourism. Over the past 60 years most people have come to realize that the Grand River is a complex ecological system, in which human activity is only a part. There is still much about the system that we do not understand fully, but it is obvious now that everything in the river affects everything else to a greater or lesser degree.
When the fishing season opens shortly, our local anglers should take pride in the fact that their predecessors took some of the first steps to restore the Grand River a century ago.
*This column was originally published in the Fergus-Elora News Express on April 22, 1998.