Ice storms in 1959 created havoc in Wellington County

A major weather hazard during December is freezing rain.

This column has recalled a number of them over the years, but none ranks with the major one that struck southern Ontario in the final week of 1959. December that year was a bad one for weather. An ice storm early in the month made roads impassible and stripped trees of some of their branches, but overall damage was minor compared to the storm that began on Dec. 27.

The weather was mild that day, a few degrees above freezing. Rain began during the afternoon, dashing all hopes of children that they might have snow to play in during what was left of their Christmas vacation. Overnight the temperature dropped below freezing, but the rain continued intermittently through the next day. By the evening of Dec. 28 a layer of ice, in some places more than an inch thick, coated everything.

Soon there were problems with electrical service in many localities, as trees doubled over under the weight of the ice, shorting out and breaking adjacent electrical wires. Problems worsened during the evening when winds came up, breaking more limbs that could not flex due to the ice coating on them.

The additional toll was severe on electrical circuits, but far more so on telephone lines. There was very little underground telephone cable in Wellington County in 1959. In urban areas, multiple circuits were often contained in lead-shrouded cable suspended from poles. In rural areas the circuits were single wires on cross-arms. Many poles had three and four cross-arms with up to a dozen circuits on each.

By midnight, much of Wellington County had no electrical service. A major exception was Fergus, where the lights flickered many times, but remained illuminated. Nearby Elora and Belwood lost power mid-evening, and crews did not manage to restore it until the following morning. That meant that many houses had no heat. Dairy farmers were particularly hard hit because their milking machines and coolers were out of service. In the northern areas of West Garafraxa power remained off during all of Tuesday, Dec. 29.

Long-distance telephone service was out everywhere. Wires began to break early in the storm. Many of the wires used for long-distance and rural service were old, dating to before 1920. They could not take the weight of the ice. Some had become rusty and brittle, and snapped easily with the combination of weight and wind.

As the ice built up during the afternoon of Dec. 28, poles with multiple cross-arms began to fail under the weight. Among the first were those carrying the lines between Fergus and Guelph, which went down about 2pm that day. Most of the failed poles were in the Ennotville area.

In Garafraxa, the telephone system, operated by the independent West Garafraxa Telephone Company, was in a shambles. The company had been negotiating a sale to Bell at year end. The company announced it would attempt no repairs, and that the Bell system would rebuild the system when it took over on Jan. 15.

By Thursday, four days after the storm began, the Bell Company had done some work in the way of restoration of service, but much remained untouched. The first lines to receive repairs were on the Fergus-Guelph section, the most important one north of Guelph. To deal with emergency calls, Bell Telephone sent a car equipped with a radio to Fergus. It allowed Fergus residents to connect with the telephone system by radio to the Galt exchange, and from there to the rest of the Bell network. The radio car also had a direct connection with the Elora exchange. Operators there could connect subscribers directly to the radio operator.

The radio system remained in use for two days, until Bell had repaired a single land line to Guelph. Two weeks later, there were still only three lines in use on that section. Customers using it had to wait up to two hours until a line became available. Even so, they were lucky compared to residents elsewhere in Wellington.

The storm also brought down the telegraph wires operated by the railways. Though few people relied on telegrams in 1959, the system was an alternate one, and it was unavailable during the emergency.

At Fergus, some 15 circuits were still out of service in the town itself on New Year’s Eve, and about 200 customers in the county, all of them on party lines, still had no telephone.

The vastness of the damage seemed to have caught the company off-guard. Officials had been planning to replace the open wire system with underground cable for a couple of years. Now something had to be done at once. Obviously, it was impossible to install hundreds of miles of underground cable during the winter, and the company had no intention of repairing the old open wire system. By New Year’s Eve, officials hinted that temporary services would be built, running along fences, until underground services could be installed during the summer of 1960.

Power disruptions caused by the storm varied in duration. The Fergus area largely escaped cuts, but the areas to the northeast, around Erin and Orangeville, had power cuts lasting several days. Orangeville’s hospital served cold meals for several days, and patients under oxygen tents had to be evacuated. Nurses piled additional blankets on all patients.

A surprise that accompanied the storm was the arrival of swarms of Evening Grosbeaks. They are usually rare visitors to Wellington County, but the storm had swept them into southern Ontario. Bird fanciers enjoyed putting out mounds of sunflower seeds to sate the voracious appetites of the visitors.

Among the victims of the storm were television antennas. Cable service was yet in the future. Most homeowners mounted reception apparatus on their roofs, usually held upright with guy wires. Many succumbed to the ice and winds, resulting in piles of scrap aluminum atop residences, and in a few cases, roof damage as well.

Arthur and the surrounding area lost power about 3:30am on Dec. 28, and it remained out until about 5pm later that day in the village itself. Some rural areas, though, remained dark all that week. Arthur village had further sporadic cuts on Wednesday and Thursday.

Communications were severely hit in the north. Arthur had neither telephone nor telegraph communication for more than a week.

Conditions in Orangeville were far worse. Four days after the storm there were still more than 3,000 households in that area without power. Adding to the problems was a short circuit in a main transformer. Crews worked round the clock there, augmented by volunteer linemen from as far away as Timmins. Even so, many residents spent a romantic New Year’s Eve by candlelight, shivering as they huddled with blankets wrapped around their shoulders.

Though the storm disrupted everyday life for Wellington’s residents, youngsters viewed it as something of an adventure. Children enjoyed sliding on the ice, and some took up the hobby of collecting glass insulators, which could be easily removed from toppled cross-arms and poles. Some of that hardware may still reside in cellars and sheds more than a half-century later.

Hugh Cameron, operator of the Shand Dam, issued daily warnings, urging youngsters to stay off the ice. Rising water had forced him to open the dam and release some of the water that had built up from the rain during December. The flow had weakened the ice on the river, resulting in very dangerous conditions to those walking or skating on the Grand River.

Telephone and electrical spokesmen claimed that 1959’s ice storm of Dec. 27 and 28 was the worst in the history of the county. It lives on in the memory of old timers, and is a bottomless reservoir of stories and anecdotes to relate to younger generations.


Stephen Thorning