Kitchener engineer proposed power project in 1924

Over the years this column has consider pioneering conservation work of amateur en­vironmentalists such as Bob Kerr and Hugh Templin, of Fer­gus, and John Connon and Kay Marston, of Elora. They brought conservation issues, particularly those per­tain­ing to the Grand River, to public at­tention, and were re­lentless in pursuit of those issue.

As important as any of them was William H. Breithaupt, of Kitchener. Scion of the famous leather-making family, Breit­­haupt, who was born in 1857, trained as an engineer. The Grand River was his con­sum­ing interest most of his life. He proposed several schemes to control flood­ing and to generate power on the river.

It was easy for political fig­ures to dismiss ideas of people like Kerr – who were amateurs and idealists. Breit­haupt was a practical engineer, and it was not so easy to brush his proposals aside. In May of 1924, he read a paper on poten­tial for power generation on the Grand at the an­nual meeting of the profes­sional engineers’ association in Hamilton.

Breithaupt was then 67. In preparing his pap­er he drew on decades of his studies and sur­veys. Un­like many engineers, he took a keen interest in his­tory, especi­ally in the way historical devel­opment pertain­ed to the prob­lem at hand.

His paper began by describ­ing the Grand watershed, which he stated was over 1,000 square miles. He said the wat­ershed in its upper reaches was over 1,400 feet above sea level. He estimated swamp and wet­lands once covered 700 square miles of it, and particularly in its upper reach­es, in what be­came East and West Luther and nearby townships, where swamp was about 400 square miles.

He said, “A policy of in­telligent government conser­va­tion 50 years ago [the 1870s] would have retained these swamps as public do­main, providing a continuing supply of cedar, tamarack, and other pol­es and timber, a bird and game sanctuary, and a per­en­nial source of stream flow bene­fitting the entire penin­sula” [of southern Ontario].

“Instead of that, the drain­age was aided by government funds. The territory is now a flat plain largely of grazing lands, with few if any farms of much value, and this great natural resource is destroyed.”

The swamp, he said, had been rapidly settled after 1870, and the land large­ly cleared and drained be­tween 1875 and 1895. Since then, the Grand had been sub­ject to severe floods, often, but not always, in the spring. Extreme floods normally lasted three or four hours. He noted the highest levels ever recorded occurred at Fergus on April 7, 1913. Water volumes, as measured at Elora, could reach 13,000 cub­ic feet per second.

To control that water, he proposed two large dams be constructed, one on the Con­es­toga, and the other on the Grand River below El­ora in Pilkington. They should be about 70 feet high, he said, and would produce reservoirs about five square miles in area and con­taining about three billion gal­lons each. He did not propose any dam above Elora to help restore the Luther wetlands. The two dams, he said, would provide a steady flow in the river so industries of Preston and Galt could uti­lize the power potential.

The most intriguing part of his proposal was to dig a diversion channel and build a pipe­line from the Grand, beginning about three miles below Galt, and ending at Dundas. That would create a potential drop of some 600 feet, much higher than at Niagara Falls. Allowing for a minimum but adequate volume of water to remain in the lower Grand, he calculated power potential at 24,000 horsepower at the Dundas gen­erating sta­tion.

The idea was similar to the Chippawa Canal at Niagara, where water was taken far above the falls and channeled to the generating stations be­low to increase the drop and thus the power potential. 

Breithaupt estimated the cost of the work at $1.5-million, and the conduit and generating station at $2-million. Taking into account the capital and operating costs, the power generated would cost about $125 per horsepower, fully com­petitive with the Niagara generating stations.

His proposal had strong merits, but Hugh Tem­plin and others could see difficulties. The plan did not address prob­lems at the head­waters of the Grand and several tributaries. There was no proposal for re­fores­tation or a reservoir in the Luther area. Breithaupt believ­ed the reservoir below Elora would become a summer re­sort, but did not address the possibility water levels would rise and fall drama­ti­cally, de­pending on rainfall and runoff.

One advantage of the plan was the water re­routed to Niag­ara would pro­duce power ex­clusively for Ontario. In ans­wer to critics who claimed there would be American ob­jections, Breithaupt noted the Americans planned to use the Chicago River to divert Great Lakes water to the Mississippi, which would per­manently de­crease flows at Niagara Falls.

Breithaupt’s 1924 proposal created much discussion, but no action to build dams or other measures to regulate and utilize the waters of the Grand.

The dam below Elora was never built, and though it re­mains as a possibility 84 years after Breithaupt delivered his paper, the likelihood that it will be built diminishes annually. Breithaupt did live to see the first dam constructed above Fer­­gus, work done on the Luth­er Marsh reservoir, and tenta­tive plans drawn for the Cone­s­toga Dam before his death in 1944 at the age of 87.

Breithaupt’s 1924 Grand River proposals outlined the most complete vision he had for the river, but he made many others over the decades.

The prophetic engineer is im­portant for other reasons in addition to his Grand River proposals. He pioneered the con­cept of town planning in Kitchener. He began construc­tion of an electric railway line from Bridgeport to Elora and Fer­gus that was scuttled only by the outbreak of World War I and the subsequent economic inflation. The line, an extension of the family-owned streetcar system in Kitchener and Water­loo, was intended to promote industrial development, and to bring city people to enjoy the recreational potential of Fergus and Elora. Breithaupt was also the first president of the Wat­erloo Historical Society, and served as president of the Ontario Historical Society.

The family fortune allowed W.H. Breithaupt to indulge him­self in promoting environ­mental and civic causes, but he was also a distinguished engi­neer. He wrote a number of technical articles, and designed railway bridges for lines all over North America.

Most of all, Breithaupt de­serves recogni­tion as the first per­son to study seriously, be­ginning in the 1890s, the environmental de­teri­oration from the first generations of settlement. He was the first to gather quantitative data, and to propose workable remedies.

Though it took almost a half century after his first studies, many of his goals did see frui­tion, in the form of effective flood control and recreational development.

William H. Breithaupt would be both surprised and disappointed to learn that some of his proposals are still not achieved more than a century after he first proposed them, and particularly the develop­ment of the power potential of the Grand. There are a handful of small generators, but they utilize only a small percentage of the potential of the river.

Were he alive, he would certainly advocate that the power of the Grand be utilized to produce electricity, along with solar and wind power, to reduce the generation of green­house gases by human acti­vi­ties.


Stephen Thorning