Peel Township refused to rebuild Townline bridge in 1870

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.

As an illustration for a recent column on Hustonville I used an 1870 letter sent from the post office in that vanished hamlet. This week, I want to take a closer look at that document.

The letter, sent by registered mail, is from Maryborough clerk David Halliday to his counterpart in Peel, Robert Anderson. The text is as follows: “Enclosed you will find a copy of Bylaw No. 134 passed this day by the Municipal Council of Maryboro and in accordance with the requirements of the Municipal Act and of the said bylaw you will be pleased to take such action in the premises as may seem to you proper. An early answer will be thankfully received.”

All this stiff formality refers to a bridge on the Maryborough-Peel Townline adjoining the 4th Concession of Maryborough, which, according to the bylaw, “was seriously damaged by the late spring freshets.”

The townline road crossed the Conestogo River three times in the space of less than a mile. The damaged bridge was the middle one. Maryborough and Peel had joint jurisdiction over the bridge. The bylaw indicates that Maryborough intended “that the said bridge be repaired without delay and that the Corporation of the Township of Peel be required, after due notification to co-operate in putting the bridge in proper repair.”

Joint jurisdictions over roads and bridges on the boundaries of municipalities have always been a factor in local government, but I had a feeling that this might be something more than a routine piece of correspondence.

First, though, it is useful to understand the context leading up to this correspondence with Peel.

Due to the meandering course of the Conestogo through Maryborough, the township had to build and maintain a large number of bridges. Light wooden construction and inadequate footings made these bridges prone to flood damage, and floods became more severe during the 1860s as farmers cleared more and more of the land.

Those early bridges seldom survived more than five or six years. The township’s expenditures on bridges hovered in the range of 25 to 30% of the annual budget. To help with rebuilding and improve new construction, Maryborough purchased a pile driver to build wooden abutments to its bridges.

The flooding in the spring of 1870 was not especially severe, but nevertheless it left a trail of damage and destruction. A late storm, in the last days of March, added another foot to the accumulation of snow. The runoff, as the weather turned warm in April, caused all the creeks and streams, as well as the Conestogo River, to rise above their banks.

Maryborough lost two bridges in addition to the major damage to the one on the Peel Townline. Farther upstream, the river undermined the dam at Hustonville for the second year in a row, and caused additional damage to the mill buildings as well.

Maryborough council took measures to replace the two wrecked bridges within its borders in May and June 1870, but railway matters diverted much of their attention. Both Maryborough and Peel were in the process of granting aid to Wellington, Grey and Bruce, to the tune of $40,000 each. In 1870 this was more than four times the annual expenditures for these townships. They borrowed the money, but wanted to repay it quickly. Consequently, they desired to keep all other costs to a minimum.

In addition to their railway subsidies, Maryborough and Peel were already co-operating in another major expenditure: a new bridge in Drayton, which was not yet an independent municipality. Work on this project had commenced in February 1870, with a budget of some $1,200, and a completion date scheduled for Sept. 1, 1870.

Both townships appointed Townline bridge committees to oversee the work. Those committees evidently discussed the damaged boundary line bridge at Concession 4, but could not agree on repairs.

Maryborough Reeve Robert Hay called a special meeting of his council for the morning of July 22, 1870 to discuss the various bridge projects underway and their costs. It was at this meeting that the council passed Bylaw 134, dealing with the damaged townline bridge. When the meeting adjourned, clerk Dave Halliday drafted the letter to Peel and mailed it the same afternoon.

Peel Clerk Bob Anderson received the letter in time to be dealt with at his council’s July 25 meeting.

Peel council, echoing the sentiments previously expressed by its Townline Bridge Committee, was in no mood to entertain additional expenditures in 1870. The aid to the railway had been controversial, and council already feared that the tax rate was ballooning out of control.

Their response to Maryborough left no room for ambiguity, stating that the bridge “is in our opinion altogether the business of the Township of Maryborough to act upon as they see fit, as this council considers it no part of their duty to spend money on a bridge not required by either municipalities, and that the clerk send a copy of this resolution to the Maryborough council.”

At their August 1870 meeting, Maryborough councillors considered the reply from Peel, and decided to press on with their plans. They sent clerk Halliday to Guelph to consult with the township’s solicitor, and then decided to petition Wellington County council to act as an arbitrator in the dispute.

By this time, though, it seems that Maryborough council began to have second thoughts. The minutes of county council do not show any discussion of this bridge dispute at either their October or December 1870 meetings. Maryborough made no expenditure on its own initiative in either 1870 or 1871 on the project. Evidently, they decided either to shelve or cancel the project.

I have been unable to determine whether this bridge was ever replaced. It does show on a couple of maps from the 1880s, but only a fool would consider 19th century maps to be reliable evidence for the existence of bridges. Sometimes bridges were put on maps to enhance local pride and ambitions. Just as often, the map maker had to work with incomplete and inaccurate information.

The Maryborough map in the 1906 Wellington County atlas shows the boundary line road diverted to a route between lots 17 and 18 of Maryborough. This avoided all three crossings of the Conestogo.

Situations such as this one were an inevitable outcome of the original survey of Peel and Maryborough, which imposed a grid pattern on the land oblivious of natural features and topography. Practicalities came to the fore with the building of roads. In a number of cases the routes deviated to avoid hills, swamps and unnecessary or impractical crossings of water courses.

This was one of them, as the Peel councillors of 1870 understood and indicated in their reply to Maryborough.

In any case, the bridge that Maryborough was so anxious to rebuild was not a vital link in any major transportation route. It was a convenience to perhaps a dozen farmers. All others could easily take an alternative road without lengthening their trip, which, in the 1870 era, would have been to Hollen or Drayton.

It is impossible now to examine the site of this bridge to look for evidence of the original construction. It lies, as it has since 1957, beneath the tranquil waters of Conestogo Lake.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on May 12, 2000.

Thorning Revisited