One of the most contentious political issues in the Elora area in the 1970s was the construction of the new bridge over the Grand River below the village of Elora.
Opponents were convinced that the new bridge would destroy the scenic beauty of the gorge, and that salt spray in the winter would decimate the vegetation in the area.
As it turned out, the bridge was eventually built, after endless rounds of hearings and court challenges. Few are aware now, or were at the time of the appeals, that a bridge at that controversial site was first proposed by county council and its bridge committee in 1928.
Back then there was only one bridge over the Grand in the Elora area. The county road from Guelph deviated from its straight line course at the south of Elora to Victoria Street, across the old bridge, then along Mill Street and up the hill on Metcalfe Street, negotiating two very sharp corners on the way.
At the post office corner it bent again, running up Geddes Street to Lot 18, the built-up area between Elora and Salem, and then through another tight curve, over the Irvine bridge, and finally joining its present course toward Alma.
Rapidly increasing traffic volumes in the 1960s led county council to build the new, direct right-of-way and new bridge over the Grand. A half-century earlier the county foresaw that situation developing, and decided that the new alignment would make the most sense.
At the time, the county and Elora had recently co-operated in laying a concrete roadway on the county roadway through Elora. It was a superb roadway as far as it went. The pavement ended at the north end of Elora, near the Roman Catholic church. Beyond that it was rough gravel.
Increasing traffic produced problems, to the annoyance of those living along the road in Lot 18 and Salem. In dry weather there were clouds of dust, and in rainy weather cars would get bogged down in mud.
Among those travelling the road were county councillors from the north, and their efforts got the situation onto the county council agenda in 1928.
The proposal was that the county road follow its original survey, crossing the Grand just below the junction with the Irvine River. That would eliminate all the curves and steep hills in Elora and Salem, and speed traffic around the built-up area.
The route was a relatively busy one, and in the 1920s the provincial government seriously considered making the route, from Teviotdale to Marden, part of the provincial highway system.
While most people in Lot 18 and Salem welcomed the idea, Nichol Township council became alarmed. Were the county road to be relocated, the existing road would become the sole jurisdiction of the township, and the tight-fisted men on the township council wished to reduce their costs to a minimum.
The new route was not without its problems.
The roadway, though surveyed, was unopened, and it would require an expensive bridge over the Grand River. Elora merchants did not like the idea of being sidetracked, and feared that shoppers would bypass them. Service stations in Elora feared that their business would drop. And the suggested road would need to pass through the western portion of the Irvine Park, cutting off part of the race track that circled the ground, and isolating the tennis courts that then existed on the western part of the park.
On the other hand, the new route would be a great convenience for through traffic. Tourists would enjoy a good view of the gorge from the bridge. Proponents believed that the new route and ridge would actually help tourism in Elora.
A second bridge at Elora was desirable should the existing one be blocked by an accident. And there was the possibility that the bulk of the costs would be picked up by the province should the route become a provincial highway.
County council, at first, seemed willing to investigate the proposed new route. Many county councillors believed that the existing route could never be made adequate, and that sooner or later the proposed route would need to put through.
In January 1928 county council engaged engineers to study the new route and draw up preliminary plans. The course of events caused increasing alarm at the Nichol council table. Councillors realized that, even should the new route be built, increasing traffic along the old route would eventually require expensive regrading and paving, and the expense would fall completely on the township.
As well, the new route had the potential to boost tourism for Elora, but no similar claim could be made for Lot 18 and Salem. The latter hamlet was slowly dwindling in economic importance. Salem once had boasted a half dozen hotels and an assortment of retail businesses.
By 1928 all the hotels had closed, and the retail sector had dwindled to a couple of general stores and the post office. A high level of motor traffic through Salem would boost business at the gas stations that were the rising business in the hamlet.
In the spring of 1928 Nichol councillors realized that the new road might well be built. They could only see greatly escalating costs for themselves in improving the old route, which would be their sole responsibility, and no offsetting increase in assessment.
They passed a resolution to attend the June 1928 county council meeting en masse and try to put a stop to the project.
There seems little doubt the Nichol men did much button-holing and lobbying. These were the golden days of the county “old boys club” and much business was undoubtedly decided informally before the formal meetings convened.
In any case, Wellington County council put the brakes on the road re-routing project. Even without the self-interest of Nichol Township, there were sound reasons for delay and reconsideration.
Disruption of Elora’s Irvine Park was only one. More serious was the actual crossing of the Grand. It was much more feasible, from an engineering point of view, to build slightly downstream of the surveyed roadway along the Nichol-Pilkington border.
In the end, that is the course the county’s engineers followed. But it did not happen for almost a half century.
The new route remained on the county’s list of potential projects, but it was less of a priority for the rest of 1928 and 1929. By 1930 the county was dealing with depression conditions, and the low-spending faction had gained ascendancy.
Capital projects such as new roads and bridges were deferred, and even road maintenance budgets suffered. Survey stakes hammered into the low ground along the proposed route slowly rotted, and engineering diagrams gathered dust.
After the Second World War, talk of the bypass route regained popularity, as traffic volumes increased through Elora, and many accidents plagued the sharp turns on Elora’s Mill Street and the single-lane bridge over the Grand.
The solution followed at the time was to construct a new bridge at the bottom of Metcalfe Street and to build some new roadway south of the river.
The new route opened in 1954, and it took the steam out of the proposal for the bypass, but only for a decade.
County council again looked at the bypass beginning in the late 1960s. That route, after a decade of bickering, hearings, and Municipal Board appeals, took a decade to complete.
But that is a story for another time.