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.
(Note: This is the second part of a series on 1954’s Hurricane Hazel.)
The worst part of Hurricane Hazel passed into Grey County by 8pm on Friday, Oct. 15, 1954, but rain continued through the night and into the morning, accompanied by occasional gusts of wind.
Rains continued off and on for the next two days. The sun did not appear until Monday, Oct. 18.
Compared to the communities along the Humber River on the west side of Toronto, Wellington County did not suffer badly.
Nevertheless, there was much damage and several tragedies. Four-year-old Ronnie Whale of Drayton had slipped into the Conestogo River on the afternoon of Oct. 14, and had not been found. A huge search party, with headquarters in Drayton’s council chamber, kept at work through the worst part of the storm and far into the night of Oct. 15.
Searchers included dozens of community volunteers, the Drayton firefighters, and OPP officers, both on and off duty. They searched the river in motorboats and the banks by foot. A group of women kept the searchers supplied with refreshments. The search for Ronnie continued into the weekend and the following week, with no trace of the boy.
The other big local tragedy occurred at Southampton, but involved two Palmerston men. Despite the storm, Canadian National’s evening passenger trains on Oct. 15 ran close to schedule. The last two trains, to Kincardine and Southampton, were scheduled to leave at 9:10pm; they left about 20 minutes late.
The crews were cautious, knowing that the heavy rains and runoff could weaken and undermine the roadbed. Officials sent section crews ahead of the trains to make sure the track was intact.
All went well with the Southampton train until it was within sight of its terminal. The heavy runoff was rapidly undermining a section of track that seemed fine to the section crew that had passed over it a half hour before. A few minutes before midnight, the locomotive hit the softened roadbed, turned over on its side, and plowed into the ground.
Sliding along the ground, the locomotive scooped up wet soil through its windows, burying engineer Gord McCallum to his chest. Fireman Stewart Nicholson got his leg caught between the locomotive and tender. Several pipes burst, scalding both men with steam.
Rescuers were on the scene quickly, joining the rest of the train crew in trying to get into the locomotive cab through the clouds of steam. Conductor Albert Sherlock, assisted by a couple of others, managed to dig out McCallum as they all gasped for air amid the smoke and steam. The engineer was rushed to hospital.
Using crowbars, the rescuers freed one of Nicholson’s legs. By then Dr. Flock was on the scene, and soon after an acetylene torch, borrowed from a gas station, helped to free Nicholson’s other leg. At the hospital under Dr. Flock’s care, he struggled through the night, but died early Saturday morning from burns and shock. Engineer McCallum seemed to rally a couple of times, but he breathed his last breath on Oct. 17.
The deaths stunned the close-knit railroad community in Palmerston, and the town as a whole. Both men had families in Palmerston, and had been active in the community. Fortunately, there was no other major disaster for Palmerston. High winds brought down many limbs and trees, causing some power outages. Ontario Hydro crews were on the job quickly restoring service. The worst cut in the north of the county was at Moorefield, where the electricity was off for about five hours.
Flooding was the big consequence through Minto. Clifford, because it was not on a major river, escaped lightly. The big problem there was flooded basements. The United Church had a seven-inch deep indoor pool in its basement. It had never experienced water seepage before.
Harriston was a different story. The Maitland, as it had from time to time, flooded over its banks, resulting in five feet or more of water on some of the downtown streets. Many houses were flooded, some well into the first floor. Some had water flowing in one door and out another.
Most residents in flooded areas of town stuck it out until the water receded. A few disconnected their oil burners and moved them to dry locations to prevent damage. A surprise visitor in town was a muskrat, spotted ambling in front of the post office. Obviously, it too had been flooded out.
Volunteers helped the staff of Mackay’s Hardware and Dodd’s store to move merchandise to higher ground. Don Smith of Canada Packers used a boat to rescue a couple of families who were completely stranded by rising water.
Grand Valley suffered major flooding; the Grand River there reaching 12 feet above its normal level. Several families were stranded briefly until the water receded. The Luther dam, completed two years earlier, helped slightly, but the reservoir was nearly filled when Hazel hit the area.
Some 18 houses in Grand Valley were flooded, as was the Hillis Garage, where the water rose almost to the tops of parked cars. The proprietor was stony-faced when wags recalled that the GRCA had strongly advised against building in the village’s flood plain.
High winds did much damage at Arthur. The river there rose, but fortunately, most of the town is on much higher ground, and flood damage was minor. The situation at Mount Forest was similar.
At Arthur, Bill Elburg suffered the biggest loss, when a gust blew half the roof of his house off. He and his wife managed to get a tarpaulin over the opening, and saved their furniture using tablecloths to direct the water into tubs. The next morning, during intermittent rain, he and three helpers managed to replace the roof in six hours.
The countryside of Arthur, West Garafraxa and West Luther Townships showed the effects of the immense quantity of rain. The area looked like the land of lakes, with ponds of water everywhere, some as large as 10 and 15 acres.
Erin escaped the storm with only minor flooding. The situation was worse immediately to the east, where the Canadian Pacific line from Streetsville to Orangeville and Owen Sound was out of service due to washouts and weakened trackage. Service was not restored on that line, and on the Cataract-to-Elora branch, until Oct. 20.
The Conestogo, one of the Grand’s major tributaries, possessed no flood control in 1954. It reached a new high at Drayton late Friday night, Oct. 15, a couple of hours after the eye of Hurricane Hazel passed through. The river, after days of rain, was already high when the hurricane hit. During the storm the river quickly overflowed its banks. Flood waters filled the arena to the depth of about four feet. Some families had to be evacuated. Downstream of the railway bridge the river turned into a lake. Water washed through the Wellington County Creamery’s egg grading station, and swept away a ten-ton pile of coal outside.
Virtually every building in Drayton suffered a flooded basement. Most of the village spent the weekend cleaning up and pumping out the water, if they were lucky enough to have a pump. The volunteer firefighters pitched in, pumping out basements. Owners had the unpleasant task of dealing with the residual slime and mud. Storm sewers ran in reverse, pouring river water onto the low-lying streets of Drayton.
At the Shand Dam, operator Hugh Cameron held back most of the flow all day Friday during the height of the storm and into Saturday until the levels on the lower Grand began to recede on Saturday afternoon. Water came to within a foot of the top of the dam.
The value of the Shand Dam in preventing more serious flooding at Galt, Paris and Brantford was immediately obvious. Officials estimated that the dam lowered the maximum height of the flood at Galt by six feet. Fergus editor Hugh Templin noted that “The dam cost two million dollars in the 1940s. It probably saved its cost in one night on Friday.”
The Grand rose at both Fergus and Elora, but flood damage in those towns was not large. The winds caused more trouble, toppling dozens of large trees. In Fergus, the power room of the riverside Beatty plant (now the Fergus Market) flooded badly, ruining some equipment. The uncontrolled Irvine caused more problems, washing out a small falls in Salem, and destroying the footbridge across the stream near its junction with the Grand (just south of Lovers’ Leap). An uprooted elm tree pushed one of the concrete piers, weighing several tons, about 30 feet downstream. The torrent of water down the Irvine ripped out dozens of trees, and permanently altered the bottom of the gorge.
In total, Fergus and Elora had seen far worse flood damage in previous years. The Shand Dam was certainly a big factor. Also significant was the amount of rainfall. Though the figures were not official, it seems that Centre Wellington received only about four inches of rain on the fateful Friday. North Wellington, and areas to the east of the county, measured about seven inches.
Elora was unique in carrying on with a major event during the worst part of Hurricane Hazel. The newly-formed Elora Hospital Auxiliary had a euchre and social scheduled for Oct. 15 at the Armoury Hall. Despite weather warnings on the radio, and announcements of cancellations everywhere, organizers Jean Bruce and Winelda Fasken decided to go ahead as scheduled. The event drew more than 200 drenched supporters, and raised $234 for furnishings for the new Groves hospital.
Next week: The aftermath and the consequences.
A personal note: Hurricane Hazel was a popular topic around Thanksgiving dinner tables last weekend (2004), according to several people who called me. Almost everyone over the age of 55 or so seems to remember exactly what they were doing on Oct. 15, 1954. I remember the frightening wind and the rain driving against every window in the house, all of which leaked that day. My job was to empty the bowls and pans as they filled with water. The wind blew my prized blue tricycle about two blocks down the street. A neighbour found it the next day.
*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Oct. 15, 2004.