Wicked weather: Remembering the ice storms of 1909 and 1959

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.

During the ice storm in eastern Canada in 1998, local people came forward with assistance for the many thousands of victims.

This was a truly extraordinary ice storm; probably the worst in history.

The Elora and Fergus areas have experienced major ice storms, though nothing on the scale of the storm of 1998. Two of these stand out above others: those of 1909 and 1959.

This shot, taken on Nov. 23, 1909 at about 9am, is one of many by John Connon. Wellington County Museum and Archives, PH 8602

The storm of 1909 occurred early in the season, on Nov. 22. The results made a lasting impression on people. This storm became a benchmark for comparison with later storms.

The 1909 storm began with a heavy rain on a rather mild Monday morning. By noon the temperature had dropped to the freezing mark, and the continuous rain began to accumulate on the trees and wires. By nightfall a heavy coating of ice had built up on every exposed surface.

The rain tapered off, but the ice load began to take its toll. Branches and trees collapsed through the evening and night. Telephone lines fell silent as wires and poles crashed to the ground. At about 7 pm electrical service flickered out when the lines from Dr. Groves’ electrical plant in Fergus broke and shorted out.

Despite the treacherous walking conditions, most people carried on with normal activities through the storm. The Knox Church Ladies in Elora did not cancel their anniversary dinner and lecture and still managed to draw over 200 people. When the lights went out there was a quick scramble for candles and lamps.

The interruption of electrical service did not cause great inconvenience. Stores, churches, public buildings and street lights used most of the output from the Fergus plant – no more than 25 houses had connections in 1909. The cost was high, approximately $2.80 per kilowatt hour in 2016 purchasing power and service was not continuous. The plant had only recently added daylight hours to its operation, and Dr. Groves liked to pull the plug at midnight, on the dubious hypothesis that decent people were asleep by that hour.

Restoring the minimal grid of the electrical system did not take long, and was completed in a couple of days. Such was not the case with the telephone system.

Bell Telephone had built up a substantial base in both Fergus and Elora over the 23 years the company had offered service locally. There were more than 100 customers hooked up to each of the Fergus and Elora exchanges. Virtually all were in the urban areas. The company was making plans for rural lines, but few had yet been strung.

No cable was yet in use. The lines ran to the exchanges on separate wires. Many poles carried three customers; some had four or even five. When these poles came down they created the most spectacular scenes of destruction. All the poles between Elora and Fergus except two had snapped under the weight.

Local residents assessed the damage the following morning. The rain had stopped, but the weather remained cold, and the clouds cleared part way through the morning. Oldtimers recalled the picture as both beautiful and terrifying.

Editor Dick Mills of the Elora Express noted that “photographers, amateur and professional, were early on the job.” Some of these pictures still rest among old family papers. No one was surprised to see John Connon dragging his cumbersome tripod and camera around town. He quickly produced a series of postcards, which are now desirable collectors items.

Telegraph lines also suffered. Downed wires cut off the downtown telegraph offices for a couple of days and the railways had some inconvenience when operators could not dispatch and keep track of trains.

Telephone service was not fully restored for weeks. Instead of the mass of overhead wires on the downtown streets in Fergus and Elora, Bell Telephone used a lead- sheathed cable suspended from a steel wire. This system served for a half century.

The ice storm of 1909 lasted about 12 hours. The next major one in 1959, involved two separate ice storms and period of high winds and snowfall. A minor ice storm and heavy rains on Dec. 12 and 13 produced only minor damage, serving as a prelude to the major event of Dec. 27.

This storm produced heavy damage along a line from Acton to Shelburne and extending west, although damage to some degree was general across the province. Locally, ice buildup reached two inches in places, bringing telephone and hydro wires to the ground.

The rains stopped on Dec. 28, but then the winds came up, causing further damage. Lines came down faster than they could be repaired. Trees and television aerials that withstood the ice load succumbed to the winds.

Electrical service in Elora was out for about 10 hours, but there were longer interruptions in rural areas, causing concerns among dairy farmers who depended on coolers and milking machines.

The storm completely demolished telephone lines in some rural areas. Some of this was old service, dating back to 1911 and 1912 when Bell Telephone had initially constructed rural lines. Extra lines and crossarms had been added over the years. This old wire and the aging poles were no match for the conditions. Dozens of poles snapped, often four or five feet above the ground.

Most of the long distance lines were out of service. As a temporary measure Bell Telephone brought in four trucks of temporary microwave equipment.

A foot of fresh wet snow hampered repair crews during the first week of January 1960, and a week later yet another ice storm caused further destruction, bringing down trees and some of the telephone and hydro lines already repaired. Restoration work was further hampered by snow and winds every day during the last week of January.

During the five weeks of severe weather, the area suffered no lengthy power interruptions except for a few rural lines. On the other hand, some telephone customers experienced four or more weeks with no service. As a temporary measure, Bell Telephone strung lines and cables along fence posts. There was no reliable long distance service for more than a month. Bell brought in men and equipment from all over Ontario, 600 of them at the peak working seven days a week. They replaced more than 800 poles and restored service on 9,000 lines.

Among the few to see anything positive in the crisis were the members of the Fergus Camera Club. They ran a contest for ice storm photos at their January 1960 meeting. It was won by Bill Templin.

To avoid a recurrence of the crisis, Bell Telephone aggressively pushed a program to replace lines with underground cable. The company had commenced this program as early as 1949, with an underground line east of Fergus, but little more had been done during the 1950s. The elimination of overhead telephone lines was perhaps the most dramatic consequence of the 1959 storm.

We have had ice storms in this area but nothing on the scale of what was experienced by eastern Canada in 1998.

All these storms remind us that much of our everyday activity can be easily disrupted by an unhappy conjunction of temperature and precipitation.

*This column was originally published in the Fergus-Elora News Express on Feb. 18, 1998.


Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015