Years of talk before construction of Conestogo Dam

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Conestogo Dam, near Glen Allan in the current Township of Mapleton.

Completion of that project took more than two decades from the first proposals until the reservoir began to fill with the spring runoff of 1958. Those years provide a lengthy tale of bickering, controversy, and many delays.

The Grand River Conser­va­tion Commission, predecessor of the present Conservation Authority, proposed and inves­ti­gated a dam on the Conestogo in the late 1930s. The concept then was to control flooding and maintain summer flows in the lower reaches of the Grand through a system of dams and reservoirs on the upper reaches of the river and its major tribu­taries.

Taming the Grand itself was at the top of the list. That led to the construction of the Shand Dam, near Belwood, in the late 1930s.

World War II interfered with the completion of the Shand Dam, but a govern­men­tal reconsideration of priorities resulted in a push to complete the project. Its official open­ing was held in 1942.

That was the end of major projects on the Grand River system for the duration of the war. In the late 1940s, the GRCC again pushed its system of dams, with two projects gaining priority: the Luther Marsh dam and reservoir, and a dam on the Conestogo.

In terms of cost and scope, the latter was by far the more important. Survey crews map­ped out potential locations. Engi­neers concluded that a location near Glen Allan, at approximately the Peel-Mary­borough boundary, was the best in terms of soil conditions and engineering considerations.

The dam would create a lake that backed up into Mary­borough Township, virtually severing the township in two, and flooding a portion of the old hamlet of Hollen.

The GRCC spent a half doz­en years on studies and design work. Like the Shand Dam, finan­cing would pool the re­sour­ces of the federal, provin­cial and local governments.

Preliminary estimates put the project cost in the neigh­bourhood of $2,500,000. All levels of government agreed on the breakdown: 25% local mon­ey, with the senior govern­ments splitting the rest. It was much more difficult to get those governments to actually budget the funds.

Enthusiasm in Peel and Mary­borough could best be described as lukewarm. Some residents were openly hostile. They believed their commu­ni­ties were being sacrificed, and that they were being taxed, to solve problems of towns farther downstream.

Though the funding was not yet in place, the GRCC gained much publicity for its plans. In the postwar period the original benefit of flood control had ex­panded to embrace conserva­tion and recreational objec­tives.

The Toronto Star, for example, published several full page features, including aerial photographs of the site of the pro­posed dam. Conservation experts endorsed the plans en­thu­siastically.

Maryborough councillors, re­flec­ting the views of the town­ship’s residents, were ag­gressive in their opposition. One matter had them seething while plans were not yet com­plete. A flood in 1948 de­stroyed a bridge over the river just west of Hollen. It was in an area that would be flooded by the reservoir under up to 50 feet of water, so the GRCC vetoed its replacement. But the projected dam was nowhere near the construction stage, and many people believed that it never would be built.

One man complained that children had to wade through the river to get to their one-room school. In the summer of 1951, after three years without their bridge, residents met with Peel and Maryborough coun­cils, the GRCC, and the county engineer.

All the talk got them nowhere. The GRCC dug in its heels. Officials admitted that the dam would not be built until 1953 at the very earliest, and that no bridge could be con­structed unless they offi­cially abandoned their plans for the dam.

In the fall of 1951, the federal government announced that it would suspend its con­tribution to the dam for the duration of the Korean War. Federal funding amounted to 37.5% of the project cost, so that shoved the project to the back burner.

The new delay renewed the complaints of the residents west of Hollen. By that point, they considered the dam to be nothing more than a chimera. The township had done some engineering work, which pro­duced an estimate of $80,000 for a new span. Maryborough council backed away from num­bers of that magnitude for a bridge that might only be in service for a few years.

Fergus newspaper editor Hugh Templin, working in this period as a part time publicist for the GRCC, spoke several times in the Drayton area dur­ing 1952 to groups such as the Drayton Seniors Club in sup­port of the project, but he chang­ed few minds.

To the surprise of most people, the GRCC had com­plet­ed the planning during the summer of 1952, and was pre­paring for a tender call later in the fall. Delays, inflation, and materials shortages had pushed the estimated cost up the $4-million mark.

Maryborough council, at its Sept. 2 meeting, received cor­res­pondence from the provin­cial government, advising that work on all roads affected by the dam should be suspended, other than maintenance that was absolutely necessary. The dam now seemed inevitable, and Maryborough reeve Phil Rowland and the other Mary­borough councillors were not at all happy.

They passed a unanimous motion containing very strong language. It read in part: “… a large and costly dam is to be built on the Conestogo River in the Township of Peel; which will create a large body of stagnant water within the Township of Maryborough, thereby destroying forever a large acreage of valuable and productive farm land, and will disrupt a large part of the road system of the Township … ”

At the October session of county council, staff engineer W.H. Keith offered a report on the consequences of the pro­posed Conestogo dam to the road system.

He noted that nine bridges would be flooded, and various roads would need to be rerouted or upgraded.

During December 1952, the Grand River Conservation Com­mission continued with soil tests near Glen Allan to determine the precise location for the new dam. An announce­ment stated that tenders would be called in January, but further complications developed when test holes indicated unsuitable conditions, contradicting re­sults of tests made in the late 1940s.

That meant yet another delay. At a meeting on Dec. 16, the GRCC confirmed that a specific site had yet to be determined and that a call for tenders would be delayed until spring 1953.

There were other major problems as well. The tender call moved from January 1953 to late spring, to some in­definite time. The engineers had made a major error, under­estimating the cost by about $400,000. That made a sham­bles of the cost-sharing formula already worked out. Another round of meetings would be necessary. Equally significant, almost nothing had been done in the way of land purchases.

In December 1953, the Grand River Conservation Commission announced that it had completed its land acqui­sition for the new dam with the purchase of the Emmanuel Foell and Vincent Kraemer farms. As events proved, that was a gross exaggeration. Several farmers whose land would be partially submerged had yet to sign sales agree­ments, and the GRCC had not yet decided the extent of lands around the lake that it wished to acquire.

The next four years would be some of the most acrimo­nious in county history, but at the end of that period the new dam would be in service.

Next week: At last–a shovel in the ground.


Stephen Thorning