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Canadian Transport Sourcebook > All works> Miscellaneous texts > Grand River, Book 3, Chapter 4

Chapter 4


"I'll find a way or make it" was the motto of Hannibal, the brilliant Carthaginian general. With these words on his lips he forded impassable rivers and scaled the lofty Alps. That was in the dim, distant past, yet the spirit of Hannibal is exemplified to-day in the peaceful pursuits of modern civilization as well as on the battlefields of Europe. It is the spirit of the supermen of all time.

The early settlers of Upper Canada were imbued with that same spirit. Such was the urge of the Loyalists when weary, fearful and bedraggled, they sought its inhospitable shores when there was no where else to go. Governor Simcoe was motivated by a similar zeal when he and a party of personal friends broke their way through the tangled forest from Niagara to the Thames. They went, the records say, "in sleighs but mostly on foot." With like spirit the men of the Canada Company built the Huron Road from Guelph to Goderich over a mass of juniper bushes. Other men of indomitable spirit built a highway from Toronto to Georgian Bay, from Niagara to the Talbot settlement in the west and from Hamilton through mountain rocks to Guelph and Fergus.

The Mennonites, too, had the stamina of which pioneering heroes are made. D. W. Smith, the surveyor-general of the province at the turn of the century, relates their experiences in crossing the Niagara, before the days of the first ferry, at Black Rock, north of Buffalo. "Nineteen covered wagons, with families," he says," came to settle in the vicinity of Lincoln County. The way they cross the river is remarkable. The body of the wagon is made of close boards; they caulk the seams and been you shifting the body off, it transports the wheels and the family to the other side and the vehicle is then put together again." These crossings were made at Lewiston. Others of their faith came later to Richard Beasley's Tract up the Grand River. They, too, came in oxen-drawn, conestoga wagons with their families and all their earthly possessions. For thirty miles they followed a blazed trail through the ill-famed Beverley Swamp, which lay between the Head of the Lake and their Promised Land.

The conditions under which the European immigrants crossed the Atlantic were atrocious. For weeks they existed in dirty, vermin-infested sailing ships, slept on unupholstered sea chests, cooked their own unappetizing meals and drank the ship's stale, insipid, contaminated water. If a plague broke out, it only increased the seasickness and the homesickness they already endured.

When they arrived at last in Upper Canada they found that they could look forward to a lifetime spent in isolation. The country was sparsely settled, and the first roads were inexpressibly bad. Some of them were widened and improved later on. The "corduroy" variety, hailed as a great improvement in transportation, was made by placing trunks of trees side by side in horizontal formation to make a solid, but by no means, smooth, roadbed.

The corduroy made possible the stage coach. The travellers not infrequently entered the vehicle by way of a window. They were jostled and bumped unmercifully all the way to their destination. It was taken as a matter of course when the passengers were obliged to clamber out of their seats to extricate the vehicle from a mudhole.

Travel by water was not much better. The Indian bark canoe gave place early to the French bateau, especially on the St. Lawrence River, and the bateau, in turn, to the Durham boat, a larger and stronger craft propelled by oars and invented, it is believed, by American traders in the Mohawk Valley. There were many navigable rivers in the interior of the western end of the province, but little use was made of them for purposes of transportation. Not until 1802 was it possible to cross the Niagara at Buffalo by ferry.

The Niagara River was an insurmountable barrier to the development of the province It was only twenty-odd miles long, but the declivity from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario was three hundred and sixty-five feet. There were many miles of dangerous water including the mighty cataract and the whirlpool rapids below. Only a fool would risk his life in any sort of craft on such a river.

In his Picturesque Canada, George Munro Grant tells the story of a boatman who built a Maid of the Mist, the smallest of tiny steamboats, as a commercial venture. For a small fee, he took passengers to the foot of the Falls and gave am a sensational baptism of spray. But the boat failed to meet expenses and the boatman decided to sell her. He found a purchaser but by the terms of the agreement the owner was required to deliver the boat intact at the mouth of the river. This meant that the Maid of the Mist would have to be piloted through a narrow, rock-bound channel of mad waters six miles long.

The boatman and two friends under took and accomplished the dangerous feat. The record states that the pilot was a man of extraordinary courage and skill, but he was so badly shaken in mind and body by the ordeal that when he came ashore at the mouth of the river, he seemed fully twenty years younger.

The Niagara was a real handicap to the defenders of Upper Canada during the War of 1812. Britain's war effort would have been strengthened immeasurably, if it had been a normal river. It would then have been possible to send men and munitions to Detroit in the early stages of the conflict by an all-water route, with an enormous saving of time and money. Fort Niagara was in American hands at that time, but it would have been possible for Canadian soldiers to pass that stronghold at night, and there is every probability that they could then have arrived at Detroit in time, and in sufficient numbers, to prevent General Harrison from invading the western part of the province.

But the Niagara was not navigable. General Brock had no recourse but to land his men at the Head of the Lake, to carry his gun and ammunition by foot along an Indian trial, for twenty-two miles, to the Grand River and follow that stream to Lake Erie in such tubs of boats as the terrified settlers were able to provide. Robert Nichol rigged up a few vessels on Lake Erie and conveyed as many fighters as he could by water to Detroit. The rest of the contemptible army walked!

Still more serious was the fact that the Niagara River was a detriment to the peace-time activities of Upper Canada, especially the development of her foreign trade. the great cargoes of furs and other merchandise from the far west, which came by water to the Niagara, had to be transported by land at the portage and transhipped for Lake Ontario. this meant a considerable loss of time and money.

The trouble was accentuated when at the close of the War of 1812, the Americans built the Erie Canal from Buffalo to Albany and offered easy transportation of Canadian as well as American shipping. Gradually the horse and wagon portage around the Falls was falling into disuse. The Canadians were not slow to see that their trade was being diverted to New York, although the country's best interests might be served more satisfactorily by the use of their own most excellent waterway, the St. Lawrence River. The time was ripe, it was felt, to abandon the primitive carrying place at the Falls and to construct in its place a canal from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario, which should be far enough removed from the international border to be beyond the range of enemy guns, in the event of another war.

The idea recommended itself to the people generally. One suggestion met with universal approval, that the Twelve Mile Creek, which ran through Shipman's Corners (St. Catharines) should be the route of the proposed canal. The plan was to divert the waters of the Niagara into the canal at the village of Chippawa, a short distance above the Falls.

To William Hamilton Merritt belongs the honour of having organized a company to undertake the work. Operations were begun on the west branch of the creek, at Thorold, and in an incredibly short time two boats entered the canal at Chippawa and floated peacefully down to Port Dalhousie, on Lake Ontario. That was a great day of achievement. The Welland Canal, as it was called, had overcome the disadvantages of the Niagara.

But Merritt was not altogether satisfied. He believed it would be better to take the water from Lake Erie rather than from the Niagara River. Construction was begun forthwith on a Lake Erie entrance to the canal. But the engineers found the work discouragingly difficult because of the loose and drifting nature of the soil at the margin of the lake. It was almost impossible to keep the sand on the shore from filling up and obstructing the bar across the approaches to the in-take.

The difficulty only challenged Merritt to greater endeavour. He was determined to find a solution to the problem. Soon he was casting a covetous eye in the direction of the Grand River, a deep, full-flowing stream, draining twenty-five thousand square miles of land in the interior of Upper Canada. Its mouth was only twenty-two miles from the proposed in-take to the canal, twenty-two miles of low-lying, unproductive, swamp lands, covered with bulrushes, tamarack and wild cranberries. If he could dam the Grand River at Dunnville high enough to divert its waters into his canal by means of a feeder, he would have the gratification of seeing a monumental success rise from the ruins of his apparent defeat.

With characteristic enthusiasm, Merritt promoted his idea wherever he had an opportunity. Especially did he try to mound the opinion of the people who lived in the towns and villages in the valley of the Grand. He told them that the scheme would entail the deepening of the river to the advantage of the whole countryside. Short canals would be built in the southern part of the river, and the residents of the valley as far north as Galt would have a navigable river at their very doors. No longer need the farmers of Dumfries and Waterloo lug their grain and dairy products to Dundas. the Grand River would bear their burdens on its broad back, and they might sit at home in a comfortable chair enjoying their ease and the fruits of their prosperity.

The people throughout the province reacted favourably to the scheme. They saw in this new method of transportation the dawn of a better day for trade and commerce. It was an occasion for jubilation when, in 1831, the British Parliament granted a charter to the organization, which called itself the Grand River Navigation Company. The capital investment was $50,000. Merritt himself and several others took as much as a thousands shares each. Absalom Shade, of Galt, and other men of business acumen up the river bought heavily, believing the company as as financially sound as the proverbial Bank of England.

The Six Nations Indians were numbered among the chief shareholders. Without their knowledge or consent, their trustees had bought, in their name and with money from their treasury, stock to the value of $38,256, more than half the capital investment. The Government had the fore-sight to appoint two men of reputable financial ability to represent the Indians on the Board of Directors. The Indians were highly incensed when the news of this high-handed procedure came to their ears. Alas, they knew only too well how helpless they were to prevent this gross injustice, and as time went by, the volume of their complaints increased in proportion to the diminution of their dividends.

The early spring of 1832 saw the beginning of the improvements to the river, when several short canals were built. Settlements sprang up beside them at Indiana, at York and at Seneca. A plank road, the first of its kind in these parts, was constructed all the way from Hamilton to Port Diver, linking Lake Ontario with Lake Erie. At Caledonia, where the road met the river, a swing bridge of six arches was been built with the apparatus for turning at its eastern end to allow for the passage of vessels. This road opened up new land for settlement. Within six years all the land which bordered on it had been sold and at least partially cleared.

The development of the Grand River progressed month by month. The Company's plan was beginning to be apparent. A succession of levels was designed to convert the natural course of the stream into a system of slack-water navigation from two and a half to three feet deep. This was sufficient to allow the passage of boats of light draught as far upstream as the levels could be carried. The engineers were the best that could be employed. They succeeded in raising the levels twenty-five miles up the river to within three miles of Brantford, and there they built tree locks of eleven feet each.

So Brantford became the head of the much-discussed Grand River Navigation scheme of the thirties, a fact which contributed immeasurably to the growth and financial prosperity of the village. By means of a cut-off which straightened the course of the river from the village to the slack water three miles south, the millers of Brantford were able to ship their products and to receive their imports at their very doors, eliminating all the inconvenience and expense of hauling.

Absalom Shade was much perturbed, when he learned that Brantford, and not Galt, was to be the head of navigation. So were the farmers and the millers of Dumfries. Shade decided that he would not accept as final the considered judgment of the engineers. If the canal would not come to Galt, Galt would go to the canal. He believed it was possible, at least in the flood season, for a crew of experienced rivermen to steer a number of well-ballasted, flat-bottomed boats downstream to the locks at Brantford. It was worth trying.

Shade and his men built a number of barges, each eighty feet long and sixteen wide, with a capacity of four hundred barrels of flour. Shade's Arks, the people called them. Half the town was present when the barges were slipped into the river from the end of the bridges and the millers loaded their flour. The adventurous boatmen waved their farewells and the people cheered them to the echo. Those young fellows were risking life and limb to open up new avenues of trade for Galt and Dumfries.

That first dangerous journey to Port Dalhousie was so successful that for three successive years the rivermen of Galt carried the products of Dumfries, flour, wheat, pork and furs, to Lake Erie and the markets of the world. Thanks to Absalom Shade, Galt was reaping the benefits of the Grand River Navigation Scheme.

Then one day something happened. Shade's own barge, loaded to capacity with flour, ran aground on a rock below Glenmorris. There was a violent crash, a creaking of timbers and a good deal of shouting. Shade himself was calm. He ordered the other boatmen to go on their way, while he squared his shoulders to carry barrel after barrel of flour from his Ark to an island in the river. Then he waded to the shore, hurried back to Galt on foot and worked night and day until he had completed a new barge. With consummate skill, he piloted his empty craft down the angry river, picked up his cargo of flour and continued on his way. At Port Robinson, half way through the canal, he overtook and joined the Galt men. This was, as Hon. James Young, of Galt, once said, "the last trip of the only fleet the Town of Galt ever possessed."

The Grand River Navigation scheme was a boon to the people of the valley. The freight service grew by leaps and bounds. In 1840 alone, nearly 500,000 bushels of wheat and millions of feet of lumber were carried down the river to markets which otherwise would have been inaccessible. Industry and trade brought prosperity and contentment.

General satisfaction reached its climax when a passenger service was inaugurated a few years later. Two stern-propelled steamers, the Red Jacket and the Queen, began to ply between Brantford and Buffalo, stopping at the villages along the course of the river to pick up passengers. Their human cargoes were business men, female shoppers, honeymooners and eager, expectant youths from the backwoods of Upper Canada off to the big city on a holiday jaunt. The boats left Brantford at seven in the morning, and at the same hour on the following morning they could sees the smoke ascend from the tall chimneys. But the Queen was notoriously top-heavy, and sometimes she ran aground in the shallows. Little wonder, for she drew only three feet of water.

The passenger service increased in popularity every summer. Ten years later as many as a hundred crowded steamers were making the journey with a maximum of comfort, in a minimum of time.

But there came a day when the Grand River Navigation Company, like the Queen, ran aground, and foundered on the shoals of financial insecurity. It was top heavy with liabilities and it had no depth of assets. Then the town of Brantford, fearful for its trade, was persuaded to raise $200,000 by debentures for a mortgage on the Company's property. Year after year the Company defaulted in its obligations and, in 1861, the corporation foreclosed the mortgage and took over the entire stock of the Company. When it was put up for sale at auction, a single greenback of the lowest denomination bought all the equipment, and the cut-off was thrown in as a gesture of good will. After that, Brantford could offer no facilities of transportation by water and the canals were used only for water power and for hydraulic purposes.

The Six Nations lost their entire investment, but they continued to hold their worthless papers as souvenirs of the white man's phenomenal enterprise. To this day the poor, deluded people hope that some time in some court of justice they may recover their losses.

A new riverbed for the Welland Canal was found later in the Tenth Creek. It is a ship canal now, and one of the world's greatest feats of engineering. The Grand River empties into Lake Erie, as Mother Nature intended it should, and the unused feeder is crumbling to ruin in the cranberry marshes along the shores of Lake Erie.

Navigation was superseded by the railway, the marvel of the century. In his report to the Edinburgh Society, Adam Fergusson reported that, in February, 1831, he travelled over the first railway in the world, when he journeyed to Liverpool en route to America. No more than twenty years after that time, the backwoods people of Upper Canada were awake to the superior advantages of travel and transportation by rail and insistent in their demands for railroad service.

The advent of the iron horse was celebrated in much the same way in the principal towns of the province. The turning of the first sod was an occasion long to be remembered. Progressive merchants decorated their store windows in anticipation of a crowd of country people. Long before daybreak there were evidences of excitement and unusual activity in the streets. At the appointed hour thousands of spectators in holiday attire waited for the ceremony to commence. Presently some worthy pioneer approached pushing a wheel-barrow of highly polished wood on which had been placed a pick and shovel. Or perhaps, a silver trowel. He reached the spot where the first rail was to be laid later. There was a deadly silence and a craning of necks when the pioneer removed a square of top soil, placed it in the barrow and wheeled it away. Guns boomed and the people shouted acclaims to their Queen. Speechmaking, feasting and dancing brought the eventful day to a close.

Usually two years passed by before any construction work was begun, and another two years before the first train was scheduled to arrive. That was another occasion that called for a celebration. Invariably the train was long overdue and the people waited more or less impatiently for hours, often in zero weather or in a drizzling rain. Only the most sophisticated stood their ground when at last the locomotive came belching in. Fearful ones ran amuck in the crowd, or climbed trees. Banquets, fireworks and formal balls gave official recognition of the dawn of a new day in transportation and fairer tomorrows in the history of the community.

The first railway to penetrate the valley of the Grand River was the Great Western, which ran from Niagara Falls to Detroit. The Grand Trunk Railway, however, was the pride of Upper Canada. Its builders advertised it as one of the wonders of the world and promised satisfactory service to points as distant as Goderich and Sarnia. It came in the fifties to Brantford, Guelph, Galt and Berlin.

There was no railway service in Nichol township until Adam Brown, of Hamilton, saw an opportunity to enlarge his city's trade. Guelph, fearing for its own markets, opposed the move, but Brown got his charter and the railroad was completed in 1870.

To commemorate this event, an excursion was arranged from Fergus to Niagara Falls via Hamilton. Warnings for safe conduct were posted. Passengers were forbidden to stand on the platform of the train, to ride on the roof and to board or leave the train while it was in motion. Notwithstanding these precautions, there were several near-accidents, but the excursionists reached Fergus safe, but tired and unspeakably happy, in the wee small hours of the following morning.

As late as 1875, all the locomotives of Upper Canada were fuelled with wood. Great piles of cordage stood in the station yards of the important towns, and gangs of men toured the country periodically for the purpose of cutting down four-foot cordwood sticks into blocks that could be stuffed into the mouths of the engines.

The first man to foresee that coal could be used to fuel railway locomotives was James J. Hill, the great American railway magnate. Hill was a Canadian, born in the village of Rockwood, on the Speed River, during the stormy days of the Rebellion and educated at the Rockwood Academy. When his father died, the boy was compelled to leave school at fourteen to earn his living as a clerk in the village store. Later, he went to Wisconsin, interested himself in the problems of transportation, became a builder of railways and took a prominent part in the opening of transatlantic and transpacific trade. In 1915, when the management of the Panama Pacific Exposition invited each State of the Union to name its greatest living citizen, for inclusion in a Hall of Fame, Wisconsin's unanimous choice was James J. Hill.

Brantford claims the invention of a by-product of the railway, the sleeping coach. It happened when the Prince of Wales, afterwards King Edward VII, was paying an official visit to the British Dominions, in 1860. The Governor of Canada, wishing to reduce to a minimum the ennui which his royal guest would endure on his long journeys in this great land, called for designs for a railway coach, which might be used for travel by night as well as by day.

At that time, no one had ever heard of such a contrivance, but Thomas Burnley, of Brantford, submitted a model and got the contract. A group of expert mechanics built the coach, in Brantford, under Burnley's supervision. The Prince's Coat of Arms, exquisitely carved and painted in royal colours, adorned the exterior. The interior furnishings were complete and fastidious to a degree. Inside and out, the car was as perfect as it was original. The Prince was delighted with his unique conveyance. He used it for his trips throughout the province and even into the United States.

Unfortunately, it had not occurred to Burnley that he ought to patent his sleeping coach, and both the name and the profits of his invention went to George Pullman, a shrewder man of the world. As an employee of the Buffalo and Lake Erie Railway, Pullman was accustomed to visit Brantford periodically in the interests of his firm. He happened in one day when the men were at work building the royal car, and when he returned to Buffalo he built his own idea of a sleeping car. His coaches have done much to popularize long distance travel by rail, but the name of Thomas Burnley, the real inventor, is practically unknown.

Bridges, too, will always play a notable part in the history of Upper Canadian transportation. Like couplers which connect coaches to form a train, bridges connect roads and railroads. Without them travel would be limited indeed.

In early days a bridge was often only a tree felled across a river, but for all that it was often more stable than the pretentious structures which were erected later. A bridge was built across the Grand River, in Brantford, in 1812, but it fell in a mass of debris when the first horse and wagon attempted to pass over it. Hundreds more were carried downstream, sooner or later, in a flood of swirling waters.

Modern bridges, whether for pedestrian or vehicular traffic, are built in accordance with the rules of advancing science. They combine beauty and strength. The beautiful bridges at Grand Valley, at Bridgeport, and at Freeport, are notable examples of modern bridge building. The Cockshutt Bridge, below Brantford, is as handsome a structure of its kind as can be found in the entire valley. Originally it was a covered bridge with the roadway on the roof.

Covered bridges are frequently found in Mennonite country. In Pennsylvania, bridges are built with roofs and walls as a protection against inclement weather. Such a bridge stood at Blair, within the memory of the oldest citizens. There was another one of this variety at the village of Conestoga, on the Grand, just above the junction of the two rivers. This one had walls, but no roof. Both of these fell years ago under the pressure of waters in flood.

A third of this type is still standing. It spans the Grand River in the village of West Montrose, in Woolwich Township, midway between Winterbourne and Elmira. Not only is it a well known landmark, but an excellent example of a covered bridge, for it has both roof and walls. It has a span of two hundred and ninety feet and its width, by inside measurement, is seventeen feet. No one knows exactly when it was built, but local tradition sets the date as 1881, and supports the theory that it was raised into position by ropes and pulleys.

Certain evidences of its antiquity have been preserved to this day. An old-fashioned kerosene lantern hangs from the ceiling and, until recently, a verger used to light it at nightfall, in conformity with an old by-law. At either entrance hangs a notice: "Any person who rides or travels over this bridge faster than a walk will be prosecuted."

In the horse and buggy days, people called it the kissing bridge, perhaps because two small windows provide a minimum of light even in broad daylight. It was bashful swain who failed to take advantage of the custom and the twilight. Or perhaps it got its name from the fact that its outside walls are elaborately decorated with intertwined hearts and initials, deep-carved and grey with age. Do they still live in West Montrose, those youthful lovers who risked their lives to announce to an unconcerned world their first intimations of the divine passion?

But there has been a revolution in transportation during the past century. Those halcyon, horse and buggy days are gone forever. The bicycle flourished at the turning of the century. To-day, the automobile and the motor truck are the accepted means of transportation. To-morrow, we shall fly perhaps into the stratosphere and encircle the globe. Returning, we shall descend in safety and with assurance to the rooftops of our own houses.

[Public Domain] Copyright/Licence: The author or authors of this work died in 1964 or earlier, and this work was first published no later than 1964. Therefore, this work is in the public domain in Canada per sections 6 and 7 of the Copyright Act. See disclaimers.