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The Dam: An Historical Perspective

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By Pat Mestern

Once again history loses to personal agenda. An historic structure has been allowed to deteriorate and will be demolished to serve the self-interests of a small minority of people. Make no mistake, what is/was known as the "Beatty Dam" has a long and interesting story. It, and its predecessor parts are an integral part of Fergus history.

James Webster and Adam Fergusson certainly saw the potential of the river’s power when they purchased their acreage in 1833. But the water course that they saw 171 years ago is nothing like the river we see today. Known as "Little Falls" from as early as 1808, the area actually had three significant water falls. In 1833, if looking from what today is the Tower Street bridge, you’d have seen the basin and whirlpool as a smaller "bowl" with much more cliff on its south side and a large "lip" or "table" of rock on the north side - behind where the Grand Theatre stands today. Three earth tremors and natural scaling has increased the size of the "bowl" to its present day proportions.

Above Whirlpool Basin, the river narrowed, as it does today, but the banks were higher. The Brewery/Beaver Meadow Creek that you see on the north side, just above the footbridge, fell naturally over a high cliff in a true waterfall, not a cascade spewed out of a culvert as it is today. This was Waterfall #1. The river was narrow enough here that a sixty-foot-long tree trunk could span it - and did, because James Webster wrote that until the first Tower Street bridge was constructed in 1835, he and other settlers crossed the river by walking across the shallow water or by means of a log bridge that was comprised of "one forest giant, the trunk of an elm tree". Up the narrows and past the tree bridge, the second waterfall, known as "Little Falls" and estimated to be between fifteen and twenty feet high, fell over a limestone ledge. Behind that falls, water cascaded over a series of rock ledges, similar to those that can be seen in the gorge today. These rock ledges stretched upriver to what is today’s St. David Street. The third waterfall, called "High Ledge" by Young, was located upriver where Walkey’s Dam is today.

When the first mill was constructed in August 1835, a dam was built across the narrow gorge which proved little match for the spring flood in 1836. Thomas Young was in his store by the end of September 1835 and wrote that in May 1836, he participated in a clean-up bee of the "dam remains and romantic little falls" as the rock was "blasted which obliterated the original rock edifice and the steep ledges that make up the river bed for one hundred yards behind the falls". At the same time "the walls of the gorge were expanded and Beaver Meadow Creek became a cascade - roaring after a rain, trickling at other times". Fortunately, Thomas wrote "the most romantic of the two falls, the "High Ledge", still stands upriver, above "Belsyde", my friend Ferrier’s place".

Beatty DamIn frugal Scots fashion, the rock from the blasting was "used in various and in-sundry buildings throughout the small settlement, James W’s stable behind the Cleikum being one". Ed. Note: This building still stands behind the Bank of Nova Scotia. Talk about frugal! At this time James and William Cannon set up a lime kiln on the south bank to process some of the rock into lime used to build those early structures. This kiln sat on the land which today would be under the Old Foundry building at 195 St. David Street S. which is part of the Fergus Market complex.

When the tanneries were built during the 1850's - Johnstone’s on the south bank and Watsons’ on the north bank - in the building which is today "Groves Mill Brew House & Inn" at 170 St. David Street S., another blasting took place to provide the necessary water requirements for the various industrial processes. The river banks above the dam were "expanded and graded" again according to Thomas Young. "Tree trunks were removed which allowed water to "lap at the very foundation of Watson’s tannery building which had the tanning tanks in the basement." This again refers to 170 St. David Street S., one of the older stone buildings in Fergus still standing. Young also noted in the 1860's that "the spring floods came over the deck of the new bridge on St. David Street". If you look at the facade of 170 St. David Street S., you’ll notice that you have to descend steps to reach the front door. This door used to open at street level. St. David Street was built-up when a new iron bridge was constructed during the early 1900's. Regarding the Johnstone Tannery buildings. If you look at the south side wall of the gorge upriver from the foot bridge, you can see the ruins of the Johnstone Tannery buildings.

The last "blasting" Thomas saw was during the late 1880's when Groves Mill, later Groves Power Electric Plant was built and required copious quantities of water. Ed. Note: This building still stands behind 170 St. David Street S. The river bottom and banks were cleaned and somewhat restructured, while at the same time repairs were made to the dam. At this time, Thomas mentions that the upper falls - "High Ledge"- suffered the same fate as the Little Falls when the river bed and banks were reworked for Monklands Mills in 1869. Ed Note: Monkland Mills a.k.a. Wilson Mills a.k.a. Walkey’s Mills a.k.a. the present day condo development on St. Andrew Street E at Gartshore.

There was further rejigging of the river bed during the 1890's when intake pipes were needed at Beatty Bros. Foundry. Chas. Mattaini did some of this work and his contribution can be seen today in the concrete "bunker" jutting into the water from the Old Foundry building upriver from the dam area. The viewing platform at Fergus Market is a twentieth century addition. It was once a hollow room where all the machinery necessary for power generation was housed. Today that equipment is embedded in a later pour of concrete.

After all the river bed and bank restructuring, Thomas confidently wrote that the dam is "continuous and solid and functional". He further wrote that "I’m pleased that while we can no longer enjoy the Little and High Falls, we can compensate by viewing the manmade articles which are in their own right, romantic." Ed. Note: Dear Thomas. I’m glad you’re not alive today to witness the stinking cesspool and scarred river banks that will occur once the dam is removed. You would not be pleased."

When the dam was extensively repaired and restored during the 1940's a concrete base was laid so that the wooden superstructure wouldn’t "warp into the line of the exposed bedrock". The dam, one of the engineers by the name of Mr. MacDonald assured Wm. McD Tait, "is built of the sturdiest wooden beams found on the market today, using a design that has stood the test of time. It was reassuring to note some of the original dam timbers are in excellent shape after 110 years. With proper maintenance and a constant drum of water to preserve its timbers from rotting, this dam is good for one hundred years." Boy, do I have news for Mr. MacDonald!

Beatty DamThe last big restructuring of the area took place when it was deemed by town council that more parking was necessary behind St. Andrew Street. They subsequently tore down the mill ruins and filled in the sloping bank to level everything out, hence the gabion baskets full of rocks, the epitome of crass 1960's commercial fortification, a real engineering eyesore.

And one further note - one anti-dam enthusiast assumed that young people used to sneak under the dam for their first smoke and God knows what else.As an old Fergusite, I can tell you that young people in both Fergus and Elora knew enough NEVER to sneak under dams that bridged the river. It’s only since some parents have lost control over their teen-aged children that there’s been a problem with kid/kids sneaking behind dams.

Actually, I’ll give my mother the last word. She said that before Shand Dam was built the river was so low during the summer months that, upriver from the mill pond created by the Beatty Dam, she could walk across it without getting her feet wet. Not a fish could survive in the shallow water, she used to observe. And cruising down the river in a canoe was definitely not an option. She also said that often the exposed banks of the river stank, and that the smell permeated all the buildings along the main street. I recall the early September car show on St. Andrew Street several years ago when the river was low and the stench high, unpleasant to say the least. Well folks, if the natural course of events occurs, you’ll have to get used to the smell once the dam is taken out.



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