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Think the high water you see in the Grand River today is spectacular? You should have been around for spring breakup before Shand Dam was completed during the early 1940's. For centuries, few but First Nations people saw the Grand River during spring breakup. Wisely these people built permanent villages on the hills high above the river. After valley settlement began in earnest during the 1830's, spring break-up began to take its toll on man made property. For all the destruction the runoff caused, it never ceased to amaze. The annual occurrences became one of the most looked-forward-to events of the year.
When the cry, ICE IS OUT went round Fergus, people dropped what they were doing to head for Blackburn Bridge, now known as the Scotland Street Bridge. Word was usually passed via the telephone. Moving faster than the ice, the news traveled down river from Grand Valley to Fergus, Elora and West Montrose.
When pressure and warm temperatures broke the ice on the Grand River above Grand Valley, large floes piled one on top of the other, forming a dam. Water backed up behind this ice barrier until it either overflowed the top, or the pressure caused the ice mass to move. Then all would travel down river scouring everything in its path. When the pack met a barrier, it pushed the obstacle out of the way, piled ice around it, flooded the area or did a combination of all three.
Grand Valley was the first village to feel the brunt of the break-up. Every year the village experienced flood. One in three years would produce severe flooding and ice damage. Mother’s aunt and uncle who owned a store on Grand Valley’s main street, used to move all their stock to the second floor as flood water often filled the basement and first level. They then spent a few days with friends who lived on higher ground. Grand Valley is still subject to flooding. As the village sits in a natural depression or bowl, the river assumes its ancient course during spring flooding.
After leaving a trail of devastation through Grand Valley, the river pushed, ground and roared its way into West Garafraxa, scouring the bank and leaving massive floes along the route. The flow also picked up a few things along the way - trees, bits of building, a farm waggon or two. As the head of the flow moved it gathered more ice off the river. After cold, harsh winters some of the pieces were larger than cars and three feet thick. During the worst years, ice piled up fifteen to twenty feet high on the east bank at the l0th concession of West Garafraxa. At this location, water and ice also spread over the flood plain, sometimes as far as the gravel hill on the east side of the river. The low lying road flooded and the iron bridge became an island in an angry river.
Belwood, next in line to feel the brunt of the flow, was ready for it. Up until the late 1930's the village had a different layout. Shand Dam hadn’t been built. As Lake Belwood hadn’t yet been formed, some businesses and residences lined a street facing the river and a little above river level. As river flow at Belwood was more to the east bank than the west, ice built on the opposite bank to the village. But during bad years, the floes also built on the west side and broke any store windows not covered with boards. Water flooding was always expected. The bridge in Belwood was the centre of attraction as people stood on it and waited for the ice to pass underneath. One has to wonder if those folks ever thought what would happen if ice took the bridge out.
The ice pack, pushed by flood waters, churned and rushed under the C.P.R. railway bridge down river from Belwood. It assaulted bridges on the 6th , 5th and 4th Concessions before reaching the sturdy wooden structure across the river on the 3rd Concession two miles east of Fergus near Shand’s School. Although built of wood it was unlike a covered bridge because it was not enclosed but had high wooden sides. Young fellows sat on these sides to watch the show. One wrote his sister that as the first part of the ice pack hit the bridge, he felt it shake and shimmy and thought his high perch would fall forward into the river. At the height of the flow, ice scrapped the bottom of the wooden bridge and water flowed wherever it could find an outlet, often washing the road away on the east side between the bridge and road, now County Rd #18.
The spindly wooden bridge near Snakey at Glen Lamond was next to feel the brunt of the ice pack and water. This bridge had been replaced many times due to ice damage. The last went out with a devastating spring flood in the early 1900's and was not rebuilt. That’s why today the 2nd Concession, known now as Wellington Road #29 doesn’t cross the river but ends at a T intersection on County #18.
Fergusonians, having gotten the call, rushed to Blackburn Bridge to see the action. They stood on the bridge and on the banks and hill by Monkland Mills. Water pushed the ice onto the flats at Glen Lamond. If you recall there are a few century homes on the bottom land east of Blackburn Bridge in Garafraxa. Some of these homes were completely surrounded by floes. These massive chunks of solid ice usually remained where they had been pushed until they melted. No one was foolish enough to walk on the floes while water was pushing them along. But when the crest passed, people had their pictures taken beside the biggest floes. Once again, if people were afraid Blackburn bridge would be swept away, they didn’t let that fear stop them from standing on it.
Although some pressure had been taken off the distribution of floe and flood water at Glen Lamond flats, it was still a spectacular sight to behold as the ice fell over the high dam at Monkland Mills and scoured its way down to St. David Street Bridge and the Beatty Dam. People raced from Blackburn to gorge area for the next exciting thrill. Those that couldn’t fit on St. David Street Bridge dashed to Tower Street’s concrete span where there was a great view of the ice falling over the dam and crashing its way into Mirror Basin where the mass churned round and round as the water got higher and higher. Trapped due to the narrowing channel under Tower Street Bridge the ice built up in Mirror Basin while flood water flowed over and under it down river toward Elora. Most interesting part at this area was the noise made by the ice, noise that was amplified by the walls of the basin.
When water and ice floes spewed with some force into the channel behind Gow’s quarry, now the sewage disposal plant on Queen Street, they filled the narrow river until they reached the flat land at Westwinds, now Kinnettles sub-division at the western edge of Fergus. Here more pressure was taken off as floes piled high on the west bank of the river. Next obstacle, and not an insignificant one was the dam in Elora then the Tooth of Time. Due to the constant pummeling by ice and high water, village fathers wisely had the rock pinnacle fortified with concrete lest it be ground away or toppled into the gorge.
Mother and dad used to watch the breakup from Blackburn Bridge, after which they’d race down to Tower Street. The flow was such that they could take their time getting to Elora, their next choice for viewing. The bank of the river just past the Elora Mill, gave a good view of ice pushing against the Tooth of Time and tumbling down the high cascade. One of the most dramatic views of the spring flood and ice pack could be gotten from the lookout at Lover’s Leap. Mother said that when ice from both the Grand and Irvine Rivers met below the Leap there was a tremendous noise of grinding and crunching as they crashed, twisted and spun in the main channel.
The next stop for mom and dad was Wilkie Flats, down river from the gorge in Elora. It was spectacular when water and ice overflowed the low valley and bridges. Then it was on to West Montrose and the covered bridge. At the height of the flow, they couldn’t get near the bridge because the village of West Montrose would be underwater. Ice bashed against the wooden structure but to its credit the bridge stood the crush - and stands to this day. Through it all the dams in Fergus and Elora held, a testament to traditional construction techniques.
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