Barbara A. Martindale- For What It's Worth April 9, 2013
A book of history came up in conversation this past week.
Grand River by Mabel Dunham, written in 1945, is a hardcover rare book these days and if one ever finds a copy, it is claimed to be worth much more than a few dollars. (Read a full copy online here)
Fortunately, the off-coloured green, well-worn copy in this writer's library was inherited many years ago, purchased in 1946 by the original owner.
Published by McClelland & Stewart Limited, the page of dedication is "To the Library Workers of Ontario and particularly to those who have shared with me the daily round, the common task."
Mabel Dunham separated her book into three books.
Book I is some history on the "People of the Longhouse,” Book II is about "People of The Settlements" and Book III defines "People of Achievement.”
Part of Book III is a chapter on transportation where she describes the beginnings of the Grand River Navigation Company and the Plank Road. Mabel Dunham said, "To William Hamilton Merritt belongs the honour of having organized a company to undertake the work," for navigation.
"He believed it would be better take the water from Lake Erie rather than from the Niagara River," as first proposed. "But the engineers found the work difficult because of the loose and drifting nature of the soil, almost impossible to keep the sand on the shore from filling up and obstructing the bar across the approaches to the in-take.”
"This challenged Merritt," said Dunham, "The solution was in the direction of the Grand River, 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 answer. Merritt promoted his idea of deepening the river with short canals. People throughout the province reacted favourably. By the early spring of 1832, the beginning of improvements began and settlements sprang up beside them at Indiana, York, and at Seneca."
Dunham didn't mention Sims Locks and Caledonia. But she did when she wrote about the Plank Road. "The Plank Road was the first of its kind in these parts, constructed all the way from Hamilton to Port Dover, linking Lake Ontario with Lake Erie. At Caledonia, where the road met the river, a swing bridge of six arches was 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.”
Dunham went back to the Grand River Navigation scheme by saying, "It was a boon to the people of the valley. 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.
"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 businessmen, female shoppers, honeymooners and eager, expectant youths from the backwoods of Upper Canada off to the big city on a holiday jaunt.
"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."
Mabel Dunham certainly had a flair for creating an image but she also told the story as it was, particularly with the Six Nations and their loss of investment.
"Navigation was superseded by the railway, the marvel of the century… The turning of the first sod was an occasion long to be remembered," said Dunham.