They made a lake where there once was none

By Greg Mercer, originally published in the Guelph Mercury

GUELPH – Supper was done, the dishes were put away and Mac Coutts was getting ready to head out that summer evening to a meeting at his church.

Just before 7 p.m., there was a knock at the door.

It was the police – not a typical sight on the doorstep of the general manager of the Grand River Conservation Authority.  What they told him was even more surprising.

“They said ‘there’s been a death threat against you,’” he recalls. “’You’re not going anywhere tonight.’”

It was 1973. Coutts cancelled his plans and he and his family went to bed for a restless sleep that night with a police cruiser parked on their street.

It was an unsettling reminder for Coutts that not everyone was thrilled about the big project the GRCA was working on in a river valley just north of Guelph. There, his staff had been sitting down at kitchen tables with dozens of landowners, trying to buy up 4,000 acres of farmland, marsh, woodlot, gravel pit and subdivision.  If the owners wouldn’t sell, the GRCA had the right to expropriate.

By 1976, they would build a lake where there once was none. They would construct a massive dam across the Speed River, transforming the valley into a giant reservoir that would control floods and keep water flowing through the city below during the dry months.

They would name this new place Guelph Lake. This is its story.

***

A visitor to the 890-acre reservoir today would find a spectacular conservation area full of Great Blue Herons, osprey, ducks, geese, pike and bass. The lake is ringed with tall trees and home to sailing and rowing clubs, hiking trails, hundreds of campsites, two large sandy beaches and an island with an amphitheatre that hosts an annual music festival. In short, “a gem,” as Coutts calls it

But look closer, and you’ll see a lake built by man. It is rimmed by smaller saddle dams that prevent the creation of mud flats, and pierced by forgotten country roads that run down into the water and disappear . At the far end of the lake, a bridge that once stood over the Speed River now sits underwater for most of the year.  Also hidden under the surface are the foundations of old stone farmhouses and barns, and other suggestions that cattle, not fish, once roamed these parts.

Guelph Lake was built on land once settled by British pioneers, including a captain named Henry Watson who spent his life at sea aboard whaling vessels and battle ships. His name was given to the road that once ran across the Speed River, and his son built an English-style brick school house that still stands on that road today.

Before the Watsons there was John Parkinson, who had moved from Seneca Lake, New York, in 1824. Parkinson came to Eramosa after a mob upset for his lack of support for their Fourth of July party shot a cannon near his home, shattering his windows. He packed his family’s belongings into an ox cart and walked to Ontario, where they settled on the site of the future lake.

The most problematic invaders to the land back then, according to family journals, were not sun-seekers and paddlers, but bears and wolves who decimated the family’s early livestock herds.  The Parkinsons stayed about 25 years in the valley before selling their land along the Speed River and returning to the U.S., settling on farmland near the Mississippi River in Iowa.

***

The spring of 1972 was a bad one for floods across the region. Rivers in the Grand River watershed spilled over their banks and washed out streets and basements. As the GRCA surveyed the damage, designers were already drawing up plans for another major water management project – this one, on the Speed River.

First, though, the GRCA needed possession of the land, and they eyed a huge swath near Victoria Road and Highway 24. Some residents willingly sold, but many others fought the project. They felt the GRCA was acquiring too much land – almost 4,000 acres when only 890 of it would be used for the reservoir. Others said the purchase offers were too low or that the GRCA hadn’t informed the public about its plans.

Forty-seven land owners had expropriation plans filed against them, although many ultimately settled. Nine landowners fought the GRCA every step of the way, forcing arbitration and delaying the project. Six properties were eventually ordered expropriated.

It was a bitter fight. In one instance, when workers were sent in to clear trees for the reservoir, they were confronted by about 30 angry neighbours. The GRCA was portrayed as a heartless invader, casually taking people’s homes.

“People mean nothing to them. First they take more land than they need, then they don’t even bother to tell the people,” proclaimed an editorial in the Mercury on Aug.1, 1973.

Eventually, most residents took the money and bought land elsewhere, or moved into the city.

At least one resident took things a step further, though – letting it be known that if the GRCA expropriated his land, he intended to start killing those behind the project, including Coutts.

The man who sent the threat was “a young person on a farm who was quite upset,” Coutts said. He believes the young man was never charged, only warned by police. After that sleepless summer night in 1973, Coutts never heard of the death threat again.

“I don’t know if he intended to follow through, but the police weren’t taking any chances. I was quite surprised,” he said.  “Some people just couldn’t see using up good farmland just for a reservoir.”

Some of that anger remains. Two residents approached for this story refused outright to speak about the project at all. But most seem simply nostalgic for what was lost.

Bill Bruder was 16 when his family farm at the northern tip of Guelph Lake was purchased by the GRCA. His father had bought the land after the Second World War and turned 150 acres into farmland and an evergreen plantation, which they harvested for Christmas trees.

The news of the planned reservoir didn’t hit his family as hard as some others, Bruder said. His mother had recently passed away of cancer, and his father was looking to retire from farming. The timing was good.

What upset many neighbours, he said, was that the dam’s intended location was moved upriver after some initial tests, meaning some owners who thought they had missed a bullet were suddenly losing their land. Original plans called for the dam to be built closer to the city, near Woodlawn Road and Highway 6.

“People thought they weren’t going to be affected, and then they were,” Bruder said. “A lot didn’t want to leave. This was their home.”

Today, Bruder’s stone house belongs to the GRCA. Much of his family’s former land is submerged, and so is the old bridge over the Speed River that had been a gathering spot for him and his childhood friends. He wishes he could visit the places where he once walked, but knows he can’t.

“It was a little tough watching it happen,” he said. “It’s kind of a loss because you can’t go back to see where you were raised.”

***

Ron Moulton stood on the edge of the dam and watched the murky water rise.  It was the spring of 1976, and his crew of about 30 men had spent two years preparing the valley for this moment.  The plain-speaking engineer was pleased with what he saw. It was working.

“It was gratifying to see it,” said Moulton, who was manager of engineering for the project. “I think we met our objectives.”

All winter long, staff at the GRCA monitored snow levels upriver, getting ready for the spring thaw that would send a season’s worth of water flooding into the new dam. And when it came, it came quickly. Within a few days of warm weather, the lake had collected 3.5 billion gallons of cloudy run-off water, spotted with floating trees and other debris.

The Speed River’s downward stampede came to a stop against 500,000 cubic meters of fill that created the dam. Picture a building the size of a Canadian football field, towering 20 storeys high and filled completely with rocks and gravel, and you can start to understand the volume of land it takes to hold back the lake. Smack in the middle was the 65-foot high spillway with six vertical lift gates, surrounded by walls of concrete that workers had fought against winter chill to build.

Moving the farmhouses and forests on the site were also an ordeal. Some houses were picked up and moved, others were bulldozed down to their foundations. The hardwood forests were harvested and the large logs sold to a pallet maker. The rest supplied all of the GRCA’s campgrounds with a summer’s worth of firewood.  Cedar trees became picnic tables made by inmates from the Guelph Reformatory, who were bused out from the prison and worked on the site.

“You never had to worry about locking your keys in your car. They knew how to get in,” joked Moulton.

On June 16, 1976, Natural Resources Minister Leo Bernier flew onto the dam on a helicopter and an opening ceremony was held. Over 400 people crowded around to see what had been built.

***

Though Guelph Lake has become a popular conservation area – averaging 90,000 paid visits in recent years – it is a water management reservoir first and foremost.  It has tamed the Speed, which once roared in spring and slowed to a trickle in summer.

It’s closely connected to Guelph’s growth, too. Because Guelph Lake has kept the Speed from drying up in the hot summer months, it provides a steady supply of water so waste effluent dumped in the river can be flushed away. Without that, it’s unlikely the Speed could have sustained a city that has grown to this current size, the GRCA says.

And Guelph Lake may continue to take on more roles in the future.  A 2006 master plan on Guelph’s water supply recommended using the lake as a source of drinking water. That wouldn’t happen any earlier than 2025, though, and after much environmental study, the city says.

Though no one knew it then, Guelph Lake would be the last new dam built by the GRCA. A few years later, the authority would begin buying up land in the West Montrose area for a proposed reservoir. But homeowners vehemently opposed it and the City of Kitchener panned it as too costly.

The critics won, and the project was stopped.

Today, Coutts just shakes his head as the Region of Waterloo considers building a massive pipeline from Lake Erie to supply the water that the reservoir would have provided.

But he looks back with pride on the last big project the GRCA took on to tame a river. He still visits Guelph Lake about once a year, and marvels at a project that won awards for its engineering and design.

As for those who moved to make way for Guelph Lake, Coutts understands what they gave up for the project. He understands the emotions tied up in that bitter fight so many years ago. But he insists those displaced by the lake were treated fairly.

Ultimately, most went willingly, he said, having got market value or better for their land.

“I don’t think anyone got less than they expected,” Coutts said. “Looking back, in most cases, I’d think they were better off.”

4 Responses to They made a lake where there once was none

  1. georgeliggett on February 22, 2014 at 12:37 pm

    you people took away my parents land and my grand parents land and that killed my grandfather once you people got your way and also prackticley stold there land

  2. Jake on July 3, 2014 at 8:20 pm

    If the PC Ont. camp is looking in on this blog it would be a rellay good idea to contact the federal CPC and tell them to knock off the telephone fundraising drive they have going now. This morning again I rec’d a CPC call and then just moments ago a provincial PC fundraising request. Not smart to have both running at once and re: the CPC not so soon after the big majority win.I know from having worked at a campaign office how pissed people get around here about being hounded by political fundraising requests.23b1

  3. Tom on May 20, 2015 at 7:32 pm

    The pain will never subside. Generations of history and acres of productive fields flooded so that the Speed River could be relied upon to flush the city’s municipal toilet. This was the obvious agenda back in the 1970’s when the land was taken from pioneering families who held the axe for John Galt. It is nice to see the facts in print.

  4. Stephen Ackerman on July 27, 2015 at 3:29 pm

    I was too young when my family was expropriated from a home and land that had been in my Mothers Family for generations. Mom and Dad weren’t the type to take on a big fight and we stayed in our house built by her father for as long as we could. I will never forget leaving our Guelph house for the last time…it was devastating to my mother. From my account my mother was never compensated fairly…how could one be when you are forced to leave? I come back often and can see the beauty of a lake but look at it with sadness…it altered lives for ever…for what

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