Port Maitland "On the Grand" Historical Association

Port Maitland, Ontario, Canada

Inaugural meeting of the Port Maitland Heritage Association

By John Taylor
Published April, 2014
in The Free Press

Used with permission

Port Maitland Historical Association Meeting, March. 5, 2014

The Port Maitland Heritage Association featured two speakers at its first meeting at the Garfield Disher Room of the Haldimand County Public Library, Dunnville Branch. The new group was supported by the Dunnville Heritage Association, which provided refreshments for the meeting. The first speaker gave an overview of the entire Grand River watershed, the second spoke in closer detail, describing the history of Port Maitland and recent efforts by concerned citizens to take stewardship of "Lock One," the first lock leading into the feeder canal built in the 19th Century between Port Maitland and Dunnville.

Joe Farwell, CAO of the Grand River Conservation Authority (GRCA) described the history, mandate and present role of the corporation he represents. A precursor of the GRCA was started by a group of Brantford businessmen in the late 1930. They realized that the many towns growing up along the Grand River took in too narrow a purview; they could not oversee the needs of the entire river and the many streams running into it. Later, flooding, especially the notorious Christmas flood of 1974, prompted a reorganization into the present Grand River Conservation Authority. The board consists of counsellors and other appointees from all of the municipalities built up along the Grand, including our own Haldimand County. The GRCA, Farwell said, is neither a private company nor-a government agency,-but lies somewhere in between. It was funded largely by the Ontario government, but in the late 1990's this revenue stream was cut off. Today, it is virtually independent, subsisting on revenue from three hydro-electric generating stations that it owns, and from a million paid visitors to its parks and conservation areas. Some 50,000 school children tour its nature study areas, the largest of which is the Taquanyah Nature Centre, [near Caledonia, Cayuga or Six Nations.] Dunnville's own Bing Island Conservation Area, five hundred acres in size, is the GRCA's second busiest paid park, forest and campgrounds.

In addition, the GRCA carefully monitors water levels of the Grand River. It moderates flow by adjusting the depth of seven large reservoirs built in and beside its banks. Under its management, Mr. Farwell .asserted, the river's water quality has improved a great deal over the past fifty years.

Today, the Grand River supports seven business areas. Almost a million people reside within the Grand River watershed. This population is expected to grow tremendously in coming decades as Toronto's population oversteps a development-free "Green Belt" that surrounds and contains the mega-city.

In order to coordinate the many stakeholders in this river, the corporation has set up several water management plans. The upcoming plan will start in 2015. It is designed to deal with the expected effects of global climate change on the river, including extremes of hot and cold, wet and dry, as well as the possible introduction of invasive species. Another looming problem is the recent realization that the drugs ingested by people, including heroin and medicine, prescription and non-prescription, are all flowing into our water supply. The results are unpredictable on fish and other organisms living in the river, not to mention humans who drink the water.

Mr. Farwell answered many questions about his presentation. Supporting his assertion that the quality of the river has improved, one long-time resident recalled that in 1970 a fishing boat travelled near Dunnville's Grand Island dam, and disappeared into a mountain of suds. Laws mandating the removal of phosphates from detergents have helped with that problem, although Mr. Farwell warned that the runoff of phosphate from fertilizer used on farms remains a concern.

He showed a chart with black dots showing where water quality is worst. Dunnville had a large black dot covering it. It showed that areas of the Grand where there are many forests also have the best water quality. He stressed that can help the river by planting as many trees as we can along its banks and the banks of streams that run into it. Another help would be for dog owners to obey "poop and scoop" laws, since that pollution runs into the Grand as well.

The second speaker was Sylvia Weaver. We are "rich in history," she declared, and by preserving and commemorating this heritage we will enrich the next generation and help "increase tourism in our area." She noted four historical events that distinguish Port Maitland.

The first was the construction of a naval depot by the Royal Navy just after the War of 1812, when fear of an invasion by the United States was still in the ascendant. Evidently, American threats against Upper Canada died down and the depot was decommissioned in 1834.
The second event of interest to historians is the possible existence of an "old military cemetery where graves were laid bare by the work of the wind on the sand," of which one Father Donovan wrote in 1919. Buttons from soldiers' uniforms were uncovered. A series of newspaper articles by Thomas Tipton mentioned a coffin, red cloth and artifacts being found near the depot site. Unfortunately, an archeological assessment in 2012 failed to find the cemetery.

The third event was the construction in the area of three infrastructure projects, Dunnville's first dam, the digging of the feeder canal and, in Port Maitland, the construction of the first lock leading into the feeder canal, all in the late 1820's. These helped opened the area for settlement. Bill Warnick and others on the PMHA believe that the lock is an important historical site that should be saved. They have been working to clean up Lock One and to uncover the surprisingly complicated question as to who owns the land.

The fourth claim to fan of Port Maitland is its status as the source of the first commercial fishing industy on Lake Erie. The mouth of the Grand River runs through Port Maitland, and this served as a refuge for tugs and other large boats from the frequent, sudden and violent storms that strike Lake Erie. Often, over a hundred vessels huddled in the inlet at the mouth of the Grand. Port Maitland was the largest haven on the north shore of Lake Erie.

Since the two hundredth anniversary of these events coming up, Sylvia Weaver announced that the fledgling historical association is planning, subject to approval of funds from the county, to erect a stone cairn with a commemorative plaque. The proposed location is at Port Maitland East Park, known locally as Brown's Point, on the east side of the mouth of the Grand. The design for the cairn that was selected is of a pyramid shape, and will use local labour and materials in its construction. It "will be approximately 8 feet high With a 6 foot square base." Once the grant process is underway, the PMHA will begin a fund raising campaign as soon as this spring. "The total budget has not been decided as yet. But I am hopeful the community will assist making this project a reality."

John Taylor