Tuesday, 23 April 2013

The Speed River

This postcard provides a picturesque view of the Speed River, the main waterway of the city. This seems an appropriate subject for a posting of Guelph postcards on the anniversary of its founding, that is, St. George's Day (23 April).

The text printed at the top of the face says, "No. 461 View on River Speed, Guelph, Canada". As far as I can tell, the expression "River Speed" was never common but was used in writing to lend a poetic air to the name. On the back, the card identifies itself as "Published by Stedman Bros., Brantford, Canada. Made in Germany." The postmark is dated May 26, 1908. Stedman Brothers were a leading publisher of postcards in Canada, as you can see from this little video.

Views of the Speed were popular subjects for postcards of the city. Postcard publishers and buyers liked views of "beauty spots", of which tree-lined rivers were a prime example. Guelph, founded on the banks of the Speed near its confluence with the Eramosa, is well endowed with such places.

This picture reveals how cities were viewed as places where elements of nature could be combined with, and domesticated by, man-made structures. On the right edge of the photo is the spire of St. George's Church on Woolwich St., that towers above the river. In the center of the picture is the old Heffernan St. footbridge that spans it. Both represent people's ability to civilize the wilderness without banishing it, an ability that Edwardian postcard images of Guelph often celebrated.

The city's relationship to the Speed River was central to its founding. One of the reasons why John Galt selected the site for his city was the presence of the river. The native American name for it is not recorded (to my knowledge), but Galt named it, apparently, for the force with which it flowed. A fast river promised plenty of energy to power the gristmills and sawmills that would drive Guelph's growth. Also, being an author with a romantic disposition, Galt simply liked a good river.

To be useful, the river had not only to be tapped but also bridged. The immediacy of this challenge is made clear in the "Annals of the town of Guelph" (p. 29):

For the remainder of the summer [of 1827], he [Mr. Strickland] was employed in superintending the erection of several houses, and in building two bridges, one over the Speed, and the other over the Eramosa branch. That over the Speed, where Allan's bridge now is, appears in a painting executed in the fall of 1828, to have been a very substantial and not inelegant structure, built on piles, the superstructure being partly of squared timbers. This was of great convenience to the settlers, as a good number of farms had been cleared on the other side of the river, and the farmers had hitherto been compelled to cross on a rude ferry, consisting of a raft of logs lashed together; and as the stream, especially in the Spring, was very swift, this was frequently attended with considerable labor and frequently also with some danger.
Though rafts can make for great sport, a sturdy bridge does sound much more convenient, and civilized.

The use of boats to cross the river did not cease entirely, however. The Rev. Arthur Palmer, rector of St. George's, used to commute to work by boat, as Florence Partridge notes in "Slopes of the Speed" (1992, p. 18):

During the time that Palmer lived in the Arthur Street house, there was no footbridge, so he kept a rowboat which he used to cross the Speed River to his church in St. George's Square. The original footbridge was built in 1881 to provide pedestrian access across the Speed River between Arthur Street north and Woolwich.
Too bad for Rev. Palmer that he had moved away by the time the footbridge was built!

Here is a Street View image resembling that of the postcard, taken from yet another bridge over the Speed:

View Larger Map

This photo was taken from the Eramosa Bridge, just a little upstream from St. George's Church. It displays roughly the same scene the postcard photo, although it shows the new, and higher, footbridge built in 1918 and the blank side wall of the River Run Centre. It seems likely that the postcard photo was taken from this bridge (or, more accurately, an earlier version of it). It is remarkable how much remains the same between the two images.

The postcard is addressed to "Miss Ida Fissette, Simcoe, Ont." and conveys this very charming message:

Think I will make up for lost time now & write to you nearly every day. I am homesick today. Can you wonder at it? Are you tired? Clare
Poor Clare! She does not say what brought her to Guelph, but many young women from the region came to the city at that time to study Home Economics and Domestic Science at the MacDonald Institute (now part of the University of Guelph). Doubtless, many felt homesick during their studies. I wonder if Clare found any solace walking in the city taking in the many views of the Speed.

Happy St. George's Day!

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