Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Wells' bridge

In the early morning hours of 13 May 2014, lightning struck the old manor at 25 Manor Park Crescent in Guelph. The old stone home caught fire, requiring the efforts of five city fire stations to extinguish. Witnesses described the conflagration as "fierce."

As noted in the Mercury article, the old Manor was built ca. 1857 for Arthur Wells (1824–1900), in the midst of his property just south of the Speed River, west of Edinburgh Rd. In those days, the location was known to locals as "Wells' Grove" and was considered to be at the very western edge of town at the time. Perhaps having property at the edge of town allowed Arthur and his wife Georgina Dora (née Rideout) to have a house and property of the grandeur they preferred.

As you can see below, the house is indeed striking. Gordon Couling (1976, v. 16) notes that it was probably designed by Wells and built by noted local mason Matthew Bell. Couling describes it as, "One of the finest stone homes in the city - of major architectural significance," and made from "limestone quarried on the property." Fire damage to the roof over the front gable is clearly evident.

In addition, pictures of the house are available at the Public Library Archive (here also), and the Wellington County Museum and Archives. The Library also has a portrait of Arthur, Georgina, and the family taken at the Grove ca. 1870. (The photo seems to show all eleven of their children and the youngest, Ralph, was born in 1866.) Plus, the Guelph Civic Museum has a photo of the stone barns that also sat on the property. The Wells family lived in style.

The story of Arthur Wells is related in some detail by a descendant, Jane Wells with Kathryn Bassett. Arthur was born and raised in Toronto and went to Upper Canada College. At the age of fifteen, he journeyed to Avignon in the South of France to study civil engineering at the University there. After graduation, he worked on building railway bridges in France and then returned to Canada to work on bridge building for the Grand Trunk Railway.

That work brought Arthur to Guelph where he supervised building of railway bridges at Rockwood and Guelph, at Allan's Dam. He must have liked the place as he settled in the town with Georgina and worked in various capacities, such as Deputy Postmaster, for a number of years. To all appearances, the family were upstanding citizens.

Then, in 1880, (proverbial) lightning struck the household. Arthur ran off with his housekeeper, Martha Glover. Stephen Thorning says that Wells experienced "a serious case of mid-life crisis" (Wellington Advertiser, 23 March 2007) and, indeed, Glover may have been pregnant when the pair left Guelph for Pueblo, Colorado. There, Arthur married Martha and the couple had a family of eight children in the United States.

Wells' Grove and Manor does not feature in any postcards of Guelph that I am aware of. However, the bridge over the Speed nearby at Edinburgh Road had become known as "Wells' bridge" and is labelled as such in the card below. This card was published by Warwick Bro’s & Rutter of Toronto, probably ca. 1905. (On some printings, the bridge is mislabeled as Gow's bridge, which stands further upstream.)

In those days, the Speed River flowed in not one but three channels at Edinburgh Road. Or, to put it another way, there were two large islands in the Speed at that time, requiring three bridges to span the gaps. (See this later aerial photo where the bridges are at the bottom centre.) The bridge in the postcard seems to be the three-span middle bridge, as seen roughly from the west. Look at this photo from 1928 for a similar view. Note that the Spring Bank Brewery, built by Sleeman's in 1900, is not visible in the postcard image, suggesting that it was taken before the turn of the century.

It is not clear how or when exactly Wells' name became associated with the bridge. Although Wells was a bridge builder, there is no mention of his having constructed this span. Also, since Edinburgh road itself was designated by the Canada Company in 1828 (Ross 1998), it seems likely that the structure preceded Wells' arrival in town.

The earliest use of the term "Wells' bridge" that I am aware of is in the 19 April 1869 Mercury, in which it is noted that "Wells' bridge" remained "uninjured" by a spring flood that year. Perhaps the bridge became associated with Wells because he took a special interest in it. For example, on 20 August 1867, he sent a report to the Town Council stating that the span was in a "dangerous condition" and should be open only to foot traffic until it could be repaired. It may be that this report cemented the association between Wells and the bridge in the minds of the townsfolk.

In any event, one certain connection between Arthur Wells and Wells' bridge is matrimonial misadventure, for the bridge was the site of a kidnapping and forced marriage. On 25 July 1877, Miss Annie Mary Carr, a niece of Sheriff Peter Gow, received a letter, apparently from her father stating that he would be in town the next day and asking her to meet him at Wells' bridge (Mercury, 30 July 1877 ff). She complied.

Instead of her father, however, she was met by a carriage with three men who said that they had been sent to pick her up. Unsuspecting, she climbed in and was taken to the corner of Wellington and Gordon streets where the carriage was met by Frederick Sturdy, a local painter and the man with whom she had recently broken off an engagement! He and his daughter Louise pushed her into the back of the carriage and ordered her to be quiet. The carriage proceeded out of town by Victoria road and south to Hamilton, where Miss Carr was confined in a house in a secluded location. Plied with alcohol and threats, Miss Carr agreed to marry Sturdy, the ceremony being quickly performed at the residence of the Rev. D. H. Fletcher, who seems to have suspected nothing.

It seems, though, that Miss Carr was missed and Sturdy suspected. Two constables from Guelph were sent to Hamilton on Saturday to investigate. They located Sturdy's carriage at the American Hotel there. Although Sturdy's whereabouts were not known, he had left instructions to prepare his horses for Sunday afternoon at five o'clock, so the constables decided to wait him out. Sheriff Gow arrived at 4pm and the three of them arrested Sturdy when he turned up. Upon finding out the location of Sturdy's hideout—104 Locomotive St.—Gow drove out and rescued his niece. She was returned to Guelph, and Sturdy and his daughter (and Sturdy's other assistants) were brought there to prison to await trial.

The sensational story was evidently picked up by newspapers around the continent, even as far as the Feliciana Sentinel of St. Francisville, Louisiana (25 August 1877). The Mercury described the abduction and forced marriage as "one of the blackest crimes ever committed in Guelph" and a deed that,

... would make the blood of all respectable citizens boil over with righteous indignation, and at the same time ask the question, "Can such an outrage have been committed in a civilized community?"
Despite the infamy of the abduction, it is not recalled in later histories of the town, much like Wells' flight to Colorado with his housekeeper. Perhaps both were tales too painful to repeat.

In any event, Wells' bridge remained in continuous use for 100 years or more. By the 1950s, however, the City of Guelph and the Grand River Conservation Authority had decided on some major alternations to the Speed River downtown. The City wanted to widen the bridge at Edinburgh Road to increase the flow of cars. This improvement to Edinburgh would also help with plans for a major new road along the riverfront ("Memorial Parkway", now Wellington Road). The Conservation Authority sought likewise to increase the flow of water in the Speed and thus reduce the perennial risk of flood along its banks.

In 1957, contractors dredged out the middle channel of the Speed, widening and straightening it like a highway. The overburden was used to fill in the north and south channels of the river, where Wellington Road and the Royal Recreation Trails now lie (Mercury, 23 Feb. 1956; 18 July 1957). Mostly likely, the rubble from Wells' bridge lies buried there too, along with whatever other tales it might have had to tell.

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