Saturday 18 May 2019

Boating on the Eramosa

The Speed and Eramosa rivers have always been central to life in Guelph. John Galt chose a site by the Speed so that the swift current of the river could provide water power for mills that would process grain and lumber harvested from the surrounding region. As a result, mills shaped the early geography of the Speed, as occurred at Goldie's Mill.

Unlike the Speed, the Eramosa river keeps a languid pace, making it less attractive for milling. In the town's early days, the Eramosa (often known as the Eramosa branch of the Speed) was remembered for its use by an immense flock of passenger pigeons for a rookery in 1835. Of course, it was also used as a source of water for people and animals.

As far as the citizens of Guelph were concerned, the Eramosa came into its own later in the 19th century as a place for recreational boating. Increasing incomes allowed for some leisure time and extra cash to spend on boating gear. The usually docile current also rewarded the rowers' or paddlers' efforts more easily than did the Speed.

(Stereograph of rowers at Victoria Park on the Eramosa River. Note the Victoria Road bridge in the background. Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums 2014.84.73.)

At the same time, around Confederation, rowing began to gain nationwide attention as a sport. In 1867, Robert Fulton, George Price, Elijah Ross, and Samuel Hilton, of St. John, New Brunswick, crossed the Pond to compete in regattas against top European Crews. The arrival of these "colonists" was greeted with some derision but the sneers vanished as the team left their competitors in their wake. They won the Paris Exposition regatta, becoming famous thereafter as the "Paris Crew." In England, they beat the cream of the Oxford University, London, and Leanders clubs—all this in an old-fashioned boat 100 pounds heavier than their rivals'. They returned to Canada to a tumultuous welcome.

(Courtesy Heritage Canada.)

The success of the Paris Crew was followed by that of Edward "Ned" Hanlan of Toronto Island. Ned Hanlan developed a local reputation competing in single sculls events in the early 1870s. He won the national championship in 1877 over a five-mile course in Toronto Bay.

From 1878 until 1884, Ned Hanlan covered himself in glory. He won the American championship in Pittsburgh in 1878, the English championship in 1879 on the Tyne, and the world championship in 1880 on the Thames in London before a crowd of 100,000 spectators. This victory made Hanlan Canada's first world champion in an individual event and an instant hero throughout English Canada.

Besides being a superb rower, Hanlan knew how to work the crowds:

Hanlan's popularity, celebrity even, resulted as much from his showmanship as from his rowing. He often toyed with opponents, slowing down, taunting them, blowing kisses at spectators, faking collapse or rowing in zigzags. (The English press lectured him sternly for his flamboyance.) He was easily Canada's "first national sporting hero," at least in English Canada. After his first English triumph he was met back home by a flotilla 5 kilometres long. In New South Wales a town was renamed Toronto in his honour. He endeared himself to Torontonians by stressing his Canadian identity. He actively took part, like any celebrity today, in numerous promotions, particularly in whistle-stop autograph tours on the eve of races. He organized his own touring shows, raced local heroes, and indulged in showboating, performing tricks such as rowing in a straight line with only one oar.

(Courtesy of CanadaSports150.)

Rowing fever quickly spread to Guelph. In April 1870, the first Guelph Boating Club was organized, accounting for about 35 members (Hacking 1873). The focus of the club was on boating for pleasure and they took some trouble to clear the river of obstructions so that it could be more easily navigated.

Indeed, it seems likely that boaters set out the local geography of the Eramosa River that remained so familiar to Guelphites for about the next fifty years. Hacking's city directory (1873, pp. 18–19) makes mention of several locales along the river connected with boating:

The Eramosa branch is specially admired by pleasure-seekers. Some distance up is an island known as “Rice Island,” and, higher yet, a spot that from its beauty has been christened “Paradise.” The approach to this spot is very fine, especially within half-a-mile of Victoria Bridge, where the long straight watery avenue, thickly clad with shrubs, and the bridge seen in the distance has a really artistic effect. Another place of resort is “The Rocks,” where good duck-shooting is to be had. Here commence a series of shallows, beyond which boating is impracticable.
Several now unfamiliar names occur here. At the time, there was only one island in Eramosa River near Guelph, a small island near the foot of Bell Avenue. Presumably, this place is Rice Island. There is no explanation given for the name but it may be that wild rice was observed to grow there. On Google Maps, the island has been dubbed "Goose island," presumably for the favor it has found with some Canada Geese. (See map below.)

Paradise refers to the area where the Eramosa bends southward about a half-mile east of the Victoria Road bridge. Today, this area is occupied by the Royal City Jaycees Park and the neighboring land subsequently turned into lakes by prisoners of the Reformatory in the 1920s–30s. Paradise was known as a beauty spot and a picnic ground. For example, the Daily Mercury (23 June 1879) relates that:

Chalmers’ Church Bible class boated to Paradise on Friday last and pic-nicked in the beautiful shade to be found there. It was a pleasant party.
Apparently, amenities such as swings and seats were provided. In 1880, the locale is described as "Bradley & Craig’s pleasure grounds," Bradley and Craig being the proprietors of the brand new boat house erected near the Dundas Bridge (and the site of today's Boat House and Tea Room). This note implies that Bradley and Craig had built up an integrated business: renting out boats in the town and arranging a pleasant destination in the township for customers to make for.

(Bend of the Eramosa River at Paradise, 2017. Author's photo.)

In addition to such feminine pursuits as swinging and picnicking, Paradise offered more manly forms of amusement (Daily Mercury, 9 June 1880):

Take care.—Pleasure parties going up the river to Bradley & Craig’s pleasure grounds at “Paradise” yesterday, report random shooting at the range while boats were passing up and down, and no red flag shown. The whistling of a bullet and report as it strikes the target may suit the ears of men and growing boys, but when ladies and children are on pleasure, it will be well for the marker and marksmen to have a care. It will be well, too, for passing navigators to stop and give some kind of alarm when in sight of the target, and then pull by as quickly as possible when the red flag is hoisted.
Today, Guelph rowers must find other incentives for pulling hard on their oars than dodging bullets.

The directory also mentions "The Rocks." The location of this feature is cleared up in the reminiscences of David Allan (1939, p. 98) where he recalls that The Rocks had later become a quarry used by the Reformatory. This locates The Rocks on the north bank of the Eramosa close to Stone Road.

(The Rocks, after quarrying by prisoners of the Ontario Reformatory, 2017. Author's photo.)

The Rocks are part of a series of rocky prominences along the Eramosa River, which were given the name the Eramosa formation in its honour. Geologically, these "Guelph dolomites" take the form of compressed layers of bituminous shales and may be as old as 425 million years.

Speaking of The Rocks in particular, Williams (1915, p. 2) notes that:

South of the prison farm near the Eramosa river, a coral reef rises through Eramosa beds which have been eroded from its top but still flank its sides. The reef is 35 yards wide by 85 yards long and rises about 20 feet at the centre.
It is interesting to think that the banks of the Eramosa River were once the site of a coral reef.

Besides their interesting geology, The Rocks were known as a good place to find wild food. Ducks for shooting have already been mentioned. In the summer, wild berries could also be found there (Mercury, 25 July 1904):

A party of berrypickers, on the dairy farm at the Rocks, of which there are quite a number, had a fright on Friday. One of the ladies nearly tramped on a snake about three feet long. They thought that it was a rattle snake by the sound that it made in its flight. It was a question of whether the ladies or the snake were more scared. Apparently the snake went for its cover, but it is certain that the ladies left the berry patch for home.
As Guelph grew, the geography of the Eramosa sustained more alterations. On 25 June 1886, another private park took shape on the south bank of the Eramosa just west of Victoria Road. The Park was named Victoria Park, after both the nearby road and, of course, the British Queen. The Boating Club made arrangements to rent the land from its owner, Mrs. Evan MacDonald, cleared it up, added tables, chairs, and other amenities suitable for picnics and camping. A sturdy dock was installed on the riverbank, along with stairs carved into the Eramosa rock for the convenience of those arriving by boat or from the nearby road.

A lovely description of Victoria Park is provided in a letter sent as an advertisement to the Acton Free Press to entice customers from further afield to enjoy the Park's offerings (22 July 1886):

... the banks are replete with natural beauty; green hedges dotted with flowers, and interspersed with vines that mount in tangled profusion to the tops of the trees in some places, and fringed at the water’s edge are ferns reflected in the clear mirror of the river, and you row along in a fairy land of nature’s own. You land at a broad wharf when you reach Victoria Park, and a sidewalk of strong planks winds away inland through ferns and tangled brushwood, and mounts on a strong stairway, with romantic seats here and there, the face of the precipice. Or, if you wish a glimpse of moss-grown boulders and lovely lovers’ walks, leave the plank walk and follow the path round the foot of the rocks which tower high over your heads, where you will find much to interest you, especially if you have with you the one person of all the world to you, to help you enjoy it.
If you mount the steep stairway you will find a high dry open space, with grand trees here and there, seats are placed round some, swings are hanging from others, and there is plenty of scope for the largest party to have the best of all good times.
The dock, seats, and swings are now gone, but the place where Victoria Park used to stand can still be accessed from the Guelph Radial Line trail or the easternmost hole of the Cutten Fields golf course.

(Victoria Park Landing, Guelph, ca. 1910, published by W.G. Macfarlane, Toronto. Author's collection.)

Later reminiscences cast a rosy glow over the pleasures of Victoria Park. During the warmer weather, people would often paddle out every Friday to camp there for the weekend. The most determined clients would camp there all summer, paddling downriver for work each morning and returning each evening.

Boating together was considered a highly romantic activity and it was said that, "Many a prominent business man in Guelph today can look back and thank the old canoe excursions for the helpmate who has been his life partner since those days of carefree companionship" (Mercury, 20 July 1927).

During its heyday in 1895–1900, boating to Victoria Park was a focus of leisure activity for many Guelphites. Campers would enjoy musical entertainments including the singing of a young Eddie Johnson (later a world-famous tenor) and the piccolo playing of Arthur Wheatley. At midnight, boaters would return to town en masse, still singing:

All the way, the river valley would echo and re-echo to the noisy choruses which were shouted lustily all the way down. Hands and arms would be made into grappling irons and the great armada of frail craft would be welded together on the return trip. Only those in the rear would paddle, and that just enough energy would be expended to keep the fleet in motion.
Another landmark arrived on the Eramosa River in 1888 in the form of a bridge to service the new Guelph Junction Railway, which initially ran from the Priory to the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) line at Campbellville. As the railway is operated by the CPR, the bridge is often referred to simply as the CPR bridge.

(The River Speed—Guelph, Ontario. Publisher unknown. Note the CPR bridge in the background. Author's collection.)

Although viewed with great fondness, the Eramosa River, like the Caney Fork River, is a taker and a giver. A number of boaters drowned in its waters and accounts of these events relate more of its geography to us.

The most noted drowning in the Eramosa in that era was of Hector Cooper and Eugene Gagnon on 24 May 1905. Cooper was then finishing his third year at the Ontario Agricultural College (OAC) while Gagnon, of Quebec, was taking commercial and English training at the Central School in preparation for studies at the OAC (Evening Mercury, 25 May 1904). The boys had become good friends and had decided to go for a paddle up the Eramosa at 4 o'clock that afternoon. They rented a canoe at the Boat House and set out.

A half-hour later, their canoe and a coat were found floating on Hood's bay by other boaters. Upon being informed, Mr. Johnson, owner of the Boat House, suspected that the boys had tipped over and set out for home to dry out, leaving the canoe for him to bring in. This sort of occurrence was not an uncommon one. Nevertheless, finding some of Cooper's letters in the coat pocket, Johnson sent word to the OAC to locate the boys. When Cooper was not to be found, a search party set out along the river. Cooper's body was found a few yards west from the corner turning into Macdonald’s spring. Gagnon's body was found a few hours later about fifty yards further downstream.

Both boys were fit and Hooper was said to be an excellent swimmer, so the cause of their drownings remained a mystery.

The term "Hood's bay" likely refers to George Hood, a butcher who had lived on a property on the York Road at the intersection with the eponymous Hood Street, still bearing that name today. His property backed onto the Eramosa river near where it changes from a westerly to a northerly heading. At a guess, then, Hood's bay may refer to a stretch of the river that widens out northwest of this bend, behind the location of St. Mary's Ukrainian Church today.

(Hood's bay, 2018. Photo by author.)

The feature referred to as Macdonald's spring must then be what local cartographer Jeremey Shute calls Whiteley's Creek, which rises on the University of Guelph campus and flows down through the Cutten Fields, emptying into the Eramosa River just east of Hood's bay. The Macdonalds owned the property on the south bank of the Eramosa in town and their home and other buildings lay near this stream.

Last, but not least, among the familiar places in the landscape of Eramosa boating was the Waterworks. The city Waterworks were built at the foot of Ontario street on the banks of the Eramosa in 1879. Since the waterworks were public property, the location was treated as a public park and boaters with their own craft would use it as a launching point.

Unfortunately, the accessibility of the waterworks also made it a hangout for idle young men. Sometimes, these "loafers" amused themselves at the expense of boaters (Mercury, 14 June 1887):

Bad boys—there is a fine opportunity for the police to nab the number of bad boys who congregate lightly on the Rivers edge in the bushes behind the water works. They sit there, and as every boat goes past, most vulgar and unbecoming remarks are made about the occupants, which are most revolting to the ears of the lady occupants as well as the gentleman. The employees of the water works, although having nothing to do in the matter, for the sake of decency chase them away whenever they can, but the young scamps are so wide-awake that whenever they see them approach they scamper off among the bushes and hide, only to return again when all danger is passed. A policeman in plain clothes would have no difficulty in nabbing the whole gang.
Whether or not these miscreants were ever caught I do not know.

As postcards of the Edwardian era attest, boating on the Eramosa remained a popular pastime. However, the Guelph Boating Club of 1895 came to grief in 1900. An attempt to form a new club was made in 1927 but did not succeed. With the adoption of automobiles, people took drives out in the country to have their picnics. There was talk of paving parkways along the Speed so that it could be enjoyed by car (Mercury, 28 September 1918), though the money to do so was lacking.

(Scene on the river Speed, Guelph, Canada. Published by the International Stationary Company, Picton, Ontario, ca. 1910. Author's collection.)

In addition, the geography of the Eramosa was the subject of more changes, for example, with the arrival of the Ontario Reformatory. However, that is a matter for another time.

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