Friday 28 June 2019

The Prison Farm and the Eramosa river

In June, 2019, the Guelph Innovation District was put on sale by the Province of Ontario. This bloc consists of about 330 acres and includes the old Turfgrass Institute and also conservation lands on the west bank of the Eramosa River. Who the new owners will be and what they will build on the land is up in the air.

Change was in the air in the early 20th Century as well. As noted in an earlier posting, the Eramosa River had become a focus for recreational boating for Guelphites in the 19th Century. As a result, the geography of the river was familiar in much detail to many locals. As the 20th Century began, the Eramosa remained popular for this purpose. The summer of 1911 was no exception (Evening Mercury, 24 July 1911):

Many canoeists out.

Canoeing is one of the most popular sports followed in Guelph and the river was fairly dotted with the graceful craft yesterday. The Speed River provides one of the best canoeing courses in this part of the country, and many took advantage of the fine day for a paddle.
However, the arrival of the Ontario Prison Farm the previous year had changed the character of the Eramosa significantly. No longer mainly recreational, the Eramosa River also flowed through the boundaries of an important institution.

I have previously outlined the development of the Prison Farm, so a quick recap will do here. In 1907, local M.P.P. Joseph Downey led a government committee that made recommendations for reform of short-term prisons in the province. Up to that point, prisoners sentenced to terms between a few months and two years were often incarcerated in the Central Prison, Toronto (administered by James Massie of Guelph for many years). The Central Prison sought to recoup the costs of incarceration by putting prisoners to work in several manufacturing trades, combined with a liberal application of corporal punishment. The arrangement was never truly successful, so the government was looking for alternatives.

(Wellington South M.P.P. Joseph P. Downey, Wellington County Historical Atlas, 1906.)

The Downey report suggested construction of a new prison facility in an agricultural setting, so that prisoners could enjoy the character-building features of farm work. Plus, the farm produce could offset the cost of incarceration. Also, the facility would employ a "minimum-security" approach, forgoing bars on windows, guards with dogs and guns, etc. In this way, the "boys" could learn employable skills and gain a sense of responsibility for their own conduct.

(Provincial Secretary William J. Hanna; courtesy of Dictionary of Canadian Biography.)

Set-up of the new "Prison Farm" was led by Provincial Secretary W.J. Hanna. Since the new prison was to be an agricultural operation, the Secretary sought the advice of one of the foremost authorities at the Ontario Agricultural College (OAC) in Guelph, Professor Charles Zavitz (after whom Zavitz Hall is named). After a thorough search, Prof. Zavitz suggested the perfect locale—Guelph—as Mr. Hanna later explained in a speech on the subject to the Canadian Club of Guelph (Evening Mercury, 28 Oct. 1911):

“We asked for a land suitable for this purpose—easy of access to railways, and to some town—land suitable for agricultural purposes, with sand, gravel, stone and other materials also on the farm. There were many answers from Montreal to Winnipeg. We started out with the idea of putting the responsibility on some one else, and taking the credit to ourselves, so we went to the O.A.C., and got help there. After some investigations, Prof. Zavitz returned disappointed, for there was none suitable. Then he admitted, with great modesty, that the very thing was within sight of the O.A.C., and the city of Guelph. His modesty then was remarkable."
The land along the Eramosa certainly fulfilled these criteria, with two railways, a river, productive farmland, and surface deposit of quarry-ready stone all on site, not to mention proximity to the expertise available from the OAC itself.

(Professor Charles Zavitz; courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

The Province began to acquire the land immediately, finishing with the purchase of Arthur McQuillian's farm in January 1910, making a total of more than 800 acres (Globe, 18 Jan. 1910). In April, Secretary Hanna, M.P.P. Downey, and other leaders in the project visited the site to settle their plans (Globe, 2 Apr. 1910). The first contingent of 14 prisoners were transferred from the Central Prison on 11 April (Globe, 12 Apr. 1910). These "boys" were referred to as "trusties," meaning that they were trusted to behave themselves, instead of being handcuffed, shackled, or made to wear prison uniforms. They were housed in a wooden lean-to, up against a small brick cottage left standing on the grounds, and employed in sowing wheat, oats, and barley under direction of "practical men and by students from the Agricultural College" (Toronto Star, 16 Apr. 1910).

Two large, temporary barracks were constructed for lodging while permanent buildings were being designed. These were completed in June, allowing for the transfer of up to 300 prisoners.

(Temporary barracks; Courtesy Guelph Civic Museums 2004.32.101.)

Workshops were also built to facilitate construction and farm work. Perhaps the most urgent of these efforts was construction of a lime kiln in order to make the quarry operational. A kiln and stone crusher were duly built by the river in the vicinity of The Rocks, thereafter known as The Quarry. A short railway was built to facilitate transportation of the aggregate and lime to the prison's workshops.

(Stone crusher and lime kiln; Courtesy Guelph Civic Museums 2004.32.101.)

These products were needed for construction of the remainder of the prison buildings and connections to the railway. In particular, since the quarry lay on the opposite side of the Eramosa river from the CPR line, some bridges were necessary. Two were constructed. One was a picturesque concrete bridge of three spans, made using material from the quarry and labor by the prisoners.

(Three-span, concrete bridge; Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums 2004.32.101.)

The second bridge was more utilitarian: a small, wooden trestle bridge to carry a spur line from the CPR to the farm railway near the lime kiln.

(Trestle bridge today, author's photo, 2019.)

Since the bridges were built using prison labor, there are no contract tender records that state when they were built. However, the concrete bridge is mentioned in connection with a visit to the Prison Farm of the Parole Board (Globe, 17 Dec. 1910):

After the commissioners arrived at the Reformatory, they spent some time in going over the Reformatory property, visiting the various points of interest and inspecting the live stock, particularly the magnificent herd of Holsteins. They had luncheon at the Reformatory, and afterwards visited the stone quarries, the lime kilns, and the new bridge over the River Speed, recently constructed of reinforced concrete by the prisoners and over 160 feet in length.
So, the concrete bridge was apparently in service by December, 1910.

("Prison Farm"; Postcard by International Stationary Co., ca. 1915; author's collection.)

The postcard above shows a view of the concrete bridge and Prison Farm from the west side. Background left stands the administration building and dormitories, while the workshops stand on the right.

Officials seem to have been less proud of the trestle bridge, since there is no report of it being inspected by any bigwigs. However, the Railway Commissioners of Canada had to provide express permission for any modifications of the CPR line. An authorization for the Prison Farm spur line duly appears in the The Canadian Engineer (22 Dec. 1910; v. 19, n. 25, p. 787):

[Order no.] 12409—Nov 29—Authorizing the C.P.R. Co. to construct a spur for the Provincial Reformatory, Township of Guelph, County of Wellington, Ont.
Given the haste that authorities were in to export products of the Prison Farm, it seems safe to conclude that the trestle bridge and spur line were completed shortly after this authorization was given, in other words, late 1910 or early 1911.

Construction on the Prison Farm grounds was sufficiently advanced for Ontario Premier Sir James Whitney to ceremonially lay the cornerstone of the Administration Building on 25 September 1911. Over 200 dignitaries from near and far arrived for the show. They were treated to a display of the farm produce and, of course, the feats of building accomplished by the prisoners, including the new, concrete span (Evening Mercury):

A little dump railway ran through the grounds, in which the heavy material was transferred to points where it was needed, and the handsome concrete bridge across the river Speed, where it crosses the grounds, showed what could be done in an artistic way by men who have fallen under evil influences.

(Wielding the silver trowel, Premier Whitney officially lays the cornerstone; Globe, 7 Oct. 1911.)

In their inspection of the prisoners' sleeping quarters, notice was drawn their use of postcards, among other paraphernalia, to domesticate their rooms:

The dormitory especially proved a scene of interest, as a number of the prisoners, by means of picture post-cards, calendars and newspaper pictures had made a home-like effect of their surroundings.
After the cornerstone laying and inspection, the dignitaries were treated to luncheon, served by the prisoners and featuring the produce of the farm itself. Some amusement was evident at the sight of government officials and policemen rubbing elbows with convicts. Premier Whitney took the opportunity to remark on the rectitude of this aspect of the government's efforts, given that the purpose of the Prison Farm was not primarily retribution but rehabilitiation of "unfortunate" men who had, perhaps under the influence of drink, committed minor offenses:
“This project has no part with the antics of certain hysterical people, usually women, who make heroes of wrongdoers and place offerings before murderers,” quoth Sir James. “It is designed to prove that the public is prepared to extend a helping hand to its unfortunate friends who seek to regain lost ground. It is the ordinary consideration of the most elementary fair play to give the unfortunate an opportunity to redeem themselves in future.”
The Prison Farm embodied this new program, to reform the misguided and return them to society as productive citizens.

(Sir James Whitney; courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)

Unsurprisingly, the behavior of prisoners was the subject of much local interest. For the most part, people were positively impressed. Indeed, the prisoners behaved themselves notably better than did the students of the OAC on the occasion of Halloween in 1910 (Toronto Star, 3 Nov. 1910):

If the inmates of Guelph’s prison farm had broken loose on Hallowe’en and done as much damage as is charged against the students of Guelph’s Agricultural College, there would have been protests from all over the Province, and strong pressure would have been brought to bear on Mr. Hanna to relinquish his plans for the amelioration of convict life.
The students were credited with a number of misdeeds: delaying streetcar service by greasing tracks, pulling down a highboard fence, trying to paint a fountain, blocking a streetcar track with vans, blocking Macdonald Hall entrance with vehicles, and demolishing a college post-office by locking a steer in it.

These activities resulted in eight arrests, two lawsuits, and an investigation by OAC President Creelman. One wonders how President Creelman would have compared his job to that of the Prison Warden.

Of course, the main concern was about escapes. Some escapes were regarded with amusement (Globe, 14 Nov. 1910):

A city minister claims that the prison farm inmates will not attend Sunday services unless there is a band or special soloists present. When the Protestant minister goes out he finds that most of the men are professing Roman Catholics, and when the Roman Catholic priest goes out to speak to them he finds that a surprisingly large number of them are Protestants.
Escaping Sunday sermons was perhaps understandable to some locals.

Of course, not all prisoners could resist the urge to run off. The first was George Cowan, a 16-year-old English lad jailed for sneaking rides on railway cars. He snuck away from his dormitory one evening but left an easy-to-follow trail in the wet grass and was picked up quickly in Eden Mills (Globe, 1 Oct. 1910).

Another was Charles Anderson, a Hamiltonian serving an eight-month sentence for theft (Durham Chronicle, 29 May 1913). He stole away to a hideout in a swamp near the Prison Farm but was found buried in muck with only his eyes and mouth protruding. He was disinterred and taken to the County Jail.

Other escapes were harder to fathom (Evening Mercury, 21 Jul. 1911):

Boat stolen from prison.

A boat was stolen from the Prison Farm and on searching it was found on Mr. Macalister’s property near the waterworks. It had a chain on, held by staples driven into a tree.
This escapist boat slipped away once more only four days later:
Boat again stolen.

The boat, which was stolen from the Prison Farm some time ago again mysteriously disappeared and was found pulled up on the river bank some distance below the farm. The next time the boat is tampered with the guilty party, if found, will be prosecuted.
Would the guilty party, if prosecuted, be sent to the Prison Farm? Or, was the boat not stolen but instead possessed? Why did the Prison Farm have a boat, anyway? To my knowledge, these questions were never answered. No river gives up all its secrets and the Eramosa is no exception.

In any event, Guelphites' views of that region of the Eramosa River had begun to take on a different character. It was no longer their playground but a somewhat alien place, belonging to the government and inhabited by people they did not necessarily want to mingle with. Paradise had become a prison yard. The Rocks had become the Quarry. The new bridges over the river were also visible symbols of the reach of the new institution.

(Satellite image of Eramosa river by the Prison Farm; Courtesy of Google Maps.)

Now that the land around the Eramosa is set to change hands once more, Guelphites' perspectives on the river are likely to change again.

I have not yet found any old photos of the trestle bridge. However, it remains in place although in somewhat dilapidated condition. The railway bed, minus the tracks, leading from the CPR line to the bridge still remains in place. A path leads through the brush to the deck, which is covered in grass.

(Author's photo; 2019.)

The concrete bridge was removed some years ago. However, the road bed leading from the CPR tracks to it remains in place. A path leads along its top to the river, though it is now more appreciated by geese than by people.

(Author's photo; 2019.)

Here is a picture of the Quarry being worked in its early days. Note the railway ties on the ground.

(Courtesy of Guelph Civic Museums 2004.14.18.)

Remnants of the Prison Farm railway at the Quarry can still be found in the form of ties embedded in the ground.

A 1911 booklet with a description of the Prison Farm and photos of its facilities—used above—can be found on the Guelph Civic Museums website (2004.32.101).

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