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Simcoe County history

By Tom Villemaire, Special to Postmedia Network

On March 22, 1902, Orillia council met to secretly plan the takeover of the Ragged Rapids generating station on the Severn River, north of the town.

They decided they’d need constables, a public works crew, a couple of town employees, and the town engineer. They’d have to cut phone lines to the remote station and, if necessary, seize it by force from the builder, P.H. Patriache, of Toronto.

Who knew town councils could be so sneaky? What would drive them to take such drastic action?

Well, like most drastic actions, it was prompted by frustration.

Patriache had met with a number of serious challenges as he tried to construct one of the country’s early hydroelectric-power dams. Once built and put online, the dam would be the first of its kind, providing remote power to the town from about 30 kilometres away. Long-distance hydroelectric transmission would be a first for the continent.

Building the facility in 1898 was to cost the town $75,000.

While this was going to be to the first facility of its type, it wasn’t the first electric plant put into service for the forward-thinking town. No, sir.

Orillia had been powering downtown lighting and water pumping with a generator powered by firewood to make the steam, built in 1887, at Victoria Park. This was also the town’s first case of expropriating land — it paid $2,000 to H.W. Fitton for seven acres of private land at Fittons Road and Stanton Drive to gain access to the springs. An eight-inch cast-iron pipe ran from there to a steam-pumping plant at the bottom of Jarvis Street. That plant allowed the town to add another 45 street lights to the 50 already in use, plus a further 2,300 incandescent bulbs for factories and private residences. Orillia was brightening up.

The town first considered using water power from the Severn River to create electricity in 1889. Thomas H. Sheppard ran for mayor on a platform to bring hydroelectric power to Orillia. He faced challenger J.P. Secord, who ran on a platform to stop the rail station from moving a few blocks.

Sheppard won. Weeks after his victory, Jan. 24, 1899, the council, the new mayor, a surveyor and reporters from the Orillia Packet and the Orillia Times drove to the end of a road in old Orillia Township, piled out of the horse-drawn sleighs and strapped on snowshoes to make their way through the slash in the forest to the river to the north — more than 16 kilometres away. The measurements of the site showed it could easily provide the horsepower needed to generate loads of power. The dam was approved at the council meeting later and at a ratepayer vote.

The first hired contractor, Buffalo Construction Company, quickly appeared to be in financial disarray. Not a great start, but council reacted in speedy fashion and dismissed the company and hired Toronto contractor Patriache.

In Randy Richmond’s newly republished book, Orillia Spirit, the story of the town’s quest to have its own source for hydro power tells the tale, illustrating indirectly that back then, newspapers were far more cheerleader-y and booster-ish. The Orillia Times proclaimed sunnily, as recounted in Richmond’s book, “There is no doubt about the work being pushed to a speedy conclusion now that it is in Mr. Patriache’s hands.”

It went on to predict the plant would be operating by the fall of 1899.

That fall, it was reported 115 men were toiling away in the bush, working 11-hour days to build the dam. Sadly, there was no way to haul to the work site the steam-powered equipment that would speed things up.

Just trying to visit the site was an adventure. Boats on the Severn faced obstacle courses of ice in the winter and ever-present rocks that would hole a craft with just a nudging. A bulk carrier hauling cement and council members on an inspection tour was sliced open by ice in the late fall, and started to sink. The crew and council worked feverishly to transfer the bags of cement to the stern of the boat to lift the damaged and sinking bow out of the water, saving themselves and the craft.

As 1900 dawned, the dam was nowhere near done. Councillors and their family members made another journey to the site in the early spring, accompanied by a Scottish church minister who brought an expensive silver serving set to use for the picnic. They made it to the Ragged Rapids work area just fine and piled into Patriache’s steamer, Syesta, to return via Sparrow Lake.

Back then, to enter Sparrow Lake, one would take the chute, where the waters of the lake raced down the seven-foot drop over a 100-yard-long rock cut. Most of the passengers opted to walk. Eight men stayed with the steamer and two of them — wealthy industrialist and newly elected mayor J.B. Tudhope and councillor Rob Curran — sat in two small boats towed behind the steamer. But the winch that was to pull the steamer in a controlled manner through the chute was mishandled; the steamer got turned broadside to the current and began to go over on its side. It filled with water, which caused a roar when it hit the boilers. “You can hear the snarling of the fire as the water strikes the boiler, and then she (the craft) strikes a rock and straightens up on an even keel for an instant. A second later she is borne down again and careens over on her side and with one rush, the water fills her and sucks her down,” the Times reported.

Despite the fiasco, there were no casualties. The passengers held each other on the shore in the woods and sang the hymn, Praise God, From Whom All Blessings Come.

Well, there was one casualty. The silver set belonging to the Scottish minister was lost. He sent the council a claim for it, which was rejected.

Meanwhile, the builder was running short of cash to pay his men. He also bought, on behalf of the town, $8,000 worth of hydraulic equipment for the dam from a Sherbrooke, Que., company. His financial problems meant he couldn’t pay for the gear and, while it was sitting in a rail yard in Orillia, the Sherbrooke company sent a private train up to repossess it. In the dead of night, the Quebec crew loaded the goods onto the private train and left as the town was waking up. No one believed the crazy story about the equipment being stolen.

Two councillors saw the private train leaving Atherley. Police stopped the train in Lindsay, and Orillia regained the equipment that would be needed to run the dam.

The Packet reported, “For unexpected developments, downright hard luck and continued bungling and amusing incidents, Orillia’s power scheme takes the cake.”

By 1902, the dam still wasn’t finished. Council was not happy, and Tudhope, returned for a third term, was desperate to see the thing finished. It was, by Jan. 16, and in March it started generating power. Sort of.

Patriache kept delaying handing the dam over to the town.

Finally, council met and came up with the plan to take over the dam.

After the wires to the telephone service for the dam were cut, council notified Patriache the dam was being seized under a clause in the contract allowing the town to take control if completion was delayed. (Patriache was in a meeting with Toronto council in an effort to convince it to fund his plan for a power plant for that city.)

Patriache tried to call the dam and, of course, the line was dead. That evening, the dam was seized by surprise. The dam foreman plotted to it back from the town by force, hiring men in Severn Bridge to do the deed at $10 a head.

“Is it Civil War?” asked the Packet in a headline.

Cooler heads prevailed and, after a series of poorly executed ruses, the foreman proved incapable of sneaking into the dam.

The town retained control and ownership of the dam.

Until April 7, 1904. That’s when the dam burst. Patriache had built it not on the solid Canadian Shield, as promised, but on loose rock.

And the lights went out in Orillia once again. But the town would dam the Severn again.

Tom Villemaire is a former editor of papers in Simcoe County, including the Orillia Packet & Times, Midland Free Press, Barrie Examiner, Innisfil Examiner and Enterprise-Bulletin, and is the author of two history books. He now runs historylab.ca, podcasts and can be reached at tom@historylab.ca.