Celebrating a New Book on Early History of Beaverdams and Decew Falls areas in Thorold, Niagara

Book will be officially launched Tuesday, October 3rd, 2017 at Thorold City Council following the council meeting’s 6:30 p.m. commencement

 Here is a summary of the book – ‘Where the Beavers Built Their Dams (Heritage Thorold, 2017)’ – by Sarah King Head

 Posted October 2nd, 2017 on Niagara At Large

 As a historian over the past 30-odd years, I’ve developed a pretty good sense for unearthing and giving voice to historical narratives that lie hidden – often within plain sight.

Take for example the Beaverdams area in Thorold. Everyone knows the quaint little island community has got a lot of history – especially with 185-year old Beaverdams Church as its backdrop – but aspects of its deeper history have been obscured by profound transformations to the landscape over the past two centuries.

These range from the three courses of the Welland Canal to the creation of Lake Gibson. Community memory reminds us that not everything was erased when the Beaverdams Creek valley was flooded for hydro electric power generation at DeCew Falls in the early 20C; nor indeed, when the infrastructural reorientation caused by the Welland Canal dividing the Niagara peninsula from the early nineteenth century altered local communities and commerce patterns

But the challenge has been distinguishing the original from the manmade when looking out over today’s “cottage country” vistas – especially given the impressive power of Nature to reassert herself over a particularly bleak post-industrial landscape wrought by twentieth century enterprise and ambition.

Plaque for the historic Beaverdams Church citizens in the Thorold area are working hard to save as part of our region’s early community heritage. File photo by Doug Draper

This is where I started my research on the area for Heritage Thorold in 2014. Two years of trawling through archives and land registry documents and many hours talking to former residents, historians and experts led to the production of two cultural heritage landscape reports that now form the basis of a book entitled Where the Beavers Built Their Dams: The Evolution of a Unique Cultural Heritage Landscape in Thorold, Ontario.

There are many stories; but the one least elusive is that which began more than two hundred years with the arrival of economic and political refugees of European descent who came from the American colonies and settled in the area.

Among the most striking features they would have encountered in the densely wooded or marshy environments above and below the Niagara Escarpment would have been a sophisticated network of Indigenous trails. For decades, these were the only way to navigate the area, to make sense of lands that were to be carved up by the British and granted to the Loyalists.

The old Morningstar Mill above the brink of DeCew Falls. File photo by Doug Draper

We know remarkably little about the pre-Contact land-use activities of the Neutral Nation (the Attiwandaronk) in the area prior to the Europeans’ arrival. Discoveries like that in the late 1970s of an impressive village site located where the Barbican Heights subdivision now stands has given us some insights into their lifestyle, agriculture and belief systems.

Albeit limited, this knowledge does however help us understand why the first permanent European settlement in Thorold Township was established at the intersection of two of Indigenous trails, at today’s Beaverdams and Marlatts-DeCew roads, in the late eighteenth century. It was here families like the Willsons, Swayzes, McClellans, Hopkins and ultimately Smiths built their homes and set up business.

It was also here that Thorold grandee George Keefer laid out a village subdivision – not, surprisingly, where the current community is located, but rather around the Smith Cemetery.

Various reasons explain why a more prominent community never emerged at the location (notably commercial activities associated with the Welland Canal) but it was still important enough for the landmark church to be built nearby in 1832 and for the community to host regional agricultural fairs well into the 1840s.

Fast-forward to the early twentieth century: harnessing the area’s abundant water resources for industrial activity along the Welland Canal and hydroelectric power generation at DeCew Falls utterly transformed the Beaverdams area. And yet while Lake Gibson inundated farms and built heritage relics, it did spare a narrow isthmus of land that today stretches along Marlatts Road.

It was here that the great-grandson of the Crown grant recipient Irish John Willson subdivided the community known as Beaver Dams Centre. Francis (Frank) Bond Head Willson was no absentee land speculator; indeed, since his own farm and land were submerged under Lake Gibson, he too was forced to relocate – and lived at the corner of Kaye Avenue and Marlatts Road.

Glimpses such as these into the cultural heritage legacy of the area are just the tip of the iceberg. (There’s so much more!)

This work has been driven by a desire to share the Beaverdams narrative with as many people as possible. In so doing, I hope current and future generations will better appreciate the on-going legacy of human impacts on the natural environment (the organic to the transformative) and, as such, more fully celebrate the richness of the area’s cultural heritage assets.

Importantly, this work is not the product of a single person, but rather has relied on many resources. These principally came from Thorold historian Esther Summers’ papers that are available at the Mayholme Foundation research centre in St Catharines. Recourse with the Thorold, St Catharines and Brock University libraries was also invaluable as was information gained through online social media communities and the personal testimonies of many former and current residents of the twentieth century village and surrounding area.

I am also indebted to the editorial advice and access to resources provided by local historian and former Brock University special collections librarian, John Burtniak.

The book is dedicated to the memories of Mrs Summers and Brock University geography professor Alun Hughes as well as to that of long-time Beaverdams Church pianist and villager Joan Armstrong – all of whom sadly passed during the early research stages.

The book will be officially launched at Thorold City Council on Tuesday, October 3rd after the council meeting begins at 6:30 p.m.

Copies will be available for sale at City Hall, the Thorold Museum at Lock 3, and at DeCew House Heritage Park during the unveiling of the First Nations Peace Monument on October 7 starting at 1 p.m.

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 “A politician thinks of the next election. A leader thinks of the next generation.” – Bernie Sanders

 

 

 

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