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View from the Hill
By Joshua Edmunds
If you were to wind the clock back several decades, you'd find rural Ontario a place dotted by towers reaching into the sky. These structures were fire towers, and served as lookouts constructed by local forest rangers. In the time before airplanes, these towers were useful for spotting the telltale smoke trails that accompanied a raging wildfire. On this tour, we will take a trip through Parry Sound history. As we stand atop the Fire Tower, try and reflect on the landscape before you -- and how it has changed and been changed by the people of Parry Sound.
This project is a partnership with the Parry Sound Business Association and the West Parry Sound District Museum.
1. The Fire Towers
The fire towers around Parry Sound were built in the 1920s when the Georgian Bay District was created. The District Forester was Peter McEwen, who was responsible for overseeing the construction of the towers and coordinating the firefighting efforts of the 75 fire rangers under his command in the district.1 Within five years of his appointment, 40 percent of all fires in the western half of his district were detected from his six steel towers.2 The old fire tower pictured was erected in 1925. It's thought to have been a one of a kind structure, deliberately built to double as public observatory, and fire tower. As a result it's made of sturdier steel than other examples, and includes a network of stairs and landings inside the structural framework. Previous towers typically just had a ladder--no doubt a precarious way of ascending the tower. Parry Sound's is also distinctive in that it is freestanding. Other towers rely on guidewires for their structural integrity. This makes it much more aesthetically pleasing, and the view from the top is wholly unobstructed. Naturally, such an effort was far more expensive than your standard run-of-the-mill fire tower. It cost a whopping $1,175.3 The detection system the forest rangers used was very simple. Armed with binoculars, a ranger would scan the horizon for any fire sign. If sighted, a coordinate would be marked on a map through use of an azimuth ring and alidade, which enabled compass bearings to be taken from something as simple as a column of smoke on the horizon. On Fire Tower maps, the fire tower occupied the central point, and the alidade pivoted to whichever direction the ranger looked in.
2. Boosting Tourism
McEwen justified the extra cost of the Parry Sound fire tower by saying: "Being a tourist town, we naturally want to attract tourists to this tower in order to get them interested in Forest Protection, and to do this, we have built a stairway within the tower which they are allowed to climb."2 McEwen also convinced the town council to split the cost of a water line to the tower, under the guise that it might be used in firefighting. In 1930, he spent $600 to build the bungalow you see now, which measures 16 by 30 feet. Within the bungalow was a kitchen and living room--luxuries as far as forest ranger bungalows go. His personal touch is everywhere: the cabin is in perfect harmony with the grounds, increasing the natural beauty of the hill. The tower you are climbing now replaced the early fire tower in 1975.
3. Working at a Mill
Typically, a gang responsible for driving lumber down the river was accompanied by a team of horses, who would do the majority of the heavy lifting. These teams would follow the lumber along paths at the side of the river. If a log became stuck--or worse, there was a logjam--the lumbermen would have to venture out onto the river, tie the stuck logs to the team's harness and hope the horses could get the trunks unstuck. Tenacious logs, however, might require a more sophisticated and intimate approach. An excerpt from Canada Lumberman explains the perils of the work. "There is usually in a camp plenty of men ready to volunteer; for a man who cuts a key log is looked upon by the rest of the loggers just as a soldier is by his regiment when he has done an act of bravery. "The man I saw who cut away a log which brought down the whole jam was quite a young fellow, some twenty years of age. He stripped everything save his drawers; a strong rope was placed under his arms and a gang of smart young fellows held the end. The man shook hands with his comrades and quietly walked out on the logs, axe in hand… At any moment, the jam might break of its own accord, and if he cut the key log, unless he instantly got out of the way, he would be crushed by the falling timber. "There was a dead silence while the keen axe was dropped with force and skill upon the pine log, one or two more blows, and a crack was heard. The men got in all the slack of rope that held the axe-man. Like many others, I rushed to help haul away the poor fellow, but to my great joy I saw him safe on the bank, certainly sadly bruised and bleeding from sundry wounds, but safe."1
4. The Dam Bursts
In February 1919, Parry Sound's council voted to rebuild the Mill Lake dam, and install a new power plant sufficient to supply 1,400 horsepower. What was required was raising the power dam to the height necessary to generate the requisite head of water. Council requested to hire the Toronto consulting engineers, Mitchell and Mitchell. Mayor Hall was confident in Mitchell and Mitchell, and defended their reputation in the North Star. Their lead partner was Charles Hamilton Mitchell, dean of the Faculty of Applied Sciences and Engineering at the University of Toronto. He had had an illustrious reputation, having completed projects in Niagara Falls. His offer was $139,450 to complete the project, which envisioned using an old power generator, in addition to a new one, to churn out the desired 1,400 horsepower. Early in the construction, there were complaints that work completed was substandard. The North Star was set to putting rumours at rest, pushing out an article with comments from a representative of Mitchell: "He described the complaints as 'Foolish talk… regarding bad gavel or bad cement.' and furthers that We don't want every Tom, Dick and Harry hanging around, but if any intelligent ratepayer cares to call on us or the engineer we have no doubt he will find the latter gentleman ready to show him all the tests on material that will satisfy anyone that we know our business and are paying attention to it.'"1 Meanwhile, for his successes, Mayor Hall won a second election. By December 1920, Mitchell and Mitchell had still not issued a final certificate on the quality of the concrete work at the dam. Rumours still circulated that it was substandard. Unrelated incidents didn't do much to instill public confidence in the structure's integrity. A month prior, two planks had slipped past the trash gates at the dam's entrance and damaged a turbine's blades. Inspections of the concrete flume had revealed that twenty wheelbarrows of gravel and sand had been worn away from the floor of conduit since commencing operation some five months earlier. On March 21, 1921, these glaring lapses in quality spelled disaster. A fresh build-up of flood waters, created by snowmelt and an unseasonal heavy rain, caused a 30-foot section of the west-wing wall of the power dam to give way on Cascade Street. Three men at work in the dam made miraculous escapes as water crashed through the concrete structure's doors and windows and swamped the power generators. The consequences, thankfully, were limited: a ruined powerhouse, and a residential home swept away. No deaths occurred.
5. Belvedere Hill
There is something of legend at work on Belvedere Hill. Scattered around the Hill were Iron tomahawks of the French period, alongside beads and arrowheads. Many believe these to be evidence that survivors of the Huron-Wendat paused there while fleeing from Iroquois in the middle of a series of wars raging across Northern Canada in the 17th century. Driving them were the destructive raids undertaken by the Haudenosaunee Confederacy against the Huron and their allies. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy, known as the Iroquois, was a combination of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca tribes. Jesuit Missionaries were under the protection of the Huron, who were then allied with France. The Iroquois despised Europeans, and particularly loathed the French -- whose missionaries they correctly believed had wrought plagues of influenza and smallpox upon their communities. Their attacks on Huron and Jesuit settlements were an attempt to force the Europeans from the region. The frequency of these raids, and their ferocity, were hugely successful, and forced the Jesuit Missionaries to abandon the fort of St. Marie in 1649. The surviving missionaries met up with several hundred Huron, who themselves had been forced to flee by Iroquois raids on their lands between Orilla and Midland. This small band of Huron and French created second, more formidable Fort Sainte-Marie on Christian Island. This was not to last. A cycle of pestilence and famine ravaged the new community at Sainte-Marie. Worse yet, the Iroquois raiders had tracked them to Christian Island. Their attack was carefully timed, striking at the moment when their enemy was weakest. The weakened and dilapidated Huron, unable to resist, succumbed in 1650. At the urging of the Jesuit leader, Father Paul Raguenay, the survivors abandoned Sainte-Marie for Québec. With the Huron defeated, the Iroquois turned to the Ojibwa, who were also allies of the French. These they punished, stealing their furs which they would later turn to the English for profit. The Ojibwa suffered so much they were themselves forced to leave, with the Iroquois in close pursuit. The Ojibwa have long since returned, but the echoes of past conflicts still call out from the Hill.
1. The Fire Towers
- 1. Parry Sound North Star, "Parry Sound fire tower model at the museum", online.
- 2. Adrian Hayes, Parry Sound Gateway to Northern Ontario, (Natural Heritage Books, 2005).
- 3. Hayes.
2. Boosting Tourism
- 1. Hayes.
- 2. Hayes.
3. Working at a Mill
- 1. John Macfie, Parry Sound Old Times, (Hay Press, 1996).
4. The Dam Bursts
- 1. Macfie.
- "Parry Sound fire tower model at the museum", Parry Sound North Star. July 4, 2017. Online. https://www.parrysound.com/community-story/7405211-parry-sound-fire-tower-model-at-the-museums/.
- Hayes, Adrian. Parry Sound Gateway to Northern Ontario. Natural Heritage Books, 2005.
- Macfie, John. Parry Sound Old Times. Hay Press, 1996.