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Once Upon a Time: Cure for Saugeen ice jams - dynamite!

March 23, 2023

When a major ice jam breaks on the greatest river of Bruce County, the Saugeen, the huge blocks of ice can be devastating, an irresistible force sweeping away all in its path, including docks, bridges and dams.

And when the ice jam blocks the river mouth, water pours over the banks upstream, flooding Southampton. Time to bring to bear the ultimate weapon: dynamite.

Walkerton tried it in February, 1907. An ice jam on the bend was blasted and the shock was felt throughout the town, breaking several windows in adjacent houses. To no avail … the soft condition of the ice prevented the explosive from taking effect.

By March, 1907, blocks of ice had piled so high at the Saugeen River mouth that Mr. Robertson and his dynamite were called in. Two charges cracked the ice half way up the river; and the blockage was eliminated.

However, a week later, a spring flood took out Denny’s Dam bridge and nearly drowned some of the staff at the Saugeen Electric Light Company. The power house was so severely damaged when struck by debris from Denny’s bridge that for weeks, no electricity reached Southampton or Port Elgin.

Denny’s bridge was rebuilt in 1908. But four years later, the spring flood piled ice 30 feet high at the river mouth, flooding the power house and throwing one span of Denny’s bridge into the river. (The Victoria Street bridge collapsed in the same flood.)

Then, in the major flood of April, 1929, the Saugeen inundated the Paisley flats, home of the fall fair. As John Weichel relates in the 1999 Historical Society Yearbook, the bandstand floated away and lodged in trees at the south end of the park. The race course was entirely flooded and water reached halfway to the top of the Paisley Palace front doors. The Palace, a two-storey octagonal building, was shifted from its posts and left with a noticeable lean. (The rebuilt Palace lasted until a windstorm in 1933 ripped the roof off.)

In that same 1929 flood, the Saugeen cut a new course at the 6th Concession of Brant Township. It washed away the road and left a large steel bridge useless over the old river bed, half a mile from the new one. The washout was more than 400 feet wide and 15 feet deep. Whole fields, where crops had been grown, were gone. It was visited by many people who had to see it to believe it.

1945 was a bad year — rivers rose to inundate Walkerton, Paisley, Tara, Allenford and nearly every other riverside community. Ice jammed the Saugeen River mouth and water rose 12 feet above normal, spreading ice over the Southampton dock and damaging some fish houses. Doran Boat Works was badly flooded, but local fishing boats were saved by having been hauled out by the new marine railway.

In the 1974 Yearbook, Margaret Ann McLennan of Glammis, then 99, recalled a small upside to spring floods, in the form of an unusual baptismal service. In 1877, her parents were building a home west of Glammis. They had finished the basement, when terrific spring freshets filled it with water. Since there was yet no baptismal font in the chapel and several candidates were awaiting baptism, the congregation gathered at the McLennans’ and a baptismal service was held there, the water-filled basement substituting for a font.

Blocks of ice jam the Saugeen River mouth, some 20 years ago

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