The hamlet of Eugenia, Ontario, is situated on the eastern edge of the Beaver River in the Township of Artemesia, Grey County. In 1869, my great-great grandfather Samuel Turner emigrated from Lincolnshire England and purchased crown land in the valley just below this settlement.
In the latter part of the 19th and early 20th century, Eugenia, despite its diminutive size was a thriving community, boasting a couple of saw mills, grist mill, barrel and stave factory, casket factory, two general stores, one serving as the local post office. Also there was a blacksmith, cobbler, veneer mill, shingle mill, two churches and a two-room schoolhouse with two teachers administering education to 60 children.
Working with the surveyors when the new community was in its planning stages, were several young soldiers who’d recently served in the Crimean War, a religious war fought in the mid 1850’s between Russia and an alliance of France, Britain and the Ottoman Empire… better known as the Turkish Empire. One of the soldiers suggested the new community be named for Princess Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, who’d commanded the French army in the aforementioned war. Thus, many of the seemingly strange street names evolved from battles fought in the Crimean Peninsula, such as Inkerman, Balaclava, Zouave and Conrobert.
Town fathers had great expectations for Eugenia, but when the Toronto, Grey and Bruce Railway bypassed the new municipality, further development stagnated and population never did reach the size necessary for incorporation as a village.
But Eugenia didn’t just fade away. It had something far beyond what most communities could even imagine: Mother Nature, eons ago had chosen Eugenia as a very special place with a spectacular landmark as its focus. The first settlers of Artemesia Township, and all who followed were drawn especially in spring to a distant roar, which upon closer inspection revealed one of nature’s wonders; On the Beaver River, a thundering wall of white water, cascading into a narrow limestone gorge nearly 80 feet below.
An early resident of the township, William Hogg, foresaw the potential of this phenomenon and in 1895 purchased a turbine and constructed a small generating plant capable of supplying power to Eugenia and neighbouring village of Flesherton. This was the same time the city of Toronto was looking for an electrical source and Hogg made a valiant effort to persuade Toronto that his plant could handle the feat. Hogg was no match however for Adam Beck’s newly formed hydro-electric development, which had a pretty good power source itself…Niagara Falls.
Working in conjunction with both of these proposals was a group of Toronto businessmen who spent an enormous amount of money and time excavating a tunnel through the large hill beside Eugenia Falls. Their ultimate goal was to divert the Beaver River through this tunnel, theorizing the extra fall would increase the effectiveness of the turbines. After building a tunnel nearly 900 feet long, but before a gallon of water passed through, the venture went bankrupt.
This cleared the way for Beck’s consortium to move in and his Hydro Power Commission immediately began an extensive land acquisition program with area farmers. Those most affected were between the 8th and 12th concessions of Artemesia running east from Eugenia, an area encompassing approximately 1700 acres. A northern section of my great-grandfather Solomon Turner’s farm was in the proposed flood area but was mostly woodlot.
Although they’d receive much higher compensation, some township residents would see their entire farms threatened. Owners were given time to dismantle and move buildings and remove any logs cut, but not standing timber. Everything didn’t happen as planned; a solid brick house owned by the Plantt family was jacked up and awaiting removal when the water in the new lake rose faster than expected and the Plantt house simply dissolved in the tide.
Before all this took place of course a dam had to be built, and one of the biggest tasks was getting a huge steam shovel to the site to dig the foundation. The only way to bring a machine of this magnitude was by rail… except the railway had bypassed Eugenia you’ll recall, the closest spur being Ceylon Station, seven miles away. The dilemma was solved by placing temporary rails in increments of 100 feet and pushing the giant shovel onto the rails. The machine was then stopped, the 100 feet of track taken from behind and placed in front of the shovel, which was then rolled onto that particular stretch of rail… and so it went all the way to Eugenia.
This mega-construction project lent many hours of pay for the estimated 1,000 workers who flocked to the site for the .25 cent per hour wage. But it was hard labour and unrelenting… seven days a week, three gangs each working an eight hour shift with no actual meal break… “a shovel in one hand, a sandwich in the other.”
If you couldn’t cope you were gone. It was said only half in jest of the three groups involved in the project, there was always one gang walking in from the train in Ceylon… one working… and one walking back to catch the train home after being fired.
My grandfather Oliver Turner made his contribution to the dam’s construction, hauling and levelling gravel courtesy a team of horses and a “gravel scoop”. For this service, he received a coveted $5.00 a day.
When the Eugenia dam was completed, it was an impressive structure with a girth of 1700 feet, towering 50 feet high at its centre point. Backed by the man-made lake… referred for generations locally as the “Hydro Lake”… this reserve of water was sent gushing nearly 3300 feet through two 48 inch wooden pipes constructed of Douglas fir to a surge tank, then a further 1500 foot drop to the newly constructed power station on the valley floor, containing three generators producing 4500 kW of power. This was sufficient capacity to provide electricity to every village in a 30 mile radius, including the busy seaports and shipbuilding centres of Collingwood and Owen Sound.
Perhaps there wasn’t a lot of choice where one purchased generators and turbines in 1915, as the first shipment originated from Switzerland. The First World War was well underway at this point, and the ship carrying the equipment bound for the Eugenia Hydro project was sunk by a German U-Boat as it entered the St. Lawrence River. This caused a several month delay while a second order was submitted, this one much closer to home…Wisconsin U.S.A. Maybe they should have gone with the American company initially as they obviously had a good product. Two of those original turbines were still operating in the mid 1980’s.
November 18, 1915, the Eugenia Dam had its official opening and the flooding of area farmland began. By the time the snow melted the following spring, Artesmesians could barely recognize their surroundings. Of course those in the direct flood plain had moved, but others on the fringe of this new lake suddenly found themselves isolated from previously close neighbours.
My great-grandfather was completely cut off from the village, as the 10th concession west to Eugenia was now entirely under water. During winter it wasn’t as restrictive as one could cross on the frozen ice, but routine travel on the concession was a difficult habit to break. Once automobiles began showing up in rural communities, the detour wasn’t so tedious, but until such time, those affected had no other recourse but adjustment.
By the 1950’s Lake Eugenia (its official title) had become an attractive tourist destination with private cottages ringing its shores, but before the end of that decade, serious cracks were discovered in the concrete dam. The Hydro Commission believed the repair bill of half a million dollars to be economically unsound so decided instead to lower the level of the water in the lake by four feet, thereby easing pressure on the dam. Cottage owners, who’d enjoyed water literally at their doorstep, suddenly faced a shoreline 50 feet away. With the value of their property seriously compromised, the resulting protest travelled all the way to the provincial legislature in Toronto. After considerable pressure, the government granted funds for a new earthen dam, enabling the reservoir to be raised to its former level.
While the new dam was being constructed, the lake was completely drained and all the trees left when the area was flooded nearly fifty years earlier were removed. I recall on our frequent trips to visit relatives in the Eugenia area that summer, how strange the drained lake appeared. And it seemed the Hydro Commission couldn’t win when it came to appeasing lake residents; the “lake clearing” angering those who’d enjoyed fishing, as the trees stumps etc. had provided a mecca for their sport.
Recreational interests of cottage owners had shifted over the years however; small fishing boats had been traded for powered watercraft and this revitalized waterway, like it or not, was the future. A compromise was reached when an area of the lake south of the eighth concession was left as nature intended and the fishermen could enjoy their recreation in relative peace.
Today, Lake Eugenia is home to some 400 cottages scattered around its circumference. The ground on which several of these cottages reside, was farmland once owned by my ancestors. My uncle, Eldon Turner, fourth generation of the Turners of Eugenia, spent considerable time and money throughout the 1960’s severing lots from his farm that bordered the lake
This past April, I was walking through Artemesia Township’s Salem Cemetery, final resting place of generations of Turners and their neighbours; it was a peaceful Sunday morning, and while strolling the grassy walkways between the gravestones I became aware of a distant sound. It was difficult to decipher at first… sort of a hissing. With the passing of the occasional vehicle on the side road, the sound would subside then re-establish itself as it had before the interruption.
Finally the source of this mysterious whispering occurred to me. A two mile drive brought me into the hamlet of Eugenia, where on the Beaver River a thundering wall of white water, fresh from winter’s run-off, cascaded into a narrow limestone gorge some 80 feet below… the same sight and sound the first settlers to Artemesia Township discovered more than a century and a half before.
I have visited the falls many, many times in my life, but never did that rushing torrent affect me as it did that April morning. Perhaps the reaction was triggered by that leisurely ramble among the marble memorials earlier; each inscription helping me to connect the dots of my lineage and compelling a closer examination of my ancestral roots.
As I stood mesmerized by the surging tide of water, I imagined the overwhelming sense of emotion my ancestors experienced when initially setting eyes upon this phenomenon of nature… A hundred and fifty years and six generations later, the falls on the Beaver River stirs the same emotions in me.