August 19, 2009

Forks of the Credit Park combines hiking & history

As published in The Erin Advocate

Just a few minutes east of Erin is one of the most interesting places to learn about the Credit River, and how its power was harnessed to build up the local economy more than 100 years ago.

Forks of the Credit Provincial Park is a protected oasis in a section of Caledon along Charleston Sideroad that has been virtually stripped bare by aggregate mining.

Quarries are part of the local history, since they were key to the settlements at Credit Forks and Brimstone, east of Belfountain. The maroon sandstone used to build the Ontario parliament buildings and Old City Hall in Toronto was extracted in this area.

A drive along Forks of the Credit Road will take you past the south end of the provincial park, where the West Credit, flowing from Erin, meets the main Credit River, flowing south from Alton, then on to Inglewood, Cheltenham and Terra Cotta. The main entrance to the park is at the north-west corner – along Charleston, just past Cataract Road (Coulterville), turn south on McLaren Road.

Forks of the Credit is a "natural environment" provincial park, open all year, covering 282 hectares. There are no staff at the gate, but parking will cost you $3 for two hours, $5 for four hours, or $11 for the whole day. There is no camping or intensive recreation – just picnicking, fishing, cycling, hiking, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.

The network of trails takes you through rolling hills, past Kettle Lake (created by glaciation), and into wooded areas near the river. It can take an hour to hike to Cataract village, including some steep grades.

The most direct route to the park from Erin is the Elora-Cataract Trailway, part of the Trans-Canada Trail, the remains of a branch rail line of the Credit Valley Railway from 1879. It was later bought by Canadian Pacific, and the main track still runs up the valley to Orangeville.

You can also enter the park from the south along the Bruce Trail. It winds from Belfountain, past the Forks, up Dominion Road through Brimstone, then along the river to Church's Falls – one of the region's scenic highlights, where the Credit tumbles 45 feet down from a rocky shelf.

Originally developed in 1820 as a salt mine and saw mill, the nearby village was originally called Gleniffer. It lay abandoned for 20 years before Richard Church re-established it as Church's Falls in 1858. The name was changed to Cataract when the railway arrived. The village is just outside the park, to the west of the river.

In the late 1800s, Cataract had a saw mill, grist mill, a woollen factory, barrel-head manufacturing, a large general store and two hotels. In 1885, John Deagle bought the mill at the top of the falls, and converted it into an electrical generating station that powered Cataract.

Eventually, he approached Erin (eight kilometres away) with a business plan, and in November 1899, the village enjoyed the glow of streetlights for the first time.

A Boston Mills Press book called Cataract and the Forks of the Credit, by Ralph Beaumont, tells of Deagle's pioneering electrical design work. He was also building a huge tunnel from Cataract Lake (his mill pond), to a point downstream, in hopes of doubling his energy output.

That project was abandoned after heavy rain and melting ice burst the Alton dam on April 6-7, 1912, sending a surge of water and debris down the Credit that destroyed the dam for Bell's Flour Mill (near Charleston Sideroad), and not only wiped out Deagle's Dam, but a section of Dominion Road that has never been replaced. The Erin Advocate reported that another dam and a bridge were destroyed near Credit Forks.

Deagle rebuilt his dam, and sold the operation in the 1920s for $50,000. Ontario Hydro eventually bought the plant, power lines and rights-of-way in 1944, then closed the plant as uneconomical in 1947. There were plans to make Cataract Lake a tourist area, but the CPR feared the water might undermine its rail bed, so the dam was dynamited in 1953 and the lake disappeared.

The ruins of the mill were heavily fenced off after a number of hikers lost their lives in the falls. It is just as well, for while the ruins may be interesting, they are not attractive. The grafitti-decorated plant walls and the reinforced riverbank below the rail line are concrete scars on an otherwise spectacular landscape.