November 06, 2013

Historic Mundell mill destroyed by fire

As published in The Erin Advocate

The historic water-powered planing mill at Mundell Lumber was destroyed by fire on Halloween morning last week, leaving the community shocked at the loss of a familiar landmark.

There were no injuries and arson was not suspected said Erin Fire Chief Dan Callaghan. Ontario Provincial Police have asked to speak with any witnesses.

Investigators from the Ontario Fire Marshall’s office were at the scene Thursday, but no information on the possible cause of the fire has been released.

The 911 call came in at 2:25 am after a cat woke up a neighbour, said Callaghan. When firefighters arrived, the 175-year-old wooden structure was fully engulfed in flames.

“The historic machinery is non-replaceable – it’s a huge loss,” said Callaghan.

Volunteers from the Erin and Hillsburgh stations contained the blaze, protecting the Rona store on Main Street and nearby warehouses. The building included the lumber yard office and was mainly used for storage. A flatbed truck with a forklift and another truck, parked near the office, were seriously damaged.

Neighbour Peter Brumm, whose apartment overlooks the mill area, said the fire appeared to have started in the northwest corner, but spread to the whole building within minutes.

“A part of the history of this town is shot,” said former village reeve Jim Mundell after surveying the damage. He has many fond memories of the mill, including sweeping the floors for five cents a day when he was a kid.

“This was one of the last remaining water powered mills,” he said. Many mills were built in the Credit River watershed during the mid-1800s to saw lumber, grind grain and produce textiles, as settlements grew throughout the region.

The mill itself had been run only occasionally in recent decades, but it was the last operable belt-driven water mill in the Credit River watershed. The machinery included a turbine and drive shaft at the south end of the building, powered by water diverted under Main Street from the Charles Street dam. There was a system of gears, pulleys and canvas drive belts, with levers to engage various woodworking machines.

The planing mill once employed about 60 people. Even though the importance of mills generally declined in the early 1900s, the Erin mill continued to be used regularly into the 1960s.

Bill Mundell said the mill’s heyday had come and gone, and that it’s too early to know what will be done with the site. His son Dana Mundell, current owner of the business, was out of the country at the time of the fire.

He also owns the stone-walled flour mill built by McMillan in 1849, just 100 metres downstream, which is in very poor condition. A little further along the river, in the Woollen Mills Conservation Area is the site of McMillan’s 1840 wool carding mill, the remains of which were demolished for safety reasons in 1995.

Long-term Mundell Lumber employee Bob Kirkwood said the planing mill was a “priceless” tribute to the past.

In a Facebook post, Store Manager Mike Magill said he was “devastated” by the loss of “a place that fueled Erin’s early development...from way back when times were simpler.” He thanked the firefighters who had worked a very long shift.

The structure was built in 1838 by Daniel McMillan as an oat mill. He had already been operating both a saw mill and a grist mill just downstream of the Charles Street dam. He realized he could generate far more power (about 30 horsepower) by diverting water from the pond through a flume (ditch) to a new mill on the east side of Main Street. The water dropped seven metres before rejoining the West Credit River.

“Few mills in Ontario were sited as cleverly to take advantage of local topography,” said Steve Revell, in his booklet A Brief History of Erin Village, published by Porcupine’s Quill in 2007.

McMillan persuaded his friend William Cornock to build an adjacent distillery, which operated until 1860 using tailings from the grain to make cheap whiskey. It sold for 25 cents a jug or a dollar a keg, said Tim Inkster of Porcupine’s Quill, who published A Brief History of McMillan’s Mills in 2009.

According to the book Main Street, A Pictorial History of Erin Villlage by Jean Denison (available at the library) Cornock took over the oat mill and in 1889 sold it to Dr. Henry McNaughton. Benjamin Mundell bought the mill (including the 999-year lease on water rights) from McNaughton’s widow in 1896.

“Mundell converted the facility to a planing mill, which complemented perfectly his skills as both carpenter and contractor,” said Revell. “Benjamin’s son David took possession in 1918 on his return from service overseas. David’s eldest son Bill joined the firm at the close of the Second World War, and Bill’s younger brother Jim signed on in 1952.”

With files from Metroland News Service