Dreams of fortune, visions of power generation colour the history of lofty Eugenia Falls
As my friend and I set off down the trail at Eugenia Falls Conservation Area, a Grey Sauble Conservation Authority property in the small town of Eugenia, we could already hear the rush of fast flowing water. “Wow,” I said to my friend, “that must be one big waterfall!” A very short walk later we were at the falls, and we weren’t disappointed. Directly in front of us, a 30 meter sheet of water cascaded down into the river below, and was rushed downstream by the strong current. The waterfall was set against the impressively jutting cliff faces that are typical of the Niagara Escarpment, and the surrounding forest gave the area a flavour of untouched wilderness.
We weren’t the first to be impressed by the falls. Their first recorded sighting was by a Mr. Brownlee, an early settler near Flesherton, in 1852. He heard the whisper of the nearby falls while hunting one afternoon and followed the sound to the awe-inspiring site.
Excitedly, he shared the news of his discovery with his neighbours and returned with one of them a few days later. Then, the men noticed the glint of gold on some of the rocks around the falls. They swore each other to secrecy and quickly returned to mine their fortunes, smiles on their lips and dreams of great fortune in their heads.
Their clandestine mining roused the curiosity of another neighboring family that had come to see the falls for themselves. News of the gold rush spread quickly, and there was an explosion of activity as 200 men flocked to get rich quick. Alas, it was all over within three weeks when reports came back that the “gold” the miners have been eagerly collecting was nothing more than worthless pyrite, or “fool’s gold.”
The falls remained unnamed until they were christened Eugenia Falls by ex-French soldiers who were working as surveyors in the area. They chose the name in honour of Princess Eugenie, Napoleon III’s consort.
The fool’s gold rush was not the end of economic interest in the falls. In fact, the operations that followed proved to be much more profitable. By 1880, there were four mills established around the falls, including a saw mill, a hook and veneer mill, and a sash and door factory. In 1895, the first small electric plant was built by William Hogg. His industrious efforts managed to provide power for a chopping mill, and light the towns of Eugenia and Flesherton. William Hogg saw great potential in the falls, but was unable to convince anyone else that, with a few modifications, his mill would be able to generate more power. The Georgian Bay Power Company made a botched attempt to expand the site in the early 1900s, but went bankrupt before they completed their scheme of boring a tunnel through the huge hill beside the falls.
Ontario Hydro acquired the site in 1914, moved the plant north and built a dam, allowing them to create a water reservoir and have greater control over the water level. When they completed the project in 1915, the site had a head of 150m and was capable of producing 4500kW of power. William Hogg, whose original site had a head of 6m and produced 70kw of power, surely would have been proud to see he was right all along. The final major overhaul of the site was in 1988, and the site is now capable of generating 6.3MW of power. Eugenia falls has the highest head of all hydraulic stations east of the Rocky Mountains.
There are several trails that wind around the 23 hectare conservation area, giving you various views of the falls between the trees and an opportunity to explore some of the Niagara Escarpment. My friend and I went for a quick hike and looped back to the parking lot to have a picnic under the nearby pavilion, stopping along the way to read the war memorial that the people of Eugenia erected to honour the soldiers of the First World War.
After our picnic, with our legs well stretched and our stomachs full, we sighed as we climbed back into the car. The faint rush of the falls still echoed in our ears, a quiet whisper that beckoned us to come back again soon for another round of relaxing hikes and amazing sights.
There are more than 250 conservation areas across Ontario, many of which have natural wonders like waterfalls. To find a conservation area near you, go to www.ontarioconservationareas.ca
Melissa Rodgers is a student at Carleton University. Her passions include history, cooking, reading, and the great outdoors.