Reading Relict Landscape: The Hidden Pasts and Potential Futures of The Grand River’s Hydrological Industrial Heritage

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This is the sixth post in the Relict Landscapes and the Past in the Present series edited by Paul Hackett

To paddle, cycle, or hike the Grand River – Southern Ontario’s largest – is to travel sporadically through time. On a short but popular journey through the “Middle Grand,” you can visit post-glacial landscapes, old-growth trees, evidence of Six Nations,’ Mississauga, and Anishinaabe occupation and stewardship, contemporary settlements, landfills, and monumental ruins of the settler colonial industrial era. This sedimentation of history on-, in-, and along- the O:se Kenhionhata:tie1 and the landscape these events have collectively created are recognized through the Grand River’s designation as a Canadian Heritage River within the Canadian Heritage Rivers System (CHRS). On September 25th, 1994, the River became the first inducted into the CHRS to include major tributaries and the first to exclude natural heritage from the designation. Unlike the wild rivers of northern Canada, which primarily fall within protected natural areas2 the Grand River’s designation was “built on a local tradition of cooperative watershed management.”3 It likely excluded natural heritage as “the Grand is not a free-flowing river… dammed and managed in various ways, both harmful and helpful, since early European settlement.”4

To illustrate how this landscape came to be, how many of these monuments conflict with our present relationship to the River, and how they might be brought into accordance with our espoused relationship, this entry explores three sedimented sites along the Grand River. These encounters are bound within Block 1 of the Haldimand Deed5 – a proclamation that granted 10km on either side of the Grand River to the Six Nations as recognition of treaties and alliances with the British during the American Revolution6 – the first of six blocks of land sold by Thayendanegea (Joseph Brant) to settlers and speculators.7

Site 1: Contrasting human landscapes.

The first site is a clearing in a section of Carolinian forest near Glen Morris known as ‘The Carolinian Bend.’ This retired agricultural plot – likely for sheep grazing – supported the early industry for the village, dramatically altering the landscape in support of the German Woolen Mill, which now lies in Ruin to the village’s Northeast. Today, this clearing – bordered by a loose stone wall – is home to a tallgrass prairie landscape, maintained by prescribed burns necessary to the proliferation of many species. This landscape, which presently makes up less than 2% of the landscape, was once over 25% of the county; attributed to Indigenous practices of tending the landscape with fire to protect settlements, foster traditional agricultural practices, and furnish the landscape with plenty of food for deer.8

Historical accounts of these tended landscapes by settlers and colonial officials described the area as resembling ‘natural’ British parks9 and as prime agricultural lands – some of the best in the Colony – patiently awaiting the plow.

“… an extensive range of open, grove-like woodland, principally oak, and the trees so dispersed as to not interfere materially with the plough. It had much of the appearance of some of the wildest parts of English park scenery… It was a lovely landscape, with a greater range more open to the eye than usually occurs in the interior of Canada.”10

These reports epitomize the ontology that settlers would displace Indigenous land-based relationships with the same views – of nature’s value solely as productive economic utility – which would critically endanger local ecologies. Contemporary controlled burns attempt to move beyond those Victorian relationships with the land by adopting those Indigenous landscape-tending practices in hopes of reproducing tall grass prairie ecosystems towards achieving a net increase in biodiversity with no immediate economic benefit. However, the associated savannah landscape is yet to be given due care. While this landscape is being re-imagined as an approximation of historic ecologies, others remain in their industrial, Victorian states, with no such plans for ecological redress.

Site 2: Dams (disharmonious with ontology/ present use of engaging with nature).

These Indigenous-tended landscapes and, indeed, the broader region, were drastically altered to conform to the Victorian ideal of ‘productivity’ as industrial-agricultural lands were constructed, designed around resource extraction – including of valuable materials such as gypsum, alabastine, and aggregates – and mills, such as Penman’s in Paris, Ontario. The flow of the Grand River powered these mills, and a network of canals, towpaths, millponds, and millraces emerged, supporting what would become Canada’s largest textile manufacturing company. These mills overwhelmed the landscape, with dyes changing the colour of the River,11 and their dams flooding Six Nations’ prime lands,12 transforming the River’s ecology.13

Today, Penman’s #2 dam remains, memorializing the company, symbolizing the town’s identity – routed in a ‘harmony’ of natural and cultural heritage -and preserving the Victorian values that shaped much of the visible landscape. Its present disrepair symbolizes the region’s economic shift from the post-industrial collapse to education, tourism, and ex-urban development. However, its continued impact on the health of the River and its preservation of Victorian values run counter to the Grand River Conservation Authority (GRCA) goals – “To improve the well-being of all life in the Grand River watershed.”14

Site 3: a palimpsest.

At the southern end of Block 1, just upstream from where the Grand meets its largest tributary, the Nith River, lies a tract of alluvial forest where many of these lands meet. Colloquially dubbed ‘Barker’s Bush,’ the landscape contains traces of several pasts: the ruins of Penman’s #1 dam, the bed of the associated millpond, ruins of demolished houses, Penman’s #1 mill (a National Historic Site),15 abandoned gypsum mines,16 aggregate pits,17 dikes, the dump, and a series of bank stabilizations.18

This forested tract was in danger of being developed by Losani homes.19 But, after grassroots efforts, the county was pressured into trading the forested section of these lands and their informal trails for an agricultural acreage on the town’s periphery. With the development of 500+ homes on the rest of these lands, Barker’s Bush is now a sort of archive of the many processes that have shaped this landscape. To the well-trained eye, it is a microcosm of the broader landscape as a palimpsest. It is a record of the many geological processes, ontologies, and relationships that have shaped the landscape as we discover it today, whose most recent chapter – as natural heritage amenity – has been written by the people, in opposition to the omnipresent modernist threat of (re-)development.

These places and their historic monuments survive as windows to the past, through which we can read the shape of the landscape, today and throughout history. Their management lies in question today as they continue their decay, threatened by the region’s development goals, neglect, and the River’s constant barrage. How can looking to the past – for the whole history of these structures – inform how we manage them into the future? I argue their management should approximate the ecological function and historical narrative of the efforts to restore the tallgrass prairie ecosystem, reclaiming the ruin. Uncovering their latent potential beyond monuments of Victorian and industrial nostalgia can provide opportunities for ecological redress, and thereby embed monuments to our responsibility to the natural environment.

All in-text images courtesy the author
Featured Image: Grand River, Cambridge, Ontario by Mark Gillow on Flickr.


[1] O:se Kenhionhata:tie: translates roughly to ‘Willow River’ and is the Mohawk name for The Grand/ Ouse/ Rivier Grande.
[2] Anon, The Grand Strategy for managing the Grand River as a Canadian Heritage River. (Cambridge, Ontario: Grand River Conservation Authority, 1994), V.
[3] Grand River, Ontario | Canadian Heritage Rivers System (, and CHRS plaques across the Watershed.
[4] David Siebert, “Grand Scale Sustainability: The Canadian Heritage Rivers System and the Grand River Watershed, Ontario”, (Carleton University, Sustainable Heritage Case Studies, December 22, 2019).
[5] Charles M, Johnston, ed., The Valley of the Six Nations: A Collection of Documents on the Indian Lands of the Grand River. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2019). https:// Xxxviii. Via: Martin, Geoff. “From the Banks of the Grand.” Waterloo Region, Ont: The New Quarterly, 2011
[6] “The Haldimand Treaty of 1784.” Six Nations Council, 2008.
[7] Six Nations Lands and Resource.
[8] P.W. Ball, “Hill’s Oak (Quercus ellipsoidalis) in Southern Ontario”, in Eagles and Beechey, Critical Unprotected Areas in the Carolinian Life Zone of Canada, 1985.
[9] Edward Allen Talbot, “Five Years’ Residence in the Canadas: Including a Tour Through Part of the United States of America, in the Year 1823,” (London: Printed for Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown and Green, 1824)
Cited in: Bakowsky, “Prairies and Savannahs of Brant County.”
[10] Garland, M.A., Ed., “William Pope’s Journal, March 28,1834 – March 11, 1835,” London, Ontario: University of Western Ontario, 1952), Quoted in Bakowsky, Wasyl. (2001). “Prairies and Savannahs of Brant County.”
[11] Ibid.
[12] Anon, “Report on Grand River navigation by the Board of trade of Brantford.” (Brantford: Printed at the Office of the Brantford “Courier”, 1867), 12.
[13] “Report to J.D. Lee Engineering Limited on preliminary soils reconnaissance Nith Riverbank stability, Paris, Ontario.” (London, Ontario: H.Q. Golder & Associates Ltd., 1970).
[14] Larion, M, The Grand River A Canadian Heritage River: Canadian Heritage Rivers System Ten Year Monitoring Report 2004-2014, (Cambridge, Ontario: Grand River Conservation Authority, July 2014). 25. via David Siebert, “Grand Scale Sustainability”.
[15] “Penman Textile Mill National Historic Site of Canada.” n.d. Accessed April 28, 2024.
[16] Jean Farquharson, Ed. “Herons and Cobblestones: A History of Five Oaks and the Bethel Area of Brantford Township,” County of Brant. Grand River Heritage Mines Society, May 2003.
[17] John F. Longworth, ‘A Geographical Study of Land Use in South Dumfries Township,’ (McMaster University,
Thesis, 1958), 114.
[18] “Report to J.D. Lee Engineering Limited on preliminary soils reconnaissance Nith Riverbank stability, Paris, Ontario.” (London, Ontario: H.Q. Golder & Associates Ltd., 1970).
[19] Susan Gamble, “Brant Gains Barker’s Bush in Land Swap with Builder.” Brantford Expositor, December 13th, 2019.

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