Water power has historically been a major source of energy for production of goods and electricity in Ontario. In the 19th century, water was commonly harnessed to power mills – such as grist mills, sawmills, woollen mills and a host of other types. Mills were common in Southern Ontario including on the Escarpment, where the plethora of fast flowing rivers and waterfalls provided good opportunities. Today, many Escarpment waterfalls are named for the people who first built mills on them.
In 1845, Scotsman Peter Inglis purchased a small grist mill in what is now Inglis Falls Conservation Area. In 1862 he replaced the original building with a new four-storey mill that harnessed the power of the Sydenham River to produce flour, bran, and animal feed. The mill was operated by the Inglis family for three generations until the City of Owen Sound obtained the property in 1932. The mill was completely destroyed in a fire in 1945, and today all that remains is the family home, a stone building, and the millstones.
Nearby, John Walter developed a sawmill, feedmill and woollen mill at what is now Walter’s Falls. The sawmill was purchased by Willard Hallman in the mid 1940s. Hallman expanded the sawmill, which increased its power capacity, and it was moved onto the hydro grid in the 1980s. The sawmill burnt down in 1984 and was rebuilt on a larger property. It remains in the Hallman family, operated by Willard’s grandson Paul Hallman. Interestingly, the feedmill continues to operate on water power.
Further South on the Escarpment at Hilton Falls, the remains of three 19th Century sawmills can be found. The first mill, constructed in 1835 by Edward Hilton, supplied lumber to Nassagaweya Township. Hilton fled to the United States after supporting William MacKenzie’s abortive rebellion in 1837, and his mill fell into disrepair. In 1856 the property was acquired by George Park. Park built a new mill with an immense 40 foot diameter water wheel. Unfortunately, it burnt down only four years later in 1860. The stone ruins are still present at the site today. A third mill was constructed in 1863 but was also lost to fire in 1867 and after that the mill was never rebuilt.
Alton Mill was built in 1881 on Shaw’s Creek, a tributary of the Credit River. It was originally called the Beaver Knitting Mill and was renowned across Canada for the production of fleece-lined long underwear. It survived a significant flood in 1889 but a devastating fire in 1908 destroyed the upper storeys, leaving the lower two storeys that remain today. Between 1935 and 1982 the mill was used to manufacture rubber products. More recently, the Alton mill underwent extensive restoration and was converted to an arts centre.
This is just a small selection of mills that operated on the Escarpment in the 19th Century. Some mills are still operational today, while some have been converted to inns, cafes, museums and other uses, and only ruins remain of others. If you’d like to learn more, Ontario’s historical mills is a great place to start.