The Grand River / Dundalk to Lake Erie

The Project

This book is the culmination of a joint project with my brother, Gerard Brender à Brandis, which has spread over more than a decade. His profession as wood engraver and creator of limited-edition handmade books determined the project’s shape.

It began when Gerard sketched and then created a wood engraving of the famous covered bridge at West Montrose, Ontario (centrepiece of a UNESCO Cultural Heritage Landscape), and discovered that the Grand River, calmly flowing under the bridge, had been designated by the Canadian Heritage River System as a Heritage River – meaning that it was considered to be of national importance.

He began to visualize a book about the river and asked me if I would like to write a text. We had collaborated on other projects: this was to be the eleventh. In the next four years we made nearly two dozen trips to the Grand, each time focussing on a small section of the 300-kilometre-long river; between trips we continued researching, so that each trip led to ideas for other locations, other stories. The resulting work was A Pebble’s Journey: The Grand River Observed by Two Artists, a large and beautiful handmade book published by Gerard in 2010 in an edition of 60 copies.

In the course of collecting and preparing the material, we realized that the river’s story was far more complex and fascinating than could be shown in 40 wood engravings and a text of about 4,000 words. Even before the handmade book was released, therefore, we began talking about a successor which would contain more images and much more text, and which would be commercially published so that it could reach more readers. The expanded project entailed a further dozen-plus trips to the river and a great deal more research.That second book, The Grand River / Dundalk to Lake Erie, contains 58 wood engravings – many of them new to this work – and a text consisting of a substantial introduction and conclusion, as well as a one-page essay accompanying each of the 50 larger engravings. Gerard’s images depict what is visible: riverscapes, buildings, plants, wildlife. My text probes the invisible aspects that lie behind each image: the history (geological, ecological, and human, both Native and European), the environmental issues, the biographies of important people whose lives were connected with the river. Both images and words explore the private life of the river as well as its public face.

A book like this, recording two artists’ experience of a river, is multidimensional. I found my mind ranging from the large aspects such as the geological time before there was a river here – the river, when it took shape, carved its way through 410 million years of geological time, as can be seen in the Elora Gorge – to the small, such as the erosion caused by sand particles suspended in rushing water. I learned about the First Peoples who have occupied this area from a time soon after the retreat of the glaciers and whose lives have ebbed and flowed across it for 10,000 years. Using a combination of research, imagination, and experience – the latter drawing heavily on my young years on a pioneer farm in northern British Columbia – I reconstructed something of the lives of the European settlers who moved into the region and the farms and towns that they created, the roads and canals and railways, the bridges and mills.

Never forgotten is the fact that this is the story of not only this individual river and its watershed: the Grand is in many ways representative of all the rivers which are so important in the history and identity of Canada, and of the planet’s rivers which are vital elements in the biosphere that is our common home.

That’s me sitting beside the river near Paris, Ontario, on an idyllic fall day, doing the note-making and reflecting that went into our response to the river and our interaction with as many aspects of it as research, repeated trips, and our own interests suggested. 

This was indeed a perfect day, but conditions were not always so ideal. I have no pictures of us shivering during the trips that we made in late fall, when it was windy and close to freezing, when Gerard had to return to the car to warm his hands before going back out into the cold to continuing his drawing. Or of the very early spring day when Gerard sketched at Luther Marsh he had to sit in the car because the weather was drizzly. Or of another trip, far away in the river’s upper reaches, my car broke down – terminally, as it turned out. Or of another, when we went to Port Maitland at the mouth of the river, the November night fell as Gerard hurriedly completed his sketch.


A Passage from The Grand River

The breaking up of the ice in spring is one of the fastest and most dramatic metamorphoses in the life of a river. The stream in spate – snow and ice transformed back into tumultuous water – sometimes causes damage, but it is only humans who call it damage when their works are destroyed. In the life of the river, it’s part of the natural cycle. 

All the same, the engraving depicts what, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, would be the beginning of downstream flooding. It’s the spring run-off from a cleared field like this that, during bad floods, ended up in the streets and the basements of Bridgeport and Galt and Brantford. Now such flooding is much reduced: the surplus water is held in reservoirs until released in the summer when it’s needed.

The farm depicted is well past the pioneering phase though this is still family farming, not yet agribusiness. Allowing for regional differences in the look of the land and the design of buildings, this image could represent thousands of Canadian farms, deeply rooted in the landscape and the human and natural ecosystem of the area.

This peaceful scene evokes thoughts of very early spring, a season when the weather and the appearance of the landscape change day by day. The nineteenth-century farmer, going to the kitchen for his mid-day dinner, might remark to his wife, “River’s high, ice going out fast.” And he might add, “Quite a bit of warmth in the sun today. Saw the first snowdrop.” It’s a season marked by firsts: the first pussy willows, the first robin. Warm climates don’t know this season.



Because The Grand River is an art book rather than a scholarly work, it contains no notes and only a short list of selected reading. I did, however, want to make available some notes and also a more comprehensive list of sources. 

Readers familiar with the field may find that there are discrepancies between what I have written and what they themselves have learned, but this is one of the pitfalls of writing history. As often happens, I came across similar information in different sources; sometimes the sources did not agree, because those authors had drawn on different materials, or were writing for different purposes. Moreover, new information alters earlier versions. 

Page 22: Augustus Jones: It is the article about him in the Wikipedia that says that he married Tuhbenahneequay in an Ojibway ceremony.

Page 27: An anonymous critic quoted in Paddling Her Own Canoe (see under “Sources”) on p. 113 gives Pauline Johnson’s costume as “Indian” before the intermission and European after. The authors’ note on this says that one source gives the reverse sequence, but generally it seems to have been “Indian” first. 
(Edgar Johnson, in Charles Dickens, His Tragedy and Triumph [New York: Simon and Schuster, 1952] writes (on pages 904-5) that Dickens and his friends discussed the matter of an author reading his own work aloud in public, for profit, and many felt that it was “a public exhibition for private gain unworthy of a man of letters and a gentleman.” It’s likely that what applied to “a man of letters and a gentleman” in the 1850s had not changed very much by the time Pauline Johnson began reading her work in public in the 1890s – and that for a lady even more strict rules probably existed. It’s a measure of the magnitude of the forces that she dealt with and overcame.)

Page 54: Note that the plaque at Templin Gardens gives the name of the newspaper that J. C. Templin edited as the Fergus Express. The newspaper article “Spring is Sprung, The Grass is Riz, I Wonder Where the Flowers Is”, by William Templin (News Express, March 20, 1996), gives it as the Fergus News-Record. The two newspapers apparently merged in 1972.

Page 70: The items surrounding the wagon are (starting at the top left) a box with a sack lying on it, a barrel with the handle of a spade leaning against it, a box that has a washtub standing on it, a stove with oven, a cooking pot, and a pair of boots. Under the wagon lie a trenching spade and a cultivator. Leaning against the side of the wagon is a tool for scraping the bark from tree-trunks. Lying near it are a wagon jack and a sledge-hammer, and a saw leans against the rear wheel. Hanging from the wagon is a little pail containing axle-grease. Gerard sketched the wagon at the Waterloo Region Museum.

Page 74: Eby Pottery (and kitchen dresser). Helen Brink’s article, “William Eby – The Potter and the Man” was written for the 1967 issue of Tactile. I used the quotation with permission of the author.

Page 78: Remnants of a Bridge. When I was preparing the text for A Pebble’s Journey, our earlier book about the Grand River, I hadn’t examined the bridges in this area sufficiently and I understood these piers to be the remnants of a road bridge that at one time must have crossed the river here. It was only later, when I learned that the existing Bridgeport bridge – only a few kilometres upstream – had historically served that function (and still does), that I began trying to find out more about the bridge of which these two piers are the survivals. In the course of that research I found more old maps – and, most important, I was able to look at the Google aerial view of the piers. I pestered archivists for information but no one was able to help me until one, Lindsay Benjamin, put me in touch with Rych Mills, the Kitchener-area historian, who finally cleared up the mystery.

Page 88: “Cambridge”, the name given to the amalgamation of Galt, Preston, and Hespeler, was the early name for the settlement in what became Preston.

Page 104: Alexander Graham Bell: different sources disagree about his connection with the National Geographic Society; one said that he was the first president but another, giving the date when he became president, suggests that he was the second.

Page 109: Chiefswood. The list of people whom Pauline Johnson met in her youth at Chiefswood and later on indicates something of the life of her time and of Canadian society. Each name is a link with some important and/or interesting aspect of the times. Prince Arthur’s appointment to a position as a Chief of the Six Nations was, of course, a purely honorary appointment but is interesting in view of the opinion (apparently widely held in the post-Confederation decades) that the First Peoples were rapidly heading for extinction.
(Horatio Hale [1817-1896] is a person about whom I would have liked to write more in the book but, though he worked with the Iroquois of the Six Nations Reserve and was mentored by George Johnson, he did not live on the Grand. He was an ethnologist, philologist, and businessman, born in the US and already making a name for himself when he was an undergraduate at Harvard. In 1854 he married a Canadian woman, Margaret Pugh, daughter of a former Justice of the Peace in Goderich, ON, and in 1856 they moved to Clinton, ON. He worked on the development of the Ontario school system and helped to introduce co-education in high schools and collegiate institutes and to establish the normal school system. He also studied the Iroquois languages (and many others, which he used to classify human groups). He discovered, translated, and edited two Indian manuscripts dating from between 1714 and 1735 and published them in 1883 under the title The Iroquois Book of Rites. In both the American and British associations for the advancement of science he organized the anthropology sections as independent departments and, for the British Association, undertook the supervision of the anthropological section’s work in the Canadian Northwest and British Columbia. He was an honorary fellow of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain. It is fascinating to picture this man sitting at the same dining table with the Johnson family, including Pauline, and other members of the Johnson circle.)

Page 126: Sizable stretches of the canal – some with water, some weed-filled – are visible along the road south-east of Dunnville.

Page 128: There is apparently some obscurity about the date when the lock was built. William Warnick, a local historian for the Port Maitland area, wrote to me in an e-mail of 5 November 2013 that his best information at that point was that it was built about 1842. Styran and Taylor, in Swivel Link (see under “Sources”), on Map 3A following page xxxii, give c.1845. Certainly it was in existence by the time (1845-50) that Port Maitland served as the southern terminus of the Welland Canal.

Page 137: Lynn Noel writes in Voyages, p. 123: “The Grand leads the nation in a vision of river stewardship that unites human and natural communities in celebration of a common river heritage.”


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