You can't get there from here - Glimpses of the past with Karen Webster
The river that is known today as the Maitland was once called Menesetung/Mennesetung. In Chippewa language, “menne” means “small berries”, referring to the very small fruit found along the riverbanks when the heat of summer had mostly dried up the river and “tung” means “heard before seen”, which is descriptive of the sound of rapids that are found in places along the river. When settlers came to the area, they adopted a name that was easier to say, honouring Sir Penegrine Maitland, who was the Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada from 1813 until 1828.
The mighty Maitland provided transport by canoe and raft. Its powerful flow turned the wheels of countless saw and grist mills, as well as power plants. As well, this river presented a physical barrier. While the coastal areas and lands along the Huron Road from Guelph to Goderich were opened up for settlement in the 1840s, portions of Huron County that now make up East Wawanosh and Morris Townships were opened up later. One of the reasons for that was the lack of usable crossings of the Maitland.
In 1848, Eneas Elkin was the first settler in Manchester, which is present day Auburn. He built a crude shanty on the east bank of the Maitland River and ran a ferry service there until a wooden bridge was built around 1866 by the County of Huron. The Huron Signal of Sept. 9, 1866 reported that there are “serious complaints in regard to the Manchester bridge which was to have been completed by the 15th of August. ….There are only three to four men working, while farmers are deprived of availing themselves of the splendid prices being paid for grain in Goderich.”
Unfortunately this wooden bridge was built too low and it was washed out by a spring flood. This was also the fate of a second bridge that replaced it. This 1875 bridge was built by the firm of Gibson, Black and Wanless. The cost was $1,984 for the superstructure and $9.95 per cubic yard of stonework. While this bridge was under construction, the county surveyor observed that the stonework was of subpar quality, but the workers did not heed his advice and, indeed, it was the central pier that gave way in a spring flood. A subsequent bridge, made partly of steel, lasted for a longer time.
Proximity to a river was an impetus for many early settlements, as was the case of the village of Bandon in Hullett Township. Two mills were located there, but when a flood took out the dam there, the livelihoods of many people were lost and the small settlement soon ceased to exist.
In Ainleyville, now Brussels, residents were also facing problems with the Maitland. The first bridge was built in 1857 and it had to be replaced in 1886. Apparently, the old bridge was removed before the new one was complete and again, folks, especially farmers with crops to market, were quite upset about the inconveniences they suffered as a result.
Long stretches of the Maitland were without bridges. Sometimes a canoe would be left on the bank for use by whomever needed it. Often the canoe would be on the wrong side to be of any use. This situation was presented to Nathaniel Wellwood (1850-1933), who was raised on Lot 26, Concession 11 of West Wawanosh. He became a school teacher while still in his teens and his first school was across the Maitland River. One spring, when the river was fairly high, he wanted to return to his parents’ home. He used an ax to cut down trees to make a crude raft and used a long pole to propel himself to the other side.
Unfortunately, the current took hold of the raft and he was worried he would either drown in some rapids or be carried all the way to Goderich. When he came to a small island, he grabbed onto a low branch of a willow tree and the raft continued off without him. A cold swim to the shore was his only option. Nathaniel was fortunate in this outcome. Many are the stories of people who lost their lives when challenging the power of the Maitland, either for their work or for pleasure.
One of the first sources of income for the early settlers was the making of potash from the ashes of the trees that were cut to clear their land. As well, lumbermen from Lower Canada (Quebec) would come to make square timber of the trees. The Wingham Advance-Times, in 1934, published a memoir of Albert Snell, whose family settled in Wingham in 1864. He recalled that in the winter, logs would be brought to the area that today forms the intersection of Josephine and Scott Streets. When the spring floods came, these logs would be formed into rafts to be floated downstream to Goderich where a large sawmill was located at the mouth of the Maitland River. Log rafts would fill “every corner and crevice of the Goderich harbour”.
Another former Wingham resident, Mr. C. Plaxton, added a footnote to the log rafting story. At one time, the logmen cut away part of the Fisher bridge in Lower Town Wingham to allow their log rafts to proceed down the Maitland.
In the present time, the Maitland still continues its flow from small streams toward Lake Huron. Every day many vehicles pass from one bank of the river to the other bank, travelling on high concrete bridges with an ease that would be the envy of early settlers.
With appreciation to Windings; A history of the Lower Maitland River by Margaret Stapleton. 1984