DYE’S COMIN’, GET OUTTA THE WATER
Before the Dundas Lion’s Club built a fine swimming pool with showers and life-guards and all, we kids swam in the local cricks. There was the one that flowed through Howard’s Bush, one that went through Patterson’s Bush, and of course there was the Black Crick, more elegantly named Spencer’s Creek that ran through the town. I’m not sure of its source but it is probably somewhere up in Beverly Swamp. It flows west of Strabane, through Greensville, over Webster’s Falls, under the C.N.R., behind the old Dundas High School and down the south side of town. It runs through Brown’s Bush and finally joins with the Desjardins Canal somewhere behind McMaster University and they jointly flow into the marsh of Coote’s Paradise.
There were various places where one could swim in this stream but the one that was the most popular was below the Hope Street Bridge. It’s probably now called the Murray Street Bridge. If we swam in one of the smaller streams around we would likely get a mouthful of mud or the friendship of a blood-sucker stuck to our leg. But for the Black Crick, other than getting a cut foot from a bottle someone had thrown off the bridge, there was another hazard we had to endure. Every once in awhile the water would suddenly change colour. Sometimes it turned red and we swimmers might end up looking like boiled lobsters. It might turn yellow and, if we happened to be in the water at the time, we might emerge looking as if we had jaundice. Sometimes the water was green, sometimes blue or purple.
Well, we weren’t totally stupid; we decided to find the source of this tinting of the waters. We walked upstream looking. It turned out that Thornton’s Woolen Mill, which made and dyed blankets, towels and other fabrics, was the cause of the water colouring. When they finished a particular lot of dyeing, they simply dumped the rest of the dye into the crick. Those were the days when words like pollution and ecology were just not part of the language. Who had ever heard of environmental issues? When you had something you didn’t want you had it hauled away to the dump, you chucked it into the nearest ravine, or you dumped it into the crick. We didn’t blame the people at the mill, they did what most people did. We just knew we had to do something to protect ourselves from this scourge.
We decided to take turns watching for the dye coming down the stream. One of us would act as the sentinel. He would sit on a rock about a hundred feet upstream and when he saw the water turning colour, he would yell, “Dye’s comin’.” We would all scramble out of the water until it resumed its natural colour. I can still hear Bob Robinson hollering, just in time, “Dye’s comin’. Get outta the water.”
Our Black Crick had other attractions although boating wasn’t one of them. I can’t remember anyone attempting to navigate its waters in a canoe or a row-boat, and certainly not in a motor-boat. But there was fishing. Every spring, after the ice had gone out, on a
Saturday morning some of the older guys would gather on the north bank of the crick beside the cotton factory. They would sink their four-foot square net attached to a long willow pole into the fast flowing waters. Then two or three others would prod the waters with long willow poles to urge any unseen fish towards the net. They were after suckers. These bottom feeders would come from Lake Ontario through Hamilton Bay, up the crick to spawn. Most of them would run about a pound and a half.
If they caught one someone would yell, “Where there’s one there’s two.” Of course the fishermen might need some liquid encouragement to fend off the chilly weather so out of somebody’s nap-sack would come a bottle of Catawba Wine, which, I was told, was about the cheapest wine you could get in the thirties. Every once in awhile one of the fishermen would lose his footing and take an unscheduled swim. That would end his fishing for the day as he would head home, cold and wet, only somewhat fortified by a final swig of wine. I understand that people rarely ate the fish that they caught. They were bony and didn’t taste so great, but they made good fertilizer. Gardeners would lay them between the garden rows to rot and that would give the vegetables a great growth boost.
Of course, before the boys could fish these waters, they had to wait until the ice went out. It was usually in March that great chunks of ice would flow down the stream and pile up against the Thorpe Street Bridge. This would cause the water to overflow its banks and flood into Canton’s basement, and cover Frank Crump’s small market garden. Sometimes the Cantons and Frank Crump would be isolated for a short time until the town fathers took up their annual enterprise. Every spring, after the ice had piled up against the bridge, Bert Edwards, who headed the Dundas Board of Works, would take a small crew down to the bridge, set dynamite in strategic places, and blast the ice away from the bridge. Then the water would flow freely under the bridge where it was supposed to. You could hear the sound of the explosions all over the east-end of town and even up above the Bunker Hill, where we lived.
Because of the crushing of the ice against the bridge and the jarring caused by the dynamite blasts, the poor Thorpe Street Bridge began to suffer structural damage. Finally, after a great deal of careful consultation and groaning over the possible cost, the powers that be decided that the bridge needed replacing. In their wisdom they recognized that it would help solve the ice problem if the underside of the bridge had a greater clearance above the water. There is now a new and higher bridge over the crick at Thorpe Street and I understand that there is no annual flooding in that area.
One of the side benefits of the flooding was that there grew up several acres of fine willow trees on the south side of the crick. These willows, when they were slender and, dare I say it, willowy, were an excellent source of income for Mr, Bibby who lived on Dundas Street. He made very serviceable and comfortable garden and porch furniture out of these willow branches. His products could stand all kinds of weather and looked very professional. There was good local market for his handiwork.
The Canton family, who usually got flooded by the crick’s overflow, enjoyed (?) having a few feet of water in their basement until well on into the summer. They kept fish there. I was a buddy of Donald and Tony Canton and they would show me their large basement aquarium. We also spent a lot of time playing among the willows. We learned to catch bull- frogs there and roast their legs over an open fire. We could usually catch only one on any given day so there was not much more than a bite or two for each of us. Some years later my wife and I ordered frog’s legs in a fancy restaurant. They didn’t taste half as good as the ones from the willows.
The Canton family had originally come to Canada from Bermuda. They stayed in Dundas for a few years and then returned to their native island. There, Donald took up diving for treasure in the ocean around the island with a man named Tommy Tucker. They had some success and the National Geographic Magazine did a story on them. Tony developed into a fine swimmer and represented Bermuda at the Olympics. An older brother, Basil, became a judge in the Bermudan judicial system and took a lot of ribbing from the family who would announce, as they did on T.V., “Here come de judge, here come de judge,” and, all bowing, insist that he sit at the head of the table. When I think of the crick, I think of the Cantons.
We had a lot of fun in and around that stream. It seemed like quite a major water-course. But even back then you could pull up your trousers to your knees and wade across it in most places without getting wet. Now, when I go back to town and see it, I’m amazed that, not too many decades ago, it was the source of water for the whole town. At least the water was taken out above where the many-coloured dyes were emptied in. The only time the supply ran out was in the great drought of 1936. The crick almost dried up. We had a well where we lived and it provided water for ourselves as well as others in our neighbourhood during that dry spell. But most people in town went half-way up the side of the “Galt Mountain” and had their buckets filled from a small but steady spring of water that ran out of the side of the rock.
Things came to a head when the town fathers decided that the crick was not a reliable source of water for the town. They finally decided to bite the bullet and have a pipe-line built from Lake Ontario which they did. Now Dundas people drink from the same water supply as their Hamilton neighbours. It doesn’t taste the same as when it came from the crick. It’s probably better.