A strange saga: Despite reports and fans, a heritage bridge in Eden Mills is in danger of being destroyed

First published in The Record, Kitchener, Ont. (30 May 1998): A19.

Eramosa Township may be the only place in Canada where a man can saunter out of his house at 6 o'clock on a Monday evening, stumble home at 3 a.m., tell his wife he's spent the intervening hours at a meeting of the township council, and be believed.

It's not that people are abnormally gullible in this little corner of rural Ontario, or that we're so tired of life we have nothing better to do than cool our heels in the township's barren council chambers. Yet odd things have been happening in those chambers recently, and the oddest of them have to do with the heritage Bowstring Bridge in my own village of Eden Mills.

Just 50 miles west of downtown Toronto, a side road winds down from the Guelph Line into the Eramosa River valley.

The houses on either side are mostly mid-19th century and there are two stone churches of the same vintage, a stage-coach hotel (now a private home) and a couple of ruined mills.

If you've had the good sense to bring a canoe, you can drift on the millpond (restored by villagers with 3,000 hours of volunteer labor and $60,000 worth of fund-raising), encountering beaver, snapping turtles, kingfishers, a great blue heron—or perhaps even the osprey that pulled a bass out of the pond not 30 feet from where I was swimming two summers ago.

The population swells

Sleepy Hollow? Hardly. On the second Sunday of September every year, thanks again to the work of volunteers, this village hosts one of Canada's major literary events, the Eden Mills Writers' Festival, where many of our finest writers give open-air readings of their works, and the village's population swells for the day from 350 to as much as 5,000.

But Eden Mills has also become the focal point of a long-running political controversy. In the middle of the village, straddling the east branch of the Eramosa, stands the Bowstring Bridge—a graceful survivor of pre-First World War technology, and a structure, according to the Ontario Ministry of Culture's conservation review board, that is of provincial, national and international heritage significance.

In the United States, heritage experts tell us, this bridge would be protected by inclusion in the National Registry of Historic Sites. But since we are in Eramosa, township council wants to tear it down. And although the Ontario government has assessment procedures that are designed to prevent such aberrations, no one seems willing to apply them.

But I'm getting ahead of my story. It wasn't until late in 1993 that council, which had previously supported retaining the heritage bridge, for unknown reasons changed its mind.

Threat was frightening

A majority of village residents petitioned council to preserve the bridge; it responded in the spring of 1994 by threatening to impose an area tax levy of some $2,500 per household for the full cost of bridge repairs. Although clearly illegal, this threat frightened some villagers.

Over the following months, the evidence in favour of retaining the bridge mounted. Council members learned that the provincial Ministry of Culture rates the bridge high among Ontario's heritage bridges, and Ministry of Transportation officials stated that it could be rehabilitated for a fraction of the cost of a new bridge.

Village residents secured assessments of the bridge by three experts of international standing in heritage architecture, traffic engineering and urban planning. All three recommended its rehabilitation, on grounds that included heritage factors, pedestrian and traffic safety, and the village's social and economic well-being.

These recommendations were echoed by the 82-page report of a committee of council itself. The provincial minister of Culture wrote to offer her assistance and co-operation in preserving the bridge.

But council wasn't going to let its head be turned by mere facts, or by such trifling considerations as democratic due process. On Aug. 22, 1994, council announced that it would not have space on its Sept. 6 agenda to hear any delegations from Eden Mills.

But at that Sept. 6 meeting, a previously tabled motion was revived—even though the bridge wasn't on the agenda and even though no formal notice had been given. At 2:15 a.m., an unusual hour for business of any kind, let alone business not on the agenda, council voted to replace the bridge.

One might think that even the most mulish township council wouldn't want to repeat a trick like that. But this council has since openly proclaimed its intention to “open up Eden Mills to the trucking industry.” We're not talking subtle here.

Early this year, the Ontario Ministry of Culture's conservation review board held a three-day hearing about whether or not the bridge's heritage status should be removed so council can demolish it.

On April 6, 1998, the board announced that it found the evidence in favour of preserving the bridge “overwhelming.” The board found Eramosa Township council to be in contravention of the Ontario Heritage Act, declared that demolition would contravene the township's own official plan and the Grand Strategy (the Canadian Heritage River management plan for the Grand River basin, which includes the Eramosa), and stated that Council needed to do a full environmental assessment of the project.

Reeve David Adsett announced a public meeting on Aril 14 to discuss these findings. On April 12 he cancelled this meeting, promising to re-schedule it. And then, on April 20, with no public notice and at a meeting whose agenda contained no inkling of the matter, his council voted—in defiance of the conservation review board's report—to remove the bridge's heritage designation and to let tenders for its demolition.

A fight is brewing

The Friends of Eden Mills, a group of local ratepayers, has taken the township to court; a judicial review of the township's decisions is scheduled for the week of June 3.

As might be expected from a village like Eden Mills, there's a literary angle to the story. Jeffrey Stinson, the heritage architect who assessed the Bowstring Bridge in 1994, is an expert on the 1925-1930 construction of Toronto's Bloor Street viaduct over the Don Valley—an engineering feat that forms the context for Michael Ondaatje's novel In The Skin Of A Lion.

In his 1994 assessment, Stinson went so far as to compare the Bowstring Bridge to to the Bloor Street viaduct: “Although from the perspective of a government official at Queen's Park this bridge may seem small and distant,” he wrote, “it is of greater importance to this locale than the much larger bridges over the Don Valley are to the Toronto community, which interacts with them in less significant ways.”

If township succeeds in demolishing the Bowstring Bridge, something more precious than steel and concrete will be lost. The bridge is at the heart of Eden Mills: it keeps fast, heavy traffic out and safeguards the human scale of a village that is unique in retaining a largely 19th-century streetscape.

So what are Eramosa council's motives for destroying this bridge and gutting our village? What exactly is being hidden—development interests, aggregate hauling interests—inside the skin of this mule?


Michael Keefer of Eden Mills wrote Lunar Perspectives and is a professor at the University of Guelph.