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Grand River

Ontario’s historic heartland

Original First Nation name: Tintactuoa
Current official name: Grand River
Source: South-central Ontario, below Georgian Bay
Mouth: Lake Erie
Direction of flow: south
Length : 290 kilometres
Main Characteristic: history of harmonious human occupation.

More on the Grand River:
Grand River:
Ontario’s historic heartland

Bloom Town:
The flowering of an old-style Ontario town

The Grand’s Canyon:
Tourism powers an old mill town

Grinding Along the Grand:
Stone mills lined the riverbanks

High-Rise Herons:
Big swamp birds thrive in a wetland haven

Home and Native Land:
Homestead of the Six Nations

Old Order:
Mennonites set their own pace of change

Plaster of Paris:
A town arises from gypsum and cobblestones

Raising Rainbows:
Rehabilitating a tired industrial river

Sausages to Software:
The Industrial Evolution

Grand Stand:
Survival of a river valley forest

The Grand River winds through the historic heartland of Ontario. There are moments of great drama when it squeezes through deep gorges and drops across steep rock faces. But, most of the time, its pace is calm and its surface flatter than the fields of the prosperous farms that flank it.

The pastoral beauty and cultural richness of its watershed echo in the lyrical names of the rivers main tributaries: the Nith, the Conestogo, the Speed and the Eramosa Rivers. It is the river that inspired Native poet Pauline Johnson to write, The Song My Paddle Sings.

The Grand flows due south 290 kilometres from just below Georgian Bay and then jogs eastward to its end in Lake Erie. Eventually, the waters of the Grand and its tributaries tumble over Niagara Falls on their long journey down the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River system to the Atlantic Ocean.

The Grand River and its lush watershed have served the needs of humans for thousands of years. Archeologists have unearthed evidence that the banks of the Grand were cultivated 1,500 years ago. Before that, according to long-buried evidence, human habitation closely followed the last retreat of the glaciers, 10,000 years ago.

In 1784, the entire Grand Valley was given to Iroquois Natives who had sided with the British in the American War of Independence. The Iroquois Loyalists subsequently sold most of the land to immigrant settlers from the United States, England, Scotland, and Ireland. The Six Nations Reserve south of Brantford is all that remains of the Native land agreement.

The new immigrants brought agriculture and industry to the valley. The Grand has survived the age of steam and smoke to become a clean, healthy recreational treasure for the millions of people who live within a few hours drive of it.

All along the Grand, there are relics of old stone mills built to grind the grain of pioneer settlers. They stand like sentries guarding memories of an age when the recipe for rural prosperity was good soil, hard toil, and water power to mill flour, saw wood, and weave cloth.

The coal-fueled steam age was glorious, but brief, in the green valley of the Grand. Abandoned railway lines hang over the river on bridges of stone and steel. These magnificent structures once trembled under the weight of trains powered by smoke-snorting locomotives whose screaming steam whistles and clanging brass bells warned daredevil youngsters that train bridges were not safe platforms from which to dive or to dangle worms.

Today, those bridges still serve the Grand. But now hikers cross them in safety, while in the shade of their limestone piers, fly fishers cast their feathered hooks over the rising snouts of grazing trout.

Some riverside scenes have not changed much since pioneer times. Neat farms owned by Mennonites carpet the middle reaches of the valley. Some of these long-ago immigrants from Pennsylvania and Germany move about in plain, always black, automobiles. But many Mennonites still ride to church and town in simple, hand-made buggies drawn by horses that know their way along back roads, left unpaved to cushion the animals' hooves and legs.

The lower reaches of the Grand River Valley became home to Loyalists of British descent. Their influence is very visible today in the well-ordered cities of Cambridge, Paris and Brantford.

Few other regions have matched the Grand River valley's remarkable ability to preserve its historical heritage while maintaining its position at the forefront of economic and social change.

Not far from the most conservative Old Order Mennonite farmers, who plow their fields with teams of heavy workhorses, the University of Waterloo educates some of the world's most talented computer software developers. Ambitious graduates who are attached to the quality of life in the region have created a local software industry that sells its products around the globe.

The Grand was officially designated a Canadian Heritage River in 1994. Unlike most other Canadian Heritage Rivers, the Grand was not honoured for its beauty and integrity as a natural wilderness. Instead, the Grand was designated because of its harmony with human settlement around it.

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