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.
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 Conestogo, the Speed and the Eramosa Rivers. It is the
river that inspired Native poet Pauline Johnson to write,
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
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
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.
Grand River (Adobe PDF document)
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