The Smokey Hollow Industrial Site, Waterdown

Originally Published in Heritage Happenings, February 2007
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The Grindstone Creek for much of the year is an insignificant stream which gently winds its way through the old village of Waterdown. At the southern end of the village, the creek descends over the Niagara Escarpment at the Great Falls and it is to this site, beside and east of the falls, that the origins of Waterdown and its development as an industrial community can be traced.

Alexander Brown Sr.

The early settlers of the area recognized the potential power the Grindstone creek could generate, so necessary to the establishment of lumber and grist mills in a pioneer community. Entrepreneurs, such as Alexander Brown in 1806 and then Ebenezer and Absalom Griffin from Smithville during the 1820s and 1830s, laid the foundations for the development of an industrial complex along the banks of the creek. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the Grindstone Valley in Waterdown had surpassed the neighbouring industrial development of Crooks’ Hollow along the Spencer Creek in West Flamborough.

In the early days of milling, most were powered by water, but as time passed, water levels in streams decreased, due to the clearing of land, draining of swamps and demands by an ever increasing population. This once inexhaustible source of power was gradually supplemented by steam power, particularly in lumber mills, saw mills and tanneries where scrap wood was available for fuel. The advent of steam power however, brought new problems, for flash fires and explosions of steam boilers often resulted in fatal casualties. At the southern end of the village, where the largest number of industries were located, it resulted in another hazard, for the concentration of industrial buildings in the area by the Great Falls, caused an almost permanent foggy or smokey appearance to the complex which led to the name of Smokey Hollow.

Smokey Hollow – c.1900

Alexander Brown, the first settler to own land along the creek, is believed to have been operating the first lumber mill on the edge of the Great Falls by 1805. During the next sixty years there was almost continuous industrial growth in the village. At the zenith of the village’s industrial importance, mills and factories were located as far north as the present Parkside Drive or Fourth Concession Road and south of the Great Falls into Hidden Valley. A succession of mills, owned and operated by the Griffin brothers, John Heywood, George Abrey, Robert Lottridge, Levi Hawk, John Creen and Lockman Cummer included the traditional grist and saw mills and in addition, woollen mills – one of the first in Upper Canada to be equipped with a double set carding machine – a tannery, brass foundry, and factories producing baskets, barrels, and agricultural equipment.

In 1857, the arrival in Waterdown of William Pierce Howland, (later Sir William Pierce Howland) and his purchase of the Cummer property elevated the importance of Waterdown as an industrial village. Howland owned flour mills elsewhere, at Lambton Mills, near Toronto, but in 1860, he began construction of a magnificant four storey stone flour mill, grain storehouse and barrel factory, known as ‘The Torrid Zone Mills’ which cost over $13,000 to erect. The enormous height of the mill was achieved by its construction against the side of the escarpment, this unique design included the addition of a covered way between the top floor of the mill and the road above the falls along which farmers travelled to bring their grain for milling. This allowed for the unloading of grain at road level and collection at ground level. Once in operation, the mill had the capacity to manufacture over a hundred and seventy barrels of flour a day, making it the most important flour mill at the Head-of-the-Lake, with most of the flour transported to Montréal and exported to Europe.

On 2 February 1885, the mill was seriously damaged by a major fire. Both the Toronto and Hamilton newspapers carried a report of the accident and also a description of the Howland mill …”The establishment was one of the most complete in Ontario … The machinery was almost all new and of the most approved kind. The mill property included the bran sheds (300 feet long), stave shed, offices and stables, the cooper shop, the house of Mr. G. Robson, the manager, and the store. A large sum of money had recently been spent in putting in the newest and best machinery for the roller process and last fall a large sum was spent in improving the water apparatus.” The mill was repaired and continued in operation under the ownership of Alexander Robertson until another fire in 1910 blew the rood off the building and damaged it so severely that the decision to rebuild was abandoned.

Howland’s mill was a model of the day’s technology until it was destroyed by fire in 1910.

Beginning in the 1880s and continuing into the first decade of the twentieth century, fires, explosions, industrial accidents and financial problems gradually resulted in the decline of Smokey Hollow as an industrial site. At the end of World War I, Waterdown had ceased to be an industrial village. The rise of Hamilton as a manufacturing centre, even competition from nearby Dundas were all influences in its demise.

For the next seventy years, this area of the village was little more than a wasteland, even becoming the dumping ground for village garbage. During the 1990s, a group of village residents, inspired by the ideals of a group of Waterdown District High School student who had attempted to clean up the site and establish a park, succeeded in turning the area into just that, promoting the history of Waterdown’s important industrial heritage.

© The Waterdown-East Flamborough Heritage Society 2007, 2024.


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