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The Blair Sheave Tower – Ontario’s last remaining wooden water-powered hydro generator tower

September 2020

In a time before power was supplied by electrical grids, grist mills were responsible for generating their own hydro to operate the mills. Sheave towers were an economical way to generate power from rivers by use of a water turbine underneath the tower.

The last remaining wooden sheave tower in Ontario can be found in the former Village of Blair, now a part of the City of Cambridge.

The Blair Sheave Tower, a 31 foot tower, was built beside the Blair (Bowman) River in 1876 by Allan Bowman, to power the Blair Carlisle Grist Mill, located 240 feet downstream. The tower used a grooved wheel (sheave) higher up in the tower, to harness water power. It was connected by a pulley and cable system to the grist mill, which dates back to 1846.

Described as having “a mini mining headframe” and a “tapering wooden structure,” the Blair Sheave Tower generated electricity until 1954, making it not only Ontario’s oldest hydroelectric generating site, but one of the world’s smallest hydro-generators.

A restoration was undertaken in 1999 by the City of Cambridge, putting new timbers in its frame and a fresh coat of oxblood paint on its board and batten walls. The tower looks as it did when built and is a very popular subject for painters and photographers.

A partial restoration was done by the Waterloo Historical Society in 1962, but nearby housing developments caused damage to the tower’s foundation when the river overflowed.

The Blair Sheave Tower can be found on Old Mill Road, east of Dickie Settlement Road, across the road from the Carlisle Mill, which also remains. It’s along a trail, about 100 feet off the road and is accessible to the public. It has been owned by the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario, Cambridge chapter, since 1994. Unfortunately, there is very little room to park along the narrow rural road.

Blair Village

The village officially became known as Blair in 1858, named after Adam Johnston Blair of the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada. It had previously gone by the names Shinglebridge, named after the shingled covered bridge that once crossed the river, then Durhamville, and then New Carlisle because of the mills. The area was originally part of the Haldimand Tract, awarded to the Haudenosaunee Six Nations people, in recognition of their service to the Crown during the American Revolutionary War.

In 1802, Daniel and Jacob Erb and other Pennsylvania German Mennonites emigrated north from the United States. The Erb brothers purchased the 60,000 acres of land that became the German Company Tract from Richard Beasley and his wife. They built the first saw and grist mills in what became Blair village around 1808.

The Village of Blair has several notable distinctions, including being the location of the first school in Waterloo County, having the first paved main street in Ontario; one of the oldest European cemeteries in Waterloo Region and its rare Carolinian forest, which is part of the Grand River Watershed.

The Carlisle Grist Mill

Samuel Bowman built a four-story grist mill beside what came to be known as the Bowman River in 1846, producing around 7,000 bushels of flour by 1851. Jacob Hilborn bought the mill in 1888, passing it on to his son John, who ran it from 1902 until 1925.

Unfortunately, three years later, the original Carlisle Grist Mill burnt down. A new one-story mill was built on the original foundation, this time with the addition of an electric motor to manufacture corn meal and corn flour.

The Carlisle Grist Mill remained in operation until finally closing in 2003, having achieved the distinction of being the oldest independently operating corn mill in Canada three years earlier.

The grist mill still houses some of the original equipment, but it’s now private residence and is not open for public tours.

Sources: https://travelwithtmc.com/the-historic-blair-sheave-tower, http://visitcambridgeontario.com/About-Cambridge-Blair.htm, http://www.photohiker.net/explore/mills/album/031_img_4218.html, https://www.geocaching.com/geocache/GC12480_sheave-tower

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/the-blair-sheave-tower-ontarios-last-remaining-wooden-water-powered-hydro-generator-tower/

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