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Experiences of a Backwoods Preacher
Chapter VIII. Floods and Bridges

SOME of the experiences of travel are about as rough as they are romantic. Sometimes, on a journey, we meet with incidents that are ludicrous and yet dangerous; and it is not a rare thing that the novelty of a difficulty goes far to conceal the danger that may attend it. In this article I shall give an account of some of my experiences with floods and bridges while itinerating in the new parts of our own country.

The first incident that I will relate is one over which I have often had a quiet laugh to myself when I have thought of it. If my memory serves me right, the Conference was held that year in the village of Palermo. I had left my horse with a friend in Garafraxa, and had gone from Guelph by train. The Conference had closed its session. I was on my way home, or rather to where my home had been the last year, for I had to move to a new place. At Rockwood I fell in with Rev. John H. Watts, who was also on his way to where his last year’s home had been. But he had just been appointed to the Garafraxa Circuit, and he intended to stop over and spend the Sabbath on his new field of labour. This circuit was an old and favourite field of mine, so I decided to stay there over Sabbath too. Bro. Watts and I concluded to foot it from Rockwood to the Garafraxa parsonage, as by so doing we would shorten the distance by a number of miles and save quite an item of expense.

Accordingly we started, following one of the concession lines through the township of Eramosa, until we came to the road that runs from Orangeville, on the south side of the Grand River, to Fergus. Here we were directed to follow a certain line which, we were told, would lead to the road running from Fergus to Douglas. We walked on for two or three miles, when we came to the Grand River. It being in the spring of the year, the river was high, the current strong, and the water cold. Here was a dilemma. There had once been a bridge, but it had been swept away by the spring floods. To go back and around by the bridge at Douglas would give us an extra walk of some six or seven miles. The question for us to decide was, “What shall we do?”

After due consideration we determined to wade the stream. It did not look to be very deep, but was from eight to twelve rods wide and running with a rapid current. I went in first, but before starting I cut a long, stiff cane, and running my umbrella through the loops of my carpet-bag (this before the day of satchels) I swung it over my shoulder, and taking my cane in hand I started for the other shore. I found the water deeper and the sweep of current stronger than I had expected. Had I not taken the precaution to get the cane, I have no doubt but that I should have been carried down the stream and perhaps drowned. However, after a hard struggle, I reached the other side wet to the arm-pits, and pretty well exhausted. I drew off iny boots and drained the water out of them, and adopted measures to wring out my clothes.

When I got over I called to Bro. Watts and asked him what he was going to do. I knew that when he undertook anything he was not the sort of man to back out, but I thought I would try him. His answer was characteristic of the man. He said, in a determined manner, “I can go anywhere that you can.” “All right, then,” I said; “come along.” He benefited by my experience so far that he got his garments well above the high-water mark by placing most of them on his head and shoulders before starting in. He got over with less difficulty than I met with. Two facts contributed to this result. He was a younger and stronger man than I was; and in the water the less incumbrance in the way of clothing one has on, the easier will be his progress and the less his danger.

Where we crossed was in the bush, but the mosquitoes were not yet ready to commence their summer’s work; so we lay down and rested awhile. We started on again, and in the course of an hour we arrived at the house of Bro. D. Kyle, on the sixth line of Garafraxa. Here we were made welcome by Mrs. Kyle and family. The relation of our watery experiences furnished a good deal of amusement for the young people. However, I never felt that the getting wet or the being laughed at did us any particular harm; but we came to the conclusion that the shortest way is not always the easiest or safest.

A Series of Spring-tide Difficulties.

The Huron District of the Methodist Episcopal Church was a very large one. It included three whole counties and extended into five others. To go over this territory four times in the year, as the presiding elder was expected to do, involved facing some difficulties arising from bad roads and rough weather. For many years this travel had to be accomplished with a horse or on foot.

When I was appointed to the position there were not ten miles of railway within the boundaries of the district. In the spring of the year it was often very hard to meet the appointments on account of the floods caused by the melting of the large quantities of snow that fall during the winter months. One spring I was on my round of Quarterly Meetings and I found myself in the town of Kincardine. On my way to my home in Meaford I was to stop over Sabbath and hold a Quarterly Meeting at Eugenia Falls. I heard that the country was flooded in all directions, and that travel was almost entirely suspended; but I had a good horse and there was a good gravel road nearly all the distance.

I started on Wednesday morning. I intended to make my way to the home of Brother William Cross, in Culross, that day. All went on very nicely for the first part of my journey. But when I called at the

Black Horse Corners for dinner I went to Mr. Harrison’s house ; he was the keeper of the post-office, and he told me that four miles ahead, at Riversdale, the road was flooded so that the mails from Walkerton had been brought over in canoes for the last week. This was rather unpleasant news to hear, especially as there was no other road to take. However, there was no help for it. I had often told young men and boys never to say “I can’t,” until they had tried. After myself and horse had been cared for, I started for the scene of trial. When I came to the place I found that what I had heard was no exaggeration.

The Teeswater, or Mud River, runs for several miles through a low, level, swampy piece of country. At Riversdale, where the Durham Road crosses the river, the flat is nearly a mile wide. A deep ditch was dug out on each side of the roadway and the earth thrown in the centre; this raised the road some feet above ordinary high-water mark. At this point the stream runs near the high land on one side, and consequent^’ the flat is all on the other side.

When I came to Riversdale and looked down the road, what I saw was by no means reassuring. I saw before me a sheet of water, fully five-eighths of a mile wide, that entirely covered the road. The flood had brought down a number of old logs anti stumps that had been lying about on the flats, and they had caught on the middle of the road and stopped there. The road had more the appearance of a pine-stump fence run through a pond than anything else that I can think of.

When I got into the village I spoke to some men who were standing at the door of the hotel, and they told me that no team had passed over the bridge for more than a week. One of the men said that he had been over in a canoe, and he thought it possible to go over with a single rig, if a man had a steady horse and nerve enough to face it. I told him that with me it was not a question of nerve, but a matter of necessity, as I must go over, if that were possible.

I drove on to the bridge across the main stream and got out to take a survey of things. The water was clear, and I could see the road for some distance ahead, and I concluded that there was room for the buggy to go between the row of stumps and the ditch, which was some ten or twelve feet deep. I took oft the check-rein and unbuckled the side-straps, so as to give every advantage possible. I took my trunk from under the seat and placed it on top of it, and took off* m3" coat and put it on the trunk, then I got up on top of all and started. The men were standing on the bridge; they said they would wait there until I either got over or needed help. My horse at first was somewhat frightened, but a few words spoken to him in a firm yet kind voice seemed to give him confidence. Sometimes he was half way up his sides in water, and sometimes not above his knees, but he kept perfectly calm and seemed to take in the situation fully. We got safely over, and when I waved my hat back to the men on the bridge as a token that all was well, cheer after cheer came floating over the five-eighths of a mile of water that ran between us.

Just as the sun was going down I reached the house of Brother Cross, and put up for the night after a rather anxious day. Here I was kindly treated and hospitably entertained, and after a good night’s rest I was ready for the road again. This Brother Cross is a whole-souled Englishman who, with his Scotch-Canadian wife, always have a place in their home for the weary itinerant.

A Shaky Bridge.

The morning after my adventure at Riversdale, I started on my journey, intending to go that day as far as the village of Hanover. I got to Walkerton about noon, and stopped for dinner at a hotel. Here I was informed that the bridge over the Saugeen River at Hanover had been impassable for more than a week. The mail stage had to take another road, and it went a number of miles out of its way to get around this obstacle. After dinner I went forward, feeling somewhat doubtful of success. When I got within a couple of miles of the place I met a man with a double rig loaded with furniture. I asked him about the bridge. He said that he had come over it, but that it was in a very dangerous condition. I asked him about the fiats. He said, “There is no danger there if you keep in the middle of the road; the danger is at the bridge over the main stream.” I drove on to the theatre of strife between human invention and some of the forces of nature. When I came to the place I found that the fiats, which were about one-fourth of a mile wide, were entirely covered except the tops of the many

stumps that still disputed the right of soil with the cultivators of the land. The scene presented *vas somewhat picturesque. The water moving hither and thither, as if trying to dodge the stumps—said stumps all the while standing on the spot where they grew, as unmoved as though they were to stand and last forever. Little currents and eddies were making music for themselves in ripples among the brush and other things that came in their way, and seemed to fancy that they were infantile rivers and baby whirlpools. Bright sunbeams lightly touched the smiling face of the water as one would pat the cheek of a lovely child.

I awoke from my reverie and started to cross the flats and try the bridge. I had no difficulty in keeping on the road. The water was up to the horse’s knees the greater part of the way. When I came to the bridge I found that it was all afloat, and it was kept from going down the river only by the precaution of some of the inhabitants who, with ropes and chains, had fastened it to trees and stumps, otherwise the municipality would have been out of pocket to the amount of twelve or fifteen hundred dollars by the loss of their bridge, besides the inconvenience to the travelling public.

When I drove on the bridge I found that it trembled and swayed to such an extent that I was fearful that it would break loose and go down stream despite the chains and ropes with which it was fastened. I walked over ahead of my horse, and I think that I stepped as lightly as a man weighing a hundred and eighty can possibly do. We got over in safety, but when I stopped the horse he was all in a tremble. That bridge had taxed his nerves to a great extent.

I think if the poor brute could have spoken at that time, he would have said something like this: “It is much safer to go through deep water if you have solid ground below you than it is to go over a shaky bridge with a deep, swift river raging and foaming under it.” I soon after reached the Hanover parsonage, whose occupants, Bro. and Sister Lynch, kindly invited me to stop with them over night. I thankfully accepted their kindly offer, and put up for the night. When I related the experiences of the last two days, Brother Lynch, who could enjoy a good laugh as well as most men, made himself quite merry over the picture that I presented. But the hearty welcome, coming from a warm Irish heart, which he gave me, more than atoned for any soreness that I might feel under the lashing of his Hibernian wit. I shall have to refer again to this brother and his excellent wife in these experiences. I got a good night’s rest, and in the morning started for Eugenia.

A Big Basin Full of Water.

Starting from Hanover in the morning I went on to the town of Durham, and put up at Dr. Halstead’s. I found the doctor and young people all well, but Mrs. Halstead was very sick. I always found a cheerful welcome at Dr. Halstead’s either by night or by day. Here I fed my horse, got my dinner, had prayer with the sick woman, and started again for Eugenia.

As I was driving out of town I met the mail stage coming in from the east. I asked the driver about the road. He said that I would find great difficulty in getting through. He quaintly stated the case by saying, “There is a big basin full of water where the road for thirty rods, is covered all of ten feet deep.” He said that in going around through a farm he made his horses swim for a couple of rods, but he got through all right. I thanked him for the information and started for another fight with floods, cheering myself by the way with the thought that where another could go with two horses I could surely go with one.

I went on through Priceville and Flesherton. About a mile further on I came to the “big basin.” Here the water was within three feet of the tops of the telegraph poles. The stage driver could not have found a more appropriate name. It was a large, round hollow, almost entirely surrounded by hills. It had an inlet, but it had no outlet. I had often passed along the road, but I had not noticed this peculiarity. The road had been made by cutting down the hills and filling up the hollow until an embankment was formed some eight or ten feet high, but now this was from six to eight feet under water. I found the place where the stage had come out of the fields and turned in, and in a little time I came to the “ inlet ” of the basin. This was a spring current made by the melted snow and rains. It was about thirty feet wide, running swiftly, and the water was very muddy, so that its depth could not be seen. The banks were some ten or twelve feet high and very steep. As at Riversdale, I prepared for the worst and drove in; my horse by this time seemed reckless as to where he went. He was able to touch bottom all the way, but water ran over his back a part of the time. We got over in safety, and got out on the road again all right.

After another four miles of road pretty badly defaced by mud, just as the sun was leaving the last of his beams lingering in the tops of the trees that crowned the hills around the little village of Eugenia, I drove up to the preacher’s home and found Bro. Thomas Reid anxiously waiting for the arrival of the often-talked about and much-scolded presiding elder. The genial and kindly welcome of Brother and Sister Reid would drive gloomy thoughts and feelings from the most melancholy dyspeptic that ever brought a saddened face into a happy home. I felt a relief at the thought that for two days I would be at rest, so far as travel was concerned.

On Saturday I learned that the road to Meaford was impassable for a mile in consequence of an overflow of Beaver River at Kimberley. We also learned that all the bridges between Flesherton and Singhampton, on the Durham road, had been swept off, so that it would be impossible for me to go home by way of Colling-wood. I told Bro. Reid, when he informed me, that I would dismiss the subject from my mind, and attend to my duties in connection with his Quarterly Meeting, and see what was best to do when Monday came.

On the Sabbath people came in from all directions, and we had a good meeting in the little church. Old Mrs. Purdy, or Aunt Anna as she was frequently called, lived here with her son and daughter. She was an old Methodist of over fifty years’ standing. She has since gone to her friends across the tide. R. McLean Purdy, postmaster at Eugenia, did much for his mother’s church.

Floating Corduroy.

On Monday morning I started for home, having been absent for more than three weeks. When I got to Kimberley, and as I was passing through it, a gentleman called to me and said, “You cannot possibly get through the swamp, as the corduroy bridge is all afloat.” I said to him, “Sir, I thank you for your kind intentions ; but my way is, when I start to a place, I go as far as I can And a track or make one. I will go on and have a look at the road. I do not like to give up now.” “Well,” said my friend, “you will have to come back, and we will have dinner ready when you come.” I went on to the river. The main stream at this place is small, as the river spreads over the low, flat, swampy land, necessitating a causeway one mile and a quarter in length. This had been made of logs put side by side on stringers or flat on the "round. For about half the distance the causeway has been covered with dirt and gravel.

I found the uncovered part all floating so that a horse could not be got over it at all. I found that by stepping very quickly I could go over without much danger, and I concluded that I could draw the buggy over by hand, if I could only get the horse over.

While I was thinking what to do, two boys came after me, and one of them said that his father sent them to tell me to come back and he would see the horse was got over. When I went the man proposed to put a boy on the horse, and send him a mile back up the river to where a farmer had made a bridge into his premises. He could cross there and go through ten or twelve farms to the side road on the other side of the swamp. This would involve a good deal of trouble, and require the letting down and shutting up of a number of fences; but I could see no other way to do unless I left the horse behind and went on foot home.

The boy started after dinner, and I went to the swamp to take the buggy over. I could see the boy after he got over in the clearings, as the land on that side was very high, just on the face of the mountain. I could see the little fellow steadily moving across the fields. Sometimes he would be questioned a little, but no one interfered with him. I went over the floating logs stepping from one to another, drawing the buggy after me. By the time the boy got around with the horse, I had got over to the covered part of the causeway. I hitched up and drove on four miles and stopped at Bro. R. Gilray’s, at Epping. It had taken me all the day to make less than ten miles. Bro. Gilray and family were always noted for their unostentatious hospitality. They are Lowland Scotch. They have a large number of children. One son is a Presbyterian minister in Toronto, and another is reeve of his native township. They are an energetic, moral and prosperous family.

The next morning I started for home, which is twelve miles distant; I got home at noon. After leaving Kincardine, I was four days and a-half on the road. This time was spent in making a trip that has often been done in one day and a-half. My next Quarterly Meeting was at Meaford, so my horse and myself had a rest of a week or more. That was the most watery journey I ever had.

An Involuntary Dive.

When we were on the Teeswater mission, I used to have some exciting times on the river fishing for speckled trout. These splendid fish were plentiful. Wheat and meat being scarce, people caught the trout not so much for sport, or as a luxury, as they did for family necessity. The most noted places for trout-fishing were at Parr’s mill and at Carroll’s mill-pond; Parr’s was three miles from Teeswater, and Carroll’s seven, on the Teeswater River.

One day I started to go to Carroll’s, and 1 took a boy with me. We walked as far as Parr’s mill, and there we got a flat-bottom skiff that George Parr had made for himself. We went down the river in this. When we got as far as Mr. John Gilroy’s, he invited the boy to stop and pick a basket of green peas to take home with us. I went on alone to the pond and succeeded in catching a good string of very fine fish.

When I came back to Mr. Gilroy’s the boy had a basketful, and Mrs. G. had the tea ready. We took tea, and then paddled up the stream until we got to where Parr kept his boat. This was in the mouth of a little creek that ran into another creek of a bigger size, which itself enters into the Teeswater. There is an eddy at the place, and the whirling water had scooped out a hole fourteen or fifteen feet deep. In trying to run into the mouth of the creek which was very narrow and deep, I missed it. I rose to my feet and placed the oar against the land to push back into the stream, so that I might try to run into the miniature harbour with better success. I made an effort, and I suppose I put on more force than was needed. The boat shot like an arrow into the middle of the eddy, I lost my balance and found that I must either go overboard or upset the boat and spill its contents into the water. It is wonderful how quickly the mind can take in the whole situation at a critical moment. The water was deep, my boy could not swim, the fish and peas would be scattered in the creek, and carried by the current into the river, and I would get as wet as possible. All this I saw at a glance; I chose to get wet alone, and with a spring I went head first over the side into the water, going down until my head struck the bottom. The boy was sitting with his back to me and did not know that I was out of the boat until he saw me come to the surface some distance off, as the boat had moved on after I left it. The work of getting into the harbour was soon accomplished now, myself acting as a tug.

I seems to me that almost everything has a laughable side to it, if one is disposed to see it. When I took in the aspect of things as I came up, I could not help but laugh. The look of wonderment on the face of the boy; myself spouting and blowing like a miniature whale; the little boat rocking and swaying as if to show how easily it could toss a man into the aqueous fluid. After securing the boat we went to the house of George Parr. Mrs. Parr gave me some of his clothes to put on, but on trying them I found they were too small. So there was nothing for it but to go on home in my wet clothes. We got home all right, and after the usual wifely remark, “I told you to be careful,” from the companion of my joys and sorrows, the events of the day became a matter of family history, and I never realized any harm from my involuntary ducking.

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