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Holland Marsh History & Boat Tour

As part of my work on Council, I sit on the Holland Marsh Drainage Systems Joint Municipal Services Board which is responsible for maintaining and managing the Holland Marsh drainage system, to plan any future development for the Holland Marsh and tackle any possible environmental issues. I was delighted to get a boat tour of the canal with Drainage Superintendent Frank Jonkman and Superintendent Ruth Westlake who shared some history of the canal system. I was fascinated by what I learned and thought I would share an abbreviated version with you.

Scientists say that thousands of years ago the swamp was covered by a glacial lake called Algonquin. As the glacier retreated north, the lake level dropped and the area was eventually left dry, enabling forests to grow. As the mass of ice moved still farther north, Lake Simcoe expanded and flooded south of Cook’s Bay, causing a swamp to form.

In 1825, Scottish author John Galt travelled to Upper Canada as a commissioner of the Canada Company, which had planned to purchase crown and clergy reserve lands and resell them to settlers at a profit. While the company did purchase 1.3 million acres (526,000 ha) throughout the Huron Tract wilderness, Galt wasn’t impressed with the Holland Marsh and called it “a mere ditch, swarming with mosquitoes, flies, bullfrogs and water snakes.”

The harvesting of marsh grass and reeds after 1880 was the first real industry on the marshland. The hay was in demand in for stuffing mattresses and reached its peak around 1915 by which time hay was being cut on approximately 12,000 acres.

Harvesting Marsh Grass and Reeds – 1880s

A local farmer, Dave Watson, had the idea to dredge a canal and drain the marsh to turn waste land into productive soil. In 1910 a drainage expert, Professor W.H. Day, from the Ontario Agricultural College in Guelph was brought in and approved of the project, dubbed “The Big Scheme”, and a successful test plot was made that grew celery. In 1911 the Holland Marsh Syndicate was organized, but it wasn’t until 1923 that a petition was circulated with the support of 105 of the 120 owners (95.5 of the land base) for the proposed scheme.

Municipal officials agreed to carry out the work under Ontario’s Municipal Drainage Act and West Gwillimbury and Bradford passed by-laws in 1924 and 1925, approving a drainage scheme. In 1925, plans were drawn up for two canals to be constructed around a large section of the swamp to prevent water from flowing onto the swamp or into the old river course. This would divert the highland water along the canal and would empty it into the river below the reclaimed area. The canals were 28.1km long and the earth that was dug out was dumped onto the marsh side which created a dyke 7ft high and wide enough to build a road on top of. The project finished in 1930 with 180 acres of bush, scrub trees and alders cleared plus three dams built and a pumping station operating pumps capable of moving 40,000 gallons of water per minute.

Hurricane Hazel came in 1954, the dykes were primarily breached at the North branch and the Schomberg River, and water levels in the marsh varied from 2 feet in spots to 7 feet in others. It was because of this flooding that it was deemed necessary to make enlargements to the canals and dykes. The canals were excavated to 10 feet compared to the 7 feet from the original report.

Hurricane Hazel came in 1954, the dykes were primarily breached at the North branch and the Schomberg River, and water levels in the marsh varied from 2 feet in spots to 7 feet in others.

Between the 1970s and the 1990s, the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority completed numerous studies of the system and concluded that added capacity in the canals and greater flood protection was necessary. Some areas of the canal were filled to the waters surface with sediment, maintenance had become nearly impossible due to modification of the dykes and canals and loss of life was a growing concern after several fatalities and accidents along the canal.

An engineer was appointed in 1997, but construction didn’t begin until June 2010. The Project included the relocation and dredging of approximately 28 kilometers of perimeter canals and was completed in 2016.

Substantial Canal Improvement

While the project was necessary, the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans determined that it would be harmful to fish habitat. Permission was given to proceed only after securing commitments to mitigate and compensate for impacts to fish habitat and monitor the effects of created habitat, water quality and various biological features. The results were astounding.

In advance of the improvements, 30,954 fish representing 21 species were captured and relocated. The final design plans for the new canals included various fish habitat compensation measures the effectively replaced and improved habitat destroyed through construction. In addition, native aquatic species were transplanted from the existing canals onto the new habitat while on land native trees and shrubs were planted.

As a result of these efforts, the water quality was vastly improved in all areas.

This is what the canal looks like today:

My view of the south "King" side of the canal.
A farmer's irrigation pump drawing from the canal. Note that this farmer is on the other side of the canal which is not technically in the Holland Marsh.
In the past, farmers used to plant crops right up to the very edge of the canal but they now leave a small section of land to prevent erosion.
One of the root boles used in the canal from a tree that was cleared and now provides increased structural diversity of fish habitat. It was estimated that each root bole would provide 7.5 square meters of high quality fish habitat.
There were several fisherman along the canal enjoying the beautiful day.

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