The Forgotten Past Chiseled in Rock
by Jack Hutton
Tuesday, November 21, 2017, started off as an ordinary morning for Jean-Marie Gagné, the site supervisor for a new hydro plant being built at the Bala Falls in Muskoka. Gagné is employed by WSP Canada, which designed the North Bala Small Hydro Project for Swift River Energy Ltd., the developer. Gagné’s task for the day was to inspect an area where an SREL excavation crew using heavy equipment had just dug down to expose the Precambrian bedrock for the next stage of construction. The weekend digging had unearthed a large ridge of granite that looked down the Moon River at an angle. It was 25 feet wide, 20 feet deep and 8 feet high, covered by a thick crust of mud and soil.
The more he looked, the more Gagné thought that he could see unusual outlines in the mud surface that faced down river. Was he missing something?
Gagné used a broom to poke at the mud and got the surprise of his life. Someone had carved the year “1888” into the granite. Gagné rushed to a nearby cofferdam with a pail and began throwing water at the mud. By lunch time, he had washed all mud and dirt off two side-by-side rock inscriptions. The left-hand inscription had “1888” at the top. Below the year were two signatures: HIRAM DEPUY (the Y was very faint) and G. V. WILLSON, followed by PITTSBURG US. A second inscription, added decades later at the right, read: W. A. T. AND G. G. BIRRELL, AUG 1919 LONDON ONT.
Word spread quickly that the most exciting archeological find in Bala’s history had been discovered. Gunta Towsley, president of the Muskoka branch of Architectural Conservancy Ontario, phoned a vice-president of SREL, Nhung Nguyen, to tell her that the find was located within Bala’s new Heritage Conservation District, albeit on provincial lands so not subject to the municipality’s HCD Plan. Towsley was told that the find had already been reported to Ontario’s Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport and that all work had been halted near the historic rock. The two agreed that the rock inscriptions should be preserved for posterity if at all possible.
Swift River contacted consultants to determine how to remove a section of the rock face with the two inscriptions as a permanent historical display. The challenge was a crack extending through the inscriptions that could easily fracture.
Meanwhile, the Muskoka ACO branch was attempting to learn who the individuals were whose signatures were chiseled into the two rock inscriptions. W. A. T. Birrell’s signature was already known to local historians because he had chiseled his name into a granite ridge on the north side of Bala’s North Falls on August 1, 1919. Unfortunately, he didn’t add where he was from and this remained a mystery for many years.
The newly discovered rock inscription revealed that he was from London, Ontario. Based on that, Jeff Stewart, a Toronto genealogy researcher, told Bala’s Museum that the mystery man was Walker Arthur Thomas Birrell, 19, who had just returned from his overseas service during the First World War at the end of May, 1919, and had visited Bala in August. G. G. Birrell was his brother.
We now know that both Birrell brothers were electricians working for Hydro in the City of London, thanks to Liz Lundell, the founding president of ACO Muskoka and author of seven books on Ontario heritage, and a second researcher, Pam Wong, a retired occupational therapist and an expert in genealogical research. Two members of London Region’s ACO branch, Maggie Whalley and Dan Brock, added extra details.
Meanwhile, who were George V. Willson and Hiram DePuy whose chiseled names appear in the 1888 rock inscription?
On December 1, Pam Wong discovered online that George V. Willson was a well-known Pittsburgh businessman who frequently attended meetings at the Astoria Hotel in New York. On that same day, Liz Lundell found a photo in a Bala history book of the Pittsburgh Rod and Gun Club tenting at the Bala Falls in 1888. Her research confirmed that Willson and DePuy were members of that club.
Further research identified George V. Willson as general manager of a Pittsburgh steel plant and Dr. Hiram DePuy as a well-known Pittsburgh dental surgeon. The historic photo in the history book shows 17 or 18 men in front of their tents, with seven women off to the side. Somewhere in the photo are DePuy, aged 28, and Willson, aged 35.
Swift River’s Nhung Nguyen had more good news on December 20. A metre-thick slice of the historic Bala rock had just been severed in a delicate operation known as line drilling, leaving both rock inscriptions intact for a future display. The main problem was a slight fracture line across the letters that required many hours of advance planning. In addition to perimeter line drilling, 10 holes were drilled to install long steel rock bolts with bolt-on steel plates through the 10-plus ton massive block to prevent it from fracturing. Miraculously, it all worked.
The historic discovery and rescue of the two rock inscriptions is a dramatic example of what can happen when a developer co-operates with local ACO branches to recognize the importance of local history and heritage.
It’s worth remembering that none of this would have happened if Jean-Marie Gagné had not decided to take a second look at the mud-covered granite ridge that had been buried for more than half a century. As the saying goes, the rest is history.
About the author:
Jack Hutton is a member of ACO Muskoka. He is a retired reporter and communications director. A regular contributor to Muskoka publications, he is also a ragtime piano maestro.