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Cambridge Mills - a virtual visit to the past and present
[my neighbourhood - past, present and future]

"John Erb (1807) builds Preston's first grist mill beside the sawmill built the previous year...
A hamlet known as Cambridge Mills grows up around the mills, and is the first urban
settlement in the region. (Quantrell, J. p. 91)

If an urban planning/transportation issue is cloaked with the mantel of "historic significance", the political process seems to be altered by the historical designation. With that reality in mind, this page will present a "hypothetical" case for not allowing transportation planners/politicians to further destroy the fabric of what we once knew as Cambridge Mills. I offer my thanks to the local historical 'advocates' for lessons learned from their political presentations over the years. It should come as no surprise that I reside in the "historic area" once known as Cambridge Mills.

What features of Cambridge Mills should have been treasured and protected from contemporary industrialization and related transportation pressures in Cambridge? From the residents' viewpoint, the answer is simply the local neighbourhood!

Like most early Ontario towns, we had one main street, King Street. Once travelled by stage coaches, it would eventually become a section provincial highway #8.
So yes, a provincial highway now runs through the middle of our neighbourhood. 

"Highway 8 travels through the city as Shantz Hill Road, King Street (Preston), Coronation Boulevard, and Dundas Street, linking     Cambridge to Kitchener and Waterloo in the north, and Hamilton in the south

"It was around Mr. Erb's mills, known locally as Cambridge Mills, that the settlement that grew into Preston Ontario began. It was not Mr. Erb's intent, however, to create a town. His mills, rather than serving as the industrial foundation of a town he envisioned, were merely a concrete expression of his desire to serve the needs of his rural Mennonite brethren. Mr. Erb consistently refused to sell land for commercial development and it was not until after his death in 1832 that his lands to the south of the Speed River were surveyed and divided into lots." (1995, Quantrell, J.)

    In 1988 Ellis Little wrote a wonderful paper titled "Fording Places in Waterloo Township During The 1800s." In this research document, Little outlines how good fording places over the local rivers "had a major impact on the alignment of the early roads in Waterloo Township."
    "About a mile up from its confluence with the Grand, the Speed River is broken into two or three channels as it drops down between low-lying islands and meadows. A this point, in 1807, John Erb constructed the first sawmill and later the first grist mill in what became Waterloo Township.
Even before this, a crossing of John Erb's Creek (named the Speed by John Galt in 1827) had developed, and it became a major point where settlers coming from the south crossed over en route to their chosen locations further north.
    John Erb's Mills or as he name them later, Cambridge Mills, became the major centre in early Waterloo Township. Much traffic crossed the Speed, necessitating first a small bridge over the mill race and soon after a larger timber bridge over the main channel.
(p. 107)

Speed river mill race near Russ Street

Cambridge Mill around 1880                                                    women sitting at mill race of Speed River dam that no longer exists

So remember, Erb's original reason for settlement was based on the potential for both a fording and a dam across the Speed River. Water power for his future the mills. The above right photo was taken at a second Cambridge Mills dam located about .8 km upstream from King Street.

The Pennsylvania migrants usually used the Conestoga Wagon. Follow this link for an interesting explanation of the  Conestoga Wagon.

In the photo below, you can see the dam on right side. However, what you cannot see is the mill race that channeled  the water from the mill pond to power the mill. The mill buildings are visible on the top left side of the photo. Today in 2005, the dam, railway track, King Street bridge and mill and mill race are in the same location.

                       around 1920                                                  same dam, same railway bridge September 2005

Here is the situation so far:
1. a river and dam to supply water power for Erb's mills;  a second dam to power factories  beside the Speed River
2. settlement along a main street that in the late 1800s features electric rail service
3. Cambridge Mills is located in the Grand and Speed river valleys - road routes are limited by bridges and terrain
4. residential roads develop in a simple grid pattern on both sides of King Street south of the Speed River.

In this early photo (left) near the river and mill, you can see that the hotels in the background were served by electric streetcars that also connected to other electric trains that provided service to adjoining towns to the north, south and east.  Photo on right was taken from the mill's roof looking up the Speed River across  the King Street to the mill pond. The yellow brick building was the site of Frederick Guggisberg's furniture factory - described as the father of the furniture industry in Waterloo County. Has the Guggisberg name been honoured?


From a historical point of view, numerous features of Cambridge Mills had obvious significance. Most of this historical heritage has been ignored or forgotten as Cambridge evolved. Other sections of the city have been viewed as historical, but rarely Cambridge Mills. For example, in 1990 a heritage consultant hired by Cambridge Council provide the following bleak analysis: "... while many examples of significant structures remained from the 1850's, many more had been lost through demolition. The removal of approximately 30 buildings had significantly diminished the once cohesive heritage streetscape that was observable until the 1960s." (P-81-06)  
A perfect example of benign neglect, this 1990 heritage study was filed, gathered dust, forgotten, lost - who knows, but no action was ever taken by Council!
 But now, in October 2006, city staff are directed to investigate "the matter of Cambridge Mills". There is probably no connection, but do you want to take a guess at when this page was created and published ...  no connection at all?

But enough, lets look at the degree to which our built environment has changed to meet the ever increasing transportation pressures.
One place to start is along King Street.

Most commercial stores were located on King Street. Photo on left was taken before the electric railway line was constructed on King Street.
Central Park is situated to the left of the sidewalk. Believe it or not, but the Region of Waterloo would like to construct a light rail transit system.



         The HUB - located on King St. at Speed River                          Erb's mill pond with Guggisberg's furniture factory top right corner  

So that is a brief outline of 'the way we were'.
Now lets jump ahead a century and look at the effects of benign neglect on King Street and adjacent residential neighbourhoods.


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