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The Hilton Lake Breakaway

author: Dale Carter

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On an ill-fated spring night in 1852, a peaceful lake in Brighton Township dealt a cruel hand of death and devastation to the unsuspecting farming community.

It was early morning April 21, 1852 and cold winds drove sheets of freezing spring rain through the hills and across the gritty landscape of Brighton Township. It had been raining hard for several days. In the early light farmers hustled through the downpour to start their daily chores. Livestock stirred restlessly and began their usual ritual of welcoming another dawn.

The previous winter had been long and harsh. Storms and heavy snowfall had often held the farming families in the Orland, Hilton and Codrington areas of the township hostage in their own homes for days. Recent weather had turned farmlands into water-soaked fields of mud. Footpaths and roads ran like streams. Percy Road, the main route connecting the township and Brighton, proved almost impossible passage for those wagons that dared the trip.

The dirty flannel clouds that morning held no promise of an early spring. Before the day ended, rain and run off from melting snow would prove a deadly concoction, unleashing a slumbering monster that would scar the countryside and the families who lived there for generations.

While farmers cursed the weather, anxious in their need to return to the land, another group welcomed the inclemency. The 1851 census tells us Brighton Township was home to 19 sawmills with 19 ambitious owners in a market hungry for all the lumber they could produce.

The mills depended on water as a power source. Owners driven both by demand and easy money took advantage of the swollen creeks to increase production while the waters were high before receding in the heat of summer.

Two mills had been built on Cole Creek, known today as Cold Creek. The first sawmill was owned by Lewis Shearer and was constructed just east of present day Northumberland County Road 30 between Hilton and Orland. The second mill was just 1.5 kilometres south of the Shearer mill and was owned by John Simpson, nephew of Obadiah Simpson, recognized as Brighton’s first settler. Simpson’s mill was probably larger because he had constructed a substantial dam between the banks of the creek to trap the water necessary for his power.

Upstream from the two mills and just a little northwest of Hilton lay a small lake formed by retreating glaciers 10,000 years earlier. When glaciers receded, they left behind massive chunks of ice trapped by the terrain. These melting remnants of glaciers created lakes. Hilton Lake, as it was known, was a shallow, gentle lake less than two kilometres across and about three to four metres deep.  It was, however, what is known as a marginal glacial lake, one dammed by a natural gravel barrier created by mineral deposits left by the melting front end of the retreating glacier.

No one paid much notice to the lake – it was after all quiet and pastoral, and for 10,000 years held in its basin by a natural barrier as old as the lake. But as the rain and sleet continued, this day would be different than the hundreds of thousands of days that had come before.

Elsewhere in the area two hardworking young men, Joseph Adams and John Herrington, both employed at Shearer’s mill, would meet briefly. Like most labourers in the mid-1800s these two men would work 16 hours or more a day, six days a week for 50 cents or less a day. Joseph Adams, a bachelor, told his friend that he had been invited to a card game that night and asked if Herrington could take his evening shift at the mill. Eager for the opportunity to earn more income to support his young family, John Herrington wished him luck at cards and accepted his offer with gratitude.

The fateful day unfolded without exception. A few locals, once the morning chores were done, most likely made their way to the Hilton store to seek warmth and companionship to exchange stories and speculate on the weather and the upcoming growing season. Disaster was furthest from their minds.

Setting out early, John Herrington said goodbye to his family and made his way to the mill that afternoon to start his shift with mill owner Lewis Shearer. Evening work at the mill was dangerous at the best of times. Lewis Shearer was a careful, responsible mill owner and John Herrington was a trusted labourer. Still, for April it was cold and the rushing water, with the loud, constant clacking of the sash moving up and down at more than 100 strokes a minute and the saw blade slashing through the timber spreading sawdust everywhere, provided little relief. As dark set in, lanterns or torches would be lit to illuminate the work area, but sawdust posed both the threat of fire and rendered treacherous footing on the wet timber floor. Both men worked carefully through the evening.

Further down the creek, a crew at John Simpson’s mill, under the direction of George Montgomery, was working under similar conditions. No one in either mill knew what was unfolding just a short distance upstream.

By all reports the gravel dam at Hilton Lake burst at about 10:30 that night. Millions of cubic metres of water roared downstream between the narrow banks of the creek, pushing a wall of gravel, stones, rocks and debris in front of it. Shearer’s mill was no match for the force of the flood. The mill, the dam and the two men were washed away in its wake. The bodies of the two men were found the next day half buried in the silt and gravel.

Further downstream, the crew working the Simpson mill heard the roar of the oncoming flood and had time to flee the structure onto the banks of the creek. They ran toward the Simpson home then watched in the dark as the torrent of water ferociously destroyed the Simpson mill. On the bank, the stunned workers stared in disbelief. Soon they realized that George Montgomery wasn’t with them. Later, they found him downstream, badly shaken, but very much alive.

The force of the flood was over in just minutes, the lake was drained, the creek was flooded, two mills had been destroyed and two lives were lost. The families would take years to recover.

An eerie calm filled the night with no sound but the rushing water of the creek and the soft murmuring of the workers. A 10,000 year old pact with nature had been broken with devastating finality.

Today, the major effect of the flood, and something most travellers take for granted, is County Road 30.  Until the breakaway, Percy Road skirted the east end of Hilton Lake and used part of the gravel barrier as it wound its way from Brighton further into the township. The flood had destroyed much of this section of the road leaving the area littered with debris, fallen trees, silt and gravel.

In the mid-1800s the local economy was booming but the stalwart Percy Road, now almost 50 years old and heavily compromised, was no longer able to provide safe passage for the increased wagon traffic. The community needed a new road.

In 1853 a private consortium was formed. Working with the approval of Brighton Township council, the consortium began construction of a new road from the Presqui’le docks that would eventually lead up Prince Edward Street in Brighton and push into the township.

Within three years the road had extended north of Codrington where it would eventually join a road from Campbellford and in 1930, become King’s Highway 30, now recognized as Northumberland County Road 30.

Today, hundreds, perhaps thousands of people, rush along this busy thoroughfare every day unaware of the history and the heartbreak.

In late evening, in the gloaming of Northumberland, dipping down over the rising mist of Cold Creek, the knowing few glance both left and right searching for a lingering trace of the breakaway aftermath or a vanishing wisp of that fateful April night in 1852.

Tragedies and subplots are sprinkled within the framework of the Breakaway story and there is more, much more.

Dan Buchanan has a greater intimate knowledge of these events and the lives of those touched by the tragedy than anyone. He has known of the Breakaway story for most of his life.

Dan was born on a farm on the north end of Codrington and spent his formative years on the farm and around Codrington.

Both Dan’s parents had roots in the area and as a very young boy his maternal grandfather, Lloyd Ames, sparked his interest in local history. Dan spent most of his adult life away from his roots, but he never really left, returning often to his grandparent’s to chat and compare notes with his grandfather in the familiar comfort of the village home.

Now he is home again, living in Brighton. Dan recalls as a child that driving south into Brighton from Codrington with his family he would sometimes hear bits and pieces of the Breakaway story as they neared the area of Cold Creek. His grandfather’s folksy retelling of the story stirred Dan’s interest and led to the research he did later in life.

More recently Dan’s interest in local history has become a serious genealogy pursuit, and using his technology skills, has compiled an important data base of interconnected family trees of people who settled in this area within the last 200 years.

Recently, Dan has become a driving force behind the Brighton Archive initiative. His research of the Breakaway incident has led him to become a bar-coded book in the Brighton Public Library, Living Library section.

On April 21 this year, to commemorate the 160th anniversary of the Breakaway, Dan recounted the story to a standing-room only crowd in the historic Hilton Township Hall, mere kilometres from where the event happened.

Many thanks to Dan for sharing his research. He is currently working on a project to have the Breakaway recognized officially with an historic plaque. To find out more about Dan, his genealogy project and detailed local history stories, visit him online at www.treesbydan.com

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