In 1858, the newly incorporated Town of Collingwood aspired to offer its citizens a home in which to do business, raise families and build the foundation of dreams for a future generation. By 1881, the municipality covered 4000 acres, with a population estimated at about the same number. A thriving commercial sector had been established, with the enviable advantage of railway and marine routes for the transportation of raw materials and manufactured goods. Collingwood looked forward to its future as a magnet for industry.
In this 150th year since incorporation of the Town of Collingwood, its Water and Light Commission, known today as Collingwood Utilities Services, celebrates its own significant anniversary: one hundred years of providing power and water to the community.
In 1889, a forward-thinking Council approved a by-law to borrow the sum of $50,000 to establish a wholly-owned town water and sewer system, a pioneering prospect in a day when few towns the size of Collingwood could boast municipally-owned and operated utilities. Two years later, the water works were expanded to serve a wider customer base. Management of water and power remained in the hands of Council, but despite its successful start, by 1908, dissatisfaction with power service had ballooned into a hot political issue. Power generation, chiefly from coal, was unreliable and costs spiralled out of reach of the average, mainly commercial, consumer.
In response, the newly elected council of 1908 made the establishment of the Water and Light Commission one of its first priorities. At its January 6 inaugural meeting, three members were appointed to oversee and improve operations of the utility: Mayor George Watson, Jr., architect John Wilson and businessman John Guilfoyle.
Meanwhile, twenty years earlier, a farm in Caledon had claimed its place in history as the first home in Ontario to be powered by electricity. The Barber Paper Mill in Georgetown followed suit in the same year, becoming the first industrial plant to run on electricity. Small power stations sprang up throughout Ontario communities, capable of producing an ever-expanding supply generated mainly from coal imported from the U.S.
Private interests, however, soon smothered hopes of affordable electric power for the masses: favours were doled out to well-connected entrepreneurs, and utility services that had germinated in public hands were absorbed by powerful franchises. As electricity monopolies grew and the purses of profiteers swelled, the public outcry for an affordable alternative went unheeded by the Liberal government of the day.
Deliverance finally came in the person of Sir Adam Beck, founder of the Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario (HEPC), which drew together a multitude of operations across Southwestern Ontario, and whose chief source of power was the thundering rush of Niagara Falls. Beck’s formidable efforts to harness the province’s rich natural resources trumpeted an end to domination of power supply and distribution by foreign and domestic investors.
Chairman of the HEPC for 25 years, Beck’s tour through the province brought the reality of cheap, reliable hydro-electricity to the very doorsteps of small-town Ontario, as he demonstrated the unsurpassed efficiency of hydro-electric power for everything from running farm and industrial machinery, to making toast.
Collingwood was not about to be left behind in Beck’s hydro-electricity revolution. In 1912, the region’s first purchase contract with HEPC was signed as Collingwood took the lead in a consortium of municipal energy buyers, including Midland, Penetanguishene, Stayner, Coldwater and Elmvale, and at a later date, Barrie. The new supply agreement for power from the Big Chute generation site signalled a major shift in operations of the utility in Collingwood.
E. J. Stapleton, “a genial Irishman . . . quick-tempered, proficient in profanity,” was hired to oversee both the water and electricity departments. A first and second engineer and a maintenance mechanic, John Potts, were hired to service the water works, while Charles Cole was employed as chief linesman for hydro operations. The first bill received from HEPC in 1912 totalled $777, the purchase price of enough hydro-electricity to serve the needs of the whole population, by then over 7,000 people.
The initial load of power delivered to Collingwood was celebrated amid much fanfare on February 24, 1913: 700 hp of electrical energy. The public poured into the Opera House to witness the official ceremonies. A press release issued by The Bulletin marked the historic occasion:
The introduction of hydro power into Collingwood is an epoch-making event in the history of the town and one that cannot but be of the greatest importance. It brings to our doors the “white coal” which is building up in the Province busy hives of industry, is changing the methods of agriculturalists, and is making home life more pleasant. Its introduction into Collingwood means much to our industrial life and is looked upon as the precursor of brighter and better times.
Until then, the electricity market in Collingwood had served mainly commercial purposes. With a ready and expandable supply available, residential installations soon multiplied. A new sector of the market opened up for the utility. In an age where the “do-it-yourself” principle had long prevailed, a growing residential customer base meant that the safety of new installations had to be ensured.
Stapleton’s duties were expanded to include inspection and approval of residential installations, carried out by licensed electricians Frank Occomore and Hy Burgman. Eventually, a separate inspection department was set up.
An outside auditor, R. C. McCallum, described as “exceptionally clever,” established and maintained an efficient set of books for the entire customer base. Administrative duties were carried out by successive female employees from 1910 through 1965, listed as Mabel Hoy, Edna Brown, Grace Scobie, Isabel Beynon, Annie McIntyre and Margaret Bunting.
With the start of the First World War, the surge in munitions manufacturing and other war-related industries created an increased need for power and water and its attendant services. In 1915, the pumping station was converted to electricity and an extension to the building was planned to house added distribution equipment. Water system infrastructure improvements began, and between 1912 and 1936 the installation of a new distribution system, new pumps and motors and an intake pipe cost the town a total of $30,000, paid for in new debentures. By 1916, a combined minimum rate of 75 cents per month was charged for water and power.
In 1923, a building located at 39 Hurontario Street was purchased to house the utility offices, which included a storefront electrical appliance showroom featuring labour-saving household equipment; the availability of a cheap, reliable source of power had altered traditional housekeeping methods and roles, and every householder seized the opportunity to boast of owning the latest electrical gadget.
That same year, the provincial hydro authorities finalized plans for Collingwood Public Utilities to install and maintain hydro supply lines to Wasaga Beach and a year later, to Nottawa and Duntroon. When the new grain elevator was built in 1929, its increased capacity of two million bushels created a spike in hydro consumption; the 2,300 volt line supplying the Collingwood Shipyards up to that time was replaced by a dedicated 44,000 volt-capacity line which served both the shipyards and the Collingwood Terminals. Increased purchasing power meant better rates, and the whole town enjoyed the benefit of its new status as a key consumer for the region.
Five years later, a new pumping station was built closer to the shoreline to better facilitate water intake from Georgian Bay; three 75-hp motors handled water intake, treatment and distribution.
The next major development boom in Collingwood occurred during the Second World War, when a 1941 federal government fund—Wartime Housing Limited—financed the construction of 200 new homes, most of which were built on vacant land between Seventh and Ninth streets, stretching east to Hurontario Street and west to Birch Street. The new development was dubbed Victory Village, and the government-financed homes were offered preferentially to returning servicemen.
Increased housing, commerce and automobile traffic created the need for traffic lights and in 1948, four new sets of signal lights were installed on Hurontario Street at the intersections of First, Second, Third and Hume streets. At the same time, the street lights from First to Hume streets were converted to 500-watt incandescents and the hydro lines were buried underground.
When the move was initiated in 1912 to join with other municipalities for bulk purchasing of hydro-electricity, the town’s potential for industrial expansion was thought to be just over the horizon. But it was not until the late 1940s that industry began to take serious notice of the opportunities available in Collingwood. The town’s ability to serve the power and water needs of rapidly expanding manufacturing processes had been amply demonstrated during the industrial boom created by the Second World War.
A new sub-station was built in 1952 to handle the increased supply needed to serve new plants. Located on St. Marie Street in what is today the municipal parking lot, the building housed six 667-KVA transformers. The distribution system expanded from 2,300 to 4,160 volts. Street lighting was enhanced with the installation of 500-watt luminaires and 400-watt mercury vapour lamps.
The 1950s and 60s continued as a time of modest growth, with the germinating tourist industry beginning to show commercial potential. Collingwood’s shipyard, however, remained the heart of the community, providing stable employment for successive generations of workers. In 1986, the long-rumoured closing of the Collingwood Shipyards became an unfathomable reality. Cushioning the blow, several new industrial plants responded to government incentives to locate in Collingwood.
In the late 1980s, the residential boom on the western flank of town began to heat up. Tradesmen who had grown up in the shipyards were able to put transferable skills to good use in the residential construction market. New demands on power and water supply and distribution pushed the utility toward further expansion.
Once again, Collingwood’s ability to provide essential services contributed to its continued industrial and residential growth into the 1990s. Efficient, computerized operations and strategies for reduction of peak demand/supply translated into lower costs for services, allowing industries to compete effectively in the marketplace.
In 1996 the Commission, supported by Council, took the bold step toward a new, technically advanced water treatment facility to ensure a safe, secure and expandable water supply for the community. Named for a former mayor, the Raymond A. Barker Membrane Filtration Plant was commissioned in 1998, pioneering a superior water treatment method utilizing ultra filtration membranes to process safe, clean drinking water with minimal chemical use. A separate system providing unfiltered water for industrial processes reduced usage and processing costs significantly.
Collingwood’s water treatment plant has become a worldwide model of efficiency and innovation, drawing attention from municipalities as far away as China, Japan, Korea, Australia and New Zealand as well as Brazil, Germany, Hungary, Mexico, the UK and from all over the US. Plant tours are frequently conducted for visiting municipal chiefs and operators eager to learn more about the membrane technology that has contributed to Collingwood’s enviable reputation for clean, pure drinking water.
Throughout its hundred-year history, Collingwood’s municipal power and water services have responded to the needs of its citizens with the same pioneering spirit and optimism demonstrated by its town fathers. It is hoped that with foresight and the efforts of present and future generations of Collingwood residents, the beauty and rich resources of the bay may endure for centuries to come.
Published 2008, Our Homes Southern Georgian Bay, Holiday issue