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YATES: Rich heritage discovered along Rotary Cove in Goderich

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A walk along Rotary Cove at St. Christopher’s Beach in Goderich is a journey through nearly two centuries of marine history in the area. The one-kilometre promenade along the waterfront is a reminder that the south shore of the port was once a thriving road, rail and maritime hub, essential to the region’s commercial growth. This historic walk would not have been possible without the involvement of the local Rotary Club.

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Well-marked heritage signs dotted along the boardwalk point to where the first Canada Company docks landed settlers and loaded and unloaded cargo onto schooners bound for destinations along the lake in the age of sail . Many of these newly arrived immigrants carried their only possessions on their backs and began the journey inland at the terminus of the Huron Highway which is indicated by another sign. The locations of the CP station and the round house built in 1907 to transport passengers to Goderich for the journey to the western interior of the continent are also explained in detail.

Moving south along the promenade, one can imagine the abandoned hulks of what was called “the ossuary” where derelict ships were towed to rot. Or Peter McEwan’s International Salt Works at the southern tip of St Christopher’s Beach. Founded in 1869, the International Salt Works, at its peak in the 1870s, produced 600 barrels of salt per day. His streetcar carried salt over the cliffs to a corporate dock where it was loaded and shipped to Chicago for the Swift and Armor Meat packing plants.

Among the many historical markers, there is one that describes one of the strangest plans for the use of the waterfront. In 1902, in an effort to attract a permanent military base to Goderich, a firing range was proposed . From gun pits dug by the harbor’s south pier, soldiers were proposed to fire south along the beach at fixed targets 600 yards away. Presumably the rifle training would have been timed to avoid catching bathers at Captain Babb’s Bath House in the crossfire as the public beach was directly in the line of fire.

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The Historic Parkway and Heritage Trail almost never saw the light of day without the foresight of the citizens of the Rotary Club of Goderich. Mac Campbell, a native of Goderich, recalled that until the early 1960s, the waterfront south of the current water purification plant was “all swamp and rushes” around the boat graveyard. The clay cliffs overhanging the boneyard were unstable and prone to erosion from wave action on the lake.

Campbell, who had worked on a dredge with MacDonald Marine as a high school student and later with the Ontario Marine and Dredging Company, saw an opportunity to stabilize the lake shore erosion problem.

In 1962, Goderich Harbor was to undergo dredging operations to remove Ship Island and clean the harbor basin of silt and debris. Campbell, who had helped dredge Hamilton Bay in the early 1950s, had seen how material from the lake bed could be sucked up through a pipeline and washed ashore to expand the waterfront.

Campbell, who had taken over his father’s pharmacy in 1958, suggested to Goderich Reeve Reg Jewell that material dredged out of the harbor could be sucked ashore to stabilize the lake shore at the south end of town rather than be dumped 5 miles away. Initially, Jewell was rebuffed by engineers at the Dominion Public Works Department in London, but Campbell persisted in lobbying Jewell to make it more economical and practical to dump the material ashore.

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The public works department relented, and materials dredged from the harbor built up the beach and helped stabilize the banks. In 1963, the waterfront was appropriately named or renamed St. Christopher’s Beach in honor of the patron saint of sailors, smugglers and travellers.

Rising lake waters in the 1970s and 1980s again threatened to erode the shore of the lake. In February 1986, the federal government launched a $17 million project to deepen the harbor basin and channel to the St. Lawrence Seaway by blasting bedrock. A dredge, the General Brock, which had been used to create artificial islands in northern Canada, pumped 190,000 cubic meters of rock through a large pipe on the shore south of the sewage treatment plant.

As part of the Goderich Bluffs Erosion Control Project, in July 1986, harbor basin materials had created a 150-foot-wide beach just south of St. Christopher’s Beach. This newly created area, the result of a remarkable feat of marine engineering, became known as The Cove.

In 1987, as part of a 25th anniversary project for Goderich’s Rotary, the local service club “wanted to be involved in a project of permanence and substance,” according to the Goderich Signal Star.

The club chose to help develop the cove into a recreation area. In 1989, a majestic arch, known as the Rotary Arch, was erected. According to Rotarian Dr. Bruce Thomasson, the club in 1990 contributed $10,000 towards the cost of playground equipment.

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In 1992, a brick concession stand was built at the south end of the cove. Profits from the Rotary grant are used for municipal projects. Rotarians contributed $13,000 towards the construction of the original boardwalk in 1994. The Cove project earned the local club the prestigious Rotary President’s Award that year. In 1997, local Rotarians contributed $15,000 to reinstall the plaza’s streetlights on the boardwalk. The town recognized Rotary’s efforts by naming the Cove, Rotary Cove in 1998.

In an ongoing effort to highlight the historic significance of the St. Christopher’s Beach and Rotary Cove stretch. The Town of Goderich Marine Heritage Committee worked with Rotary to mark the trail with heritage signs to let passers-by understand the significance of the trail they are walking on.

St. Christopher’s Beach and Rotary Cove is now one of the top destinations for beachgoers and visitors in the summer, but it’s well worth the trip for locals to discover their region’s rich heritage along the waterfront. Wed.

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