Windsor – more than just salt

I have a special fondness for Windsor, Ontario, having been born in the area. The Windsor of today is very different from the one I remember as a child, as happens to all cities, especially those that sit at crossroads. Windsor straddles the edge of the Detroit River, directly across from the city of Detroit, Michigan. The Ambassador Bridge that joins the two cities across the expanse of the river is the busiest commercial crossing along the border between Canada and the U.S., and a popular crossing for general citizens. I remember regular trips to visit the Detroit Zoo with my dad, and excursions to the water’s edge to watch fireworks displays.

View from the Riverfront Park

The river is a defining feature that dominates my memories of living there, and created a lifelong love of being near water.

Windsor is a very old community, dating far back beyond the arrival of Europeans in the 1600s. Several Indigenous tribes already inhabited the area along the river, which was part part of the Three Fires Confederacy between the Odawa, Ojibwe and Potawatomi. European settlements began to grow because of the abundance of beavers, whose soft and waterproof pelts doomed the poor creatures.

Various pelt distinctions displayed in the Chimczuk Museum

In between trapping beavers, the early Europeans seemed to have a very confused idea of how the animals lived and built their homes. The painting below from the time period shows them walking around on their hind legs like people in an assembly line of construction.

In 1749 a French agricultural settlement was established where the city of Windsor is now, becoming the oldest continually-inhabited European settlement in Canada west of the city of Montreal. French place names all over the Windsor area come directly from the early settlers, even while the name of the eventual city and many surrounding towns and cities were taken from England itself. Indigenous names are also in the mix, such as the satellite town of Tecumseh, named for a Shawnee chief who tried to unite fellow tribes into a resistance movement against American expansion. A compelling carved-wood statue of Tecumseh himself bathes in the sunlight at the Chimczuk Museum, a great spot to learn all about the history of the city that would eventually become very well-known for table salt, Prohibition-era booze smuggling and automobile manufacture.

Today the liquor production is all legal (to the best of my knowledge, and you can tour the fantastic Hiram Walker museum), and car manufacture, although no longer in its heyday, continues to be an important industry.

Windsor has a thriving downtown with a great food scene, lovely gardens lining the river, a big casino, and plenty of interesting rural communities surrounding it to explore for a day out. There are several wineries and golf courses in the vicinity, as well as Point Pelee National Park, sitting at the southernmost tip of Canada’s mainland.

One of the things I have yet to do is visit Windsor’s salt mines. In 1891 (there are two), William Van Horne, president of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), sunk a test well on CPR land in Windsor, and found what he suspected was there. The rest, as they say, is history.

Sample of salt crystal at the Chimczuk Museum

In the early part of the 20th century, the proximity of Windsor and Detroit created a superb opportunity for liquor-producers to smuggle their products to the Americans in the throes of Prohibition, and the Detroit River became very busy starting in 1916 after the State of Michigan banned the sale of alcohol three years before it was banned nationally. I’ll blog more about this in the future, but for now, Wikipedia gives a good overview.

The Chimczuk Museum is a worthy beginning for your exploration of Windsor, and the docents are excellent, as is the gift shop. It’s a nice spot to cool off on a hot summer day, and a great place to learn about all the layers of history where so many cultures came together and continue to make a home.

The Made with Love Quilt, made by the Windsor-Essex Sewing Force in response to the COVID pandemic
One of the old tile signs at the border crossing, now housed in the museum

As always, all photos are by me unless otherwise specified, and all rights are reserved. E. Jurus

Tracing the old Welland Canal, version 2

On a fine spring day, awash in cherry blossoms but before all the leaves pop out and make viewing almost impossible, you can follow quite a long section of the second Welland Canal, constructed in the mid-1800s over a number of years. The wooden locks of the first Canal had deteriorated, as you might imagine from their regular soaking in deep water, and the size of ships passing through the Canal had increased. The same essential route was kept, with a change to stone locks, a widening of the channel, and the use of 25 locks to climb/descend the Niagara Escarpment, a rise/drop of 140 feet. It was a remarkable feat of engineering for the time.

From Thorold, Ontario it’s possible to still see reasonably well-preserved remnants of locks 21 to 15 in Mountain Locks Park. There are paths straddling both sides of the Canal, although some are rough dirt paths, sometimes mucky and slippery after rain, winding through thorny thickets; wear hiking boots with good treads. Mid-spring is the best time to do this walk, before the trees are too full and the mosquitoes haven’t appeared. The views of the Canal are unfortunately large obscured by high chain-link fence. While I understand the need to protect people and animals from falling into the old channel, surely there would be a better way to allow history buffs to see more of one of the engineering wonders of the world.

Lock 21
northern part of Lock 21

There’s a good view of Lock 21 from a footbridge that straddles it. The photos above provide evidence of how narrow the channel still was in the 1800s, and how shallow; none of the laker ships today would fit either in width or depth. At the end of the lock wall you can still see the lock number chiselled into the stone:

I took the above photo with a zoom lens centered between links of the surrounding fence. When all the leaves have come in on the trees, it would be very difficult to see the numbers on each lock. Below you can see how obstructive the fence is. There’s a huge, unsightly accumulation of garbage along the banks if you were to try to climb the fence to get closer, and the angle of descent is quite steep.

Today’s hike was full of sunshine and cherry blossoms, and many people were out enjoying one of the first nice days we’ve had.

As you follow the Canal’s passage, you can see the stepped bottom. It’s difficult to envision exactly how the lowering/raising of the boats was managed over these short jumps.

Near lock 20 some intrepid soul had opened a section of the fence, and I was able to capture this terrific view of the lock.

At Lock 17, seen above, the water disappears underground, right below this transverse footbridge that I was standing on to take the photo. It trickles its way below the remainder of the park and crosses under Glendale Avenue, a major thoroughfare in southern St. Catharines.

On the other side, the old Canal is dry, and only scraps of wall are left. The path leads down a small hill to the valley that was once the Canal itself.

Graffiti ‘artists’ have defaced the historic walls, although it does make it easier to spot the stone through the tangle of vegetation.

One of the most interesting things in this section is a great look at the Canal wall from where it abruptly stops. You can see how thick the walls were made.

Remaining remnants of the walls can be spotted if you pay close attention.

At a certain point there’s still a channel with water in it, between the two sides of the old lock, so it must be roughly where the ships travelled between locks 16 and 15.

If you can avoid tripping over all the brush on the wooded floor, you may be treated to a lovely carpet of wild violets.

Not much farther along, the wall veers abruptly off at a 90-degree angle, toward an enormous pond.

Apparently this was a large reservoir where the boats turned toward lock 15. Today it’s a quiet place with only a lone Canada goose for company.

From this point it’s best to head toward the paved path through Mountain Locks park to avoid getting mired in mud and swamp. As the path curves around, you can see the curved wall where the Canal turned into Lock 15.

Lock 15 now only displays the top of its walls.

What a sight this must once have been, watching ships literally climb down or up the massive eroded rock outcrop that itself curves from the reaches of Western New York through southern Ontario, all the way above Lakes Huron and Michigan, and more than half way down the western shore of the latter lake.

It’s a worthy hike for anyone who’s interested.

All photos are by me unless otherwise specified, and all rights reserved.

Remarkable Explorers – Marianne North

My own easy photo of lotus plants in the Botanical Garden in Mauritius, All rights reserved.

In honour of International Women’s Day two days ago, I’d like to introduce you to a fascinating explorer from the late 1800s!

Marianne North, born in England on October 24, 1830, broke all the molds. I knew nothing at all about her until I happened across an episode several years ago on television, “Kew’s Forgotten Queen”, aired by the BBC. I was mildly interested, having been to Kew Gardens several years before, but as the documentary introduced more and more about its subject, I became engrossed.

Miss North (as she would have been addressed in her time) was the daughter of a prosperous landowner and politician. She took up flower painting at a fairly early age, perhaps inspired by trips with her father to visit Kew Gardens, where her father knew the director, Sir Joseph Hooker.

Her sister went the traditional route for women at the time of getting properly married, but Marianne had no interest in doing that. She travelled extensively with her father, through Europe and into the Middle East. Her mother passed away when Marianne was only twenty-five, and painting helped her through her grief.

On her visits to Kew she’d been so intrigued by some of the tropical plants that she determined to see their countries for herself. After her father passed away in 1869, she took advantage of her inheritance to do exactly what she wanted: travel the world, painting.

Can you imagine not only travelling all over the globe 152 years ago, crossing the oceans in a steamship to barely-explored continents, but doing so as a single woman? I think we have to give Marianne North extra points just for courage.

For fourteen years, she visited fifteen countries, painting the people and cultures, dramatic landscapes, and most especially the plants.

Her skill and scientific accuracy attracted a lot of attention, and she met many famous people of the day. Visiting Canada and the United States, she visited the home of famous Hudson River School painter Frederic Church, who built his famous Orientalist-style house Olana, near Hudson, New York. He encouraged her to visit South America. Charles Darwin suggested she go to Australia, where she spent a year.

Her paintings are extremely beautiful, and she went to extraordinary lengths to find some of the rarest species. One of the pitcher plants that she painted in Borneo, had been unknown to science at the time. It was named after her: Nepenthes northiana. It’s always been one of my personal favourites of all her work.

Nepenthes northiana (c. 1876), Marianne North Gallery, Kew Gardens. The painting shows the pitcher plant‘s lower and an upper pitcher.
By Marianne North – Scanned from: Phillips, A., A. Lamb & C.C. Lee 2008. Pitcher Plants of Borneo. Second Edition. Natural History Publications (Borneo), Kota Kinabalu., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3353798

North bucked the traditional stylized botanical paintings of the time, with parts of plants sedately placed on a light background, and instead vibrantly painted everything in its natural setting. Each painting became a time capsule, capturing the entire habitat as it looked in that era.

In 1879 Marianne offered her collection of paintings to Sir Joseph Hooker as well as commissioning a gallery to house them.

You can find out much more about her and view many of her paintings at the Kew Gardens website, and I encourage you to watch the original documentary on YouTube, The Incredible Life of Marianne North Through her Art and Adventures (Full Documentary), to see host Emilia Fox visit some of the same locations as a testament to Miss North’s remarkable passion and dedication.

May her life, and those of all the intrepid women before us, inspire us all to have the courage to live our dreams.

430 million years of history into cement

Buried under more than 50 wineries, 10 golf courses, a college and a university, shopping malls, an outlet mall, and around 447,000 residents lie rocks that predate the dinosaurs by almost 350 million years. Standing on top of the Niagara Escarpment and looking out over the Queenston Quarry, it’s impossible to imagine what this land looked like so long ago.

More recent than that, but even harder to picture as the wind blew clouds fiercely across the sky, from 23,000 to 12,000 years ago the land we were standing on was covered in a glacial sheet of ice between 1 to 3 miles thick. That was the last of three successive glaciers that changed the shape of everything in southern Ontario.

Ice of a mile thick would exert 150 tons per square foot of pressure — it’s been estimated that the weight of the Late Wisconsin Glacier pushed the land 200 feet downward. When a glacier retreats the land begins to push back up, and in the Niagara basin it created the 11th and 13th largest lakes in the world: Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. We took visiting friends from Australia to the beach along Lake Ontario, and they asked if they were looking at the sea, not a lake.

At 445 million years ago, the entire area was a sea — the Michigan sea. tropical, and full of small creatures that, when they died, deposited enough calcium carbonate shells to form thick layers of sediment that slowly turned into layers and layers of limestone. It was this very limestone that, over 400 million years later, would become the basis for both a quarry and a cement company in 19th century Queenston, originally named Queen’s Town by the British soldiers occupying the area during the War of 1812, then shortened to Queenstown. The area was actually settled in the 1770s by Loyalist refugees and immigrants from the United States.

The Queenston Quarry was founded in 1837, supplying the stone for many of Ontario’s cities. The Royal Ontario Museum, Queen’s Park and Union Station in Toronto were all built with Queenston stone.

In 1882, ‘Isaac Usher & Sons’ opened a cement operation at the top of the escarpment running past the quarry. They mined a layer of stone with components similar to cement, firing it in huge limestone kilns, Once finished in the kilns, the product was ground into a powder and sold as Red Star cement. It was the first such plant in Ontario. In 1898, the Ushers issued a 33-page pamphlet entitled “Practical Hints on the Use of Queenston Cement” can still be found in libraries as far away as Australia.

Screenshot of brochure cover; the document can be viewed in its entirety on the Canadiana website.

The Ushers closed their doors in 1905, and their kilns and ovens began to disappear under the rich soil and forests of the escarpment. Luckily they didn’t vanish entirely, and partially-restored remnants can still be seen today on a strenuous hike along Queenston Heights.

The trail starts off innocuously flat.

After a while you come across a strange structure poking its head out of the trees. It’s an old metal tower that was apparently used by the Department of National Defence to intercept foreign radio waves during the Cold War.

As we wound our way through the trees, we found two of the pit ovens used to treat the raw limestone.

The remarkable stone structure of the escarpment could be seen in a breathtaking natural amphitheatre about half of the way to the actual kilns.

After that point the trail becomes extremely hilly, and it was treacherous to hike on a fall day after several days of rain had littered the ground under our feet with thousands of wet leaves.

If you want to do this hike, I’d recommend spike-tipped hiking poles at the very least. Even with sturdy treads at the bottom of my hiking boots, I was happy to take the bypass where dirt steps have been added.

It took us a good 45 minutes to reach the kilns.

During excavation of the Third Welland Canal, it was discovered that a layer of natural cement rock underlay the blue dolomite running across much of the Niagara Escarpment. Usher leased the land from the owner of the property in order to build three kilns (later increased to six), 40 feet high by 10 feet in diameter. Two of them can be seen in the photo below.


The kilns were constructed of rubble and lined with fire brick and fire clay.

At the bottom, steel rails formed grates on which firewood and soft coal were layered with the cement rock and soft coal until the kiln was filled. The firewood was then lighted and kept burning as more coal and rock were added from the top. Below you can see remnants of the steel rails in the roof of the bottom opening.

I haven’t so far been able to find a definitive description of the process, but the resulting cement powder was packed in barrels produced at the warehouse. Each barrel held 350 pounds of powder.

The Queenston Cement Works was a going concern for several years, supplying cement for the St. Lawrence/Welland and Sault Ste. Marie Canals. The adhesiveness of Ushers’ cement was so high that in 1932 , during the blasting to remove the old Welland River Aqueduct, which carried the Welland River under the Canal, the stone itself typically broke before the cement bond did.

Unfortunately the Ushers weren’t able to compete with the lower pricing of Portland cement, developed in England earlier that century. Portland’s base materials were lower cost and widely available, and this cement remains in wide usage to this day. Queenston Cement also took 24 hours to dry, as compared to only 6 hours for Portland.

The cement stone was mined not far from the kilns in a system of caves that can still be seen.

When you look in through one of the two openings, you understand how difficult this mining must have been.

The caves are squatter than a person’s height, and the limestone rock bearing down on them is full of cracks. The tunnels are also flooded much of the time.

People have climbed down into them to have a look around, but from the number of cave-ins that have been spotted not far from the entrances, it’s not a stunt I’d recommend.

The Queenston Quarry itself was operated until apparently around 2008; its last owner as such was Lafarge Canada. After that it was bought by a developer, the Queenston Quarry Reclamation Company, who’s transforming the land into a golf course and residences. And so, another piece of Niagara history changes hands and develops a new face.