By Brian Roulston
The early Mennonites were the first to use an indigenous trail that stretched from Niagara Falls to Dundas, which became King’s Highway 8, and stretched to Goderich, on Lake Huron. We know it as Queenston Avenue in Stoney Creek and Main Street in Hamilton.
2,000 German-speaking Swiss Mennonites moved to this country in 1786. Due to the American Revolution, they fled from southern Pennsylvania to avoid imprisonment and economic hardships as they refused to take up arms. They came in Conestoga wagons, which were heavy and built in several sizes up to five metres long and carry up to 5.5 metric tonnes. The large wheels enabled them to pass through small creeks and streams and over rough terrain. The distinctive high boat shape box prevented their cargo from shifting and several wooden hoops with a thick, water-resistant canvas tarp covered their goods.
The drivers of Conestoga wagons walked beside their teams holding the lines in their hand, sat on the last left-side horse or used a plank between the two left wheels called a “Lazy Board.” They were considered the 17th and 18th-century equivalent of the truck. Some wagons were small, used like pickups, while others were long and used as transports. Two, four and six specially bred horses called Conestoga Horses were used to pull these heavy wagons. Oxen were often used to haul the heavier loads, but they were much slower. Mennonites who couldn’t afford a team of horses had to rely on a pair of oxen to pull their wagons. Depending on the weather and trail conditions, travelling 25 km a day, it would take them several weeks to reach Kitchener-Waterloo.
There was no ferry across the Niagara River until 1798 at Fort Erie. They had to remove the wagon wheels and seal the boxes of the Conestoga Wagons. The wagon and its contents were floated across the river to Fort Erie. The horses and cattle swam. These early Mennonites settled around Vineland and along the North Shore of Lake Erie. The Lake Erie group of Mennonites found land in Kitchener, and they moved on the following spring.
In 1901 a much larger wave of Mennonites came across the Niagara River by the Black Rock Ferry from Buffalo to Canada. Most of them traveled along the Grand River. They passed through Cayuga, Caledonia, Six Nations, Brantford, Paris, and Glenmorris on to the Kitchener-Waterloo and Dumfries Township.
Another group used a less established route through Jordan, Grimsby, Fruitland, Lincoln, and Beamsville. They travelled along the escarpment, through Hamilton’s marshlands on to Dundas and then a yet to be named trail to Galt, which started as a farming village serving the Mennonites. By 1819 this road was officially designated the Beverly Road and was one of the first roads in the province. Beverly Road became Provincial Highway 8 in 1918 and King’s Highway 8 in 1930. Over the years the province downloaded several parts of this highway to the municipalities through which it passed with several name or number changes. For example, the portion of King’s Hwy 8 from Grimsby to the American border is now Road 81.
Beverly Rd was a difficult route in its early years. Traveling the Beverly Road took a week or more because it ran through several swamps along the way, including the notorious Beverly Swamp. There they again dismantled the Conestoga wagons carrying the pieces and their belongings by hand to solid ground. It was easy to become disoriented among the reeds and other flora. Often, dense clouds of mosquitoes swarmed around the pioneers. Snakes and other reptiles slithered over the marsh while the Mennonites waded through the cold, murky swamp.
The Beverly Road was best traveled during the cold winter months when the marsh froze over. The summer of 1816 was called “The Cold Summer.” On June 1st of that year, there was a heavy frost and lots of ice. It made crossing the swamp much easier for the Conestoga wagons and the pioneers. The wetlands froze over seven more times the following month.
During harvest, it was normal to see a hundred or more teams of Mennonites from Kitchener, their horses and wagons winding down the valley towards the mills around the Desjardins Canal until commercial mills were built in the Dumfries and the Waterloo region. Later the Mennonites used the Galt to Dundas road for access to Burlington Bay for their import and export needs.
Mail delivery to the area would remain limited for a few more years. All government documents had to be picked up in person or filled out and submitted on site in York (Toronto). Settlers could travel down the Beverley Road to Dundas Street to York to do their business.
The Beverly Road, a hard dirt or muddy trail later became a corduroy road made transit much better. Following the First World War, a graded road made the journey between Dundas and Galt more comfortable and considerably faster. Then there was a gravel road with culverts and wooden bridges. Between 1837 and 1850, a construction project to macadamize the Galt-Dundas road was finally reality.
The road from Dundas to Goderich became a major grain, fruit, and whiskey transportation route. Beverly Road was lined with several lumber mills, and it became a key route for hauling timber. These mills lasted a short time because of financial issues. General stores sprung up along the Beverly, selling anything from silk dresses for the ladies to nails and codfish. Between Dundas and Waterloo, shoemakers set up shop at every crossroad. Every hamlet or town along the Beverly had at least two or three shoemakers.
The Queenston Heights Suspension Bridge in Lewiston, New York made Highway 8 from Hamilton to the border the first-ever internationally linked road in Ontario.