The Sawmill Trail can be found at the top of Old River Road on the north side of the Bayfield River. Here one can experience the varied terrain, the changes from flood plain to coniferous forest and the telltale signs of abundant wildlife. When the Bayfield River Valley Trail Association’s first began working on the 2 Km hiking trail, the work crew clearing the original paths, came to learn of the important role the Sawmill Trail area played in the development of the community and of romantic stories of ghosts, fires, floods and failed romance
Beside the trail entrance, a large grove of lilac bushes indicates where the “haunted house”, Cumner Hall, was located. Once an imposing 3-story building that overlooked the river valley it had been home to the mill owner, James Thomson’s family. After the mid 1920’s, younger generations only occupied it for short periods during the summer. It became tempting target for vandals. Rumours began that the house was haunted and inhabited by ghosts. It mysteriously burnt to the ground on Christmas Eve, 1960, but the orchards, flora and fauna from the gardens remain as a reminder that this was a very active and prosperous farm.
The path to the river is on the original pioneer corduroy road from Bayfield to Goderich that led to the first crossing point or ford in the river at a place they called the ‘Hogsback’. It’s likely that this was a very busy crossing that was used for centuries before European settlers came to this area. It would have been a main road to the flint weapons and tools that were manufactured by Native American artisans around Kettle Point.
As you walk on the relatively steep hill, it’s easy to appreciate how the pioneers carried their goods and grain on their backs up this slope on their way north. According to Edwin C, Guillet in his book, ‘Early life in Upper Canada’; “One of the Scotch fishermen from the Isle of Lewis (had to be a MacLeod) who settled about the middle of the century in Huron and Bruce Counties once carried in a barrel on his back 100 pounds of flour for fourteen miles, and when asked how he felt he replied that he was not tired,” but she’ll be a little pit sore apoot the back”
At the river in the shallow pools you can see rock pattern on the bottom of the river that are the remains of
the dam that channeled the water to the mill. The dam was originally built as a combination dam/bridge against the advice of the local settlers. As predicted, soon after the dam/bridge was complete, a spring flood destroyed it, leaving Bayfield without any bridge to the north for several years. This failure to recognize the power of the river was repeated several times and this dam and subsequent bridges had to be frequently rebuilt and repaired after being breached in spring freshets and fierce storms.
Across the river on the south side amongst the underbrush, you can still make out the Thomson Mill ruins. Before it was destroyed by fire, this combination Grist /Sawmill was the most prosperous business in the area.
Before moving up the hill to Cumner Hall, the Thomson family had a farm on the flats right across the river
from the mill.
According to Lucy Woods Diehl, in her August 1971 Clinton News Record column, “ Miss Cecil McLeod recalls that the dam and flume ceased to operate sometime between 1898 and 1900. Her mother, Mrs. Adelaide McLeod, once told Lucy of the frantic efforts to save the dam in the spring break up. She said they even dumped loads of hay into the water to try and prevent the pressure of water breaking through.
After the dam broke, the current of the river changed and began eroding the slightly higher land on which the brick house stood. And in the spring freshet, the water rose so high that the home was flooded. It was then that James Thomson bought the property on the north bank of the river east of the old road to Goderich. At one time when there was no bridge people crossed on top of the dam to the foot of this road running north from the river.”
James Thomson’s son, Lewis didn’t give up on the house on the flats. According to Lucy Woods Diehl; “In 1907, romance blossomed for Lewis. There was the old brick house on the brink of the river. So Lewis tore it down reclaimed the pink brick and other materials which could be salvaged and started to build a home on a plateau half way up the bank.
His fiancé visited theThomson home and she chose the site and plan. It was probably completed in 1908. But as the old saying goes, “There’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip” and Lewis knew disappointment when she broke the engagement. The lady died shortly afterwards. Thus he never lived in his house of dreams.”
That’s why the Trail Association has a sign as you ascend; “Lewis’ Heartbreak Hill!”
Today, walkers are surprised and delighted that this park like setting along the river with its rare plants and trees is so close to the village. They enjoy the beauty they can see all around them but as with many other places in Bayfield, there are tales to be told and spirits all around.