A building thought to be the original post office©Copyright: Jeri Danyleyko
David Thompson, born in 1793, knew how to take advantage of an opportunity. As a reward for fighting in the war of 1812, he received a land grant on the Grand River which was shortly to become the site of the Grand River Canal. David made a fortune working as a contractor on the canal and went on to become a major shareholder in the Grand River Navigation Co. When the village of Indiana (also spelled Indianna), located at the foot of the Thompson estate, was established as the first lock station, the future couldn't have looked more promising.
The Grand River Canal was an important step in the early history of the township. With a rapidly growing population, reliable and efficient navigation was becoming an issue of major importance. The first effort was an early canal that linked the Welland River with Lake Ontario. In 1829, a dam was added in Dunnville, however the engineers and contractors made some serious miscalculations. The water level rose much too rapidly flooding the dam and all the acreage between Dunnville and Cayuga. A large chunk of land held by the nearby Six Nations Band was particularly hard-hit. Landowners demanded compensation for their flooded properties and in 1835 an arbitration board was set up to handle damage claims. Payouts were set at 1,600 pounds rising later to 3,000. David Thompson was among those who received compensation. There is no evidence the Six Nations Band was adequately compensated.
In the meantime, the Grand River Navigation Company was established in 1832. From 1834 to 1836, the company built a series of five locks and dams beginning at Indiana and ending at Oneida (now part of Caledonia). The Indiana lock led to the rapid growth of Indiana as an early manufacturing centre.
The village of Indiana was settled sometime in the 1830s. Thomas Lester, an early sawmill owner and lumber merchant, arrived there in 1837. Thompson himself added a grist mill in 1843. Other industries included a distillery, owned by Kirkland & Robinson and a pail factory owned by T. & W. Mussen. There were two inns, owned by John Fitzsimons and T. McWain, a toll collector, William Kerrot and a Catholic church to serve the largely Irish community. By 1846, the population stood at around 120. Water power, originating from the dam at Mount Healy, was purchased from the navigation company by the mill owners.
By 1845, the future was looking very bright indeed for David Thompson. The success of Indiana ensured a steady and abundant flow of cash to the Thompson clan and in 1841 he was elected as the Liberal Member of Parliament for the District of Haldimand. In keeping with his wealth and stature, he constructed a 36-room Greek revival mansion in 1845, which he named Ruthven. Although Thompson was handily re-elected in 1848, he didn't live to complete his term in office. Upon his death in 1851, the small village of Indiana was still booming and seemed quite secure. Unbeknownst to the Thompson family, the party was about to end very shortly.
The Grand River Navigation Company was neither well-run nor well-managed. During its short history of less than 40 years, it was never able to make a profit. The first hint of serious trouble was an 1843 inspection that outlined numerous repairs and upgrades that needed to be made, largely the result of shoddy construction and poor planning. The buildings at Indiana were so close to the water that the inspector ordered the construction of a 300-foot long wharf be built for the tow boats to pass.
The company was also in poor shape financially. Most of its revenue came from tolls that were charged for lumber shipping. With the gradual decline of the lumber trade, these were decreasing and being replaced by tolls from the transport of smaller goods such as agricultural products and gypsum, which were not as high. Additional revenue came from selling water rights to the mill owners, the majority of whom were in the lumbering trade.
In 1849 the company decided to expand and attempted to raise more capital by increasing their share offerings. This was done despite the slow but steady encroachment of the railways that were able to transport smaller goods much faster and at a lower cost. Due to the steady decline of the lumber trade, an 1853 government inspection report voiced serious concern about the company's future. Construction of the Grand Trunk and Great Western Railway began in 1854 and was completed in 1860. As projected, traffic dropped sharply on the Grand River Canal after the railway was opened. With the drop in traffic and subsequent revenue, the locks and dams were left to decay.
By the late 1860s, Indiana was still hanging on by a thread. There were still two inns, the store and a number of tradesmen. The Kirkland distillery, Thomas Lester's sawmill and the Thompson grist mill were all still in operation but their days were numbered. In 1868, postmaster Charles McKenna absconded with all the funds. By April 1871, the Grand River Navigation Company had ceased to exist. The remains were sold to the Haldimand Navigation Company who immediately shut down all the dams and locks with the exception of the dam at York. In 1876 the post office name was changed to Deans. The sawmill and flour mill continued operating throughout the 1880s, as did the hotel and general store. However by the end of the century it was all over. The population had dropped from a high of about 250 in the mid 1850s to a mere 25.
Unfortunately for the Thompsons, their family fortune suffered a similar although much slower decline. David Thompson Jr. followed his father into politics as a member of the Reform party. He held office from 1863 until his death in 1886. He was followed in office by his son Andrew, who served as a Liberal member from 1900 to 1904. Major Drew Thompson, who served as a Black Rod from 1925 to 1946 was the last member of the Thompson family to achieve official prominence.
The last surviving members of the Thompson family were Drew, a television actor, and David, a lawyer. Neither of the brothers married or left any known descendants. Following their deaths in the early 90s, Ruthven Mansion was declared a National Historic Site and was officially opened to the public in 1998.
Today, little remains of the old village. One building, which may have the post office, is still standing. Remains of the locks and cemetery can still be found. The Ruthven mansion was in a very bad state of repair and is still undergoing restoration. It's open to the public seasonally during scheduled hours and for special events. Schedules and a listing of events are available on the park's website. The grounds are open year-round.