Dam site©Copyright: Jeri Danyleyko
Long before Sauble Beach and Sauble Falls became the playgrounds of Bruce County, the area was home to far more serious business. Lumbering was the big game in the Sauble Falls during the latter part of the 19th century. Once the timberlands were opened, the area was quickly dotted with numerous sawmills. Nearby communities such as Wiarton, with its three furniture factories, thrived due to their close proximity to the mills.
Sauble Falls was an ideal location for a mill site. The falls offered an abundant source of power and the logs could be readily hauled by tug or paddleboat to the vast reaches of Lake Huron for transport to the large U.S. and Canadian markets. The town site was first settled in 1864. By 1867, the lumber mill was in operation. Throughout the 1870s, the town site continued to grow. A large boarding house, general store and blacksmith were added. Wilson Stewart opened a post office in 1875 and a school was built in 1880.
By the mid 1880s the population had grown to about 80 and Sauble Falls had acquired two churches, Methodist and Baptist. During this period, the McLean brothers, Hector, Lachlin, and Hugh, were running the sawmill. Their tenure was possibly the longest in the sawmill's history. The operation included a large saw and shingle mill that produced lumber, lath, shingles and telegraph poles. The McLeans used a steam-driven tug, the Sauble Queen, to haul logs and raft the timber over to Southampton and Port Elgin. To transport the logs upstream, they used a small paddleboat named the "Water Witch."
The McLeans should have made a fortune, but the mill was plagued with one disaster after another. First came the loss of the Sauble Queen, which burned right down to the waterline in the middle of the night. Next up were the mill fires. After several small fires, the mill was struck by a huge inferno that consumed the entire mill and resulted in the devastating loss of 43,000 metres of sawed lumber. The mill was rebuilt and continued to provide employment to some 30 hands, 20 at the mill and another 10 off in the woods, cutting.
By the 1890s, the mill had been taken over by Lowery and Sylvestor. Murdock and Leeson took over the general store and William Gerrie manned the post office. Rural mail delivery was eventually introduced in 1916.
In 1905, J.C. Thede, began construction of a new power generator at Sauble Falls. Citizens of the nearby town of Wiarton must have been jumping for joy. For several years the town had been embroiled in a bitter dispute with their power supplier, CFM, over the supply and cost of electricity. CFM, who was losing money on the operation, even went so far as to raise the price of electricity by 50%, infuriating local citizens in the process. The new plant that was constructed by the Sauble Falls Light and Power Company harnessed water from the sawmill into a generator. The new plant was ready in August 1907 and Wiarton ended its dealings with CFM.
Lumbering continued on at Sauble Falls until the late 1920s when the lumber supply was finally depleted. The power plant was bought by the Foshay interests in 1928. A year later they were bankrupt and the power plant was taken over by Ontario Hydro. The mill survived until 1937 when it was consumed by fire. The school lasted somewhat longer. In 1941 it took the top award in the province from a total of 232 entries for the "most improved school." Later on it sowed the seeds for the School Forestry Club Movement, a program that spread across Canada.
Over time the town site was gradually dismantled. By 1957, the province had taken ownership of the area and opened the Sauble Falls Provincial Park. Today the former town site lies within the park boundaries. Remnants of the dam and power plant can be found in abundance near the falls.