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Beaverdams settlement: History of a pioneer community

First free school, first elephant shown in Canada at circus in Beaverdams
Bob Liddycoat/ThoroldNews

From: Thorold Township and Town, 1786-1932
Published by John H. Thompson

Beaverdams is the oldest settlement in the township, although it never attained the dignity of an incorporated village. The derivation of its name is obvious, the beaver meadow with the remains of the dam plainly visible.

The first settler at this place was Israel Swayze, who built the first brick house in Welland County. Many of his neighbours had come from the same part of New Jersey—“near the old log jail,” as they designated the district, which was then unnamed—and this made an additional bond of union among the settlers. Most of these families had come before the “cold, hungry year,” and when the famine came, they shared their provisions, a deer that was shot by Mr. Swayze furnishing food for many who had not tasted meat for months.

Beaverdams was very early connected with the neighbouring settlements by roads, which were laid out in the most irregular way. Wherever possible, streams were avoided, and thus the farmers were saved the expense of building bridges.

In 1802, Elisha Edwards had a blacksmith shop at Beaverdams, and before the war, there was a tavern at the crossroads kept by a man named June.

Until navigation was opened on the Welland Canal, Beaverdams was a very important place. The first survey for this great work was made by an English engineer named Clewes, who laid out the route from DeCew Falls to the Beaverdam flats. Had his plan been followed, the latter place would have secured all the industries that have since belonged to the town of Thorold. As it was, the older settlement had its due share of business, considering its population.
Opposite the tavern was a general store owned by George and Jacob Keefer; the goods were bought at Montreal, and in winter time they were brought up by teams. In this shop was the first township post office.

When work began upon the Deep Cut, the Keefers moved their store to the canal bank. At about this time, David Young had a chair factory, while a shoe shop, a tailor shop, a blacksmith shop and a saddler and harness shop, were the other business houses of Beaverdams. 

Between 1820 and 1825, Hiram Swayze had a saw mill on the creek a little below the hamlet. Here, he carried on a large business until the dam broke, after which accident he devoted all his energies to his farming interests.

Ephraim Hopkins also built a stone tannery not far from the tavern. Most of the industries were situated near this corner, which was the regular stopping place for the stage coaches from Hamilton. No less famous than the tavern was the “well in the middle of the road.”

At the eastern end of the McClelland farm there was a tannery built in 1820 by Thomas Wilson, who had bought the tanning business established by Benjamin Swayze. Wilson came originally from Stamford township, and his interesting experiences in the War of 1812 belong to the history of the frontier. As a manufacturer, however, he became important in Thorold Township. As a greater demand arose for lumber, on account of wooden locks being built on the canal, his tannery was converted into a saw mill. The successive enlargements of the canal destroyed much of his property, and as an indemnity the Government granted him water power to be free forever to himself, his heirs and assigns. Taking advantage of this, in 1845 he built the sawmill.

A very important building in the little hamlet was the old red school house. In 1820, Hiram Swayze gave the site, and the building was erected by the people of the neighbourhood, with the understanding that all denominations might use it for religious purposes outside of school hours. Consequently, services were held in it on Sundays. During the week, it served as a court house as well as a school, for here, ‘Squires George Keefer and Crowell Wilson used it to try ordinary cases, the chief offenders being disturbers of the peace on the canal.

Beaverdams was a pioneer community in many ways, and as such its history requires a large number of superlatives. In educational work, it was exceedingly important. Not only is its school (church) known for early excellence, but it also claims to have been the first free school established in Canada.

One of the first circuses was held in a barn at Beaverdams, where there was exhibited a menagerie that would scarcely have satisfied the small boy of the present day, consisting as it did of one elephant and two or three monkeys. The elephant, however, was the first ever shown in Canada.

For a long time, this settlement was the centre of Methodism in the Niagara District. Large camp-meetings were held here, to which people drove from a distance of 20 miles. Until late in the 60s, the quarterly meetings took place at Beaverdams, and it was no uncommon thing upon such an occasion to see 150 teams tied under the big elms near the church.

The second brick house built in Welland county stood a little west of Beaverdams, on the road leading to St. Johns, being the residence of Mer. Levi Louis Swayze. 

Although the shops, the hotel, the tannery and the brickyard have long ago vanished, yet the little settlement bears no evidences of decay at the present day. Agriculture has always been the chief industry of the place, and some of the most prosperous farmers in the township were those living in this vicinity.