The Natural Bridge Behind Fenelon Falls
October 8, 2022
Looking behind the skirt of Fenelon Falls: A glimpse of what it would be like to walk behind the falls when the river was several feet lower
In the early nineteenth century, Fenelon Falls was a unique landscape, “fringed with dwarf oaks,” in the words of Thomas Need, that stood out from the dense forests that dominated much of the region. Need, who owned a village plot at Bobcaygeon, loved outdoor recreation, and felt that Fenelon Falls was “one of the loveliest scenes in the province.” It was a roaring natural waterfall, surrounded by what aspiring British gentry like Need would have seen as natural parkland. For him it was “a great delight, on the long evenings of the last summer, to sail up the lake, and pass a quiet hour or two at the Falls, after the toils of the day were over.”
But it was more than the ancient oak grove and thundering cascade that made Fenelon Falls a special site. It was home to a curiosity—a natural bridge. Up to the 1830s, it was possible, though not particularly easy, to walk from one side of the river to the other behind the curtain of Fenelon Falls.
Before the canal created Fenelon Falls’ island, and mills or power plants were built on both sides of the river, it was possible to climb down from the heights by the river, carefully walk along the edge of the river, slip behind the curtain of the falls, and step from boulder to boulder, to reach the far shore. Behind the falls, the ledge had been undermined, creating just enough space for someone to pass. Making the journey would require a bit of a scramble up the steep banks on either end, and a willingness to get wet from falling water at either end, but it was possible. It was damp and a little cramped behind the falls, but this journey was also an unforgettable experience.
In the early 1830s, everything changed. Thomas Need led the development of a lock and mill at Bobcaygeon that raised Sturgeon Lake, shortening the descent of Fenelon Falls, and flooding out both the approaches and the boulders behind the curtain of the falls. Once the lake was raised, the water became altogether to deep to simply walk along the shore to slip behind the curtain. At about the same time, James Wallis and Robert Jameson built a mill, which blocked the north access to the falls. Since then, a power plant was also built on the south side of the river.
The bridge behind the falls was more of a curiosity than a practical transportation route. For anyone with a boat, it was probably easier to paddle across the river. But within a few years of its destruction, in 1842, a four pier bridge afforded convenient passage across the Fenelon River. Before long, practically everyone forgot that Fenelon Falls had once included a natural bridge.