Purdy’s, Lindsay’s Last Mill

The historical William Purdy Mill in Lindsay Ontario is one of the most storied and interesting mills the Ranger has ever researched. Not to be confused with the Samuel Purdy Mill in Castleton, although the two early Ontario millers were related. See post: Purdy’s Grist Mill, Castleton Ontario (Sept, 2015). The mills, destroyed by fire in 1861 were originally located a quarter of a mile upstream on the Scugog River from the present day mill ruins, which are located at the Lindsay Old Mill Park on Kent Street in the town of Lindsay. The photos in this post are from this site.

William Purdy, born 1769 in Westchestor, N.Y., son of Jesse Purdy who was married first to Elizabeth Brundage, secondly to Hulda Yates and then to Sabia Wilcox, died in 1847, in Bath, Upper Canada. William’s father, a loyalist, served in Emmerich’s Chasseurs during the American Revolutionary War. In 1787 William moved to St Johns Quebec and by 1816 to Vaughan Township were he purchased the mills of John Lyons. When his new flour mill here was destroyed by fire in 1828, he decided to sell his property north of York (Toronto) to Benjamin Thorne and William Parsons.

In 1821 the Township of Ops was surveyed and opened for settlement and in an attempt to encourage slow settlement, the Canadian Government of Upper Canada contracted with William Purdy to build a mill at the portage on the Scugog River at would eventually become the town of Lindsay. By 1829 Purdy was granted 400 acres of land and a bonus of $600 on the condition that he build a saw and grist mill in Ops Township in the Newcastle District. After a slow start because of spring floods and fever, he finally completed the project by late 1830. Purdy planted part of the six acres of land he had cleared and had “quarried out of a rock on the bank of the Scugog River, a place sufficient to set my saw Mill and for the flume, and having erected a good and substantial frame, with a good solid frame of dam.”

The grist mill became so successful that settlers came for miles away to get grain ground into flour, at a cost of 1/12 of the total grist. The mill was so busy, patrons often waited 2-3 days for their turn. A visitor to the site in 1833 remarked that the mills had what he imagined to be “the largest mill-dam in the world.” At this time Purdy petitioned for the patents on his land, asking that existing and future deeds on lots already flooded by the mill pond should carry reservations protecting him “in the right of keeping the water at its present height” and from lawsuits for damages. The petition was granted in 1834. Purdy’s dam had a dramatic impact on the area.

Once a meandering stream, the Scugog became navigable for more than 30 miles as water flooded hundreds of acres of land along its course converting a marshy, tamarack forest into Lake Scugog. The forest was drowned out, vegetation rotted, mosquitoes and a plague of fever and ague killed nearly one-third of the population. At one time there were hardly enough healthy men left to bury the dead. Hostility towards the dam became so bitter that by 1841, a large group of farmers gathered from Ops, Manvers and Cartwright Townships armed themselves with flint locks, pitchforks and axes, marched to Lindsay and hacked away part of the dam and set fire to the mill. The structures were not completely destroyed and Hazard Purdy rebuilt them. The dam was rebuilt at a lower level and he added a large water wheel, a cog and spur, two runs of stones and bolting equipment.

Good mills and a navigable stream appeared to be good news, but the fact that was that the effect of the dam flooding caused much lost land and mill privileges because of the flooding. At this time, a governmental study was undertaken to report on the likely effect the dam’s removal.   Because Purdy had not yet received his property deed with its unusual protections the government could easily have ordered that the destructive height of the dam be reduced but neglected to do so. It was found that the improved navigation would be an asset, and would tie into its efforts to create a canal to link Simcoe and Rice Lake, but thought that a dam with a 5 foot lift, instead of 12, would be appropriate and still allow sufficient power for Purdy’s Mills.

The government predicted that a future road or railway would be built linking Whitby Harbour and Lake Scugog and that boats would never require more depth and decided to build their own dam with a 5 foot lift below Purdy’s but provided no incentive for Purdy to remove his. Purdy supported a petition in 1836 for the construction of a canal (Trent) and a road to Whitby Harbour, but hoped to be protected from indemnification or “a duty to make good any loss, damage or liability incurred by another, or to be held harmless” by owners whose patents were issued prior to 1834. With no government support, in 1837 Purdy again petitioned the government for flooding rights on lands flooded by his dam. The government admitted that the Mill was legal and a benefit to the County but denied any indemnification knowledge of lands patented before or after 1834.

The controversy over Purdy’s mills figured into the aftermath of the rebellion of 1837-38. A false rumor was circulated around Peterborough by a Major Murphy of the Family Compact that William Lyon Mackenzie was hiding in the mills. Because Purdy may have spoken out against the ‘family compact’, he and 11 others were arrested in December, 1837 and taken to the district jail in Cobourg. The family compact was a term used by historians for a small group of men who controlled most of the economic, judicial and political power in Upper Canada in the early 1800’s. After awaiting for some time without a trial, he was liberated and told “to go home and mind his business.” Frustrated by this experience, Purdy decided to leave Lindsay and moved to Bath with his son Jesse, who had a severe attack of fever and ague. His other son Hazard was left in charge of the mills.

Because the government was planning a lock at Lindsay for navigation purposes, it was decided a new dam a quarter of a mile downstream would serve both lock and mill. Because of watertight reservations in his deed, Purdy could not be forced to lower the level of his dam, some thought he appeared to disregard the plight of the settlers. By 1835, with government power to expropriate, Purdy reached a reasonable settlement. The government would build a new dam and keep it in good repair. Purdy and heirs received permission to draw off for milling purposes all surplus water not needed for government navigation on the river.

The new dam and lock with a lower lift were completed in 1844. In exchange for the Purdy’s removing their dam, the loss of water power, construction of new mill, relinquishing damage claims and keeping the new dam in good repair, the Purdy’s were compensated with $2000 in cash by the government for the expropriated property. The responsibility for management the new dam and of the mill went to two of Purdy’s eleven children, sons Hazard and Jesse. The rebuilt mill and the 400 acre ‘Purdy tract’ were sold in 1844 to Hiram Bigelow by Hazard Purdy who left Lindsay for Pembina, North Dakota. This mill was lost in the disastrous Lindsay Fire of 1861, along with four hotels, the post office and 83 structures.

The current structure (now ruins) was built in 1869 by William Walker Needler and Thomas Sadler. The Needler family were well known for their mills… Cedar Valley (Scot’s), Dyell and Needler’s Mills in Millbrook. See post: Needler’s Mill, Millbrook, Ontario (July, 2015). This last Lindsay mill structure was destroyed by a $100,000 fire in 1978. The mill ruins were capped to preserve them and a sixteen foot wood barrier was built to hold back the Scugog from flowing through the mill ruins.

Regards, Ranger

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