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Rescuing Historic Rock Inscriptions At The Bala Falls
Jack Hutton | January 5, 2018

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From Issue No. 265 | January 11, 2018

Pittsburgh Rod and Gun Club, Bala Falls, 1888

The Muskoka branch of the Architectural Conservancy Ontario (ACO) had special reasons to pop champagne corks on New Year’s Eve. There was great suspense in November and December about whether it would be possible to preserve two rock inscriptions that were found on a large boulder at the construction site for a controversial hydro plant at the Bala Falls. The side by side chiseled inscriptions dated back to 1888 and 1919.

Balla Rock

As Christmas approached, Swift River Energy Ltd., the developer, announced that it had been able to separate a one metre deep slice of the gneiss granite behind the two rock inscriptions for a future display. The delicate separation was based upon bracing the rock thoroughly before carefully orchestrated line drilling followed.

That was the first Christmas miracle. Meanwhile, ACO members in the Muskoka and London branches, aided by a Bala environmental advocate, were able to identify all five mystery signatures on the two inscriptions, dating all the way back to 1888. That was the second miracle.

The boulder, which many would call a ridge (25 feet wide, 20 feet deep and 8 feet high), was discovered in mid-November after crew for Swift River Energy Ltd. (SREL) moved earth and soil in preparation for laying foundations for the hydro plant. They were astonished to see chiseled letters on one face of the rock.

As word of the find slowly spread, Gunta Towsley, ACO Muskoka branch president, called a vice-president of Swift River, Nhung Nguyen, to point out that the discovery had taken place near Bala’s recently approved Heritage Conservation District. Swift River, she learned, had already informed the Ministry of Tourism and Culture about the find and had retained an archeologist.

Things moved quickly after that conversation. SREL moved its construction work away from the historical rock while it consulted experts about how to cut away a portion of the rock surface with the inscriptions for a future display. The biggest worry was a crack that went through the inscriptions. A 3-dimensional digital scan and mold was made to preserve the inscriptions as backup.

On Dec. 20th, Swift River announced that the rock inscriptions had been preserved despite the knuckle-biting odds against its success. The dimensions of the future display are approximately 1.6 m high, 2.7 m wide and 0.8 to 1.0 m thick. Weight estimate: 10 tons.

Meanwhile, several ACO members from the Muskoka and London branches had identified all the signatures on two rock inscriptions with the added help of a Bala environmental advocate. The right side inscription read: W.A.T. AND G.G. BIRRELL, AUGUST, 1919, LONDON, ONT. We now know that W.A.T. Birrell, 18, and his brother, Gordon, 19, both worked as electricians for Hydro in London. A left side inscription read: 1888, G.V. WILLSON HIRAM DUPU(Y) PITTSBURG US Liz Lundell, founding president of the Muskoka ACO branch and editor of ACORN, found that the Pittsburgh Rod and Gun Club had tented at the Bala Falls connection in 1888. Both Willson, a prominent Pittsburgh businessman and DuPuy, a Pittsburgh dental surgeon, were members. Many are calling the discovery of the Bala historical rock one of the most exciting archeological finds in ACO’s recent history.

Read the spring issue of ACO’s ACORN magazine to learn the whole story.


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