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Cranbrook: 120 years of draining the swamp

Cranbrook built itself with drains and dams: But the geography has fought back for more than a century
A view of what will become Cranbrook’s downtown, taken from Baker Hill in 1900. The large expanse of water is where Rotary Park is now. (Cranbrook History Centre and Archives)

Barry Coulter

With files from Dave Humphrey

Cranbrook History Centre and Archives

There’s a whole world under the ground in Cranbrook, and it’s a wet one.

Since Cranbrook’s incorporation as a city, we have drained swamps, diverted rivers, dammed marshes, and created a widespread field to build and grow our city, in a process that would make the Dutch proud — those geniuses at reclaiming land from the sea.

However, geography is not so easily tamed. All that diverted water has had to go somewhere, and over the past 100 years a lot of it has gone underground, joining a system of subterranean rivulets and water bodies that occasionally wreaks havoc with our infrastructure and our basements. This has caused great consternation over the past century among Cranbrook residents and at City Hall.

Most recently, for example, from Christmas Day, 2022, through January, 2023, City crews worked on and repaired about a dozen water main breaks and leaks. Street for street, and taking Cranbrook’s growth over the decades, this is about par for the water course — in 1948, about three water leaks a month seemed to be the average.

It should be said, for the record, that city crews handled the jolts to Cranbrook’s infrastructure with expertise and little disruption to the public. But after all, we have had more than a century of experience at this.

The following is a brief history of our ongoing battle with the soggy ground on which our city is built. This is the story of Cranbrook told through drainage ditches.

In August, 1908, it was reported that “the work on the big drainage ditch that is being constructed for the purpose of draining the swamp in the centre of town is progressing in a most favourable manner, and it is to be hoped that the results will prove favourable as anticipated.”

And downtown Cranbrook was created, with the drainage of what is now Rotary Park.

Some 14 years later, the Herald newspaper reported “a water shortage in Cranbrook, caused by leaks in the water mains throughout the city which are causing the public works department no end of grief.”

Over the next 20 years, Cranbrook fought an ongoing battle with leaks and breaks, seepage and flooding. From the Courier in February, 1936: “The water department of the city is having its troubles these days, due to the bursting of a main on Louis Street and a sewer pipe back of the Santo residence. Several pipes in homes were still frozen.”

But it was when the city expanded into the marshlands just west, that Cranbrook’s water troubles really began. The City had to resort to drastic action in February, 1944.

The damming of the marsh west of the City — now known as Elizabeth Lake, formerly known as Elizabeth Swamp — caused widespread underground flooding throughout Cranbrook. The dam had been removed in 1943, but the flooding persisted. The City of Cranbrook brought in Dr. Victor Dolmage, consulting geologist, “to investigate the underground water seepage problem that has caused havoc in numerous buildings in the downtown area for the past two years.” His report:

“The evidence very strongly suggests that the rise in ground water was caused by the damming of the outlet of Elizabeth Swamp,” the Courier reported. “Owing to the extreme slowness of the movement of the underground water, the rise in the water table in the City would take place a year or more later than at the swamp.”

The exact date of the erection of the dam at Elizabeth Swamp was unknown, but it was thought, in 1944, to have been built in 1940, only four years earlier. The City Engineer told council the widespread basement flooding in 1944 would represent the spring peak at the marsh in 1942, with the ground water taking 21 months or so to travel from the marsh to the City.

“If these theories are correct, the spring peak of 1943 at the marsh will be felt in the city a year from now, after which further flooding of the basements should not occur because of the removing of the dam in October, 1943. That would leave just this and next year’s conditions to take care of,” the Courier reported.

The Courier was optimistic that “from all all these considerations it would appear possible that this year’s flood will be the last, but in any event it is almost certain that there will be no basement flooding after next winter because of the removal of the dam in 1943.”

This optimism notwithstanding, Dr. Dolmage recommended a permanent solution. “If a good-sized drain were cut through from the deep, dry gravels through to clay barrier to the flooded gravels, it would entirely and permanently remove any danger [of an overloaded sanitary sewer and water too close to the basement floors of many buildings for safety] no matter what the cause.”

And so began the long saga of Cranbrook’s downtown drainage ditch.

* * *

In April of 1944, a referendum was held in Cranbrook on whether to borrow $10,500 to build a drainage ditch, “to carry away underground seepage water accumulated below the City and thus relieve overloaded sanitary sewers.” Obviously, the ratepayers had had enough of the damp. Of 203 votes cast, 194 voted in favour of this new bylaw.

In early May of 1944, the City then put out a call for tenders, for digging the trench, laying the pipe (which the city would purchase and provide), and backfilling the trench (with city gravel, sold to the contractor at a reasonable rate).

One month later, in June, not a single tender had been submitted. Apparently, a labour shortage was responsible for the absence of tenders. Cranbrook Mayor A.J Balment made a statement that the City would have to undertake the work itself, but would have to wait until later in the year when other work was not so pressing and more labour would be available. By November, work was underway “to the extent that men were available.” 150 feet of drainage ditch were completed. The project then ran into some difficulties, as construction ran into “a drainage strata of soft-running clay, and revisions in grade have been made necessary to endeavour to overcome these conditions.”

By the end of 1944, 640 feet of drainage ditch had been completed, and two manholes installed.

But by March, 1945, new problems had been encountered. “Forty feet of broken 10-inch sewer on North Baker Lane due to settlement in the ground after the underground drainage ditch was installed, was repaired with new tile pipe. If further settlement does occur at this location, it may become necessary to replace the tile pipe with steel pipe for 30 or 40 feet on each side of the drainage ditch.”

Work on the drainage ditch was then discontinued, after 1,052 feet of pipe was laid, six manholes installed, as well as surface drains and a control valve.

Work resumed on the ditch two years later, sped up considerably with the acquisition of a new City “Ditcher,” which in early 1948 was doing a bang-up job of excavation on Fenwick Avenue (now 11th Street), in preparation for the laying of culvert pipe from near the firehall northward to join the culvert installation done last year for drainage purposes. A further 246 of pipe was laid.

Then, the work had to be delayed because no culvert pipe was available.

In a letter to the editor of April, 1949, a self-described “one of the victims in Cranbrook’s mishandling of water, plain H2O,” and signed “A resident of 47 years,” wrote of Cranbrook’s “hardy perennial — the drainage problem,” and the “blundering lack of a method which has revealed ever since Cranbrook was incorporated.”

As well as the drainage of the wetland in the centre of town (where Rotary Park is now), and the damming of Elizabeth Swamp (now Elizabeth Lake), “the creek which formerly flowed easterly of the main road into Slaterville was dammed up by the railway grade, thus forming a higher ‘head’ than had existed prior thereto, and the sites of buildings, now affected by water nuisance and damages, were drained by Nature to sufficient depths in dry ground — now flooded annually because of such interference with the water courses.”

The letter writer blamed the “gang politics” of Cranbrook City Council, but the Courier suggested, citing the letter, that keeping the ditches north of the city might be the answer to the ongoing basement flooding of Cranbrook. “The City fathers will probably probe into the idea a bit before doing anything further on the proposed extension to the present drainage project … and they just might hit the jackpot.”

Over all this time, the usual leaks, breaks, seepages, upheavals in the City’s subsurface infrastructure occurred and were repaired. Three water leaks a month seemed to be the average throughout the 1940s.

However, City Council revealed that any extension to the drainage ditch would cost about $10,000, and that the City was preparing a bylaw for the purposes of that financing. The poll was to be held in July, 1949.

In July of 1949, City Drainage By-Law No. 1024 passed, with 401 yes votes, 65 no votes, and five spoiled ballots, authorizing the borrowing of $12,000 for additional drainage works including ditching and 1,435 feet of drain tile along 1st Street South to 9th Avenue (City street names had been changed to numbers in 1946).

But in October, 1949, it was learned that the drainage ditch work had to be postponed for two years, due to lack of tile. The next year, in June, 1950, the project was delayed again.

“Delay of work on the drainage ditch was attributed by the mayor and aldermen to the utter impossibility of securing delivery of pipe at the present time,” the Courier reported. “Once the pipe is obtained, the work will proceed, Mayor R.E. Sang assured the meeting.”

The next year, the City was still waiting for the pipe.

“Complaints of water in local basements were attributed by Council to surface water running onto lots, rather than underground seepage,” the Courier reported from a Council meeting in February, 1951. “It was pointed out that completion of council’s by-law drainage ditch would be most willingly completed as and when the necessary pipe becomes available.”

* * *

Five years later, in June, 1956, with the rest of the drainage ditch still on hold and the basements flooded around town, City Council had an urgent discussion. Ald. Jones blamed “the slough south of the city named Elizabeth Lake and seepage underground therefrom as the source of the trouble,” and suggested that since the trouble originated beyond city limits, the provincial government should assist in controlling the problem.

The Courier here described that part of Cranbrook’s complex underground and overground river system: Jim Smith Creek flows into the upper edge of the “slough” (Elizabeth Lake), passing under the CPR track and the highway. At the other edge of the slough, it passes out through a culvert under South Ward road, behind Ideal Auto Court, and under Van Horne Street South via a culvert along the east side of the railway to 5th Avenue S., into the 30-inch drainage sewer, under Rotary Park, along 12th Avenue to the rear of Central School, and empties north of Harold Street into an open ditch leading to Joseph Creek.

There was much talk amongst councillors and staff as to persuading the provincial government to build a drainage ditch, and whether “Elizabeth Lake (slough)” was to blame for all the flooding trouble. Most, but not all, agreed that it was.

In a throwback to 12 years earlier, a committee was appointed to study the 1940-41 report by consulting geologist Dr. Dolmage on the subject of Cranbrook’s flooding, its causes, and what remedial courses of action were available.

* * *

And so Cranbrook moved forward into the future. In the spring of 1961, one of the top business news stories in town was the opening of “Guido’s new premises.” In 1954, Guido Bennedetti took over the Shell Oil Service station on the highway, with the intention of constructing a new building on the site. His purchase of the property directly across the property made this plan possible, but as the Courier reported, “not before a great deal of work had been extended. This property was a swamp area, and mosquito-infested in summer, but a drainage ditch at the back of the property and and fill material totalling 20,000 yards has now made the property a choice site.”

And so Cranbrook’s eternal battle against the ground it is built on continued into the ‘60s. But the most spectacular episode was yet to come.

In 1966, Cranbrook’s Great Leap Forward into the future was the building of the “Collonade,” or the Cranbrook Mall, as it came to be known, a most up-to-date, modern shopping centre in the spot where the old courthouse used to be (with its Arts and Crafts style architecture). But in November, it was reported that a tight financial situation and rising costs meant delays to the project, which had by that time already been in the works for two and a half years. And, no surprise, it was the land the shopping centre was to be built on that was causing the problem.

“Although it appears no work has started on the project, field men have discovered in a testing program that soil conditions are inadequate to support the shopping centre,” Norman Green of Stewart/Green Properties told City Council.

This caused a complete revision of the original land preparation plans, necessitating four-foot excavation and backfill. “Telephone-pole-like piles” had to be sunk to a depth of 30 feet to suspend the buildings in the soft ground, though Green assured Council that “this costly program of upgrading the foundation will further assure the stability of the construction.”

And so, 57 years later, the Collonade, later known as the Cranbrook Mall, now known as the Baker Street Professional Centre, remains an important part of Cranbrook’s downtown, suspended on 30-poles sunk into the swampy ground on which the city is built.

Cranbrook’s relationship with the swampy territory on which it is built, part of the heart and soul of our community. Much like our herds of urban deer, we have accepted this state of being as one of the delights of living where we do.