Hydroelectric Power Generation at Devil Lake

Residents and users of Devil Lake will be aware of the dams at the north and south ends of the lake, at the outlet of the creek from Kingsford Lake and at the outlet of the Mill Pond at Bedford Mills. Many will be aware that these dams are an important part of the water reserve system for the Rideau Canal. They also are controlled by Portage Power as part of their hydroelectric power generating system. Portage Power is a wholly owned subsidiary of Ottawa Hydro. In July 2015, Portage Power acquired six hydroelectric facilities in Eastern Ontario from Fortis Inc., located in Ottawa, Rideau Lake, Kingston, Gananoque and South Crosby. The purchase also included the water rights through the two dams at Devil Lake. Many may not be aware that these two dams were once the property of the Tetts at Bedford Mills. Used initially to control water flows for the sawmill at Bedford Mills, in the early twentieth century the dams became an integral part of the Tetts’ own hydroelectric power generation system at Bedford Mills. This segment will describe the history of that system.

For many years, the sawmill and grist mill at Bedford Mills were operated exclusively by using waterwheels, and lighting was provided by candlelight and later, by coal oil (kerosene) lamps. In 1897, the first hydroelectric plant was built, initially providing DC power for lighting only. It was housed in a small wooden building located at the top of the waterfall, close to the sawmill. The primitive plant supplied light to the mills and buildings at Bedford Mills, but only until 10 p.m. No power was supplied during the night. In 1907, when St. Stephen’s Church was built, a power line was installed to provide lighting for the church. In later years, electricity was utilized to power some of the equipment in the sawmill and grist mill.

With the closure of the grist mill in 1915, an opportunity presented itself to the Tett brothers. The following year, John Poole Tett’s son, Edmund Tett, returned with his family from Lacombe, Alberta, where he had been employed as superintendent of the electric power plant. He moved into the house in Newboro built by his grandfather, Benjamin Tett Sr., and assumed responsibility for the operations of the power plant at Bedford Mills. He set up an alternating current (AC) power plant in the second story of the old grist mill, utilising the original wooden flume which ran through the waterfall to the grist mill. He added a surge tower to the side of the mill to replace the waterwheel. While living in Newboro, he relied on the storekeeper at Bedford Mills to turn off the power at 10PM, as had been the practice of the Tetts for years. As early as 1914, there was a proposal to provide electric lighting for the Village of Newboro. After several years of debate and study, and after finally gaining the support of ratepayers, Newboro Town Council passed a by-law in 1918 granting J. P. Tett & Bro. a contract to supply electric street lighting. The Tetts were given a bonus of $2,000, repayable over 10 years, to install it. By that fall the work was completed, and the residents of Newboro, as well as farmers along the line to the village, had their first electric lighting. Later, the line was extended to Crosby.

In 1922, plans for a new power plant were developed for the company, now known as the Newboro Light and Power Co., Bedford Mills. They called for a 30-inch horizontal turbine in a concrete bulkhead located at the base of the waterfall. The plant also utilized a “Woodward mechanical governor” to control the speed and loading of the unit, which it accomplished by controlling the flow of water through the turbine. Over the course of the next year the new plant was created. The power generating equipment itself was housed indoors in a new “power plant”, which was created by dismantling the former three-story grain elevator and converting it into a two-story building, with the equipment located on the second floor. A new steel flume through the waterfall was brought in through the Rideau Canal by tug and barge from Kingston. It replaced the old wooden flume and was connected to the concrete tower. The dam was modified, the sawmill was dismantled, and the power plant in the grist mill was removed. In 1934, a further $12,136 was invested in the power plant. The franchise with Newboro was renewed in 1937. In addition to supplying power, Edmund Tett advertised a variety of heating and other appliances available for a rental fee, generally from 25 to 50 cents per month. 

As early as 1938, the Tett company supply of power to Newboro was being challenged by the Hydro Electric Corporation of Ontario. In May of that year, ratepayers of the village voted by way of a plebiscite to reject the bid form the challenger and remain with the Tetts, who by then had supplied their power for over 20 years. In August 1942, the dams and water rights at both Bedford Mills and at the head of Devil Lake where it connects with Kingsford Lake were sold for $10,000 by the Tett estate to the Gananoque Electric and Water Supply Company, which at the time operated plants along the Rideau Canal at Jones’ Falls, Washburn’s, Brewer’s Mills, and Kingston Mills. Residents of Newboro again expressed concern about the loss of power from Bedford Mills, and the Gananoque company allowed Edmund Tett to continue to operate the plant for a few more years. By 1948, the demands were apparently too great for the capacity of the small Bedford Mills plant, and in December of that year the Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario (“HEPCO” or “Ontario Hydro”) took over the lighting of the village. According to a report in a local newspaper at the time, the Hydro system failed after being in operation for just one hour on its first day, leaving the streets in darkness. That evening, Edmund Tett voluntarily restored power to the village using the Bedford Mills system. According to a local newspaper report at the time “The Hydro Commission officially took over the lighting of the village on December 1 from the Tett concern, and its first application of street lighting there has left rather a bad taste in the mouths of residents, many of whom expressed gratification that the private company was still in a position to furnish this service.”

In December 1948, the Bedford Mills power plant was closed, and the grist mill and power house were sold to Ruby Botsford. She converted the mill into a residence and general store, and utilized the power house for storage. Since then, residents of the area have depended exclusively on Hydro One (formerly Ontario Hydro) for power. According to notes made several years later by Edmund Tett, he and his son, William H. Tett, dismantled the system and sold the wires, meters, and transformers for scrap. Edmund Tett later wrote: “It was a happy coincidence when all cleaned up there was no outstanding bill and no bills to collect.”

Today, there is still evidence of the plant to be seen in the waterfall. In addition to the concrete tower, there are remains of the concrete pillars which once supported the steel chutes leading to the power generating equipment.

John Gray