By Dan McNeil
What Port Stanley’s residents have called “The Berm” for decades should more properly be called the east headland. Transport Canada does call it the east headland. It is that part of the port on the east side of the harbour that juts out into Lake Erie. On the east side of the berm is Little Beach and a lake vista perfect for sunrises. On the west side is Kettle Creek. This local vernacular is part of the charm of Port Stanley where locals enjoy knowing that Knechtels is today’s Foodland. Many other landmarks have local names not found on google maps like: Schoolhouse Hill, Picnic Hill and Willow Beach. You won’t find the berm on a Google Maps either.
The truth is, it was probably never called a headland because it never existed as a natural geographic formation, or as a normal part of the village, nor the harbour. It was the hydrodynamic effect of the west breakwater, and the needs of the industrial era at the closing of the Great Depression of the 1930’s that promoted and created the berm. At that time coal was the most important fuel which was also used to produce coal gas.
It started with the increasing demand for industrial real estate for the unloading of bulk cargo from ships, especially coal. The west side was completely occupied with rail lines and coal piles with no additional room for expansion. One of the significant local entrepreneurs, Joe McManus with “Imperialle Fuels” (yes, he added an ‘le’ because Imperial Oil started in 1880) began to reclaim water lots by building a berm to hold coal piles south of Main Street.
By 1937 the effect of building the west breakwater (1908) had resulted in the significant erosion of lands to the immediate east, originally, and still, called Orchard Beach. Acres of apple orchards are now part of the lakebed and many cottages had to be moved inland over the years. The ongoing development of the working harbour demanded constant dredging of Kettle Creek and extreme efforts to stop the erosion of Orchard Beach. Today’s configuration of the berm resulted from private efforts to create room for seaborne bulk products and government sanctioned dumping of dredgeate into lagoons created by stone and clay.
By the 1990’s the berm had grown to approximately 24 acres operating under the authority of the federal government, Transport Canada. All of this land had been created by public and private activity that was not coordinated under the kind of strict environmental regulations that exist today. Lakes Terminals and Warehousing was the last bulk operator, managing the giant piles of coal that were destined for the cement plant at St. Marys in the ‘90s. They also operated several large petroleum tanks that eventually held liquid fertilizer (urea and ammonium nitrate in water) for truck transfer throughout the region. The southern part of the berm was also used by the Village of Port Stanley Utilities Department for industrial activities including re-cycling, until the village was amalgamated to form Central Elgin in 1998.
The nostalgia for “the good old berm” with its attendant jobs and activity needs to be tempered with the knowledge that coal dust, truck traffic and ongoing pollution were irritants that would be very unwelcome today. All of this new acreage was contaminated with coal and petroleum by-products and other contaminants-of-concern like heavy metals. By 1996 Transport Canada was planning to divest all of its port properties. To prepare for this, environmental studies were conducted and the results were withheld from the public under federal confidentiality.
Look with skepticism on those today who proclaim that the berm should be preserved as parkland “the way it was before.” There is no good heritage to be found on the berm. However there is a promising future because of a lot of hard work by a lot of hard working, dedicated, people.
Dan McNeil is a retired Royal Canadian Navy officer who served as Central Elgin Ward 1 Councillor from 2010 to 2018. An activist and environmentalist, he also helped establish the Port Stanley Village Association and served as its first president.
Watch for Part Two, explaining how the contamination on the berm was delineated and partly remediated.
Other columns by Dan McNeil.