John C. Thede (1854-1943)
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By Gordon A. Thede, P.Eng.

A creative entrepreneur, he specialized in generation and distribution of electricity for profit.

John C. Thede, without the formal training of an engineer, was an engineering pioneer. Before Ontario Hydro had built its first power station, he had selected a water power source, installed a turbine and electrical alternator and built a transmission line to supply electric power to the town of Wiarton by the year 1908. All this under the name of the Sauble Falls Light and Power Company, which he established with two partners.

John Thede (pronounced Tay-dee), shown in a 1903 photograph, was born in Roseville, Canada West (now Ontario) in 1854. He was the eldest son in a second-generation, staunch German-Canadian farming family. His father desired only to apprentice his six sons on the family farm, each for five years, and then purchase neighbouring farms for them east of Port Elgin. Such plans were not for John. He was an independent person with the flair of an entrepreneur. He left the farm operation to his younger brothers and became, initially, the proprietor of a water-powered grist and apple-cider mill in Port Elgin.

The Inspiration

John’s technical curiosity led him to visit the 1901 Pan American Exposition in Buffalo (see Grant 2001), where he saw the magnificent demonstration of electric power being delivered from Niagara Falls. Just 10 years earlier, Buffalo had defied many of the world’s experts, including Thomas Edison, by committing itself to Tesla’s alternating current (AC) power system that allowed high voltage, long-distance power transmission. Edison’s direct current (DC) power plants could only deliver power locally.

During the six-month exposition, its visitors were amazed, some to the point of tears. Every evening, at dusk, 400,000 low-wattage light bulbs were lit, outlining many of the buildings. There were also displays in the Electricity Building and an Electric Tower 400 feet high, with spotlights on top.

From this moment on, John was seized with the idea of finding a suitable water source and establishing a generating station. No doubt, he also dreamed of making a good profit on his investment.

His search led him to Sauble Falls on the Sauble River in Bruce County, where a sawmill had operated successfully since 1867. Shown is the sawmill with its crew. The concrete powerhouse can be seen at the extreme left side of the photograph, at the end of the race pond. It is still under construction with no wires yet connected to its cupola. A low dam across the river above the falls fed water through a control gate into this race pond.

In 1903, John bought the sawmill and water rights along with surrounding land. In 1905, he resold the sawmill operation and most of the land to a Nathaniel Seaman. But he retained a site for the future powerhouse, along with first rights to the water power. At about this time, the Sauble Falls Light and Power Company was formed in partnership with two other men; Robert J. Millar, electrician, of the town of Wiarton, took a 25-per-cent interest in the project, and the Reverend Leonard Wittich, of Port Elgin, also had a 25-per-cent interest. The remaining 50-per-cent interest was held by John C. Thede. They dreamed of selling electric power generated at no cost from the cascading waters.

The Contract

In 1906, a formal agreement was signed between the town of Wiarton and the partnership (see Articles of Agreement). The company was to “supply and distribute electricity for public, private and industrial purposes.” Additionally, “At least fifteen Electric Arc Street Lamps were to be provided, burning from dusk until 12:30 a.m. except on moonlit nights.”

Commonly, each house was wired only with drop-cords hanging from the ceiling of the kitchen and parlour. A low-power, unfrosted carbon filament lamp bulb was then screwed into each socket. In the early years, monthly power charges were based on the candlepower of the lamps used in the sockets: 30 cents per month for a 16-candlepower lamp. It would provide about the same amount of light as a 16-watt bulb would give today–only slightly brighter than a coal-oil lamp.

For stores and shops, a rate of 10 cents per kilowatt hour was used. If an average inflation rate of 4 per cent is assumed from 1908 to 2002, the rate of 10 cents per kilowatt hour in 1908 would be the equivalent of almost $5 per kilowatt hour today. The above rates are very expensive relative to today’s rates. As stated earlier, John Thede was an entrepreneur, and the Sauble Falls Light and Power Company partners reportedly were financially successful in the early years of their company. John Thede owned the first automobile in Port Elgin, a Studebaker Touring car.

The franchise granted a term of only five years, beginning on January 1, 1907, leaving the partners vulnerable to an inadequate length of time to recover their investment. Eventually, however, the contracts were renegotiated in 1912, 1917, and onwards.

Load growth continued beyond all earlier dreams, to the point that the company had increasing difficulty in meeting the demands. Originally, the intent was for electric power to be provided only in the evenings for lighting purposes. One typical extra requested service granted to the residential customers was for electric power for two hours on Tuesday afternoons, so the weekly ironing could be done. Previously, flat irons were heated by placing them on the wood-fired kitchen cookstove. This was drudgery enough in winter, but became a misery on hot summer days.

Home-lighting prior to this time was by coal-oil lamps. This involved fuel-handling, daily glass chimney cleaning and a time-consuming procedure to turn them on. Electric power customers were elated with the instant light provided by the flick of a switch! By 1917, a 24-hour service was demanded, and the connected load of electric motors was 50 horsepower. There were about 200 lighting customers in the town’s population of 2000. Indicative of the social and shopping schedules of the era, the heaviest loads of the week occurred on Saturday evenings.

Twenty-four-hour service enormously increased the amount of water consumed at Sauble Falls for power generation, causing concerns at times of low water flow in the river. The return on investment for the original partners was much less than it had been in the first years of the operation, because normal inflation was occurring, but the company partners were unable to increase their rates, as new contracts were written every five years.

The Sauble Falls Light and Power Company

It is believed that the partnership began supplying power per the contract sometime during the year 1908. Let’s put this technical enterprise in perspective with other happenings.

The first long-distance power delivered by the Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario (HEPC) now known as Ontario Hydro, was on October 11, 1910 (see Hay 1991). This was to Kitchener (then named Berlin), two years after Wiarton had its service. The first generating station built by the HEPC was at Wasdell Falls on the Severn River and went into service in 1914, six years after the Sauble Falls Light and Power Company. This HEPC station had a capacity of 750 kilowatts, only five times larger than the Sauble Falls power station.

At the falls, the Sauble River cascades over a series of natural limestone ledges, through a total drop of about 20 feet (six metres), in about 100 yards (90 metres) in a westerly direction.

In the powerhouse, the company installed a Swedish General Electric (ASEA) alternator, rated 210 horsepower, 6600 volt, 3 phase, 60 cycles (hertz). Reportedly, the stator was 10-12 feet (3.3 metres) in diameter. Parts of the six-foot (1.8 metre) internal diameter concrete headrace that delivered water to the turbine still remain intact at the site to this day (2002). The eight-mile-long (13 km) transmission line to Wiarton was installed through the bushland in the shortest direction. An auxiliary steam-powered generating station was built in Wiarton, after customer demand exceeded the water flow capability of the Sauble Falls. It contained a Westinghouse Electric 150-kilowatt alternator. The steam engine was powered by a steam boiler fed by coal or slab wood purchased from Wiarton’s several sawmills.

In 1914, John Thede moved his family to Wiarton to be closer to the company’s operations and to become a part of the community that he was servicing.

The Sawmill

Since 1867, there had been a sawmill operating at Sauble Falls, converting the timber resources of the area into lumber. A thriving community built up at the falls, including a hotel (housing mostly mill workers), a post office, a general store and several houses and cottages.

Before the turn of the century, the sawmill operated at a capacity of 20,000 board feet (47 cubic metres) per day, and about 20 men were employed there. The whine of the sawblade continuously filled the air for six days a week during daylight hours. The saw received its power from water flowing through a rectangular headrace, 10 feet (3 metres) wide by 5 feet (1.5 metres) high, connected to the race pond. Through the years, the output of the mill gradually decreased to a rate of 8000 board feet (19 cubic metres) per day.

After 1907, a low concrete dam across the river above the falls directed water through a control gate to the concrete-walled race pond. The sawmill and powerhouse had separate raceways (penstocks) to deliver water to their turbines, and the spent water was discharged into the river below the falls. Within a decade, it became apparent that there was not enough water flow to satisfy both turbines throughout the whole year.

In the spring of each year, there was an excess of water. In 1912, the floods were unusually severe, and the head gate, the waste gate and a portion of the concrete wall of the race pond were carried away (Ontario Weekly Reporter 201).

The Operators

The Sauble Falls Light and Power Company operated over a span of 22 years. During that time, there were many operators of both the water-powered and steam plants.

It is known that John Thede’s only son Gordon H. Thede (now pronounced “Theed”), my father, was the day shift operator at Sauble from 1926 to 1928. There, he brought his bride, Kathleen (Matthews) from Wiarton, and they rented the Seaman house at the south end of the dam. The day shift at the station was from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., seven days a week, with no vacations, and the salary was 60 dollars per month.

The operators soon learned how to adjust the Sauble Falls plant to use minimum water. Lowering the alternator output voltage reduced the amount of power supplied to the electric lights and clothes irons in Wiarton. Also, reducing the alternator speed by throttling the water flow meant that Wiarton’s motors would spin more slowly and deliver less power. Both of these actions, of course, raised the ire of all customers.

The Customers

Within a few years of the power plant start-up, its very success was leading to its failure. The electric genie unleashed to service the company’s customers led to ever-increasing demands, resulting in higher loads and longer hours of operation for the power plants. At the Sauble Falls, this meant an ever-increasing shortage of water to drive the alternator. At the steam plant, it meant longer hours of operation; and for every hour it ran, it operated at a financial loss.

The customers did not look philosophically on this situation. They complained to the power company, and they complained to the municipal officials, who requested the HEPC to investigate (see Memorandum) and consider supplying Wiarton directly.

The Ending

In 1930, the Sauble Falls Light and Power Company was purchased by the Foshay Company, an American interest with plans to form a power grid with its other stations nearby.

This painting is an artist’s rendition of the mill and the power station in apparent peaceful coexistence during the Foshay era. The end, however, when it came, did not come proudly to either the powerhouse or the sawmill.

The next year, due to increasing pressure from the Municipality of Wiarton for the HEPC to become the supplier of electric power, the commission purchased the Sauble Falls station.

In August 1931, a HEPC transmission line connected to its Eugenia Falls system near Collingwood went into operation. The Sauble Falls hydraulic plant and the Wiarton steam plant were forever closed down, and the powerhouse was demolished for safety reasons. In June of 1936, the sawmill was struck by lightning and burned to the ground.

Today, the ruins of the two concrete headraces still seem to be in competition–this time for the attention of the tourists who clamber over them and the many ledges of the waterfall.


John Thede was not the first to build a privately owned generating station in Ontario. However, he was a pioneer, and the challenges and successes described above were indicative of all stations of this type operating in the province at that time.

Certainly, the problems of the Sauble Falls Light and Power Company help us appreciate the stable and reliable power system that today supplies our homes and industries.


This article is dedicated to the memory of Gordon H. Thede, my father, who related his vivid memories of being an operator at the Sauble Falls station. In 1929, he moved his family to Smithville, Ontario, where he became Superintendent of the Smithville Hydro-Electric System until retiring in 1968. He passed away July 3, 1991

I would like to thank the following persons:

1. Mr. Jack Seaman, great-grandson of the sawmill owner, who provided the photographs of the Sauble Falls “the way it was” at the time of this story and other useful information about the Sauble Falls community.

2. Mrs. Elizabeth (Stead) Matthews, AMCT, sister-in-law to Gordon H. Thede, and daughter of the Basket Bottom Co. manager who later became Sauble Falls power station operator. As a past Deputy Clerk Treasurer of the town of Wiarton, she knew exactly where the original Sauble Falls Light and Power Company contract documents were stored.

3. Mrs. W.E. Jackson, Archivist, Ontario Hydro, for providing copies of letters written by the Hydro engineers during their investigations of the Sauble Falls Light and Power Company’s operations.

4. Ms. Nora Toth, Ministry of Natural Resources, Owen Sound, who provided area history information. The Sauble Falls Provincial Park now occupies the land where the Seaman house and a Thede cottage once stood.

Gordon A. Thede, P.Eng.

Dundas, Ontario

August 15, 2002

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