Ball's Bridge

On July 14, 2011, the Ontario Heritage Trust, the Township of Ashfield-Colborne-Wawanosh, the Municipality of Central Huron and the Friends of Ball’s Bridge unveiled a provincial plaque near Auburn, Ontario, to commemorate Ball’s Bridge.

The plaque reads as follows:


    Ball’s Bridge was erected in 1885 to connect Goderich, the county seat, with outlying areas to the east. The structure is an excellent – and now rare – example of a two-span Pratt design through truss, pin-connected wrought iron bridge. Its construction shows attention to detail through the ‘v-lacing’ located at various points on the bridge. Built during the horse-and-carriage age, it continued to serve as a major crossing point on the Maitland River until 1989, when the bridge was deemed unable to support the weight of modern vehicles. In 2006, it was closed to all traffic and faced a bleak future. Due to the dedicated efforts of the Friends of Ball’s Bridge, it was fully restored and upgraded, and reopened to light traffic in 2007.

Historical background


Ball’s Bridge is located in Huron County, 8.5 kilometres (5.3 miles) east of Goderich. It spans the Maitland River at a point where three of the county’s original townships met and, when it was erected in 1885, provided an east-west transportation corridor between the county seat, Goderich, and its eastern outlying areas. In later years, other roads, including County Road 8, a north-south route to the east, and County Road 15, an east-west road to the south, superseded it. Built to the requirements of the horse and carriage, Ball’s Bridge was unable to service efficiently the automotive needs of the later 20th century.2 In 2006, it was declared unfit to carry vehicular traffic and was closed to the public. Ball’s Bridge, however, never having been exposed to winter salting, remained in relatively good physical condition. It had also become a reflection of a way of life that had long passed by and the citizens of Huron County, aroused by the closure, determined to protect and maintain it for its cultural and tourism values.

Settlement and transportation

In 1826, 2.5 million acres (1,011,714 hectares) of land stretching from the shores of Lake Huron to present-day Guelph were granted to the newly created Canada Company as the beginning of an ambitious settlement program.3 The following year, Goderich was established at the mouth of the Maitland River as the company’s operational headquarters. The company’s fortunes proved less than successful, but settlement did gradually increase. In 1841, the District of Huron was carved out of the London District and, in 1850, Huron County was created as the region’s administrative body. Goderich was incorporated as a town that same year.4 Settlement of the region around Goderich began in the 1830s and 1840s and was mirrored in the establishment of township administrations. The first municipal government of Goderich Township was formed in 1835. To the north, Colborne Township saw its inaugural government established in 1836. In Hullett Township, further to the east, municipal government began in 1848, and in Wawanosh Township, to the north of Hullett and Colborne townships, it began in 1852.5 Population figures for the region are difficult to ascertain, but the few that exist reflect the advance of municipal government. Goderich Township was estimated to have 1,673 inhabitants in 1846, while the surviving 1851 census for Colborne Township listed just under 1,000 souls.6 Hullett Township had a population of just 195 people in the mid-1840s, while settlement in Wawanosh Township, then a large, single entity, did not begin until the mid-1840s.7

The first road in the region, the predecessor to Provincial Highway 8, was cut through the forests in the late 1820s and early 1830s to link Goderich with Stratford to the southeast. Next came a road connecting Goderich with London to the south, now Provincial Highway 4.8 Other county and township roads were opened as settlement expanded in the region. Prior to the arrival of the railway in Upper Canada in the 1850s, transportation often relied on the navigable waterways – the Great Lakes and the major river systems. Unfortunately, the Maitland River, which meandered in a southern and westerly direction through Huron County until it emptied into Lake Huron at Goderich, was not suitable for commercial transportation. It was seasonally shallow and wound through the county in a long, circuitous route. The hamlet of Auburn, at the junctions of Colborne, Wawanosh and Hullett townships, is just 10 kilometres from Benmiller, also on the Maitland River near Goderich. By water the distance is 28 kilometres. The Maitland River, particularly where it ran south and west as the boundary for Goderich, Colborne and Hullett townships, actually formed an obstacle to east-west transportation between Goderich and its eastern neighbours. By 1879, three bridges provided access across this portion of the Maitland River, one at Auburn to the north, one at Benmiller to the south and Ball’s Bridge at a midpoint on Little Lakes Road. The bridge at Benmiller probably dates to the early 1830s, and those at Auburn and Little Lakes Road to the early 1840s when settlement was beginning east of the river. In December 1853, the county’s Road and Bridge Committee recommended a new bridge be built at the Little Lakes Road site, noting that the current structure was “very unsafe, and in all probability will be taken away the first flood …”9 The new bridge, completed by 1856, was later described as being a wooden four-span structure measuring 84 metres (275 feet) in length and costing $3,200.10

Ball’s Bridge: The age of iron

By 1885, Ball’s Bridge had weathered the elements and traffic for three decades and was again deteriorating. Huron County’s road commissioners were directed to advise on its repair or replacement.11 Hullett Township had grown substantially in that same span of time. Clinton, at its southwestern edge, was established in the 1830s and became an incorporated village in 1858 when the Buffalo and Lake Huron Railway arrived to link Goderich with southern communities.12 To the north, Londesborough saw its first settlers in the early 1850s, as did Auburn, at the northwestern edge of the township. The London, Bruce and Huron Railway was built through Hullett Township in 1876, spurring on the region’s growth.13 By the mid-1880s, Auburn’s population had risen to 450, while that of Clinton and Londesborough, now serviced by railways, was 2,900 and 300 respectively.14 It is likely this spurt of economic activity and growth, coupled with the deteriorating condition of Ball’s Bridge, that resulted in Huron County’s decision, in 1885, to erect a new bridge over the Maitland River, thereby improving the transportation corridor linking Hullett Township and Goderich to the west.

By the 1870s, wrought iron was replacing wood as the common material for bridges in North America.15 More durable and resistant to fire, iron bridges were produced as components by bridge fabricating companies, shipped by rail and erected by local labour.16 The Dominion Bridge Company supplied at least one bridge to Huron County in 1885, but the contract for Ball’s Bridge went to the nearby Hamilton Bridge Company.17 Ball’s Bridge is an excellent example of 1880s bridge-building technology and esthetics. It is a Pratt design, pin-connected through truss bridge18 – a design patented and perfected in the 1860s and 1870s, and a precursor to the rivet-connected iron truss bridges that appeared in the 1890s.19 In this design, large iron pins, rather than rivets, connect the members and there is a covering of ironwork creating an airy tunnel framework through which traffic passes. Its two 38.7-metre (127-foot) spans are firmly anchored on large stone and concrete abutments and piers, and provide a 77.4-metre (251-foot) long bridge.20 Light and sparing of materials, the Pratt designed Ball’s Bridge features symmetrical triangle patterns complemented by structural lattice work on its main supporting members. It served to connect the residents of Goderich, and surrounding area, with those of Hullett Township for over a century. In 1989, in the face of increased traffic composed of ever larger and heavier vehicles, Ball’s Bridge was given a restricted load limit and was replaced as the major crossing point for this portion of the Maitland River by a new bridge and a new through road, County Road 15, just to its south.21 In 2006, Ball’s Bridge was closed to traffic entirely and its future was suddenly called into doubt.

Ball’s Bridge: Appreciation and preservation

The closure of Ball’s Bridge was a shock to the surrounding community and it galvanized residents to establish the Friends of Ball’s Bridge to lobby for its renovation and preservation. While some at first questioned the wisdom of funding the preservation of a bridge that had outlived its time, the Friends of Ball’s Bridge sought out experts to confirm the heritage values represented in the bridge, while others highlighted its benefits for tourism.22 It was pointed out, for example, that pin-connected wrought-iron bridges are now rare, and twin-span examples even more so. In 2007, the County Council provided for the transfer of responsibility for the bridge to the townships of Ashfield-Colborne-Wawanosh and Central Huron, along with a grant of $250,000.23

That year, Ball’s Bridge underwent a structural engineering review and was repaired and opened to the public.24 The bridge is crossed by a section of the Maitland Trail, a treasured heritage resource in Huron County. Folklore relates that the young engineer of Ball’s Bridge fell in love with, and subsequently married, a member of the Ball family, on whose land the eastern portion of the bridge sits.25 A century and a quarter later, Ball’s Bridge retains its romantic reputation, drawing the young, and young at heart, for quiet walks and scenic photographs along its classic spans.

The Ontario Heritage Trust gratefully acknowledges the research of Robert J. Burns, PhD, in preparing this paper.

© Ontario Heritage Trust, 2011, 2012

1 The author would like to thank Beth Ross, Director of Cultural Services, Huron County, Andrew Ross of B.M. Ross and Associates Ltd. and Roger Dorton, former Head Engineer for the Ontario Ministry of Transportation, for their assistance in the preparation of this study.

2 Observation by Roger Dorton, former Head Bridge Engineer of the Ontario Ministry of Transportation, speaking at a Friends of Ball’s Bridge forum, Cheryl Heath, “Forum focuses on future of Ball’s Bridge,” Clinton News, 25 Oct. 2006.

3 “Canada Company,” The Canadian Encylopedia.

4 Frederick H. Armstrong, Handbook of Upper Canadian Chronology and Territorial Legislation (London, ON: Lawson Memorial Library, University of Western Ontario, 1967), pp.166-67.

5 Illustrated Historical Atlas of the County of Huron (Toronto: H. Beldon & Co., 1879), pp. 16-19 and 23.

6 William Henry Smith, Smith’s Canadian Gazetteer: Canada West, 1846 (Toronto: H. & W. Rowsell, 1846), quoted in and

7 “Hullett Township,”; Illustrated Historical Atlas of the County of Huron (Toronto: H. Beldon & Co., 1879), pp. 18-19.

8 Illustrated Historical Atlas of the County of Huron (Toronto: H. Beldon & Co., 1879), p. 6.

9 Minutes of the Proceedings of the Municipal Council for the United Counties of Huron and Bruce, Sept. 1853, Huron County Archives.

10 Minutes of the Proceedings of the Corporation of the County of Huron, June 1879 and June 1885. Huron County Archives.

11 Minutes of the Proceedings of the Corporation of the County of Huron, January 1885. Huron County Archives.

12 “Town of Clinton,” Illustrated Historical Atlas of the County of Huron (Toronto: H. Beldon & Co., 1879), pp. 9-10.

13 “The Founding of Blyth,” Ontario Heritage Trust provincial plaque.

14 Ontario Gazetteer and Business Directory, 1886-87 (Toronto: R. L. Polk & Co., 1886), pp. 99, 263 and 572.

15 Norman R. Ball (ed.), Building Canada: a History of Public Works (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988), pp. 12-17.

16 Blackfriars Bridge (London), another wrought-iron bridge of truss construction, was produced in this manner and erected in 1875. An Ontario Provincial Plaque to commemorate the Blackfriars Bridge was unveiled in 1986 and is located by the bridge at Blackfriars Street, London, Ontario.

17 Minutes of the Proceedings of the Huron County Council, June and December, 1885.

18 A truss bridge is one that features a triangular framework of steel, iron, cast iron or wrought iron. A through truss bridge has overhead bracing that creates a tunnel-like effect when one drives across the bridge.

19 Nathan Holth, expert on iron bridge technology and author of; see particularly

20 B.M. Ross and Associates Ltd., letter to Huron County, 12 Mar. 1986; Ball’s Bridge file, Huron County Archives. No explanation has been found for the discrepancy in the lengths of the 1850s wooden bridge and its iron replacement in 1885.

21 Ball’s Bridge file, Huron County Archives.

22 Cheryl Heath, “Forum focuses on future of Ball’s Bridge,” Clinton News Record, 25 Oct. 2006.

23 Ball’s Bridge file, Huron County Archives. Additional funding of $242,000 was received from the Province of Ontario for repairs.

24 “Ball’s Bridge Reopens,” Clinton News Record, 17 Oct. 2007.

25 “Ball’s Bridge: the Bridge that Love Built, 1885” brochure celebrating the restoration and reopening of Ball’s Bridge, 2008, Ball’s Bridge file, Huron County Archives. As the current bridge is at least the third on the site, it is unclear whether the engineer was “of Ball’s Bridge,” and certainly the current bridge’s eastern portion is on municipal road allowance now, though the earlier bridges might have been on private land.