The campus comes to the creek

Engineering 1 under construction

Aerial photo taken during the construction of Engineering I makes clear how much of the campus landscaping, from trees to rolling hills, is artificial.

The 1950s were not good times for trolls, I can tell you. My own annus horribilis was 1958, the year your university started tearing up my back yard here beside Laurel Creek, but similar things were happening all over. And it's shocking how few people recognize that aspect of urban development. Look in the Canadian Encyclopedia, will you, where it talks about the creation of Don Mills: "The curvilinear road system was used not only to discourage through traffic, but to allow roads to follow the topography." Guess what else it discouraged? Peaceful enjoyment of the terrain by trolls, that's what. A couple of my own cousins had to pull up stakes and head out to remotest Thornhill, thanks to that one.

And if urban development was coming to Don Mills, could Waterloo be far behind? No, it could not. A shrewd fellow named Abe Wiebe, doing business as Major Holdings and Development, bought up farmland northwest of peaceful little Waterloo and was all ready to build an industrial park, when in 1957 a more promising purchaser came to mind. It was, of course, the Waterloo College Associate Faculties, which had started teaching classes in a couple of shacks on a parking lot near Albert Street, but which needed breathing space. Needed it badly. If I have a less than perfect knowledge of the way the plans were drawn, the lands bought and the buildings put up for what's now the campus of the University of Waterloo, I'm not alone in my confusion. I have it on good authority that your white-haired university historian, whom I sometimes see hurrying over my little bridge here, is likewise a little bewildered about what went on, and how "the Wyzinski Farm" and "the Amos W. Martin Farm" were transformed from the bucolic to the academic. But the essentials are clear: bulls gave way to bulldozers, and the next thing you know, the biggest product of the place is bull of a whole new kind.

As I say, the Associate Faculties, soon to be the university, were based at Waterloo College, where Wilfrid Laurier University is now. Gerry Hagey and the other college leaders realized they were going to need much more space, and naturally they looked first in the Albert Street area, realizing that it would make sense to connect the existing campus (such as it was) with the new stadium that Joseph E. Seagram and Sons was giving them. When that didn't work out, they thought of a block of land along Dearborn Street, just west of there. They were so confident about that plan that they issued a fund-raising brochure trumpeting their magnificent new campus, prominently featuring a "chemistry and chemical engineering building" that wasn't yet even a hole in the ground.

It never did become a hole in the ground, of course; at least not there. Land dealings went on; at one point there was serious talk of moving the whole operation to a piece of land in Preston, south of Kitchener. Frankly, I wish they'd done that. For one thing, it would have left my pleasant back yard in peace, and for another, with the municipal name change that came along in 1972, it would have entitled your institution nowadays to be called the University of Cambridge. However, they didn't. Instead, they bought a piece of that land that Abe Wiebe had been preparing for industry - some 237 acres of it, or 95 hectares as it would be called now. I remember well the day when it was announced: January 25, 1958. It wasn't easy in 1958 for a troll to buy a bottle (there were no self-service LCBOs, I can tell you) but that day I went home to my cave by Laurel Creek and had a pretty stiff drink.

I knew what was coming. Chemistry professors. Biology professors sticking nets into the creek to study riparian life - which includes me, though I didn't want them to know it. Students researching each other's biology down by the creek on sunny afternoons. Little kids at the Heritage Resources Camp splashing around. Villagers throwing each other into the water, for heaven's sake. It's just as well I didn't foresee the biggest desecration of all, the engineers with their machinery literally changing the course of the creek so that Westmount Road could run broad and straight. I'll tell you more of that part of the story later, maybe, but if I had realized in 1958 that they would do a thing like that, well, I'd have been out of the place on the next flight to New Hamburg.

What Hagey and his colleagues did first, of course, was get started building their "chemistry and chemical engineering building" on their new property, instead of down by Albert Street. You can look at an aerial photo taken sometime in the middle of that year and see the excavation and forms for the precast-concrete walls - rather a novel form of construction at the time, by the way. You can thank Les Emery and Paul Meincke for that - two of the cluster of unusual people, fond of novel ideas and richly equipped with the energy to put them across, who were attracted to Waterloo College Associate Faculties from the beginning. Many people still at Waterloo will perhaps remember Paul Meincke, who claimed to have given the first lecture to that initial engineering class in the summer of 1957, and who taught in systems design engineering until his retirement in 1977. Not so many will recall Les Emery, who was sometimes given credit for having invented the Waterloo version of co-op education, and who never stopped inventing things. When he died in Northumberland County in 1993, more than thirty years after leaving Waterloo, he had been working on methods for using microwaves to extract oil and to break down wastes. He'd also been operating a hobby farm, which maybe shows that he felt an occasional twinge at being part of wiping out the farmlands here on the fringe of Waterloo.

Anyway, as I was saying, they put up their chemistry and chemical engineering building, oriented roughly east- west and just a few feet from the front door of the old Schweitzer farmhouse. An unpaved extension of Dearborn Street ran right up to the site. Look, if you can bear it, at the map of Waterloo now: Dearborn Street, under its new name of University Avenue, runs straight up to the edge of the campus, then veers off to the southwest. Straight ahead of you, if you could only see it, is that 1958 building, now called Engineering I. The scene is a lot different from what's shown in the aerial photograph, with essentially empty fields, apart from a few evergreen trees right by the farmhouse. Of course you know the farmhouse is still there, expanded and renovated and turned over to a lot of noisy graduate students. But there's no trace left of the barn and silo that, as the 1958 photo shows, were demolished as part of the construction job. Off to the right and top of the picture, you can see the railway from Waterloo to St. Jacobs, much busier then than it is today, but you sure can't see anything that foretells East Side Mario's and McGinnis Landing.

Well, that was the essence of 1958, although there was more to come. In July the Associate Faculties bought another farm, from the Wyzinski family, and registered the purchase with "deed #173,207" - oh, the legalities you human beings have to go through! Life is better as a troll, I can tell you. For that matter, life is better as a raccoon, free to paddle in the creek and eat those disgusting things that raccoons eat. I can remember when one of the 'coons sold out to human life, though, and let himself be adopted as a university pet, living in that same farmhouse when it was occupied by administrative offices in the 1960s. But I'm digressing.

In May 1958 they had the official opening of Seagram Stadium, and on the same day they did something that University of Waterloo people would come to delight in: they held a conference for industrial bigwigs. Some 200 people showed up to discuss co-op and industrial research, among them Sir Robert Watson-Watt, described by somebody as "the father of radar", who had just written his book about how technology won the Second World War, Three Steps to Victory. The hyphenated boffin called Waterloo "an almost unique educational institution", which was for some reason taken as a compliment. I dare say the students of the time, who still had most of their classes in tin-roofed portable buildings, accepted that description without hesitation.

On December 3, 1958, the building was finished, and the university people managed to persuade the red-Tory premier of Ontario, Leslie Frost, to show up and unveil a dedicatory plaque, which you can still see there in the lobby. I say "the university people" although it was still officially Waterloo College Associate Faculties, and I use the word for a good reason: by December 1958, everybody else was using it. Frost himself, in his speech on the occasion, referred to "this new university", and at one point forgot to put in qualifying phrases about "in the not too distant future". He knew that the mills were already grinding the paperwork to create the University of Waterloo under that name.

But that's a story about 1959, not 1958. Drop back some time, as long as I'm still here in a corner of the campus that nobody's paved yet, and perhaps I'll tell it.

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