Cataract Falls, Ontario
John Deagle acquired a mill on the Credit River, some nine miles south of Orangeville, Ontario. The mill had sustained two major fires, and Deagle rebuilt it bigger and better than ever before. It wasn't long, however, before he realized that there was a great deal of competition in the milling business that simply made it unprofitable. By this time, he had become interested in electricity and how to generate it.
He and his brother built a tiny generator, utilizing the water wheel from the mill and began to experiment. Soon after, he bought a second-hand generator from Montreal for $500, and began to produce electricity commercially. The town of Erin contracted him to install electric street lights. Alton soon followed suit, and before he knew it, Orangeville was wanting service as well. He realized he would need to expand his plant.
He had heard about a new technology called revolving-field generators, and set out to make the first of its kind in Canada. He manufactured all of the parts by hand, and even manufactured the tools he would need. This wasn't new to him as he had also hand-made and erected all of the poles, and personally strung all of the wiring that would be required to deliver his electricity to his markets.
Orangeville presented challenges for Deagle. There was always at least one other company competing with him. People took advantage of the situation by not paying their bills, and switching providers after going into arrears. The competition became rough enough that, at one point, Deagle had had lights shot out by a .22 rifle, meters burned out intentionally, and transmission wires cut. He was eventually forced to hire someone just to patrol his lines.
After a time, it became too much, and Deagle sold the business to someone from Toronto for $100,000 (some sources indicate only $50,000).
The Next Challenge
Deagle moved to North-Western Ontario and began looking for opportunities to get back into the business of hydro-electric generation. This put him at constant odds, not only with other private generators, but especially with the Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario, the origin of Hydro One. He had almost won lucrative contracts with the towns of Schreiber and Sioux Falls, but lost out to Ontario Hydro at the last moment.
Eventually, he made a deal with the town of Little Current on Manitoulin Island. To meet the demand, Deagle employed local natives near Whitefish Falls to help him build a dam and a generating station. Once again, he built everything by hand, surveyed the route the lines would take to the island, and even engineered the submarine cables to cross the channel.
The ten-year contract, signed in 1930, gave him the stability to also provide power for the community of Whitefish Falls, the INCO quarry at Willisville, and a summer home of the widow of John H. Patterson, former president of National Cash Register. Here, he established business practices for which he became known, such as providing the school and the Catholic and Anglican churches with power for free. He would give power at half price for one year to families with new babies. If you had twins, you got the full year free.
He was known, not only for his hard work and eccentricity, but also for his fiery temper. This brought him into almost constant conflict with the town of Little Current who blamed him for outages and brown-outs. Deagle told them it was because of their antiquated delivery system, but they placed the blame on Deagle who was, in many ways, his own worst enemy.
When the ten-year contract was over, Little Current chose to give their business to Ontario Hydro rather than renewing with Deagle. When this happened, they were told their entire delivery grid would need to be scrapped and replaced. Ontario Hydro then bought Deagle's line for its right-of-way.
The Final Years
Eleven years later, by 1951, Maclean's Magazine did an article on Deagle and his unusual business setup. A year later, he passed away. The dam and the powerhouse were eventually washed out by flood waters, and only the concrete frames exist today.
All photos by H.W. Tetlow and appeared in the October 15, 1951 edition of Maclean's Magazine.