The Hilton Breakaway

We never quite get over them, those ‘natural events’ reminding us our grip on mother earth isn’t so secure after all. The big ones, with their terrible loss of life and property, stay in our memories forever. Closer to home, folks still recall the 1973 Brighton tornado, the 1998 ice storm, the 2017 spring floods.

Residents of Hilton, part of the former Brighton Township, can recount their own brush with geophysical uncertainty – the Hilton Breakaway of 1852. The area’s hills of sand and gravel left behind by retreating glaciers were once again on the move.

Local forest stewards Bud and Jill Guertin have been known to take a visitor on a golf-cart junket through their heavily-treed acreage (well over 50,000 trees planted during their 50-year residency to anchor the sandy soil) in search of the stone steps belonging to the Thompsons, early settlers who once lived beside a gentle tributary of Cold Creek. Those steps now lie hidden, 30 feet above today’s creek level; the Thompsons wisely moved their timber frame house well back from the edge after a harrowing experience there. That new foundation adjoins their later brick house, where Jill and Bud reside.

Bud shows a 1953 aerial photo, Jill displays a topographical map. Each document tells the story of The Breakaway. The dark shadow in the photograph shows the location of a shallow 100-acre lake which once lay west of today’s County Road 30, its southern extremity close to the Hilton-Dundonald road (now County Road 21). A high ridge of gravel, once used as a road, dammed the north side of the lake, and a creek flowed eastward from it. The closely drawn contours on the topographical map indicate precipitous ravines along that small steam, now known as Breakaway Creek. Back in the 1850s, the creek powered the sawmills of Lewis Shearer and Willet Simpson.

On April 21, 1852, at 10 in the evening, the lake’s north bank suddenly gave way, likely due to underground seepage, augmented by snowmelt and several days of heavy rain. With a great roar, the lake water surged down the valley, gouging a deep ravine, tearing into sand ridges, careening off gravel banks, and spreading over the countryside downstream. Mill owner Lewis Shearer and worker John Herrington were killed. Willet Simpson’s house was damaged, his barn destroyed, his cattle washed downstream. The story is unsettling, 166 long years later.

Today’s visitor to the site needs maps, informed locals, and a keen eye to detect signs of this dramatic long-ago event. Thanks to local historians, an interpretive panel in a small roadside park at Cedar Creek recounts the story of the Hilton Breakaway.

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