Growing up in Cambridge next to Soper Park, the park became an extension of my backyard. I spent many days exploring the park, wading in the creek, catching crayfish and racing home-made boats. As a child the creek seemed mysterious and ancient. It was dammed with stone and concrete dams, and walled in with massive stones, broken by sets of concrete stairs that led down into the water. I used to image they were ancient ruins. Only as I grew older did my father tell me that the creek had been dammed and walled as an outdoor swimming hole, which he used to visit as a child. Under the silt of thirty years, you could still uncover the concrete floor of the swimming hole.
Today the ruins of the swimming hole in Soper Park have been replaced with a vibrant, naturalized creek, which has become a thriving ecosystem for significant species such as the brown trout. Between 1995 and 2001 the City of Cambridge undertook a naturalization of the creek in Soper Park in an effort to bring the creek back to life from a “sterilized” swimming hole, to a cold water creek. The stone walls of the creek were largely removed, and where the creek had been straightened and dammed, the project attempted to return the creek to a more natural and historical route. Indigenous grasses, trees and shrubs were planted alongside the creek to prevent erosion and provide habitat for animals.
For the City of Cambridge the rehabilitation of the creek was undertaken within a balancing act of public opinion. Many people were concerned that by returning the creek to a more “natural” state, the well-known heritage features of the parks, including the stone embankments around the creek, would be lost. While retaining heritage is often the “greenest” choice, in the case of restoring natural heritage in public parks choices have to be made between retaining certain heritage features over restoring the natural environment. The City of Cambridge explained the process and publicized the work through public meetings, newspaper stories, outdoor informational signage at the park, and a Cambridge Natural Heritage Tour booklet available for free. A “Friends of Mill Creek” organization was formed providing volunteer services to maintain the health of the rehabilitated Soper Park creek.
This latest chapter in the history of Soper Park represents a more modern approach to urban public and green spaces, to restore these areas to their “natural” state. Throughout its history Soper Park has undergone many different phases of development and redevelopment. The land was once known as “Jackson’s Field” and as a site where traveling circuses that regularly visited the area would pitch their tents and water their animals. The land was purchased by the Town of Galt (which later became Cambridge) in 1905 for use as a public park. The newly formed Galt Parks Commission hired renowned landscape architect Frederick G. Todd to form a plan for the park. Todd’s plans called for the creek to be kept “as natural as possible,” but admitted that other “natural” areas, like the swampy land in the north end of the park, was “neither pleasing to look at nor is it pleasing to walk through.” In this area Todd suggested that the creek be deepened and the banks lined with boulders to alleviate its natural swampy tendencies.
Todd’s plans for the park were endorsed by the town, but work was slowed by a lack of funds and the First World War. In the 1920s a local citizen whose house overlooked the park, Dr. Augustus Soper, personally took on further improvements to the park. While Soper built on Todd’s plans, he made many extensive changes to the parks “natural” areas. The creek was completely enclosed with stone embankments, and three dams were built to create the outdoor swimming pools. A frog pond was filled to create the largest lawn bowling green in western Ontario, and the cedar swamp in the north end of the park was drained. Soper constructed field-stone gates at the entrances to the park, which were dedicated as memorials to the community’s war dead from the First World War. Laneways were constructed throughout the park to make it accessible to the automobile. Other additions to the park included an impressive Peony Garden, Galt Arena Gardens – the oldest continuously used enclosed ice-rink in Canada, a miniature golf course, tennis club, and an outdoor public pool.
Today Soper Park is an impressive example of establishing a balance in a public park between public recreational uses and the restoration and protection of natural heritage.