Lakeside Drive takes its name from Lake Victoria, along whose south side it runs. Lake Victoria is part of the Avon River above the dam, extending to the LakeSide North Bridge. If it were not for the R. Thomas Orr Dam, and 80 years of work by successive park boards, Lake Victoria and the Avon River would shrink to a trickle in a muddy ditch.
As most Stratford people are well aware, it is easy to pull the plug on the lake and river, which play such an important part in Stratford's magnificent park system. The draining of the river each year for cleaning and maintenance work usually heralds the end of the Festival season and the entry of our swan population into their winter quarters behind the arena.
Lakeside Drive is one of the few streets in Stratford which has a name that most Stratford people do not use. You are much more likely to hear people call it The River Drive, the official name on the official plan is Lakeside Drive. By either name, it is a beautiful place to stroll.
Many Stratford people will also joke among themselves about whether Victoria is really a lake? Or whether the Avon is really a river? But when it comes to talking to visitors there is no question about the status of either the iver or the lake. They are much taken for granted as an integral part of the Stratford scene by canoeists in the summer and skaters in winter, and by all the lookers-on. The in-between seasons, when the beautiful Avon is drained to become an ugly, littered bed of muck, are not suitable for public viewing. They are, like the unwashed dishes or the unmade bed, a part of Stratford’s housekeeping to be attended to after the guests have left.
The Avon River was the reason Stratford came into being, as a fresh water supply for weary settlers. In our founding year, 1832, the river was a stump-filled stream known as the Little Thames because it fed the larger river of the same name. The Canada Company immediately set about building a wooden dam in the vicinity of the present Orr dam to create a millpond for water power to drive a gristmill and a sawmill. For the first 50 years of Stratford's existence, the river served mainly utilitarian purposes. The Avon provided the main water supply and before long, what is now the west end of Lakeside Drive, became crowded with unsightly factories, warehouses and shacks.
By the 1880s, water power was falling into disuse and the dam burst to lay bare the dirty river bottom. By this time there was a committee of citizens working to rebuild the dam and clean up the river. In 1886, The Beacon said, "Victoria Lake is now an accomplished fact." The "dreary waste" had been replaced by a "sheet of water which will be a thing of beauty and a joy forever."
What might be described as the first River Drive was opened about this time when a driveway was laid out along the north shore, with permanent stepping stones to allow people to alight from their carriages and enjoy the new Lake Victoria. There were similar plans for a drive on the south shore, but the Orr Planing Mill was still in operation where the bandshell now stands.
Even from the earliest days of Stratford, swimming and boating had always been a part of the Avon's activities. The first known organized club was the Stratford Boat Club which originated in 1845. The Avon Boat Club was formed in 1864 and the next year held a regatta on Queen Victoria's birthday, Victoria Day, May 24. But the most famous boatman on the Avon was Adam Beck, later Sir AdamBeck of Ontario Hydro fame. It was Victoria Day 1877 when Adam Beck decided to bring his steam paddlewheeler Water Lilly to Lake Victoria. Beck was a last-minute entry in The Great Steamboat Race and he won easily over Stratford's two paddle-wheelers Firefly and Dreadnaught .
Beck also won a return race on Dominion Day and years later he recalled his victory with delight as he made a speech at the official opening of the York Street hydro-electric power distribution station in 1919. It would have delighted Sir Adam Beck to know that the Festival Bridge, over which Lakeside Drive crosses the river, is now floodlit with power; from a source which he helped to establish in Ontario.
If you haven't been around Lakeside Drive , you owe it to yourself to go. It's spectacular by the evening moonlight with the Festival Theatre glowing nearby. You can walk, run, jog, bike or or just sit on a bench and watch the swans float by. Or you can go and enjoy the Art in the Park (see below). By Stanford Dingman