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The Gatineau Park Chronicles

From The Gatineau Park Chronicle Fall 2007 issue.

Fresh Air Seekers

By Denis Messier

The fire of 1900, which destroyed a large part of the City of Hull (today Gatineau) and parts of Ottawa, made the situation worse for a city that Canada's prime minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, described as "the ugliest capital in the world." More and more, well-to-do citizens were eying the hills of the Outaouais region and dreaming of moving there.

Such was the case with Thomas "Carbide" Willson, engineer, inventor and successful entrepreneur, who, in 1907, built an estate of 185 hectares with a large, rustic two-storey house on a promontory on the eastern end of Meech Lake.TheWillson family became the focal point of a vibrant social circle. It was in this very house that, some 80 years later, the famous Meech Lake Accord was negotiated.

The Gatineau Park Chronicles
Aerial view of Kingsmere Lake - Library and Archives Canada E002505835.

Thomas Willson was not the only well-off city dweller to migrate to the hills. J.R. Booth, the king of the lumber barons and one of the wealthiest men in the Commonwealth, who William Lyon Mackenzie King described as"one of the Fathers of Canada," had a huge summer home (which no longer exists), overlooking the north shore of Kingsmere Lake. Further north was William Duncan Herridge, son of the Reverend Dr. William Thomas Herridge of Kingsmere, and married to the granddaughter of J.R. Booth. W.D. Herridge was also the brother-in-law and close adviser of Prime Minister R.B.Bennett,who appointed him as ambassador to Washington in the 1930s. His house was built on the shore of Mousseau (Harrington) Lake. Lieutenant - Colonel Cameron Macpherson Edwards, a well-known military officer and one of the last lumber barons, also had a house on Mousseau Lake, which later became the prime minister's official summer residence in the Park.

Thomas Ahearn - an associate of J.R. Booth, industrial inventor, and owner of the Ottawa Electric Company and Ottawa's electric streetcar system - was also attracted by the open green space of the Park area, and established a house (which no longer exists). Ahearn was appointed the first chairman of the Federal District Commission by Mackenzie King in 1927.Frederic E.Bronson,also a chairman of the Federal District Commission, from 1936 to 1951,owned a large estate which he bequeathed to the Canadian government.

Another important figure was Ambrose O'Brien,from Renfrew,Ontario,an extremely wealthy industrial entrepreneur whose family owned no less than 175 companies in almost every sector of the Canadian economy. In 1930, he built Kincora Lodge, an impressive three-storey summer residence, which still exists on the eastern point of Meech Lake, a neighbour of the Willsons. Ambrose O'Brien and his father were instrumental in establishing the National Hockey League and the legendary Montréal Canadiens hockey team. Thus, the most beautiful panoramas of the Gatineau Hills were divided primarily among members of Ottawa's high society. Even religious organizations, such as the Capuchin friars, established themselves on the shores of Meech Lake around 1900, building a place for members' retreats and for meditation far from the noise of the city.

Of course, former prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King is the most well-known of the cottagers who owned a residence in the hills. He moved to Ottawa in 1900, the same year of the terrible fire in Hull. In the fall of that year, King visited the hills and decided to settle at Kingsmere, where he eventually developed an estate of more than 230 hectares.After his death, the property was bequeathed to the Canadian government. Today, the Mackenzie King Estate is the jewel of Gatineau Park and a heritage treasure.

With the exception of Meech Valley, whose agricultural past has shaped the landscape, it was primarily the cottagers who imposed a recreational function on the area of present-day Gatineau Park, which would henceforth characterize the Park's cultural landscape. The influence of this period and these people have shaped the character of the nationally important heritage areas in Gatineau Park.

The Train to the Hills

It was not until the arrival of the train - that wonderful invention of the Industrial Revolution - and the construction of the rail line between Ottawa and Maniwaki, which began in 1885,that vacationers were introduced on a large scale to the Gatineau Hills.The trip between Ottawa and Chelsea had been a difficult, one-day journey by horse-drawn carriage on toll roads in poor condition. By train, it became a pleasant excursion that took a few hours, cost relatively little, could accommodate the whole family and luggage, and took passengers into the heart of the hills. It was for this reason that the last decade of the 19th century saw the construction of hotels, inns, golf courses, tennis courts and other recreational spaces in the region that would become Gatineau Park. Dozens of city dwellers moved to Chelsea and around Meech and Kingsmere lakes. The area abounded with activity. Swimming, canoeing, hiking in the forests, hunting and fishing were popular pursuits for wealthy citizens during their spare time. These recreation seekers became an important source of income for the descendents of the area's pioneers, who provided transportation, agricultural products and much-needed labour, thus becoming among the first Canadians to experience the tourist industry.

An Idea Whose Time Had Come

The concept of a "national park" was born 1872 in the United States, with the creation of Yellowstone Park. In 1885, Canada designated Banff as our first national park. Closer to Canada's Capital, Algonquin Park in Ontario was created in 1893, and Mont-Tremblant in Quebec was established in 1895, both according to the same model.

The idea of a park in the Gatineau Hills dates back to the same time period. This idea was also influenced by the reformist ideology of philanthropists under the City Beautiful movement, which advocated the cleaning up and beautification of cities to solve social problems. It was in the spirit of the City Beautiful movement that Sir Wilfrid Laurier created the Ottawa Improvement Commission (OIC) in 1899.

In the early 20th century, the OIC, the forerunner of the National Capital Commission (NCC), expressed an inter- est in preserving the natural beauty of the Gatineau Hills. The Todd Report of 1903 and Holt Commission Report of 1915 recommended that the Canadian government create a park in the hills. However, the OIC had neither the power nor the means to undertake this project, and the Government of Canada was focused on other priorities related to its involvement in the First World War.