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The Gatineau Park Chronicles

From The Gatineau Park Chronicle Fall 2009 issue.

Modern Industry on the Shores of Meech Lake

by Denis Messier

Whether you walk, cycle, snowshoe or ski, exploring Gatineau Park is an experience that never fails to thrust the visitor deep into a peaceful, thought-provoking natural panorama. On occasion, at a bend in the trail, visitors may stumble upon a building, object or facility that piques their curiosity because of its unusual shape or seemingly strange location.

This is true of the Carbide Willson ruins. Located on Meech Creek, only metres from "Little Meech Lake" at the source of the creek, these ruins bear witness to the industrial past of the Gatineau Hills. They are what remain of the dreams of one of Canada's most energetic and prolific early 20th century inventors and industrialists, Thomas Leopold Willson.

The Gatineau Park Chronicles
Carbide Willson's acid condenser tower, dam, footbridge and generating station, July 13, 1917 - William James Topley.

Farm Boy to Industrial Baron

Thomas L. Willson was born in 1860 at his father's farm in Princeton, Ontario. It was in Hamilton, an important steel town, that he attended secondary school and apprenticed with a local blacksmith. At a very early age, he demonstrated an uncommon scientific ingenuity and curiosity that prompted him to develop a host of industrial processes, for which he obtained more than 70 patents in Canada and the United States.

However, Willson is most famous for his discovery of a process to produce calcium carbide through carbon electrolysis. In 1895, when he was only 35 years old, Willson helped found a company that later became the multinational corporation Union Carbide.

Changing Water Into Light

One of the chief calcium carbide applications that Thomas Willson succeeded in developing involved the affordable production of acetylene, a gas that, when burned, emits an extremely bright light, and that, at the time, was highly prized for domestic and industrial lighting, prior to a massive shift to electricity. To produce this gas,Willson simply brought calcium carbide pellets into contact with water. Cities, trains, factories and even waterways were soon lit with acetylene produced by this process.

A Prominent Ottawa Citizen Moves to the Gatineau Hills

In 1901, it was a prosperous Thomas Willson who moved into a house on Metcalfe Street in Ottawa - close to the seat of federal political power, and at the heart of a major industrial and financial centre, not far from Chaudières Falls, a powerful and inexhaustible supply of hydroelectric energy. Soon thereafter, he built a calcium carbide plant on Victoria Island to supply the central Canadian market.

In 1905, like many prominent citizens in the Capital, Thomas Willson looked to the Gatineau Hills. He purchased a 400-acre estate on the southeast shore of Meech Lake, where he built his summer residence in 1907.

The Willson House is located on a promontory overlooking Meech Lake. It is built in the Queen Anne Revival style, a style of architecture that was common in Britain in the late 19th century. Situated on the highest point of the cliff on the lake, the house is constructed of materials native to the region, the pink granite and timber having come from the site itself. The house's rustic appearance blends perfectly with its environment.

The two-and-a-half-storey house has 11 bedrooms and seven fireplaces with four chimneys. It is surrounded by several outbuildings - including a garage, employee quarters, a chapel and an air- craft hangar - built on an estate of more than 180 hectares of rolling, wooded landscape. The property is accessed through a massive gate of wrought iron and cut pink granite, leading to a broad winding laneway, lined with electric lampposts, also made of cut stone.

The Industrial Revolution Comes to the Gatineau Hills

Thomas Willson's scientific interests were not confined to calcium carbide and acetylene production. He was also passionate about hydroelectricity, the emerging pulp and paper industry, improving the telephone, and automobiles. In fact, he was the first Ottawa resident to own a car. He built factories from St. Catharines, Ontario, to Shawinigan, Quebec. He travelled to the Saguenay, where he recognized the region's vast hydroelectric potential. He purchased immense forest properties, to which he hoped to attract hydroelectric and pulp and paper companies.

In 1905, he built a highly sophisticated laboratory in the basement of his Metcalfe Street residence in Ottawa. There, he conducted a multitude of experiments prior to focusing on the development of superphosphate-based chemical fertilizer. Despite its sophistication, the Metcalfe Street laboratory did not allow him to produce sufficient vol- umes of the fertilizer to demonstrate the profitability of this enterprise. He therefore turned to his Meech Lake property to provide facilities suited to his projects.

In 1911, Willson erected a dam and experimental electrical station at the source of Meech Creek. His project seriously angered waterfront cottagers, who saw water levels rise nearly two metres and some of their buildings disappear beneath the surface of the water. Willson's popularity declined sharply; however, the grumblings failed to deter the inventor from his projects. The electrical station provided enough power to supply an impressive phosphoric acid condenser, the first of its kind in the world.

These facilities, still in the experimental stage, required huge capital investment, funds that Willson also needed badly for his projects in the Saguenay.Nevertheless, he opted to put everything into phos- phate production, mortgaging all of his assets. Unable to repay his debts,Willson was plunged into bankruptcy, losing all of his properties along with the rights to all of his patents. He spent the last two years of his life striving to rebuild a business in Newfoundland. Thomas Willson died in New York in 1915 after suffering a heart attack.

A Unique Role for the Manor

A few years after Thomas Willson's death, the property was sold to Archibald J. Freiman, a prosperous Ottawa businessman. Born in Lithuania, Freiman ran a large department store on Rideau Street in Ottawa. He lived in the former Willson home from 1923 until just before the Second World War, in 1938.

From 1938 to 1979, the house was owned by the family of Joseph Gilhouly, an Ottawa dentist. In 1979, the National Capital Commission acquired the property and integrated it into Gatineau Park. The building was unoccupied for awhile, then renovated and converted into a government conference centre. It was leased to Public Works and Government Services Canada, which has managed the house since then. The house is now a site for government meetings and conferences for small groups of up to 30 people.

In April 1987, Willson House was the scene of one of the most famous federal-provincial conferences in Canadian history. It was in this house that the famous "Meech Lake Accord" was negotiated, marking a significant point in the constitutional history of Canada.

If Thomas Willson had decided to settle in Ottawa to be closer to the seat of political power, he most certainly never imagined that it would one day come to his own house in the heart of the Gatineau Hills.

Willson's Legacy

Today,theWillson estate is protected by the Federal Heritage Buildings Review Office, which has evaluated the estate's buildings as "classified" - the highest level of heritage recognition. This recognition is justified by the quality of architecture, the historical integrity of the buildings and the national significance of Thomas Leopold Willson.

By contrast, the Meech Lake industrial facilities are in ruin, a reflection of Thomas "Carbide" Willson's shattered dreams. However, what remains speaks eloquently of a dramatic period of economic development that brought Canada into the western industrial revolution. The Gatineau Hills played a part in this revolution, as home to Thomas"Carbide" Willson, an inventor and industrialist whose efforts and energy helped to lay the groundwork for the industrial core of the Canadian economy.