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King of the Gatineau

The following was the basis for a talk given by Mr. Phillips at Lac Philippe on 4 September 1981 under the auspices of the National Capital Commission.

William Lyon Mackenzie King
William Lyon Mackenzie King and his dog Pat, Kingsmere in Gatineau Park

It is interesting to note that in the first issue of “Up the Gatineau!” in 1975 there is an article about Alonzo Wright, grandson of Philemon, in which he is referred to as King of the Gatineau. In this case, of course, ‘King’ has a different connotation.

This, then, is the Gatineau: the oldest hills in the world. Far older than life, older than man’s imagining. This is the Great Canadian Shield, which begins in the infinity of Arctic space, and ends just here, at the edge of Gatineau Park. The massive Precambrian granite is the root of once lofty mountains, slowly yielding to the erosion of sun and rain and ice and sand over hundreds of millions of years, and still reshaping into an indefinite future.

It was about a thousand million years ago that the surface of the earth was uplifted, eroded, cut by rivers of lava, creased and wrinkled and pressed by unimaginable force which broke the rock crust and thrust it upwards. That was 400 million years before there were any living things upon this planet.

About a million years ago, the last Ice Age moved down. The Gatineau lay under snow and ice, often a mile thick. For thousands of years, the landscape looked like central Greenland today. When the ice melted, it left enormous rocks, clay, and sand indiscriminately on the emerging ground. The crushing weight of the ice had also pressed down the surface of the land. Very, very slowly over the centuries, it rebounded. The evidence of these cataclysmic events haunts the Gatineau in deep scratches etched on rocks stripped bare of the soil that had once covered them. Long sinuous masses of sand and gravel, called eskers, stretch across the park, and huge boulders lie unexpectedly where they were dropped hundreds of thousands of years ago. New streams racing to the sea, which enveloped Ottawa, left deltas of sand still visible as terraces and gullies. Only in the last few thousand years have these battle scars been largely covered by the veneer of forest growth.

The Gatineau still changes. The line of smoky hills seen by Samuel Champlain or Nicolas Gatineau was not quite the same as we see today. Remarkably, these seventeenth century explorers were discovering an area not only new to Europeans, but largely new to man.

In geological time, that was just a split second ago. The Algonquin Indians who had long roamed the Ottawa Valley apparently rarely penetrated the more difficult terrain of Gatineau Park. The fur trade probably edged into the Park; the only trading post in the region was established at Pontiac Bay in 1786. Philemon Wright founded Hull in 1800, and that led the lumber trade into the Gatineau. In 1832, merchants gained timber rights, known as the Gatineau Privilege. In 1830, H. Prentiss opened a store and post office at Old Chelsea and a few years later, Chelsea was settled. Wakefield was established with a water-powered gristmill in 1838. In 1844, it passed into the hands of the MacLaren family who operated it for a century. In 1962 it was bought by the nation, and its revival has been undertaken by the National Commission Captial.

One of the first persons to venture off the river and road into what is now the Park itself was Asa Meech, preacher, teacher and practitioner of medicine. His 1821 house still stands. Meech was one of the few successful settlers. The waves of Irish immigrants slapped upon the shores of the Gatineau, but the soil was mean and life unrewarding. They laboriously cleared the forest, built cabins, but eventually retreated in the unequal struggle, leaving behind only their names: Pink, McCloskey, Keogan, Fortune and Harrington.

For a while, mining was more successful, at least on the outskirts of the future park. Between 1826 and 1977, iron ore was taken intermittently from Ironsides. At the far end of the Park, Quyon became the world’s largest producer of molybdenite during the First World War. And sporadic small-scale mica gathering operations were carried on in and near the Park.

Just after the turn of the century, the future park seemed to be on the verge of becoming the site of a major electrochemical industry. It was the product of the extraordinarily fertile brain of Thomas (Carbide) Willson, one of the most colourful inventors ever to be ignored on the pages of Canadian history.

By the age of 21, in Hamilton, Thomas Willson had built and patented a dynamo to produce an arc light, which was used, amongst other places, at Dundurn Castle. Between 1882 and 1892, he took out a dozen more patents for arc and incandescent lights and for ore smelting in electric furnaces. His advanced ideas for the production of aluminum led to the accidental discovery of acetylene, to the development of the Union Carbide Company and to riches for Willson. Then he became one of the world’s largest entrepreneurs in the manufacture of buoys and navigational lighting. Searching new technological frontiers, he sold out those interests as well as the largest timber rights in Québec and began to set the world on its ear by inventing fertilizer using nitrogen. It was said the project would put every fertilizer plant in the world out of business.

The monument to this dream is one of the authentic ruins of Gatineau Park. Near his cottage on Meech Creek he dammed the water way for power and built a $100,000 experimental plant for producing super phosphate fertilizer. He was just on the verge of a large hydroelectric development on the Hamilton River in Labrador where fertilizer and calcium carbide would be produced when, at the age of 55, he collapsed from a heart attack and died. His little plant on Meech Creek, the 12-sided condensation tower, and the spring freshets pouring untamed through the crumbling concrete are the last remains of industrial enterprise in Gatineau Park.

Let’s stop for a moment in the Park in the year 1900. It was still not a park, of course: that would take another 40 years. In 1900, it was still very much in the hands of nature which for millions of years had been slowly fashioning it. The touch of man was transient: a few dispirited settlers, a few cottagers and a wilderness neither despoiled, nor developed for human enjoyment. Left to chance, it would have taken less than a century for the creativity of nature to be undone by the population pressure from the growing capital a dozen miles away. It might well have been enjoyed by a few cottagers. It might also have been exploited commercially in an era when any kind of civic planning, let alone park planning, sounded like Bolshevik heresy. The forested slopes would certainly have been laid waste with endless consequences. That, in fact, began to happen rapidly during the depression years when suddenly wood, even at a dollar a cord, brought pittance for the unemployed and wealth for the merchants behind them. And certainly the area would never have been kept for the enjoyment of 2 million visitors a year.

I would like to advance the thesis that the difference between bounty and disaster was, as is customary in history, partly the result of accident. The happenstance was the visit to Kingsmere in 1900 of an unlikely young civil servant called William Lyon Mackenzie King.

King had recently come to Ottawa as editor of the Labour Gazette. He first saw Kingsmere on Thanksgiving Day when he and his inseparable friend, Albert Harper, cycled from the city and had their lunch on King Mountain. That expedition was to affect King’s life profoundly and to lead eventually to the creation of the Park.

For King, the Gatineau was love at first sight. He and Harper spent much of the next summer at Mrs. McMinn’s boarding house at Kingsmere. In those days of advanced technology, there was regular rail passenger service to Chelsea so that the two young men could travel up most days after work. In December 1901, Harper lost his life heroically while trying to save a girl from drowning. King went back to Kingsmere where they spent their last summer together, and soon began to plunge his roots deep into the Gatineau Hills.

In 1903, he acquired from Sir John Bourinot the cottage called Kingswood. It was so small that when King had a guest he had to evacuate the single bedroom and sleep in a tent. Over the years it was substantially expanded.

During the next 20 years, one of King’s closest friends was Mrs. Herridge, wife of the minister of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. When she died in 1924, King paid $3,000 for their cottage and nine acres, which he called Moorside. For four years it was occupied by his very close friends, Joan and Godfrey Patterson. Then King renovated it, supervising every change in meticulous detail. He lived here until the 1940s, and, in many ways, Moorside was always the soul of King’s Gatineau. It was here that he built his ruins, planted gardens, developed trails and, above all, buried his dogs.

Collecting ruins may be an eccentric pastime, but it is hardly a novel one. Royalty and nobility of Europe collected ruins and follies to spread about their estates. Windsor’s Great Park has ruins but no one has called into question the sanity of the British Royal family because of them.

The collection of ruins apparently began in King’s mind when efforts were being made to save William Lyon Mackenzie’s house on Bond Street in Toronto. King declined the invitation to provide funds to save the home of his illustrious grandfather, preferring to give, instead, some free advice. It seems he really had in mind that if the house were demolished he might acquire the historic plaque and some bricks to move to Kingsmere. Happily, King was frustrated when the house was saved.

A few months later he saw a house being demolished in Ottawa and offered the developer $50 on the spot for a semicircular stone window. That became the first completed ruin. The developer then offered King, without charge, the stone needed to complete a building incorporating the window. To King, the price was right. His fancy took flight with plans to build “something in the nature of a chapel, or library, or hall, or all combined—a combination of the Parthenon at Athens with a cathedral or abbey.” Kingsmere would never be the same again.

When that idea gently died, he collected stones from the burned Centre Block of the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa. These he combined with stones from the British Houses of Parliament when they were being routinely repaired.

The most extraordinary acquisition came in the darkest days of the Second World War when Britain’s survival seemed to hang by a thread. Late one night in 1941, Mr. Pearson, then on the staff at Canada House, was called at home with a “Secret and Most Immediate” cable. It was not some decision that would change the fortunes of war, but a request from the Prime Minister for a few stones from the Palace of Westminster, which King had learned, had just been bombed by the Germans. As Pearson notes in his memoirs, the Office of Works was overwhelmed with repairs vital to the very life of London. Nevertheless, the British, with private comments happily unrecorded, complied with the request. “This heavy and historic freight was shipped safely through the submarines to add a new distinction to Mr. King’s ruins at Kingsmere.”

Excepting those stones, the ruins were erected between 1935 and 1937. It is curious that, although King revered them always in a mystic way, he never added to them, nor did he revive the idea of an imposing temple.

It takes a diligent student of Mr. King to grasp even a fragment of the meaning, which his dogs had for him. Pat the First was a gift of the Patteson’s in 1924. After 17 years in the company of Mr. King, Pat was sick, deaf and nearly blind. On July 14, 1941, King postponed a meeting of the Cabinet War Committee to be at Kingsmere with the dying Pat to which (whom) King sang aloud “Safe in the arms of Jesus” and “God be with you until we meet again.” The funeral ceremony on the lawns of Moorside the next evening was one of the strangest ceremonies known to the Gatineau, but fortunately only the Patteson’s and a few servants were there to see it.

Pat the First was buried near the ruins, but there was no monument or even headstone as one might have expected or feared.

Pat II took over the same year. On Christmas Eve 1944, King writes, “Before going to bed I had a little talk with Pat, in his basket.” (Presumably only the dog was in the basket, but one never knows). “We spoke together of the Christ child and the animals in the crib." The dog’s contributions are not recorded. When Pat II died six years later, he also was buried at Kingsmere. The Prime Minister reflected that Pat II was “nobler, stronger, truly greater” than himself: “God grant that I may be worthy of him.”

Moorside was but one of some 30 shrewd land transactions by which King saw his stake in the Gatineau grow to 575 acres. It was like a growing patchwork quilt whose sometimes seemingly unrelated pieces came together in a splendid estate. “Shady Hill” was a cottage, which he bought in 1929. His close friends Joan and Godfrey Patteson were given its use until King’s death.

Then there was The Farm, the embodiment of King’s fantasy that he would become a substantial gentleman farmer. In this he was not a conspicuous success. He especially favoured sheep, less for their commercial or biological possibilities than for the romantic strokes they gave to his idyllic picture of country life. Alas, he did not have a good shepherd and the sheep became a vexation. He also had vegetables, one cow, horses, chickens and pheasants, not to mention bees, which were instructed to supply him with honey. The modernization of The Farm, undertaken during the crucial election campaign of 1935, seemed to have occupied his thoughts as much as the immediate electioneering: the telegraphic traffic from his campaign train abounds in trivial instructions to the workmen back in the Gatineau. That was where his heart was. That was his home.

It is a rash person who probes the motivations of William Lyon Mackenzie King. In his farm or in the ruins, he evidently gave physical expression to his romantic ideas of the peaceable kingdom where he could commune with God knows whom. King’s favourite medium conducted many seances at Kingsmere and much more often he called upon his spirit world at Kingsmere in the company of close friends. But perhaps King experienced his heights of feeling from more conventional experiences—the pastoral setting unfolding before him, sunset on the ruins, a doe running across the meadow. It was all very far from the cold and hostile world, which it was King’s heavy duty to manipulate for the national good.

In some ways, King’s affair with the Gatineau was a paradox. One of the great glories of Gatineau Park is that it is but a footstep in space and time from the political crossroads of a great nation to the timeless hills whose essential quality is their splendid isolation from mankind. If there is ruggedness in the Canadian character, its expression is in the massive toughness of the Precambrian rock of the Gatineau, the forests of white pine and birch and mandatory maple, the wildness of its beauty. King never accepted the Gatineau at its face value. He had to improve upon nature by importing not just his own civilization, but the shadows of cultures past. The roots he sank into the hard rock of the Gatineau were English roots, long buried. “Nothing could be more beautiful than Kingsmere is just now,” he wrote in 1935. “Lovelier far than anything at Southampton.” The rolling fields of The Farm or the lawns of Moorside were the colonial embodiment of Grey’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard. The monuments to his past were not only the stones of Westminster in the ruins, but also the passage of dyspeptic sheep across a rolling knoll.

Then why the Gatineau? Why did King not seek his ancestral resurrection in the rolling pastures of the Rideau Valley or even the Ottawa where, on the Pinhey estate, one memorable attempt to establish the English manor in the Canadian wilderness still gathers ghosts about it? Why, indeed? If we knew the answer, we might understand all the well-manicured lawns of suburbia which later generations have scratched from their plots of rock along the length of the Gatineau Valley.

It was in the Gatineau that King created his home and his image. Here he would be the lord of the manor, but of a manor which he had created, not, as in the case of Laurier House, in the shadow of another. As early as 1926, King was writing in his diary: “It will make a wonderful park to give to the nation some day, a true memorial.” It was a promise that he kept magnificently.

In his later years, King received at Kingsmere not only his very few intimate friends but also statesmen and leaders from Canada and the world. That however, was largely after 1935 when he defeated R. B. Bennett and began his last long tenure of office, which gave him the coveted longevity title of the British Commonwealth.

In early 1935, King was leader of the Opposition when he raised in the House of Commons the future of the area we know as the Gatineau Park. On May 8, he had attended the inaugural meeting of the Federal Woodlands Preservation League, of which he, like Bennett, became Honourary President. He spoke forcefully, if not eloquently, in favour of government intervention to save despoiling the Gatineau. Writing privately in his diary just afterwards, he said that if he were a wealthy man, he would buy the forests outright. Had he a majority in parliament, “I would expropriate them for the state.”

The press applauded his efforts in parliament, though some critics suggested his interests were a landowner’s, seeking to preserve the value of his property. Not fair. King, who so often presented to the public the image of a boring little bureaucrat thrust to power, was a bundle of kinetic energy at Kingsmere: constantly wheeling and dealing to get the provincial government to plant trees or to stock lakes with fish, pressing the CPR on the location of its railway, directing incessantly the reforestation of the hills and holding many a surprised tree with great enthusiasm, while a workman dug in the soil.

While out of power, King did get the government to move—modestly. In power again, his dreams took form. The Federal District Commission, unlike the body which preceded it, could legally acquire land in Québec. In the late thirties, King had it do so in the area of the future park. One of the ideas which attracted King was a towering war memorial, reminiscent of the one at Vimy Ridge, which would stretch a thousand feet long on the side of King Mountain, visible from Parliament Hill, and approached by a monumental Via Sacra. That grandiose idea was dropped in favour of the memorial in Confederation Square. He referred often to the creation of a national park in the Gatineau, linking it in his mind with Prince Albert National Park, which was in his constituency.

By the beginning of the Second World War, the Federal District Commission had acquired 16,000 acres; now it has 88,000. It is not a national park in the Parks Canada system, but is administered by the National Capital Commission. The reasons for the distinction may partly be found in the subtlety of government regulations. They may be found even more readily in the mind of the man behind the park: under the more rigid requirements of a national park, King and his friends could scarcely have kept their private holdings.

One of the satisfying aspects of the creation of the Park was that its creator lived to see his work fulfilled. King, the very private man, seemed to take pleasure in the enjoyment of the Park by the thousands who came to share it. Not exactly an olympic athlete himself, he was most sympathetic to skiers whom he allowed and encouraged to use his property in their sport. Hikers were welcomed along the trails which he had laid out so meticulously with his exasperated staff. We can imagine that he rejoiced to see young cyclists discovering King Mountain as two young men had done in the spring of their lives, back when the century was new.

Moorside and The Farm were never bastions of security as might befit the home of the head of government. When we were young, and new to Ottawa, we were cyclists and hikers once, and wandered the lawns of Moorside unfettered, seeking to understand the man, still Prime Minister of Canada, who so rejoiced in the ruins of civilization in these primeval hills.

We took pictures once as the afternoon sun, now tired, filtered uncertainly through the arches. We gave them to Mr. King, and he was deeply moved. Out of them grew an unlikely friendship for, he said, we were the first to understand his ruins.

Were we? Did we?

We met King at the Farm, only once and it was in the twilight of his years. We were visiting Joan Patteson who inadvertently introduced us to the most remarkable telephone system ever enjoyed by a world leader since the time of Bell. King had managed to get a telephone in Kingsmere in 1929, but Bell tariffs evidently continued to bother him. He therefore had a single line, which served Shady Hill and the Farm at extension rates. Thus, when we would innocently phone Mrs. Patteson, a man’s voice would bid us hang up and phone again. It was the Prime Minister of Canada saving $2 a month.

Our final meeting with Mr. King was in July 1946, for in the last four years of his life we were abroad. It was a perfect Saturday afternoon of high summer. Truly, the property looked better than Southampton did.

As we strolled over from Shady Hill, we could see the short, unimposing figure watching us from the steps of his veranda. He greeted us with warmth and genuine enthusiasm, two very young people whom he had briefly befriended perhaps because they asked nothing and he needed no defences with them. He bade us into his home, showing off the rooms and the numberless articles with pride. Many were gifts, surprisingly modest by the standards of today, from foreign statesmen. It was the giving that interested him, not the gift, and he almost seemed to cherish an illusion that each was a personal tribute of respect rather than the requirement of paragraph 29 section (d) of some manual of protocol.

We took tea so informally that we drifted with him from the porch to the steps outside where we sat together. In any meeting with him, I was young enough to be overwhelmed by the casualness of intercourse with the Prime Minister of Canada, and now we were sitting together on a porch step. “Mr. and Mrs. Phillips,” we can hear him say with an effervescence that heralded some little surprise. (In the East Block I was always, in the proper custom of the time, “Phillips,” but here, as a guest and friend, I was “Mr. Phillips;). ”I have something to show you.”

He opened a large envelope which contained a dispatch from the Canadian Ambassador in Greece. He was reporting that the Greek government had decided to rename an Athens street after the Canadian Prime Minister. “Isn‘t it wonderful” Mr. King exploded with naive delight.“And here you see is a map he has enclosed. Here, Mrs. Phillips, do come closer. Can you see, can you see?” The stubby thumb had slipped from the top of the plan to follow a route that ran across it. “It really is a very important street, I think. You see how close it goes to the Acropolis. Can you see?” We held the map together, and for a moment shared a small triumph becoming a great triumph for a country which was trying to find itself and for its Prime Minister who was trying to find himself.

He walked with us, stout walking stick in hand, part way back to the Patteson House, and we parted by the fence with pressing invitations to return. When we reached our destination, we looked back and saw the enigmatic figure drinking deeply of the perfect English countryside, which had been wrested from the primeval hills of the Gatineau.

We never saw him again. We did not correspond, though occasionally friends in the East Block passed on generous remarks he had made about our work in the Canadian Embassy in Moscow.

Late in 1948, almost 74, he retired. His health was spent and many plans for productive literary effort in his last years dwindled into passing fancies. Now more than ever he was close to the Gatineau. Knowing the seriousness of his medical problems, he nevertheless vigorously refused all medical advice to spend time in hospital or even in Ottawa close to medical attention. He insisted on staying at Kingsmere, for his last ambition was to die there amidst the creation which seemed to have given him most satisfaction, amidst all the achievements of his extraordinary life.

On July 20, 1950, he lunched with the Pattesons in high spirits, came back to The Farm, and had a sudden chill, which presaged pneumonia. He lasted only until late Saturday. It was a lovely evening. Joan Patteson wrote, “But just at the moment he died, thunder and lightning and torrents of rain came without any warning. The rain fell only at Kingsmere–not Ottawa even.”

It was the ending he might have commanded: his return to all his friends who existed so certainly in the spirit world. His passage from the Gatineau to his final Valhalla.

He left his world behind. Shady Hill was demolished by the NCC for reasons we ordinary mortals find hard to comprehend.

The Farm is reserved for the use of the Speaker of the House of Commons, but alas, it remains largely lonely and unused. Kingswood is preserved and put to office use. Moorside is open for the enjoyment of Canadians seeking more than an estate, more than a historic home, but some key to the understanding of the most enigmatic statesman in Canadian history.

Beyond is the Park itself, which owes its present and its future to William Lyon Mackenzie King. The Park is his epitaph, as St. Paul’s Cathedral was Sir Christopher Wren’s: “If you would see his monument, look about you.”

The author of the foregoing, Robert A. J. Phillips, then President of the Historical Society, had a varied and distinguished career in the Federal Public Service after graduating from the University of Toronto in 1942. In addition to holding many other important positions, he was Secretary of the Canadian Embassy in Moscow and, later, Assistant Secretary of the Cabinet. He was the founding Executive Director of Heritage Canada, 1972–78. He is still active as a noted writer and lecturer.

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