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Up the Gatineau! Selected Articles

Early Transportation In The Gatineau Valley And Connecting Factors

Volume 13, page 9

A. del. Panet

Possibly as we now travel over our up-to-date highways and on trains, we don't think much about transportation 300 years ago in Canada especially in the Gatineau Valley.

Generally speaking any travel in Canada now usually is by automobile or bus on very good roads, by train on well established routes or on the water by boat. Looking back about 300 years when new-comers were exploring Canada, the rivers and lakes provided routes to travel by boat and canoe and Indian trails provided routes to travel by land. In the winter time when the rivers and lakes were frozen over new routes were provided on the ice. When time was a consideration later on, when horses were available, they were used either for riding or as pack animals on some trails or to pull carts and in the winter to pull sleighs on the ice. The main problem was to have established routes and these were set up people and goods were moved more quickly. Many roads and train routes we use now have been developed from the original Indian trails. Undoubtedly a very high percentage of the early travel was by water or on the ice in winter.

When I first became familiar with the Gatineau area I wondered where the name came from. Many of you know that Captain Nicolas Gatineau dit Duplessis was one of our earliest residents. He came to the Gatineau area in 1650. He was reported to be a clerk of the 100 Associates and a notary and clerk of the court at Three Rivers and Montreal. The valley, county and city were named after him. How did he reach the Gatineau Valley from Three Rivers? Historians say he came by canoe in the summer of 1650 from the St. Lawrence, up the St. Maurice River and portaged to the upper Gatineau and to Lake Capimitchigama. Then he paddled down the Gatineau River to the Chelsea area.

The Hoopskirt Door
Raftsmen’s Pointer on the Gatineau River in 1922. Public Archives Photo. (GVHS 20/1)

Many people are not aware that often the regular routes for canoe travel were not available due to Indian warfare. Various Indian tribes controlled certain areas and with the large shipments of furs coming east, great care had to be taken to avoid rival Indian groups. Coming from Three Rivers the normal route would be the St. Lawrence to St. Anne and then up the Ottawa to Ottawa and the Gatineau, and then west up the Ottawa to Lake Nipissing, etc. Montreal is several islands and the Ottawa River on reaching the St. Lawrence actually divides into 3 rivers and the shortest route from Three Rivers takes the river on the north side of Montreal, Rivière des Isles. To reach the Chelsea area he, on this normal route, would travel about 310 miles. The St. Maurice route would require very many more miles and many portages but would be safer.

At this time historians report that much fur traffic coming from the west to Ottawa was diverted up the Gatineau River from Hull to the north and then by portage to the St. Maurice River and then to the St. Lawrence River and Three Rivers. The Mohawk, were controlling the traffic on the lower Ottawa and St. Lawrence route to Montreal at this time. Later other more friendly tribes were involved. However, the St. Lawrence section to Kingston was dangerous due to the enemy "The Americans“ who were on the south shore of the St. Lawrence. This is why the Rideau Canal System was built so that civilian and military traffic from Montreal could use the Ottawa River to Ottawa and then the Rideau Canal and Rideau River to Kingston and then Lake Ontario to points west.

Readers will have seen many pictures of the various types of large canoes used to transport cargo and passengers. The largest popular one had a crew of about 15 and it carried cargo and some passengers. There was an intermediate type with a crew of about 9 and a smaller one with a crew of 4 or 5. These two last types were also used north and west of the lake-head as they were easier to handle on smaller rivers. The cargoes of the larger canoes were divided at divisional points. Canoes went west and north with cargo and returned with furs and these, I remind the reader, are the ones that many times used the Gatineau route going and coming back.

The cargoes were interesting. There are manifests listing these items - Cloth, Guns, Hatchets, Knives, Twine, Hope, Kettles, Blankets, Powder, Shot, Stockings, Needles, Fish Hooks, Brandy, Rum, Wine. These were traded with the Indians for pelts. At this time beaver was in great demand in Europe so one beaver pelt at the trading post was high on the posted list for trading. For example 1 gun could be worth, say, 20 pelts. The canoes were made of long strips of birch bark stretched on white cedar frames and laced together with roots from juniper or spruce trees and joints were covered with spruce and pine gum. Travelling canoe groups always carried extra long strips of birch bark to make quick repairs if needed. The canoe was used well up to 1860.

1806 saw the development of the lumber industry to a high degree of activity and with it better roads and the use of horses. Horses pulled individual logs out of the woods then hauled loaded sleighs to the banks of the rivers and streams to await the spring floods. The logs were rolled into the water for the trip down stream to join the Gatineau River and then reached the Ottawa River to be sorted by companies. This activity with horses made them part of the community as they were available for transportation in the summer by the early settlers. A very large number of horses were brought in by the lumber companies which had to be farmed out in the summer. It was well known that they had a hard time of it in the lumber camps in the winter. They were the back bone of transportation for the lumber companies at that time. Most of us have seen lumber moved by helicopter, by long lines of power cable pulling logs through the bush and diesel loaders piling them to be moved by trucks to Ottawa.

A new aid to the Gatineau Valley came in about the turn of the century when the railroad was completed to Maniwaki. It was being planned for many months with many ups and downs but finally was completed and as far as transportation was concerned this was a welcome addition. It helped people movement, live stock and merchandise. As far as people are concerned I have always enjoyed reading old press items about the summer colony using the train to get to their cottages up the Gatineau. Meeting the train in the late afternoon was always an event. The tooting at the various cross roads warned everyone “Here we come”. On week-ends there were always more people for 31 Mile Lake, Blue Sea Lake, etc., when many husbands went up the Gatineau for the week-end. Not too long before the tracks were completed to Maniwaki they just ran to Gracefield. I remember reading a letter a historian had outlining the hardship of having to travel in a cart with baggage on the rough road from Gracefield to a Blue Sea Lake cottage. What hardships some people went through!

When considering transportation in early Gatineau days one must remember that the Gatineau River had no power dams and was a free flowing river, It actually starts at Lake Capimitchigama 150 miles north of Ottawa. It would be high in the Spring and low in the late Fall with portages required in many places.

There were no bridges. We would presume Indian trails or routes ran along both sides of the river where possible and these developed most of our roads. An early settler would move in to the area by canoe or on foot having likely come from Quebec or the New England area. Having secured land and perhaps employment he would want to build a house. The early ones had to bring in everything they needed to supplement what nature provided. This they had to move by canoe, boat, horse or sleigh in the winter. As trails improved to roads, the situation for travel improved. Up to 1800 it was based roughly on the condition of the roads in the season you travelled and whether you could use the river. When the river froze up you likely travelled on it and you, of course, could cross to the other side.

Later on if you were travelling from Chelsea to, say, Montreal, you perhaps could use the stage coach to Ottawa and then another to travel east which involved overnight stops or perhaps catch a ride on the large canoes if they were using the southern route. You could, of course, travel by canoe yourself.

In the first quarter of the l800’s plans were coming to a head in connection with the building of locks on the Ottawa so that military personal and supplies could be transported to Ottawa and Kingston which was vital for the defense of Canada.

Later when the locks were built if you were travelling, let us say, to Montreal from Chelsea you had a greatly improved service. You took the stage coach in the afternoon to Ottawa, slept in a first class hotel @ $1.00 a night. You left by steamer the next day at 7:30 a.m., fare was $2.50 one way to Montreal, you arrived at Grenville at 12:50. You then transfered to a small Portage train which took you 15 minutes and then the train took you 12 miles to Carillon to leave there by boat to reach Lachine at 5:25 p.m. There you could take the train to the Bonneventure Station in Montreal, a short run or you could continue your boat trip which ran the exciting Lachine rapids, under a pilot, and reached Montreal at 6:30 p.m., a pleasant trip just over 12 hours long. This boat service expanded very quickly and soon from Chelsea you could reach Kingston and Mattawa by steamer with some portages going to Mattawa.

It is interesting to note the very large amount of water traffic which developed around Hull and the Gatineau River in the early days. This concerned first, the very large log booms which came to the Chaudiere Falls from the upper Ottawa and which were broken up into smaller booms to run the Chaudiere rapids, then were reassembled for their trip down the Ottawa and St. Lawrence to the east, usually Quebec. Readers will have seen pictures of these monster barges of squared timber leaving Ottawa with cabins for the crew built on the deck. They also carried sawn lumber on deck at times.

The second group of barges were the permanent ones built in Hull to make the trip east, south and west in the canals. These were the Blue and White barges which carried sawn lumber. These were handled by tugs. Most of these barges and tugs were built in Hull. Blue barges were larger to fit the locks on the Ottawa and Rideau rivers. The White ones were later built to fit the Erie Canal locks in New York State. Historians estimate that there were over 250 Blue and White barges and 50 tugs working out of Hull at this time and up to the end of the l9th century.

The passenger boats were also thriving, one must remember again that the Ottawa route for a trip from Montreal to Toronto was favoured due to the dangers in the St. Lawrence route involving possible attacks from the south. Military, government, commercial or holiday traffic from Montreal insisted on this route. This later resulted in a further development of the route by steamer to points on the Ottawa north of Ottawa. With plans completed you could travel Montreal to Ottawa, Pembroke, Mattawa and reach Georgian Bay entirely by steamer and portages by short rail trips.

One historian reports side wheel steamers plied the Ottawa River to Montreal and the Rideau Canal to Kingston in such numbers that the Capital became one of Canada's largest inland ports in the second half of the nineteenth century. The "Empress" could carry over a thousand passengers on the Ottawa to Grenville route. Other large steamers were the "E.B. Greene“ Britannia to Quyon, Que., and the "R. Quinn" and “John Eaton” to Smith Falls. The "Princess" a majestic sidewheeler later on sailed regularly from Ottawa to Grenville. She was built to carry 1,100 people and had some cabin accommodation and a full restaurant. She was built of iron in England then dismantled and shipped to Canada where she was reassembled in Ottawa. Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald was a popular passenger on this service to Montreal.

Summarizing, I think in the early years the Gatineau transportation could be reviewed under 3 headings and this is what I have tried to do.

In 1650 we start with Nicolas Gatineau dit Duplessis who came to Chelsea by canoe. Canoes were the basis of transportation for people, furs, merchandise, priests, soldiers, traders, etc. The canoe's viability lasted as a main service over 200 years to about 1860.

In 1800 an increased lumber activity brought in the horse and better trails and some roads and small boats.

1900 brought in the railroad which greatly increased more modern lumber activities and again better roads developed.

Now we perhaps think we have the ultimate transportation but I wonder if we miss something with it sometimes. Perhaps the people who drove in the cart the 30 miles on a bad road from Gracefield enjoyed Blue Sea Lake more than we do when we go there now by car in 2 hours from Ottawa. They perhaps worked hard for their holiday and therefore enjoyed it more.


List of articles - Volume 13