The Township of Greater Madawaska

History: The Madawaska River

Please find the following historical stories:

A river flows by us
By Bill Graham Editor: The Madawaska Highlander

More than anything it is the river-The Madawaska-that binds us. It flows through all of the geographic townships that were amalgamated into Greater Madawaska. It is fundamental to the history of this area since it is the first highway by which people first travelled here. It is not a particularly long river but it was once among the fiercest rivers of the region. The Madawaska River is 230 kilometres long and drains an area of 8,740 square kilometres. From its beginning at the aptly named Source Lake in Algonquin Park, to where it joins the Ottawa River at Arnprior, the Madawaska River drops 224 metres. This sharp descent gave it the dangerous reputation it had in the past and even today it is one of the best white-water rivers in Eastern Ontario.

One tends to think that the river is a constant that never changes, but like everything else it also changes. Most recently it has been hydro electric development that has changed the Madawaska. Dams and reservoirs have tamed the river by flooding some of its rapids and changed the very look of the landscape by creating new bodies of water like the creation of Centennial Lake during the 1960s. Old settlements like Black Donald Mines are now under 80-feet of water.

It was 8,000 years ago that modern drainage of rivers in Eastern Ontario became established. In geological time that makes the Madawaska River very young. At one time the southern end of the Canadian Shield was raised more than 15-kilometres along a world-famous fault zone called the Grenville Front. As a consequence of this uplift, rivers fl owed north from the Gatineau area to the Arctic Islands! With erosion, continental glaciations and other geological processes the land and the waterways were reshaped into their present form.

The first people

Archaeological evidence indicates that people have been travelling The Madawaska that we know today for about 5,000 years. Europeans have been travelling the river for only a few hundred years. There are a number of ideas about the derivation of the name Madawaska. One source say the name derives from the Algonquin word "Madoueskak", which means "Land of the Porcupine." Another source says that the name derives from the Algonquin sub-nation who lived in the Upper Ottawa Valley along the Madawaska River. They were called the "Matouweskarini" or the "People of the Shallows."

Too far north for agriculture, most Algonquin were loosely organized into small, semi-nomadic bands of hunter-gatherers. In this, they resembled the closely related Ojibway. The Algonquin lived somewhat outside the wild rice region, which provided an important part of the diet for other tribes in the northern Great Lakes. Although a few southern bands were just beginning to grow corn in 1608, the Algonquin relied heavily on hunting for their food, which made them excellent hunters and trappers, skills that quickly attracted the attention of French fur traders after 1603.

The Algonquin also made good use of their birch-bark canoes to travel great distances for trade, and their strategic location on the Ottawa River became the preferred route between the French on the St. Lawrence River and the tribes of the western Great Lakes. Groups of Algonquin would gather during the summer for fishing and socializing, but at the approach of winter, they separated into small hunting camps of extended families.

The first contact the Aboriginal People of this area had with Europeans was probably with Samuel de Champlain in 1613 or 1614. It was not long be fore the French became allies of The Algonquin in their long-standing war with the Mohawk in exchange for a monopoly on their furs. Increasingly firearms became a factor in these "Indian Wars" and other European rivals like the English and the Dutch became involved. The Mohawk prevailed and drove the French and Algonquin from the Lower Ottawa River and during 1650 the remaining Algonquin in the upper Ottawa Valley were attacked and overrun. The survivors retreated, far to headwaters of the rivers, like the Madawaska, feeding the Upper Ottawa River where the Cree afforded a certain amount of support and protection.

Local history buff Garry Ferguson believes that some of the bands fleeing the Mohawk may have ended up in the Matawatchan area. When he was a boy his teacher brought his class to meet an old local woman by the name of Julie-Leclair-Harrison. She spoke a mixture of English, French and Algonquin and was part Algonquin herself. She told the class that the word Matawatchan meant "hidden village" in the Algonquin language. Garry conjectures that if the village was hidden then it was hiding from something and that historically it was most likely that the village was being hidden from the Mohawks who had driven most of the Algonquin from the Ottawa Valley.

Timber on the Madawaska

Nothing is recorded concerning life along the Madawaska until the early 1800s. However, it can be resumed that the river was a transportation route for Aboriginal people and for Europeans involved in the fur trade. The decline of the fur trade coincided with the Napoleonic Wars and the disruption of the timber trade with Scandinavia. The British navy found a new source of timber in Canada to build and repair its growing navy.

Huge pines were harvested

During the first half of the nineteenth century logging companies worked along the tributaries of the Ottawa River. Lumbermen harvested white pine, red pine and oak along the Petawawa, the Bonnechere and the Madawaska, water routes that made access easy for logging companies and exits easy for timber they felled. Settlements followed the shanty-men who worked the river and the surrounding forest. They would bring their families and settle close by. Settlers were also moving up the trails cut by the loggers and along the way the land was cultivated, farms were established and soon small settlements sprang up to provide services for the men working in the bush.

The Madawaska River witnessed some of the earliest commercial lumbering activities in Ontario, with the greatest activity occurring in the period from 1860 to 1890. As early as the 1840s, the government was providing assistance to lumber companies by building slides and booms to facilitate log drives on the river. By 1867, the logging companies had built dams on the upper main reservoirs including the Bark Lake and Palmer Rapids Dams. Dams were also constructed at Highland Chute, Mountain Chute, Calabogie and Arnprior to assist operations.

Hydro development

By 1920 the use of the Madawaska for the transportation of timber had declined and the river was again exploited by ambitious men, this time for hydro-electric power. Private interests had built a number of dams on the tributaries of the river. Ontario Hydro first became involved on the river in 1929, with the purchase of the Calabogie Generating Station from the M.J. O'Brien interests, along with the two upper reservoir dams at Bark Lake and Palmer Rapids.

Ontario Hydro, as it was called then, describes the history of hydro development on the Madawaska this way: "By 1940, the demand for energy was growing as a result of World War II. Bark Lake Dam was re-constructed raising the level by 8-metres and creating a significant storage reservoir. The lake was operated to provide flood storage and moderate flows in the river. Barrett Chute Generating Station was constructed and became operational in 1942. Building of Stewartville Generating Station began in 1946 and it was opened in 1948. Energy demand in Ontario continued to grow during the 1960s requiring additional resources. Mountain Chute Generating Station was built in 1965-66. Barrett Chute GS and Stewartville GS were re-developed by adding generators. The capacity of the stations was increased by a factor of four. Arnprior Generating Station was the last dam constructed and began operating in 1976."

Hydro development has tamed the Madawaska considerably. It is no longer the very dangerous river that it once was. There are many loggers who paid the ultimate price while working on this river. You can still see markers along the river that name loggers lost to the Madawaska. Flooding created, in places, a deeper river, which eliminated some rapids and also created new lakes. Today tourism, recreation and cottage life is a major benefit that the Madawaska River provides to those who live along its shores. 

The Log Drivers
By Garry Ferguson

Come all you bold young shantyboys, And listen while I relate, Concerning a brave young river boss And his untimely fate, Concerning a young river boss So handsome true and brave, T'was on the jam at Gerry's Rock That he met with a watery grave.

My parents taught me these lines from a ballad that stayed on the Ontario Top Ten for at least a hundred years. The Jam on Gerry's Rock(s) is a tale of tragedy from the days when our ancestors floated timber down the wild rivers of Eastern Canada. These river drivers were more daring, suffered more hardships and probably lost more lives, per capita, than those from most Canadian endeavours outside of war.

From the square timber days, in the early nineteenth century, until the advent of modern machinery, "the winter cut" was hauled onto lakes and creeks which drained into rivers. When spring came, the log drivers made use of the runoff to drive their timber down these swollen rivers to market.

Squaring timber

Portable camps were usually set up near rapids where several days would be needed to put the logs through. It was here that the drivers encountered their worst nightmare - the log jam. With peaveys and pike poles - sometimes dynamite - they'd work to break these jams. It was here also that rivers turned timber into match sticks and men's bodies into "pieces the size of your hand" (old folk song).

Only rough wooden crosses marked the graves of these casualties. They were wrapped in blankets and buried near the chutes and rapids that did them in. My father, and several men of his generation, told me of seeing old crosses in the bush around the treacherous Colton Rapids on the Madawaska, but by my time, they had rotted away.

One of my ancestors, who drove the Madawaska, was more valuable to the lumber barons than most because of his skill with a broadaxe. He was taken to Quebec City, each year, to reshape square timber bruised and gouged on rocks, but most were "paid off" by the time spring floods had subsided.

We seldom hear of the river drivers now that we're inundated with Hollywood hype and our educators appear hesitant to teach much Canadian history in case they offend someone. It would be a crime however, to let this romantic part of our heritage become as forgotten as the unmarked graves along the Gatineau, Miramichi and hundreds of other rivers from Ontario to Newfoundland.

Shantymen on the Madawaska
By Bill Graham, Editor: The Madawaska Highlander

Shantyman is a generic term that describes a person living and working in a logging camp. It derives from the French word chantier, which described a log-build living quarters of a gang of loggers. In the early days of logging on the Ottawa River and tributaries such as the Madawaska and the Bonnechere rivers, many of the loggers were Canadien (French). In later years as settlers began colonizing the wilderness, the men would often work as shantymen in the winter. This provided employment for these farmers while they were unable to work the land. It provided cash to purchase supplies and equipment that their farming operation could not realize.

It was the policy of the British government to grant forest lands to settlers, although white pines were reserved to the Crown for the use of the British Navy. However, lumbering in North America remained on a sawmill scale until the Napoleonic Wars when the French Emperor's continental system cut off wood exports from the Baltic to Great Britain. Without timber, the wooden ships of the British Navy would soon be helpless. 

A camboose (Shanty) of the Barnet Company in the early 1800s

The old growth White Pine forests of the Ottawa Valley soon became the lumber of choice. Harvesting began on both sides of the Ottawa River and then up its tributaries. The Madawaska River witnessed some of the earliest commercial lumbering activities with the greatest activity occurring between 1860 and 1890. The Madawaska was not developed earlier because it was considered too dangerous. By 1867, the logging companies had built dams along the length of the river to assist logging operations. Reservoirs behind the dams would slow the descent of logs and allow them to be separated according to company brands. It was at this time that Calabogie Lake was created.

As the major buyer of lumber in the early 1800s, the British navy demanded specific specification for the logs that they would buy. Logs were to be cut in lengths of about 35 feet and a minimum of 12 inches square. In this way the logs, called sticks, could be efficiently stored in the holds of timber ships for transport to England. However, there was terrible waste with only one third of a tree actually being used. The trimmed branches and discarded wood also became fuel for forest fi res. Lumber Baron J.R. Booth estimated that fires claimed twenty trees for every one that was harvested. Each year between 1863 and 1877 and estimated 400,000 sticks were rafted down the Ottawa River.

As late as 1850 the White pine of the Ottawa Valley were felled using only an axe. The cross-cut saw had not yet been developed. When felled the headman used an auger to bore into the log to check for rot. Any rotten parts were of no commercial value and left in the woods. The log was cut to the specified length (35-feet) then marked for scoring and squaring. A chalk line was used in this process. Shantymen then used a broad axe to remove the outer slabs in two to three foot increments that had been previously scored. Squared logs were then transported and assembled on the frozen lakes and rivers in preparation for the spring thaw and the drive down the river.

A selection of quotes from the period provides insight into the lives of shantymen. For example this opinion of the Commissioner of Crown Land for the Province of Ontario in 1879:

Shantymen: "The men employed in getting out square timber are generally without fixed homes or continuous employment. Their engagements terminate in the spring; in the interim until they re-engage for the following winter, they too frequently remain idle, and spend their earnings in a reckless manner, and are penniless, and often in debt, when they return to the woods".

Log Size: "... last month a gang of men in Louis Charron's shanty cut down two pine trees on Messrs McLachlin's Bros.' limits at Coolas Lake which made twenty one logs. The largest

log measured 49 inches at the large end, and the small end 22 inches. Out of the twenty one logs there were eighteen which measured 16-1/2 feet long and three 13-1/2 feet. These are probably the largest logs felled on the Madawaska this year". June 8, 1883

Shantymen Wages: "I expect to go up on Thursday evening with from 50 to 60 men, ... log cutters ... $20 to $24 to drive all through, 2 cooks from $30 to $35, 2 teamsters ... $18, 1 foreman ...$50, 25 general hands from $16 to $18, 1 Hewer ... $30". October 24, 1887

Discovery of the Bodies of the drowned men: The search for the bodies of the two men who were drowned at the Snake Rapids on the Madawaska, while engaged on J.R. Booth's drive, was continued for eighteen days without success. On Sunday, the 4th inst., the body of John Davidson, of Ottawa was found near Batson's and Currier's, about twelve miles below the Snake Rapids: and on the Tuesday following, the body of Archibald McFadyen was recovered about six miles further down the stream. Their remains were temporarily but decently buried close to the spots where they were found: and there they will remain till the winter when they will be removed for final internment by their friends. June 16, 1876

Returning Home: On Monday night, some 250 of the men who have been employed on the "drives" of the various firms of lumbermen operating on the Madawaska, came into Renfrew on their way home. Their services are dispensed with for the present, as the water is too low for the logs to be brought further down this season.

Their arrival in the village was announced by the usual amount of music and fun, and enough of noise generally during the night. August 16, 1872.

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