National Treasure: The Chaudière District in Canada’s Capital

Mark Brandt Heritage Ottawa Newsletter | Spring 2006

This article is excerpted from Mr. Brandt’s presentation given at Heritage Ottawa’s inaugural Bob and Mary Anne Phillips Memorial Lecture on February 22, 2006 at the Laurentian Leadership Centre, formerly the Booth Mansion.

The Victoria-Chaudière Islands area embodies a veritable history book of Canada. Next to the Parliament Buildings, no other place in the Capital is as charged with symbolic meaning for Canadians and yet so little known by residents and visitors alike.

Its story begins with the Ottawa or the Great River, la Grande Rivière du Nord. Seven hundred miles long with a drop of 1,100 feet, the Ottawa River’s watershed drainage area of 57,000 square miles is considerably larger than all of England and Wales combined. Viewed from Parliament Hill, the river with its setting of islands, surrounding bluffs and the great Chaudière Falls is breathtaking to behold. As the cradle of the region’s birth, the river and adjacent lands played a prominent role in our country’s growth, from prehistory through First Nations eras, to voyageur times and through the nation’s early industrial development of all- important water and forest resources.

Historical background

The earliest evidence of human presence in the Ottawa Valley dates from about 8,500 years ago. From the earliest ice age and the emergence and then disappearance of the Champlain Sea, the Paleo-Indian period was characterized by people who hunted game with stone-pointed javelins. During the Archaic period, as the river gradually dropped to its current level, mixed forests grew over the land and the inhabitants of the Valley began to advance agriculture and cooking. The Algonquin peoples roamed this part of the river and its environs, designing and perfecting the birch bark canoe and snowshoes. Throughout these ages, the Chaudière was a highly significant natural phenomenon to all who passed by.

Samuel de Champlain, one of the first Europeans to traverse the Chaudière and witness this site, wrote passionately and with great awe about the Falls in his journal. He noted its native name, “Asticou” or boiling kettle, which inspired the French term, “Chaudière”. For native peoples, the majestic Chaudière has been and is a sacred place, a natural shrine. In one ceremony described by Champlain in June 1613, tobacco was thrown into the middle of the turbulent water as an offering to the spirit of the Chaudière Falls. The first two and a half centuries of European contact were characterized both by warring Aboriginal nations and the passage of voyageurs, fur traders and missionaries. The Ottawa route, which included the Chaudière Falls, the little Chaudière and the Deschènes, further west, was recognized as the most strenuous stretch of portages. All the great Canadian explorers – from Champlain’s lead scout Brulé in 1611 to David Thompson and Simon Fraser in the 19th century – portaged the Chaudière. Indeed, in Gatineau at Parc Brébeuf in Val Tetreau, there remain today stone steps on a path laid down by voyageurs and heavily trodden by the first traders.

Economic Development

Over time, the economy of the Chaudière became as important to its heritage as its spiritual significance and natural splendour. From the mid-17th to the mid-19th centuries, the insatiable European demand for Canadian fur spurred development of the fur industry. Thousands of tonnes of highly prized skins were portaged through the Chaudière during this time.

In 1800, Philemon Wright and his group became the first white settlers in what is now the National Capital Region, carving out a new home on the north shore of the Ottawa at the Chaudière. The community grew quickly and prospered.

Wright was the first to realize the incredible wealth of forests in the Ottawa Valley and the hydro power generation potential of the Chaudière Falls. He made industrial history in 1806 by building the first raft of squared timbers below theChaudière, and successfully navigating it down the perilous waters of the Ottawa and St. Lawrence Rivers to Quebec City, where it was disassembled and loaded on ships bound for Europe. Wright had created a new export trade, assuring the stability of the settlement at the Chaudière.

In 1808, Wright built the first gristmill and sawmill completely run by water power. Wright had also opened up the Ottawa Valley to exploitation by the lumber industry. During the War of 1812, Napoleon blockaded the Scandinavian Baltic ports, forcing Britain to turn to Canada for timber for the Royal Navy shipbuilding needs.

In 1829, Wright’s son, Ruggles, built the first North American timber raft slide which allowed the safe passage of timber through the treacherous and destructive waters and islands of the Chaudière. Sixteen years later, a second and third slide had been built in the district, further bolstering the industry. The slides became world famous and very popular for rides by visiting dignitaries including the Prince of Wales who was in the Capital in 1860 to lay the cornerstone for the Parliament Buildings.

By mid-19th century the Chaudière had rapidly turned into a major industrial engine in Canada. Massive markets opened up for sawn lumber as development of the country expanded westward. By Confederation in 1867, the Chaudière teemed with mills and power plants; it became the most heavily developed hydraulic site and most important sawmill centre in the nation. By the 1860s, some 350 million board-feet of lumber were cut there each year, enough to be stacked in a cube higher than the Peace Tower!

Hydro Power

Ottawa, by developing most of its heavy industries adjacent to hydro power sources rather than using steam-driven dynamos to generate electricity, surpassed its rivals. Befo
re the advent of transmission lines, even the mighty Niagara could not match the capability of the Chaudière. The residents of the National Capital Region enjoyed the pollution-free benefits of the cheapest electricity rates in the country. It is said that Ottawa became the first city in North America to contract for the electrical lighting of all of its streets, in 1885.

Today

After the Great Fire of 1900, the manufacturing operations at the Chaudière suffered hugely and continued to decline over the century. Today, the major industry, Domtar’s paper-manufacture, is being downsized. But, all around the Chaudière, there are stirrings of a different type of development. The Eddy site on the north shore, east of the Islands and beside the Canadian Museum of Civilization, has been purchased by the federal government for future use. The new War Museum, just south of the Falls, is quickly becoming a major destination for tourists and residents alike. And nearby the Le Breton Flats will be revitalized with the start of new housing construction later this year. Although the Chaudière district is destined to play a new role in the future of the region, the unusually high number of industrial relics that remain today remind us of its significance as an historic place in Canada.

Mark Brandt is senior conservation architect, urbanist and heritage consultant with Mark T. Brandt, Architect and Associates, Ottawa. His master plan for heritage-sensitive redevelopment of the Victoria and Chaudière Islands District has formed the basis of the National Capital Commission’s (NCC) vision plan for this area.

The author thanks the NCC for research opportunities into the subject.