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Age of Steam, Ice Roads and Ferries

In the Grand Age of Steam, Canadian travellers in the 1800s were offered two experiences; the use of steam locomotives and the use of steamboats; both modes of transport were well developed by the Victorians and played key elements in the development of Westmeath Township. In at least two of these enterprises horses  were part of the “steam” experience.

To tie in with the existing steamboats chugging westward on the Ottawa River  from the cities of Aylmer and Ottawa, an exceptional man named Jason Gould set up his transport company to bring goods and travellers overland by horse-drawn stagecoaches and freight wagons, thus avoiding the  huge set of rapids on the south-west side of Calumet Island.  See GOULD’S LINE. for the full story.

The government was keen to bring settlers into the Upper Ottawa and companies were springing up to fulfill that initiative. The efforts and resources put into this expansion were huge and sometimes futile – for example a 1847 scheme to built a 5 km. (3 mile)horse-drawn railway around the Chats Falls on the Ottawa in 1846.

Clipping taken from The Ottawa Journal of July 29th,1853, by Harry J. Walker and found in “The Greenwood Scrapbook 1937.”

“The Ottawa Citizen in 1869 reported that Prince Arthur travelled the Chats Passage on a trip up the Ottawa River, commenting, “The ride is at once very interesting and rather frightful.” writes the Ottawa Citizen’s Andrew King  whose exploration of the abandoned canal and railway make for interesting reading.   King: Discovering the Ottawa Valley’s lost steamship route and railway (with video).

Charlotte Whitton, (later to be Mayor of Ottawa), in her 1943 book for the Gillies Brothers “A Hundred Years A-fellin’, 1842-1942“, sets out the route:

The Ottawa River then gradually transitioned from being the main corridor of commerce.  More and more roads and land conveyances were being provided to the population; the biggest change being regular train service. Rail lines were criss-crossing the new frontier, inspired by the need to haul timber and other commodities out to market.

From Charlotte Whitton’s book for the Gillies Brothers: “One Hundred Years A-Fellin’, 1842-1942.

Steam trains were becoming commonplace in the expansion years of the Victorian era and from Colin Churches Railway Pages two dates have been pulled:

1875, August 30 – ceremonial turning of the first sod at Pembroke for the Canada Central Railway section between Renfrew and Pembroke. A civic holiday was declared so that Pembroke citizens could attend the ceremony.

1876, October 3 – Regular trains of the Canada Central Railway (CCR) commence running between Renfrew and Pembroke, construction trains having been used until this date.

This CCR line – later CPR came north through Cobden, along the west shore of Muskrat Lake and had a station at Meath Hill close to the Muskrat River bridge in Greenwood

“When in 1876 the C.P.R. extended its mainline through this district it was found to be a great boon to the settlement. A box car served as a station at Graham’s Bridge for many years. Later the C.P.R. found it necessary to build a station and one was erected just below where Gordon Davidson’s house was built. Sometime after the name “Graham Bridge” was changed to Meath. During the war the old station was built. When the first train passed through, the far shore of Allumette Island was thronged with people who had come down to the shore to see the train.”

Josephine Short on platform at Meath Train Station

Mabel Short Flannery lived in the Meath Train Station as a little girl and her story starts with: “The move into the station was overwhelming. Freight trains, passenger trains night and day roared past the station. The big bright lights of the coal engines could be seen from far off in the night, and the train whistles could clearly be heard while still miles away.” 

Mabel is a born story-teller and her submission about the CPR’s Meath Train Station is well worth a read. Meath Station Remembered by Mabel Short Flannery.

Photo from “Greenwood Scrapbook 1937
The Ottawa Journal, Saturday, December 9, 1911

Beachburg had a train station on the Canadian Northern Railway line – later to be the CNR. That line also had a stop at Finchley Station on the way to Pembroke where the mail bag was picked up by the local mail man and brought to Perretton and Westmeath post offices.

From the booklet “Beachburg-A Rich Heritage”:

“In 1875 the CPR Telegraph office was opened for a short time. n 1880, the K-P and GNW provided telegraph service to Pembroke, Ottawa and Kingston and points between. Miss Ida Beach was one of the first telegraph operators. With the coming of the Canadian Northern Railroad, later called the Canadian National Railroad, the telegraph system was taken over by the railroad company.

In the early days there was only a makeshift station but this was soon replaced by a fine station. Mr. Boyce the station agent and his family resided above the station. It burned down in 1931. The station books and records were saved but all the household contents were burned. The Boyce family then moved to the red brick house opposite the present post office.”

Beachburg Station. Photo and train schedules from “Beachburg-A Rich Heritage”.
Beachburg Village Crossing with Buchanan Garage in foreground.

From “Beachburg-A Rich Heritage“:

Memories of the CNR Railway Station in Beachburg

by Lola Weedmark Boyce.

When my Dad worked on the railroad at Brawny and Brent, he would come home Friday and return to work on Sunday. He travelled via the train back and forth.

We waited patiently for his arrival and whenever we heard the whistle, we would go to the east end of the Beachburg village. The train never made a complete stop, so Dad threw out his satchel and he jumped and often he ran beside the track until his speed slowed. The train continued on to Smith Falls.

On Sunday night, he boarded the train with enough supplies for the week. Time flew and soon we were listening for a whistle and Dad was home again. He worked at the station for a while. Since someone had to be there until the next train arrived, we often took a hot meal for anyone taking shelter at the station, even though there were hungry children at home to be fed. A daily trek was made to the station to meet the afternoon train.

The 2:20 pulled into the Beachburg Station at exactly 2:20 – you could set your watch by this occurrence. We would sit on the bench outside, waiting for the arrival. A gentleman called Jack McDonald often came and sat with us. He wore a dark navy uniform and a little hat with red trim on the brim. After a short visit with the station agent, Mr. Walter Boyce, after getting his orders, he bid us good-bye and the train continued on its route.

Mr. Boyce worked behind a barred window selling tickets or giving our information on the arrival and departure of trains and dealing with many aspects of the railway business. A ticking noise was emanating from a machine which was system known as a phonetic alphabet Morse code – a forerunner to what we know today as the internet.

Behind the station were large wooden grain bins maintained by a Mr. Craymer. The water tower was situated further down the line and was the stopping place to fill the train for fuel. The steam could be seen billowing from the tank even when no train was in sight.

The stockyards were very busy on Saturday morning as the farmers brought their livestock to be taken by train to sale. They delivered their sheep, cattle and hogs in crates drawn by horse and sleigh. Donald Connolly was the dealer and he separated them into pens awaiting the trip to the slaughter house. This event was a social time for the vendors to visit and share all the local news. Sometimes the livestock were kept for a few extra weeks and Mr. Connolly had to feed them in order to increase their weight. I recall one summer, Donald asked us if some of the Weedmark children were interested in feeding the pigs. We quickly agreed, anxious to make a few dollars. They were the best fed pigs in Renfrew County as they were fed more than 3 times a day!

A familiar sight at the station was Abby Lumax’s horse and cart. Abby operated a delivery service delivering parcels to the village stores and private homes. His service was dubbed “The Lightning Express”.

When I fondly relive my childhood, I learned one of life’s lessons, not by being able to buy things, but by recalling love of parents shared with nine siblings with good homemade food which we shared with school friends. To this day when I hear a train making its presence known, in my heart I am always going home.

1931 Pembroke train wreck from “Greenwood Scrapbook”

The era of steam has only remnants left across the county: Scenic railways and heritage train rides in Canada

A Train Journey through the Ottawa Valley from the Museum of Science and Technology uses black and white photography to show those early days of train travel. Whether it was shipping of cattle or grains to market in a bigger city or going to Ottawa to visit relatives, the local trains were vital economic links to the greater marketplace.

Trains and Trucks Don’t Mix:  The truck is usually the loser of any encounter; as was the case in 1954.

Township of Westmeath plow and sand truck had an unfortunate meeting with the train at the CNR level crossing  on Indian Road. Photo from John Wright.
The load on the dump truck “dumped” by the train- including the box.
Photo from John Wright.

Now we live in an era where train tracks have been torn up and no more whistles sound: train track removal.

The Age of Steamboats

Taken from “The Greenwood Scrapbook”.

The Upper Ottawa sections of the river had hard-working steamboats used in the lumber industry to manage the log drives. In the Lower Allumette Lake area “The Alexander” plied the waters. Also in the stretch from Pembroke northwest to Chalk River “The Powell” transported people and goods.

The Union Forwarding Company Steamboats:     A wonderful volume from 1873 instructs would-be passengers on the wonders to be had: “The Union Forwarding Company’s Travellers Guide to the Upper Ottawa 1873″.

Early ad for the Union Forwarding Line taken from the excellent Colin Churches Railway Pages.

In an advertisement of 1867 the Union Forwarding Company listed nine first-class steamers travelling on sections of the Upper Ottawa River. From the Ottawa River.org website comes this article on early shipping: Steamboats and Canals on the Ottawa River  .

July 5, 1867 Advertisement in the Pembroke Advertiser, Pembroke, Canada West.
Pembroke Observer & Upper Ottawa Advertiser, January 8, 1886.

The Ottawa Journal of June 1967, ran an article that provided a good oversight of how our  Ancestors travelled in the St. Lawrence and Ottawa River Valleys. Rivers were First Highways. 


The Union Forwarding and Railway Company, founded in 1846, took passengers from Bryson, Quebec, aboard the steamer “John Young” via Lake Coulonge and the Culbute Channel to Chapeau, Quebec.  No Ontario stops were scheduled as far as we know. 

The steamboat Alex Fraser was in operation on the Lower Allumette Lake from 1891 until 1915 and  “carried passengers on certain days and towing timber of other days” as pictured in Evelyn Moore’s book.

In 1896 tugboats on the Lower Allumette near Westmeath were the “C.B. Powell” and the “Alex Fraser.” Tugs operated on the Ottawa towing the large booms until the 1960s

While on the topic of traveling across or on water, this article from the Cobden Sun  in 1998 on the occasion of the Centennial of the Red  Covered Bridge in Coulonge is noteworthy.  Augustus Brown from Beachburg, a man who never learned to write his name, built a bridge so well constructed that it stands today as an historic monument.  1898 Building of Coulonge Covered Bridge from Cobden Sun May 1998

Transporting Goods on the Ice Roads

Moving loads on the ice was much easier done than facing the often bad conditions of the track or road by land through the bush.

In the Hudson Bay Company Archives document in this Shoreline section, reference is made to how it was an economically  better choice for the company to move large loads of supplies by ice road in winter, than by boat and canoe in summer. Supplies for the lumber shanties were brought in by sled and team, using the Ottawa River’s ice roads, then up the iced rivers flowing out of the Laurentians. The lumbering companies counted on the spring breakup to take their loads of  logs on their way to the mills of Bytown or the docks at Montreal.

During the winter teams brought loads of logs out of the forest and off-loaded onto the river ice either of the Ottawa River  or on one of its tributaries. Come spring  break-up, the logs floated downriver with the disappearing ice.

“A typical timber raft contained 2000 pine logs – imagine how long that took to cut and square. Once the logs were cut and squared they had to be taken to the river and floated past the log slide and then assembled into the rafts to be floated down the Ottawa River. On average, an Ottawa River raft might contain up to one hundred separate cribs. The rafts were floated to the Chaudière Falls, a bay just below the Parliament Buildings, where an auction was held to sell the timber. Once sold, the timber rafts were then floated to Montreal and onto Quebec City where the rafts would be disassembled and loaded onto ships bound for Europe.”  – from the Chutes Coulonge website.

Today, a modern tourist “must-do” is a visit to the  Chutes Coulonge Park on the Coulonge River, a tributary of the Ottawa, flowing down from Quebec’s Laurentian Hills where so much logging activities took place during the boom years. This river saw millions of logs brought out by gravity and water-power. This Historic Park offers an excellent self-guided tour through the process of getting the logs to market.  The park is run by a non-profit group and has done an excellent job of exhibiting what those early days must have been like.

The supplying  of the shanties meant cash sales to the farmers of Westmeath Township – either by being employed in the lumber camps or by supplying the camps. With horses supplying the heavy draft in the camps, the hay and grain fodder supplies required for these teams was a major undertaking to supply. Farmers with  good strong teams would hire on with their horses to work in the lumber camps for the winter. Potatoes, beans, pork,- everything to fuel  men doing hard physical work in the cold of winter had to be taken over the ice roads.

“Lumbering was the chief industry in the early days. The big pines were hewn, squared and made into rafts to be floated down the river. The river was a hive of industry in the spring, when rafts of lumber from Pembroke and points above, were floated down the river, through the numerous rapids. The Cribs were separated to run the rapids, then put together again and towed over the calm water. The steamboat “Pembroke” towed the rafts of timber from Mellon’s Boom to the head of the small rapids at the old Fort Coulonge, where if they were separated into cribs again and floated through the swift water to the foot of Callumette Island, where they were towed by another boat, and so on, till they reached Quebec, where the timber was loaded on a boat for overseas, mostly Britain.” – from W.I. Tweedsmuir Book, written by Miss Myrtle Bromley 1930s.

The supplying  of the shanties meant cash sales to the farmers of Westmeath Township – either by being employed in the lumber camps or by supplying the camps. With horses supplying the heavy draft in the camps, the hay and grain fodder supplies required for these teams was a major undertaking to supply. Farmers with  good strong teams would hire on with their horses to work in the lumber camps for the winter. Potatoes, beans, pork,- everything to fuel  men doing hard physical work in the cold of winter had to be taken over the ice roads.

“Every fall farmers along the Ontario side of the Ottawa River would go to Fort Coulonge, to the Lumber Companies offices to get a contract to deliver feed and supplies to the lumber camps along the Coulonge and Black Rivers. “As soon as the Ottawa River had frozen over, men worked at building ice bridges to cross from LaPasse to Fort Coulonge.

“A typical supply portage trip would mean leaving Monday morning and returning on the weekend, depending on the location of the camp where the supplies were to be delivered. Besides transporting the supplies for the lumber camp, the farmers needed to transport supplies for their 5-8 day journey also.

“On one of these supply trips in the late 1930’s, Andrew E Gervais of LaPasse found this old snow plow at one of the logging camps. He purchased what was left of it and rebuilt it.

“It is understood that the original architect of the shanty plow, was a Fort Coulonge blacksmith named Donald Paquette. The shanty plow was designed to be pulled by a team of horses; the plow sat on a set of four runners, and was used to groom the logging roads, keeping the log camps open for the supply runners.”  – from the Chutes Coulonge website.

The biggest problem was thin ice and many horses and men were lost if the ice was not thick enough to hold a team and sleigh, cutter, stoneboat or wagon. The ice road was first “brushed”; that is marked for safe passage, by using evergreen boughs or whole trees imbedded in holes drilled in the ice to mark the route.  The winter ice road was also often more direct because the early settlers and settlements were along the shoreline.  A bonus was the lack of tree stumps, swamps and corduroy roads to endure or avoid.  Like the snowmobilers today, taking shortcuts across fields, across creeks, and rivers made wintertime travel much easier. In an “one-man’s-loss-is-another-man’s-gain” story,  a LaPasse man went off to do some fishing one summer day and he came home with a full set of leather harness still attached to a wooden cutter. The horse had obviously gone through the winter ice and been captured and held by the ice until spring and summer when it would sink to the bottom.

The Allumette Islanders and Pontiac, Quebec, residents would come across the river at Gower Point or Front Westmeath,to skate at the indoor rink, play hockey,  go to church services, socialize and sometimes, best of all,  to find a sweetheart.  For instance, the Anderson and Desjardins families both first settled in Quebec but became ancestors to the Timm, Bromley, McBride and McMullen families of Westmeath Township.

Many LaPasse families had relatives on both sides of the river and visits back and forth were frequent. Come March and spring breakup, the ice road users had to return to land roads. The heaving of the country roads in spring or heavy rains would make it all but impassable for a team and wagon. The summer hours of statute labour had to be worked to improve the roads and build culverts and bridges before freeze-up came again. The convenience of ferry service across the narrowing of the river at Gower Point (LaPasse) was thought to be essential for the area. The municipal council of the day laid out the following fares and asked the government to issue a license for the Gervais family to provide the service.

Ferry Service Between Lower and Upper Canada

(Mansfield is a municipality in Pontiac County, western Quebec, located directly across the Ottawa River from LaPasse, Ontario).

“12th June 1886    Moved by James Robinson Seconded by William Ross and resolved that the petition of Napoleon Gervais and Alfred Gervais be granted that the Hon. John Costejan do grant a license for a ferry between Lapasse and Mansfield and that the fare be as follows: Fares:          

  • for a pair of horses with wagon, 50¢
  • for a single horse with wagon, 37.5¢
  • for one head of cattle, 25¢
  • for each person, 5¢

That the hours of ferry be from six o’clock A.M. to 8 o’clock P.M. And that the Minister of Inland Revenue give full instruction the kind of boats to be used. And that the seal of the corporation be attached to the above motion.  Carried”

From that beginning ferries would operate at LaPasse right up until the two interprovincial bridges at Portage du Fort, downstream, and Pembroke, upstream, would take the business away from the ferries. From 1886 to 1960 – 74 years in all the ferries ran.

“A Ferry carried traffic across the river from Spotswoods to Waltham, and another ferry operated between Lapasse and Fort Coulonge. The first ferry had long huge oars, rowed by men. Then came the endless cable operated by a stick with a slit in it, to catch the cable as they slid it out as far as the arm could reach, hauling the ferry backward and forward across the river. Motor ferries have taken their place.” from writings by Miss Myrtle Bromley, W.I. Tweedsmuir Book.

The Spotswood or Waltham Ferry, operated upriver from LaPasse at the point where the Calbute Channel, coming down the north side of Allumette Island and the Black River waters converge, then join with the Allumette Lake waters of the Ottawa River at the “foot” of the island.  Like at LaPasse, the water is fast moving, deep and the river narrowed. Because of the fast currents both the ferries had to steer upstream to arrive properly on the other shore.

The Laurentian View RV Park owner, and the fifth generation to live at that spot, Lorne Spotswood, writes about his family ferry business:

The Spotswood ferry began operation about the year 1840 when William Spotswood, (he was my great-great grandfather), arrived on the Spotswood property.  He was from Scotland and spent about 5 years in Kemptville, Ontario, then moving northward to the Ottawa Valley. “He operated the ferry…basically a two car ferry although there were no automobiles in those years…all horse and buggies and transportation of cattle to northern regions of Quebec.  The ferry operated on a cable across the river from shore to shore.  Sometime in the early 1900’s the Spotswoods purchased a pointer boat with a model A/T Ford engine to move the ferry, thus the cable system ceased. “The ferry was operated by William Spotswood, then his son James Spotswood and then his Grandson Robert Spotswood and then his great grandson Jack Spotswood, (my father).

Jack Spotswood with pole, circa 1945, coming into the Ontario side. Pointer boat on the far side, operated by Gerald Spotswood, supplied the power.

“Jack Spotswood took over operation of the ferry business about 1940.  The existing ferry  needed replacement.  My dad told me that he considered purchasing a steel hull ferry but then he hesitated. He said that he could remember that for about 50 years there was talk of a bridge near Pembroke to Allumette Island.  So he chose to build one more wooden ferry in 1950 which was a less expensive plan.  In 1956, the bridge in Pembroke to Allumette Island opened.  Jack Spotswood operated the ferry in 1957 but the business had declined so he ceased the ferry operation.

The last Spotswood Ferry built by Jack Spotswood and Alex Laderoute about 1950, 12′ x 40′ of red pine

“In 1956 it cost 75 cents per car to cross the ferry and $1.00 at night.  The ferry operated 24/7 from ice out to  ice in… about April to December.  In those years Public Works were not involved much… it was basically a private operation.” Evelyn Moore Price’s “The History of the Corporation of the Township of Westmeath” has this entry on the two township ferries. Any activity around water can be treacherous and ferry travel was not exempted as this shocking accident’s newspaper coverage showed.

September 1940 “Four persons were trapped in the rear of a car which plunged from the LaPasse – Fort Coulonge ferry Sunday evening and were drowned. Three others in the front of the car escaped. The dead are George Mousseau, Davidson, Que.; Mr. & Mrs. Joe Poisson and their 5 yr old son Ralph from Westmeath. Other occupants from the car were David Mousseau, Gatineau Mills, son of George Mousseau; Tennise Mousseau, Fort Coulonge, also a son of the dead man, and his wife Mrs. Tennise Mousseau. David Mousseau, driver of the car, was backing the vehicle on the ferry to adjust the weight of the boat as it neared the wharf. He apparently over accelerated and the car backed up a three foot rampart at the rear of the boat and plunged into 20 feet of water. The three in the front seat escaped through the left door and the right front window. Mr. and Mrs. Poisson farm on the Gore Line and leave to mourn, children Venasse, Morris, Marie, Victoria and Geneva all at home.”  

The Cobden Sun, September 12, 1940

The Coulonge to LaPasse Ferry service was operated for two generations by Fred Laporte and his son Arnel.

Every five years a $25 license for operating a ferry service was issued by the government to the Ferryman Fred Laporte, Esquire, setting out the conditions of operation.  This 1942 License has a lovely embossed Crown Seal for King George VI and the Great Seal of Canada:  1942 License for Laporte Ferry with Crown Seal

The New Scow “Baby Snooks”

The “Baby Snooks” 1950’s.

After the austerity and quotas of the war years, such industries as shipbuilding could once again take domestic orders.  In 1946, Fred Laporte ordered a new “Steelcraft” scow from Russel Brothers shipyards in Owen Sound, Ontario.  The Laporte family has kept the documents from the 1940’s presented here.  1946 Order Russel Bros.

Business people know that some years are just full of problems and bureaucratic red-tape.  From the family’s collection of paperwork,  the period between January 22 and February 18, 1948, (under 4 weeks), was one of those times for the Laporte’s. The correspondence was frequent and headaches numerous. This was on top of the loss of all documentation regarding the ferry, due to a house fire the proceeding November. 1948 Correspondence.

By 1954 a new Queen and her Government issues a new 5-year license to Ferryman Arnel Laporte who had taken over the business. Unfortunately his name is misspelt on the cover – however, he is referred to as A.H. Laporte in the body of the document. Again the embossed Seal and silk ribbons are attached.  1954 License for Laporte Ferry with Crown Seal

Coulonge-LaPasse Ferry 1940s

Arnel Laporte writes from Lapasse on Jul13, 1957 regarding the continued  operation of the “Baby Snooks”.

The Honorable Howard  Green, Minister of Public Works, Hunter  Building, Ottawa, Ontario.

Dear Sir;

As you know I have been operating the ferry between Fort Coulonge, Que. and Lapasse, Ont. for the past several years.  In the past it has been the policy of your department to issue a License covering a five year period.  The license covering the last five year period expired on May 1, 1957.

In 1956 a bridge from Pembroke, Ontario to Allumette Island, Quebec, was opened to traffic. Since then my ferry revenue has dropped by approximately 75%.

Arnel Laporte, ferry owner-operator, 1950’s

I would like to have a permit to operate for this year only.  My reason for requesting this temporary permission is due to the fact that I intend to take up the matter of a subsidy with the authorities concerned.  I might advise that the ferry was inspected this Spring and everything was found in order.

It is my considered opinion that if this service is not subsidized, no one will ever be interested in operation, since sufficient revenue to even meet expenses cannot be realized.

Yours very truly,

Arnel H. Laporte

Subsidization of the ferry service was not forthcoming and by September of 1960, Arnel again wrote to the Department of Public Works with the following;   “This is to inform you that my last day of ferry crossing will be September 25.  The ferry does not yield sufficient profit to continue longer.  The wharfage is much too high for the amount of ferrying I do.”

The days of local inter-provincial ferries were over.