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Gould’s Line

Jason Gould’s Line & 1853 Forest Fire

Jason Gould, Ottawa River Pioneer

By the mid- 1800s  goods and travelers were flooding into the Upper Ottawa Valley and a man called Jason Gould was part of the action.  Gould had already set up a haulage and shipping company operating in the Breaside-Arnprior area on the Ottawa River. Now he turned his attention further upstream and realized that he could expand his entrepreneurial empire.

Anyone coming to Westmeath Township by water had to avoid the various turbulent sections of whitewater on the Ottawa River.  An early portage used by the natives and introduced to the first explorers  included a 13 mile portage from east of the Roche Fendu set of rapids, overland to the eastern end of Muskrat Lake (Cobden),  and then using the Muskrat River system to continue to Mirimichi (Pembroke). Lumbermen had also used the route from Portage to the head of Muskrat Lake. To improve this route allowing scheduled overland and lake travel in all weathers was a massive, perhaps impossible  undertaking; but Jason Gould set out to build “Gould’s Line” along that same route.

Muskrat Lake lies  within the old Westmeath Township territory and its usefulness as an alternate route was vitally important. It had even been studied, at the behest of the Government of Upper Canada,  by the famous surveyor and explorer David Thompson to see if a canal route was feasible. Muskrat Lake & River Lumbering.

The story of the “Gould Line”  is well documented in newspaper stories; and four such articles are presented here. An article on Jason Gould appeared in the The Ottawa Evening Citizen, June 15, 1929, with the headline: The Story of Jason Gould, the Ottawa Evening Citizen, 15 June 1929,  and submitted to the Citizen by Margaret Craymer of Beachburg.

Fitzroy Harbour, the site of Gould’s Wharf, is at lower right. Then the route followed the river to Portage du Fort where the passengers and freight was transferred to stagecoaches and wagons to go overland to Cobden; then by Muskrat Lake &  Muskrat River to Pembroke and points north by small steamers.



Published by RENFREW SMALLFIELD & SON 1919 

“About twenty miles northwest from Renfrew village is a settlement called Cobden, a name intended to illustrate its proprietor s admiration for free trade. It is situated at the head of Muskrat Lake, in the south of the Township of Westmeath, and has been commenced about two years. A road has been formed from the lake to the Ottawa below Calumet Island, and a line of stage waggons placed on the route. On the first opening of the line of communication row boats were placed on the Muskrat to convey passengers and goods to Pembroke, but during the present season a small steamer has been substituted. This is intended to be replaced by one of a superior class next year. All goods and passengers for the Ottawa above Portage du Fort are now carried along this line, a post office has been established at the village.”

1850 Map of Canada West by Major Baron de Rottenburg. It shows Gould’s Wharf as “Steam Boat Landing” and Portage Road which is described as “pretty good” to the head of Muskrat Lake. Note the number of Inns along the traveled routes, including the Store Wharf and Inn owned by Gould at Cobden. Map taken from Clyde C. Kennedy’s “The Upper Ottawa Valley – A Glimpse of History”. The Winter Road leaving Beachburg and heading straight north to Lower Allumette Lake is found in Two Lost Roads.

The importance of Jason Gould to the opening of this section of Eastern Ontario was immense because incoming settlers in the mid-1800’s were needing transportation. It was Gould who established Fitzroy Harbour as an important entrance hub and who developed Portage du Fort as the terminus of the run from Braeside, near Arnprior.  He seemed unable to resist undertaking the most difficult of tasks or ventures; and could swiftly change plans when met with resistance.

Gould’s  enterprise formed the missing link between existing river travel downriver to and from Ottawa, terminating at Portage du Fort, and riverboats from Pembroke traveling upriver to Des Joachims.  The entire trip, – Ottawa  to Des Joachims and return to Aylmer, – was accomplished in three days.

Map showing Gould’s Steamboat Landing and the route taken overland.
Taken from “The Upper Ottawa Valley” by Clyde C. Kennedy.

This article, published in the July 1984 Pembroke Observer, sets out this mid-Victorian era mode of travel. Ottawa-Pembroke Run.

“First class omnibuses left the various Ottawa city hotels every morning during the week to connect at Aylmer with steamers leaving the place upon the upward voyage at 8:30 a.m. The passengers enjoyed the novelty of eating each meal during the day on a different vessel. They breakfasted on board the “Ann Sisson” shortly after leaving Aylmer, dined upon the “Alliance” and had tea in the course of the trip from Cobden to Pembroke on the “Jason Gould” or “North Star“.”

In this 1851 Map Muskrat Lake (upper left quadrant), is drawn oversized; reflecting its importance as an alternate route to the Ottawa River, rather than its actual size

The first article presented below  is an overview of the transportation business established by Gould and the following article describes the frantic journey of the Gould Line’s North Star outrunning the Great Forest Fire of 1853. 

Gould’s Famous Line Built on Historic “Champlain Trail”

Stage And Steamer Routes From Portage To Pembroke – Boat Passengers Killed Deer And Fished – Route And Transport System Wiped Out By Forest Fire.   

From The Ottawa Journal, Sat. Sept.14, 1940, Written for The Journal by Harry J. Walker.

“Between the Ottawa River and Cobden are the remains of a historic highway known to the fur traders as the “Champlain Trail” and to the lumbermen and river travellers as the Jason Gould Line.

“War bands of Iroquois, seeking their enemies the Algonquin’s on Allumette Island first used it. Then Champlain gave it his name when he travelled that way on his first Ottawa voyage seeking the mythical Northern Sea that would lead him to the wealth of the Indies. Following him came the coureur des bois and those gentlemen adventurers of Old France extending to the westward the empire of the Sun King. Next to traverse it were the fur brigades bringing rich cargoes to Scotch merchant princes in Montreal counting houses. Finally in those years of timber supremacy, Jason Gould saw its possibilities as an artery of transportation and he instituted a service of river steamers and stages to convey the enormous traffic from Bytown to Pembroke.

“It is deserted now and practically obliterated, except for stretches of rotted corduroy. But in its construction and operation there is reflected the story of a man who had all the qualities of an empire builder. Jason Gould was an individualist who without benefit of government bonus, established a great transportation enterprise that was obliterated in a forest fire. In fact Gould’s entire life was featured by daring enterprise which seemed impossible of achievement and drawing on the researches of H.P. Morgan, editor historian of Brockville, we present the highlights of a remarkable transportation system founded by a remarkable man.

“Even before he had contemplated this line Gould had pioneered in a number of other enterprises. Not only had he carried on a mercantile, saw-milling and a square timber trade at Arnprior (in connection with a steamer service, docks and portage road at Chats Island), but he had also established the settlement of Braeside, near Arnprior, and had opened the first general store at Portage du Fort of which village he was also postmaster.

Fight for Right of Way

“His experience in these undertakings convinced him that the Ottawa River route to Pembroke could be shortened with fewer transshipments for portages and consequent less expense. A personal exploration of the territory further substantiated his view, and he definitely decided upon a land route between a point on the Ottawa nearly opposite Portage du Fort and the town site which had been laid out at the head of Muskrat Lake and named Cobden after the great Free Trader. Richard Cobden.  From Cobden his project called for a steamer service to Pembroke Landing.

“In 1848 he commenced his stage road and this first unit of his “Line” presenting obstacles that would have defeated a less resourceful man. It entailed not only the cutting of a road through heavily timbered country, but creeks and gullies had to bridged, low-lying land had to be planked or corduroyed and hills reduced. Docks and storehouses had to be built on the Ottawa, at Cobden and at Pembroke Landing for the movement of freight and before a tree could be felled, land had to be purchased and rights-of-way acquired. This phase of it alone was an engineering job of major proportions but Jason got through with it.

“Then jealous rivals by process of injunction kept trying to make him keep shifting his Ottawa River base. He shifted it – just once- and then it stayed where he wanted it.

Muskrat Lake

“During that first year 1848 Gould did little more than make his road passable as a portage. In 1849 the first ships of his fleet were launched on the Muskrat. These were two large row-boats, 60 feet in length, which awaited the stages and buckboards arriving from the Ottawa. In this crude manner Gould started his “Line” and the traffic soon warranted expansion. In 1850 in addition to a hotel he build more wharves and warehouses and established a general mercantile business at Cobden. He also cut a winter road through 16 miles of bush to Pembroke to keep his Line in operation when navigation closed.

“One of the amazing features incidental to the construction of this Line was Gould –either by accident or directional sense give to explorers to find a natural way through the wilderness – put his road over practically the same terrain used more than two centuries before by Champlain, Brule’, Nicolet and other aces of early Canadian exploration. Not only that, but the spot he selected on the Ottawa was the identical point from which these early explorers “took off” for their detour through the forest.

Samuel de Champlain’s lost astrolabe

“Absolute proof that they were on the Champlain Trail confronted Gould’s workmen when they commenced construction of the wharf on the Ottawa River landing. Here they found ample evidence of its being formerly used as an ancient campsite. Excavating on the shore they discovered numerous traces of campfire long since extinguished – bits of equipment and utensils, an iron axe and a pewter drinking cup. In those blackened symbols one could probably have read the story of the march of civilization on this continent as redman, explorer, soldier, missionary and fur trader passed that way to separate destinies –massacre, martyrdom or mundane rewards. (Along this trail in Ross Township near Cobden there was discovered in 1865 the astrolabe of Champlain, lost three centuries ago.)

The construction of Gould’s Line resulted in the unexpected unearthing of a special artifact.
Taken from “The Upper Ottawa Valley” by Clyde Kennedy.

Unique Stern-Wheeler

“But Gould was more interested in transportation than civilizations. During the winter of 1850-51 he decided to speed up the river services on his line. From John Nicholson from Fitzroy Harbour he obtained a small engine and a new boiler and in the spring he placed the two row-boats side-by-side, fastened them together and decked then over, a space being left at the rear for the paddle wheel. The machinery was placed on the deck and the whole covered by another deck. Thus was evolved the stern wheeler “Muskrat” which for two seasons plied between Cobden and Pembroke Landing and afforded more convenience and safer and more expeditious movement of freight.

“This improvement in speed and accommodation, brought other difficulties in navigation for when the “Muskrat” was in its big row-boat stage it could go through narrow channels, where the transformed “Muskrat” could not. Gould had to contend against masses of weeds and a species of “floating islands” where the spring freshets and strong winds, dislodged sections of low, marshy ground and floated them into the main channel. The skipper however always carried equipment on deck to cut through these barriers and made his run regardless of conditions. On freezing autumn nights the “Muskrat” was sometime marooned until the daylight when passengers and crew could cut a way through the ice.

‘Strange tales have come down too of passengers being supplied spears to harpoon the big fish that came to gaze upon this steam marvel of this wilderness lake; also of trolling with long lines from the aft deck and of deer being killed on route and providing venison steak for the passengers, (all on one deck), of the good ship “Muskrat”.

Forest Fire Finale

“By the year 1852 Gould decided that his Line was conveying sufficient traffic to warrant a better boat than his faithful barge the “Muskrat”. Accordingly he ordered machinery from England to equip a powerful steamer. In August 1853 in the midst of acclaim in the little settlement of Cobden, the “North Star” was launched on the waters of Muskrat Lake. About this time a steamer service from Pembroke to Des Joachims had been started by the Union Forwarding Company which placed the steamer “Pontiac” on this route. Gould promptly tied in with this service and synchronized his own stage and steamer schedule to meet the “Pontiac” at Pembroke.

“Gould Line was now a going concern and by all the Laws of compensation he should have been reaping the rewards of his initiative. But then out of a hot summer sky disaster struck him. Trouble started on Allumette Island with a cloud of smoke that billowed across the river into Petawawa Township. It had been an exceptionally dry spring in 1853 and once gaining the Ontario side this great forest fire swept unchecked, wiping our settlements and homesteads in the townships of Alice Stafford, Bromley, Ross, Westmeath and Horton. A charred and devastated terrain of 800 square miles remained as evidence of the ferocity of the holocaust.

“In this, the greatest catastrophe of the Upper Ottawa, Gould lost practically everything. True, his best steamer the “North Star” won through to Cobden in an epic flame-seared passage through the narrows. But at Cobden he found the Muskrat burned to the water’s edge. All his plant wiped out. His stage line to the Ottawa burned over and the loss of all his store-houses and sheds.

“With a brave heart Jason Gould tried to re-establish his line and actually had it in operation again but the disaster had taken a toll of his health and he sold out; to die a few years later. It would have been a fitting tribute to Gould and his famous predecessors if Highway 17 had been laid over more of the old Champlain Trail.” 

July 5, 1867 Advertisement in the Pembroke Advertiser, Pembroke, Canada West. The original copy of this 1867 newspaper edition was submitted by David Macdonald.

Victoria Edwards has generously submitted the following  short newspaper article on the fate of the “Muskrat” to this website with the following note: “I understand that the Canadian Museum of Technology donated the Wheelhouse Marine Museum (Ottawa)’s collection to the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes (Kingston), which has a mandate covering Montreal to the Great Lakes.”

Divers Find Sunken Wreck Near Cobden

The Ottawa Journal, 21 June 1965, Page 5

“Two Ottawa divers Sunday uncovered the sunken wreck of a 114-year-old paddle-wheeler in Muskrat Lake, near Cobden. Jim Charlebois, 23, and Jack Tremblay, 26, both members of the Ottawa Underwater Society, found the, remains of the “Muskrat” lying just off shore. They salvaged dishes, wine bottles and rigging from the wreck. The boat was a passenger-freight craft used on the Ottawa River in the 1850s. It was sunk in a fire which razed the village of Cobden in 1853. The society plans further expeditions to salvage more pieces from the wreck.”

1853 Forest Fire – 6 Townships Devastated

This massive fire wiped out settlements and homesteads in the townships of Alice, Stafford, Bromley, Ross, Westmeath and Horton in Ontario and both Allumette and Calumet Islands in Quebec. A charred and devastated terrain of 800 square miles remained as evidence of the ferocity of the holocaust.

350 homesteads destroyed according to one source. No death count or estimation of the loss of homes and livestock in the 1853 fire has come down to us; but it is certain that some of the settlers in their scattered forest clearings did perish. Businesses and livestock were lost and lives forever changed.

One more example of  the unimaginable hardships with which Westmeath Township settlers had to deal.

The Ottawa Citizen, May 21, 1853:  

“Hundreds of families are homeless and almost without food, and a large extent of the countryside presents a blacked picture of desolation.”

This clipping is seen in its entirety below on this page. This level of devastation is hard to contemplate, the fire coming after a very dry spring. Then the rains came following the fire. The clearing of land by burning has been used over the millennia and continues in areas like the Amazon Basin. But when it is done during a drought, as in this case; the hazards are deadly.
Burning is a cheap but dangerous way to clear land.

The massive Upper Ottawa Valley Forest Fire of 1853 laid waste vast swathes of Westmeath and surrounding townships. It was particularly devastating to the young Village of Beachburg, where nearly all of the village was burned over. Like all forest fires, it jumps and leaps through the territory.

The various accounts have some discrepancies. One stated that 800 square miles were burned over; another stated 450 square miles were burned. Also one account said the month of the fire was July of 1853; but May of 1853 is correct; giving the settlers a full summer to rebuild and survive … to somehow go on.

1853 -The Black Year of the Upper Ottawa – 800 square miles of “ferocious holocaust”.

“A Swath of Ruin, 30 miles long and 12 miles wide”.

A third article written by our Mr. Harry J. Walker, uses The Carleton Place Herald editor James Poole take of events in July of 1853. From Sand Point, then of more importance than nearby Arnprior,  comes an article first published 12 days later on  July 29th of 1853. This clipping was kept for us in The Greenwood Scrapbook 1937.

Enough time had passed for news of the devastating impact the fire had on the settlers to have reached The Carleton Place Herald. Rev. George Boucher had toured the countryside and given his report on the homeless, starving and traumatized inhabitants. However,  life goes on and the Governor General Lord Elgin’s visit to Sand Point was of prime importance to the community and so that was the lead news article in that day’s paper.

During what was easily the worst natural disaster to ever hit Westmeath Township, the passengers and crew of the “North Star” worked as though their lives depended on it – as indeed they did. Here are presented two newspaper articles both written by Henry J. Walker in the 1940s on the event.

Capt. Cowley Took North Star Through Forest Fire to Cobden

From The Ottawa Journal, Saturday, July 17, 1943;  Written for The Journal by Harry Walker.

Out of Control Forest Fire.

“This is the story of the staunch ship “North Star” and her gallant skipper, Capt D. K. Cowley, who won a race against a forest fire in running a gauntlet of flame from Pembroke to Cobden.  It occurred in those pre-Confederation days when river steamers furnished the only transportation between our Capital and the Upper Ottawa wilderness. To avoid the rapids at Portage du Fort, Jason Gould had constructed an inland highway from the Ontario side of the river to Cobden over what was the ancient “Champlain Trail”. Over this tortuous corduroy road of 13 miles he ran a stage service to Cobden. It was known as the “Gould Line”.

“From the Cobden terminal on Muskrat Lake, he operated a fleet of steamers to Pembroke, utilizing the long narrow lake and river that continued right up to the outskirts of the present county capital. Gould’s first steamer consisted of two barges fastened together with a deck super- structure. He installed an engine somewhere in its interior and this strange craft became the wonder of the Upper Ottawa as it chugged through the marshy Muskrat to Pembroke. By the year 1852, Gould decided that his line was conveying sufficient traffic to warrant a better boat than his faithful barge, “Muskrat’. Accordingly he ordered machinery from England to equip a powerful steamer.

“In August, 1853, amidst the acclaim of the little settlement at Cobden, the “North Star” was launched on the waters of Muskrat Lake. About this time a steamer service from Pembroke to Des Joachims had been started by the Union Forwarding Company which placed the steamer “Pontiac” on this route. Gould promptly tied In with this service and synchronized his own stage and steamer schedule to meet the Pontiac at Pembroke.

Day of Disaster

“The Gould’s Line prospered until a day of disaster during an exceptionally dry and hot July. Trouble started on Allumette Island with a cloud of smoke that billowed across the river Into Petawawa Township. Once gaining the Ontario side this great forest fire swept unchecked, wiping out settlements and homesteads in the townships of Alice, Stafford, Bromley, Ross, Westmeath and Horton. A charred and devastated terrain of 800 square mile remained as evidence of the ferocity of the holocaust.

“In this greatest disaster of the Upper Ottawa, that part of early Pembroke known as the Miramichi Settlement was completely destroyed. By some strange twist of irony the name Miramichi is said to have been first bestowed on Pembroke by people who had trekked from New Brunswick after a storm of flame had swept a 60-mile stretch of country from Miramichi to the Bay of Chaleurs.

“Now to return to Jason Gould and his “North Star”. For information concerning what transpired on the Gould Line and perilous passage of the “North Star” through an avenue of smoke and fire, we have again, delved into the authentic record by H. R. Morgan, well known historian of  Eastern Ontario’s pioneer period.

Passengers Helped

“The “North Star” was wharved in at Pembroke Landing, waiting for the “Pontiac” when in the morning the rolling barrage of smoke descending on the settlement gave first warning of disaster. With great rapidity the fire leaping through stands of pine moved on the river community. It was with hazardous difficulty that passengers were transferred from the “Pontiac” to the “North Star” for the connecting road was fire-swept necessitating a detour. In command of the “North Star” on that historic trip was Capt. D. K. Cowley, father of Capt. Cowley, to whom reference was made In a preceding paragraph. (Both Cowley, father and son, were outstanding navigators of the Upper Ottawa, and Jason Gould subsequently sold his interests, to Capt. “D. K.”). Capt. Cowley enlisted the services of the passengers to assist in keeping the steamer from catching on fire, the efforts of the crew being required to keep it in mid-stream. Along parts of the route of, the Muskrat River was a narrow channel, and it was decided to make a start as soon as possible.

Gauntlet of Flame

“As Morgan records the story of this exploit it was almost noon when the “North Star” left the landing to run the perilous passage. The wind was, if anything, blowing harder, the smoke was thicker, and ahead of the craft there was fire on both sides of the river burning fiercely and sweeping everything before it.  It appeared to be tempting Providence to attempt to pass through such an inferno. Thanks to the work of the augmented crew, the first mile was accomplished without disaster. The steamer then reached a rocky part of the channel where it had to be guided through with poles, and this was a task rendered more difficult by the smoke and the wind. Another mile farther and a small clearance that of a settler known as Gurley, was reached. – Here all was ablaze and no sign of life was visible.

“The remaining two miles before arriving at Coffey’s Clearing was possibly the most trying stretch of the run.

Dousing the Decks

“The heat was intense and – the smoke almost suffocating, but all hands worked with a will to keep the craft from taking fire, drawing water and throwing it over the decks. The captain and the helms man had possibly the most arduous duties, for they were obliged to remain on the upper deck without any shelter and exposed to the heat and the fire. To prevent their clothes from igniting a bucket of water was now and again doused over them. Where the river was exceptionally narrow or where the fierce winds met each other at short turns, the flames from each side of the stream met forming an awful canopy under which the steamer had to pass. Continuing her epic passage the “North Star” finally reached Cobden. The first thing that met the gaze of the crew was the “Muskrat”, burned to the water’s edge, and further on it was discerned that the greater part of the Gould plant had been wiped out. The villagers were endeavoring to prevent the remainder of the settlement from taking fire, and in this they were eventually successful. But Gould’s stage line to the very edge of the Ottawa had been burnt over with the loss of all the storehouses and sheds. From that loss brave Jason Gould never recovered and it hastened his death.”

Jason Gould was an innovator and a risk-taker and he laid it all on the line. His ability to think big and see his vision through helped to open Westmeath Township;with it’s lands laid on both sides of Muskrat Lake route. Settlers could use these new types of transport to take up new homesteads through the township; while lumbermen could bring in supplies more conveniently.