After the last glacier melted, it was the Ottawa that drained the Great Lakes until the land rose and a new channel was found via the St Lawrence. The fine clay soil of the southern valley was deposited by the Ottawa in its journey to the sea, forming a long fertile intrusion into the otherwise implacable Canadian SHIELD. From Lake Timiskaming to Montréal, the river forms the border between Ontario and Québec, but the division is more than political - to the south are rich farms and gentle hills, to the north the forests of the Laurentians.
For several hundred years, the Ottawa was the primary transportation route to the western interior. The Algonquin controlled it in early times and one group exacted tolls from a strategic base on Allumette Island, where they also grew corn and tobacco. They called the river "Kich esippi" meaning "The Great River". Jacques CARTIER probably saw the river from atop Mount Royal, but Étienne BRULÉ was likely the first European to travel it (1610). In 1613 via the Mattawa and FRENCH rivers to Georgian Bay, CHAMPLAIN travelled the route which was used to carry furs for the next 200 years. The river was a tough challenge for the voyageurs, requiring 18 portages, some of the most difficult being at Long Sault, Deschênes, Lac des Chats, Chenaux, Portage-du-Fort, Chaudière Falls, Rocher Fendu, Des Joachims, La Cave and Des Érables.
The French made small impact on the river valley, though they built a few posts and even drove some timber in the 1740s. L'ORIGNAL, granted in 1674, was the first seigneury in present-day Ontario but was not developed for 100 years. HAWKESBURY was founded in 1798, and there Thomas Mears built the first gristmill, sawmill and later the first steamer, the Union, on the Ottawa. The first paper mill in Canada was built 1803-05 at St-André-Est, and the American Philemon WRIGHT founded Wrightsville (later HULL) in 1800 with American settlers. Loyalists, led by Sir John JOHNSON, moved into the valley in 1814, and French settlers onto Petite Nation seigneury. In 1817 land along the Rideau River was granted to 1000 British veterans, and in 1825 Archibald MCNAB led a group of Scots to the mouth of the Madawaska River.
Log rafts descended the Ottawa even before it ceased to be the prime route of the fur trade after 1821. Wright showed that the route was feasible in 1807, and the British demand for pine grew until, by 1830, the valley timber trade dominated the Canadian economy. After 1850 the British demand for square timber fell, but in 1854 RECIPROCITY gained free access for Canadian lumber into the US market. The timber trade pervaded the social life of the valley. Armies of men lived in crude shanties during winter and descended on civilization with their rafts come spring. Competition among shanties and between French and Irish led to feuds and violent clashes (see SHINERS' WARS). After the completion of the RIDEAU CANAL (1832), Bytown (later OTTAWA) grew to be the largest lumber centre on the river.
Though a few timber barons, such as E.B. EDDY and J.R. BOOTH, made fortunes, many lumbermen and Irish labourers lived in poverty and disease. The ravages of the axe swept up the river and its tributaries. By 1828 there was a sawmill at the future site of PEMBROKE; after 1850 cutting reached the Madawaska River, and by the 1870s Lake Timiskaming. Railways challenged the river by the 1850s, carrying lumber to BROCKVILLE and Ogdensburg, NY. By the 1870s rail lines reached CARLETON PLACE, RENFREW, ALMONTE and Pembroke. Steamers plied the river with goods and passengers, aided by a canal at Carillon, which permitted uninterrupted travel from Montréal to Ottawa. This river transport ceased by 1900.
Most of the valley's stands of pine had been decimated by 1910. Where land was fertile, farmers settled; elsewhere there remained a wasteland of stumps and debris vulnerable to fire. Part of the wilderness was saved from the axe when ALGONQUIN PROVINCIAL PARK was created (1893), and in 1918 Canada's first forestry research station was established at Petawawa to study the effects of logging, disease and fire. With the loss of the larger trees, most mills converted to pulp and paper, still an important industry along the river. But except for the farming area of the lower valley, the heritage of the timber trade is a depressed economy, with little industry and high unemployment. Much of the hydroelectric power gained by harnessing the Ottawa is transmitted to Toronto and elsewhere. Ottawa, which was chosen as Canada's capital in 1857, is clearly the dominant urban centre, but its prosperity is based on the federal government, not on valley resources or its riverine connections. First called the Grand Rivière des Algonquins, the river took its name from a later group of middlemen in the fur trade, the Ottawa.
Author JAMES MARSH
Links to Other Sites
The website for the Historica-Dominion Institute, parent organization of The Canadian Encyclopedia and the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada. Check out their extensive online feature about the War of 1812, the "Heritage Minutes" video collection, and many other interactive resources concerning Canadian history, culture, and heritage.
Rideau Canal National Historic Site of Canada
The website for the Rideau Canal National Historic Site of Canada,the oldest operating 19th-century canal in North America. From Parks Canada.
Engineering the Canal
An illustrated history of the construction of the Rideau Canal. From the Bytown Museum.
Carillon Canal National Historic Site of Canada
Take a historical trip along the 1833 Carillon Canal that bypasses the rapids of the Ottawa River. Also describes how locks operate and includes a map of the navigable historic canals. A Parks Canada website.
An extensive information source about the geological history, human settlement patterns, earth and water resources, and natural hazards found in locations across the country. Click on the red symbols on the interactive map of Canada to explore aerial landscapes, maps, photos, colourful online posters, and more. A Geoscape Canada website from Natural Resources Canada.
Jean Nicollet de Belleborne
A detailed biography of Jean Nicollet de Belleborne, a 17th century explorer, interpreter, and French liaison with First Nations tribes. From the “Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.”
Ottawa River Heritage Designation Committee
The ORHDC website offers an extensive description of river ecology and the history of First Nations and European habitation of the region.
Commissariat 3D Reconstruction Project
This multimedia site depicts the Rideau Canal's Ottawa Locks site and Commissariat Building (now the Bytown Museum) as they appeared when the Canal was opened in 1832. From the Bytown Museum, the National Research Council Canada and the Virtual Museum of Canada.
Glossary: Rideau Lockstations
A glossary of terms commonly used in reference to the history of the Rideau Lockstations. From the website Rideau-info.com.
Archaeological Potential Study – Gatineau/Ottawa Area
A well-illustrated report about the archaeological and geological history of the Ottawa-Gatineau region. From the website for the Interprovincial Crossings Environmental Assessment Study.
Shawnadithit grew anxious waiting for her uncle, Longnon, to return to camp at the junction of Badger Brook and the Exploits River, deep in the wilds of Newfoundland...