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The following article first appeared in The Echo of Cantley Volume 26 no 2, August 2014. This article is made available for the enjoyment of others with the express permission of the Echo of Cantley.

Gatineau River Log Drive

by Michael Rosen

From 1800 to 1991, millions of logs floated by Cantley to the lumber and paper mills of Ottawa/Gatineau.

In 1800, the British navy, the largest in the world, needed wood for its ships. With the advent of the Napoleonic Wars (Britain vs France), a very effective blockade prevented Britain from obtaining wood from Russia or Scandinavia. It turned to the Gatineau Valley's huge stands of red and white pine - perfect for shipbuilding. In later years, other species such as sugar maple, red oak and eventually pulpwood species such as white spruce were driven down the rushing waters of the Gatineau River to mills in the Ottawa/Outaouais region.

From 1832 to 1843, "The Gatineau Privilege" gave "lumber barons", such as the Wright and Gilmour families, exclusive timber rights on 10,000 km2 of the Gatineau Valley. They established camps as far as 400 kilometres upstream along the Gatineau and its tributaries.

Chelsea Falls, 1923 (rivière Gatineau entre Cantley et Chelsea, avant l'inondation). Photo de GVHS 02103-002.

The first sawmill off of Cantley's shore was built in 1841 on Chelsea Island. From 1848 to the 1890s, the Gilmour family expanded mill operations and built a village for the workers here, known as Gilmours' Gatineau Mills. A 5-kilometer flume along the Chelsea shore transported the milled lumber to the village of Ironsides. (Only the tip of Chelsea Island remains today under the foundations on the Chelsea Dam Power House - the red big building seen from Parc Mary-Ann Phillips. The rest of the island was flooded in 1927, after the construction of the Chelsea Dam.)

During winter, lumberjacks felled trees, cut logs and "hammer-stamped" them with the company mark. They skidded them out with horses to the frozen river. With spring, the river carried the logs south to the mills. Log drivers kept the logs moving, breaking up log jams with the help of pike poles, dynamite and tugboats. Logging was dangerous work requiring skill - it was the inspiration for legends and songs including "Big Joe Mufferaw" (Joseph Montferrand).

Loggers lunch in a log jam (Gatineau River between Cantley and Chelsea), 1910. Photo de GVHS 00942.

The construction of the Chelsea, Farmers and Paugan Dams in 1927, ended the turbulent rapids and waterfalls of the Gatineau River. With the wider river and calmer current, tugboats (like Cantley's Le Champagne) became critical for moving logs.

At strategic places, tugboats herded thousands of logs together, encircling them with booms, dragging them south towards the Chelsea Dam. The logs were released and prodded by men with pike poles into the rushing waters of the 2 km flume which bypassed the dam along the Cantley shore.

In its final years, the Gatineau River drive saw about 80 rivermen, 200 seasonal workers and 20 tugboats floating 400,000 cords of wood along Cantley shores each summer. It was one of Canada's last river drives when it ended in 1991.

Michael Rosen is a long-time Cantley resident and founding executive member of "Cantley 1889". He is President of "Tree Canada", a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to educate and encourage Canadians to care for trees, one of our country's and environment's most important and valuable natural resource.



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