From Paddles to Buckboards
Updated: Oct 12, 2021
How the Three Portages shaped the Capital
In a moment of nostalgia for better times (pre-Trump) I was remembering a moment from the very popular show, The West Wing: The astounding reply from the oh-so-clever Press Secretary, C.J. Cregg (where are you CJ?) when she was offered a job by a billionaire philanthropist. He has 10 billion dollars to spend and asks her to "find a single problem that I can attack. Something which might actually have some kind of substantial effect." He then begins mentioning several popular causes in Africa, and she cuts him off. "Highways" she replies. "It's not sexy. No one will ever raise money for it. But nine out of ten African aid projects fail because the medicine or the personnel can't get to the people in need." Her simple but manifest reply stuck with me.
For centuries before modern "progress" arrived in the National Capital, the Great River that we call the Ottawa was itself, the superhighway to the interior of the country; the access route to the interior and the North-West. First Nations people living on its banks paddled up and down the river to trade with each other and later, to trade with the new people who came from across the ocean.
However, as one made their way up river, one's progress by canoe would be interrupted by all of the rapids and falls encountered, forcing the voyager to portage canoe and goods past the rushing waters. As long as there were no permanent settlements on the river, that situation remained the same for centuries.
The Three Portages / les trois portages
Paddling towards what would one day be the National Capital, one could hear the roar of the great Akikojiwan - the Boiling Kettle or Chaudière Falls - from several kilometres away. For those who had been there before, that sound meant the next day would be a long one for the weary traveller, as they negotiated les trois portages, named thus by the first European explorers and voyageurs.
But the Chaudière would be the first of three portages, daunting for both their length and their rugged terrain and the worst part was their proximity; each was followed almost immediately by the next.
If not in a terrible hurry, journeyers moving up river would camp before the first portage and camp once again after the third, at the end of an exhausting day. That was what faced anyone wanting to go past the Chaudière.
Imagine a bike path where you have ridden uphill all day, you stop to shoulder your 30 kg backpack and then carry your bike on your back through the forest ... and then, imagine having to repeat that three times. Fun!
It was no different for the settlers who arrived later on, in 1800. Their only means of travel in the utter wilderness was by canoe as well. So, the building of roads was a necessity for permanent settlement to happen. Roads would be needed to bypass those portages completely, turning a painful, uphill, one-day slog through water and bush, into a relatively comfortable journey by buckboard or carriage.
The Lower Portage at the Little Chaudière Falls
The vicinity of the first portage at the Chaudière Falls had been a place where indigenous people had dwelt, had performed sacred rituals and had buried their dead for several millennia. It also became the logical place for any permanent settlement to take hold. The power of the falls could be harnessed for settlers milling needs; a place called Columbia Falls by Philemon Wright, or Kettle and Chaudière by almost everyone else, in his day.
The Lower Portage followed two alternate routes to get past the Little Chaudière Falls, all depending on whether it was approached in the spring or the summer. The Summer Landing, as it was called, was 743 steps long (believe me, the voyageurs counted every step!) It took the paddler past the Devil's Hole , thereby eliminating the precipitous climb that was at the end of the natural inlet downriver, that led to the Spring Landing. That landing had to be used during the spring freshet because of the treacherous current nearer the Falls.
The two routes of this portage can be seen intact in this map of early Wright's Town signed by Philemon Wright himself and drawn by John Burrows in 1824. They can be seen again in the 1825 map, below, drawn by Maj. GA Elliott. Five years later, P. Wright & Sons would connect the inlet at the Spring Landing to the river, above the Little Chaudière Falls in order to build the Hull Slide - the first square timber raft slide built on the Ottawa in 1829. The island created was named Philemon Island.
THE ROADS: In Elliott's map, we can see some of the roads that were cleared to facilitate the transportation of goods from farm to mill and from settlement to settlement. The main road in the map would bypass the three portages and would certainly be the most important road in the Valley for decades to come. It became known as the Britannia Road but today, it's Taché Boulevard, followed by the Aylmer Road. (More about this road as we move through the portages.)
TODAY: If you decide to take a walk to see this portage, very little of it is left, except the most interesting part, the inlet entrance on the Ottawa River. It can be accessed by a beaten path that leads from the Sentier des Voyageurs bike path to the end of the peninsula at the river's edge, where the view is quite breathtaking (see the map; x marks the path's beginning). At this spot you can find some large mooring rings, still intact, driven into the limestone by the shore. The rings were used to secure the square timber rafts against the current and wind, after they had passed through the Wright Hull Slide.
At the upper end of the Lower Portage, accessed at the south end of Montcalm Street (originally called Brewery Road), there is a lovely park with a sculpture that honours the voyageurs. From this park, you can get a great view above the Falls and can take a short walk to the start of Brewery Creek, which is actually just an arm of the Ottawa River, as it cuts off the Island of Hull from the mainland. Brewery Creek was so named because Wright's brewery was built just downstream, in 1821.
With all this talk of breweries, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that just up Montcalm St. is a pub, Les Brasseurs du Temps (BDT), built in the footprint of Wright's brewery. Order a pint of their delicious Extra Special Bitter 1821. It's brewed using a recipe that duplicates what Philemon would have brewed way back when. There's also a terrific Brew Museum there; the only one in the Valley.
The Middle Portage at the Little Chaudière Rapids
Soon after leaving the Lower Portage, the paddlers would enter a long bay - what was once called Cache Bay - where they would pull their canoes out of the water at its end. The bay derives its name from what was often done before beginning the Middle Portage, the toughest challenge of the three. Here, the travelers could lighten their load - travelling à demi-charge - leaving some of their provisions in a cache to be picked up on the return trip. Today, the bay carries the unfortunate name of Squaw Bay on modern maps and hopefully the city will see fit to revert to its former name.
The portage was 700 steps, skirting the Little Chaudière Rapids, which were much more turbulent before the ring dam at the falls was put in place in 1908.
After the Middle Portage, the travelers paddled across a small bay to a beach (Moussette Beach) to get ready for lining  and poling the next four miles to the Deschênes Rapids.
Coming back downriver on their return, the journey would be so much easier (!?) for the travelers who could run the rapids of the Upper and Middle Portages, retrieve their cache and go on to the Lower Portage.
THE ROADS: In 1801, the first road cleared in the new settlement, just north of the Middle Portage, was the Columbia Road, named by Philemon Wright, who basically named everything Columbia.
The road began at his first farm cleared in 1800, the Gateno Farm* near the, what else, Columbia Pond (Leamy Lake, today), and it led south to just above the Middle Portage where it veered east towards the Columbia Falls Farm (I told ya!) at the Chaudière Falls, cleared in 1801. His Columbia Farm (yup, a 2nd farm named Columbia) was later cleared in 1811, half way up this same road.
*Fun fact: Just across and upriver of Philemon's Gateno Farm was another farm the Wrights named the Gatenoe Farm ... not joking!
The year after the Columbia Road had been cleared to the Chaudière, the Britannia Road was extended to reach where Philemon's biggest farm, the Britannia Farm would be cleared in 1804, and on to the end of the Upper Portage; a place the settlers called the Deschênes Landing.
TODAY: The beginning of the Middle Portage at Cache Bay, as well as anyone can know, is now mostly covered by the bike path - not the first time that happens to a historical treasure in this region (The remains of Philemon Wright's first home are also covered by a bike path - great planning!). The end of the portage, today, is Brébeuf Park.
The Middle Portage is the only one of the three portages where a small part of the original trail is still intact. It can be easily accessed from Brébeuf Park in Val Tétreau sector of Hull. The Portage Monument, pictured, marks the access point of the existing part of the original portage (see map; x marks the spot)
Anyone walking the original path can actually see the smoothed stones worn from thousands of years of passage. One can walk in the footsteps of the historical figures
that trod on the very same stones: Tessouat, Pontiac, Brûlé, de Brébeuf, Lalement, de Vignau, de Champlain, de Brébeuf, La Vérendrye, de Troyes, d’Iberville, Henry, Simpson and Wright.
One can still see steps carved in the rock on one of the steepest parts of the portage. As well in the woods just off the trail, is a hollow that would have made a perfect campsite or cache site. Indeed, a modern campsite of sorts has been created there with log enclosure & firepit.
The Upper Portage at the Deschênes Rapids
The Upper Portage, thankfully, was the easiest of the three at 750 steps, and it brought the traveler to the place where the oak grows - Deschênes.
The portage was pretty much a straight shot with an easy grade upwards from a beach located just before the beginning of the rapids to a sheltering bay just past. It was in this bay at the head of the rapids where countless people had camped after passage through the three portages.
THE ROADS: As mentioned, it was a priority for settlers to have land access to their farms above the Chaudière. Portaging would not do, so the Britannia Road had to be extended soon after the settlers first cleared a part of it in 1800.
When the Britannia Road was first cleared, in 1802, it followed along the same path that Taché Blvd. and the Aylmer Road follow today, until it veered south to the farms of the two settlers at the foot of the Deschênes Rapids and continued to the bay that, for a short while at least, became known as the Deschênes Landing. Later on, when Samuel Bell owned the land, the bay just beyond it became known as Bell's Bay.
James McConnell and brother William were the two settlers who cleared those two farms in Deschênes in 1802, so the road leading south from the Britannia Road naturally became known as the McConnell Road (today, it's the Rivermead Road). Sometime after 1810, James McConnell dug the first canal at the Deschênes Rapids and went into the lumber business with his brother. The McConnell brothers would also dabble in the fur trade as petty traders, taking over the failed business of petty trader Ithamar Day in the 1830s. The village that would grow from the efforts of the McConnells would be known as Deschênes Mills.
However, by 1805 the Deschênes Landing's usefulness was soon eclipsed when the Britannia Road was extended, once again, to Chaudière Lake (Lac-Deschênes). Many more farms were springing up along the road and the new landing at the western end of the road was fast becoming a major transportation hub. A supply farm was cleared - the Chaudière Lake Farm - and a hotel, tavern and store would be installed by Philemon Jr. in 1818, all to serve the burgeoning timber industry that had expanded to the Upper Ottawa.
With improvements, the Britannia Road became the Britannia Turnpike, the embryonic settlement at its western end became Turnpike End, and Turnpike End would later become Aylmer.
TODAY: The Upper Portage today is at the Parc des Rapides-Deschênes and it's covered by another bike path - actually, the same bike path that covers all three portages - called the Sentier des Voyageurs.
Here you will find ruins at the foot of the rapids, where the rapids are truly spectacular, especially in the springtime, when they can be downright frightening. Finally, take a short walk to Bell's Bay, a scenic resting spot.
The ruins are what's left of a dam and hydroelectric power station, built in 1895 to supply electricity to the Town of Aylmer and to power the electric tramway network that connected Aylmer, Hull and Ottawa. They were built by William Conroy of Aylmer and Mr. Edward Seybold of Ottawa.
The Quebec Transportation Ministry has decided, without public input, that the ruins must come down. Let's see how that goes over with the gentle burghers of Aylmer who have, of late, raised their voices, loud and clear, to the politicians trying to mess with their heritage, their history and their forests!
If you followed the news lately, the Deschênes Forest at Bell's Bay was recently saved from becoming the newest row of million-dollar condos on the river's shores. The forest is the reason this area got its name, Deschênes, which means the place where the oak grows, which was translated by the French explorer Pierre de Troyes from the Anishinàbemowin Miciminj or possibly, Mitighomizh-minogin.
Bell's Bay, itself, has been identified as having significant archaeological potential, for obvious reasons. Getting to Bell's Bay is a lovely ramble of just 300 metres or so, through a forest of massive oak trees, and once there, you are rewarded with beautiful views of the Upper Ottawa. Pottery shards, flakes of chert (essentially flint) and worked stone can still be found scattered along the bay's shoreline.
The Three Portages and the roads that superseded them, marked the progress of the National Capital in a way that nothing else has. From the primeval route through the pristine wilderness, to the years of the fur trade, followed by the felling of the timber that launched Canada's Industrial Age, these highways of water and land have seen it all.
Without them, there would be no National Capital, indeed, there would be no Canada, as we know it.
 Theodore Davis's map of the Township of Hull 1802 - BANQ
 The Devil's Hole was a permanent whirlpool found at the foot of the Little Chaudière Falls.
 A navigational technique in which a canoe (minus paddlers with a full or half load - demi-charge) is pulled from the shore by a solid rope called a "cordelle", 18 to 30 metres (60 to 100 feet) long. The rudder or bow could stay in the canoe to help pull away from the shore. This technique was used to guide the canoe downstream when the water was too dangerous to paddle and the shoreline was clear of snags.