Of Bar Fights, Turnpikes and Fox Bites - The Early Settlements
Updated: Jul 20, 2020
The Firth(t) Landing (well okay, maybe the thecond)
It shouldn't be too surprising if you know anything about Ottawa's roots as a lumber town that a fair bit of drinking went on from the earliest moments of settlement.
We know, for instance, that Philemon Wright was brewing spirits at his Gatteno Farm almost from the moment he got here in 1800 and had a well-stocked store (wink-wink) running by 1801. He later had a full-blown distillery running at the apt-named Brewery Creek by 1813.
On the opposite shore of the Ottawa, the history wasn't much different. In 1809, the first settler, Jehiel Collins, opened a store so that the south shore could also have access to the ... ahem ... necessities of life, like saddles, tools and aqua vita.
Before too long, that store was being run by Collins's assistant Caleb Bellows and from then on, the point of land became known as Bellows Landing. Today it is called Richmond Landing. (More about that coming up)
In 1819 at Bellows Landing, Isaac Firth & Mary Dalmahoy opened the Firth Tavern. At firtht (sorry), it was just a small log cabin which in very short order became an addition to a handsome 2-storey Inn. It was a very popular watering-hole.
Down river, on the south shore, just below Barrack Hill where Parliament sits today, the first Brewery opened that same year. Things were shaping up nicely for what would soon be the huge influx of thirsty Irishmen, in seven short years, arriving to build the Rideau Canal.
In the meantime, the Raftsmen and militia, at least, were able to whet their whistles at will on either side of the river, which explains why the early settlement was considered to be rather dangerous and quite rowdy. Some say, it still is!
The Landing at the End of the Turnpike
As the Timber Industry quickly expanded to the upper reaches of the Ottawa River, another settlement began to take shape in 1818 and although it would later become Aylmer - the jewel of Gatineau - its humble beginnings were as a stopping-off area for trips up and down the Ottawa River.
At first, the only way to get to the Upper Ottawa was by canoe, ferrying supplies through the two (upper) portages before Lake Chaudière (now, lac-Deschênes). Although a very rough trail made its way through pioneer farms to the lake, it was frequently impassable and proved to be a more difficult journey than the river route. So, being the leader in all things in the Township, Philemon Wright put his eldest son Philemon Jr. in charge of improving the trail, in 1818.
As mentioned in a previous post, Philemon Sr. had this very unusual habit of naming everything around him Columbia. Nonetheless, despite that peculiar propensity, he decided to baptize the new road the Britannia Turnpike. Not surprisingly, the end of the road became known as Turnpike End.
At Turnpike End, Philemon Jr. built a store and - naturally - a tavern, which seemed to be a business plan that worked well for them. He also built a hotel nearby, and cleared land for the Chaudière Farm. He began managing all of the operations there and Turnpike End soon became a place where any and all travelers going up and down the Upper Ottawa River could comfortably pause for refreshment.
The family firm of Philemon Wright & Sons now operated the two hotels, one at each end of that day-long carriage ride between the Boat Landing in Wright's Town (where the Museum of History now sits) to Turnpike End: The Kings Inn and the hotel at Turnpike End, respectively.
The best laid plans ...
For three years, the village grew until on November 30, 1821, tragedy struck the Wright family. While overseeing the building of the Kings Road - the road that would eventually link Wright’s Town to Montreal - Philemon Jr.’s carriage overturned on a treacherous, snowy hill just outside Grenville-sur-la-Rouge, throwing him clear of the carriage, and his neck snapped, killing him instantly. At the young age of 38, the heir apparent was gone.
Needless to say, it was a loss that Philemon and Abigail found difficult to bear but because so many in the young settlement depended on the Wrights, they had no choice but to quickly find ways to keep everything running. So, in the Spring of 1822, they decided that at Turnpike End, at least, business would carry on and be managed by their young nephew, Charles Symmes.
It was an apprenticeship with his uncle Philemon that had brought Charles from Woburn Mass. to the Wright family firm in 1819, but It was the tragic event of Philemon Jr.’s death that brought Charles to Turnpike End. Charles had proven his worth to his uncle and he was given great responsibility in return. He took it all on and became a very popular innkeeper.
All in the Family
Seven years later, in 1829, after a disagreement with his uncle about money he was owed, Charles decided to carve out a path of his own. He settled his accounts with his uncle Philemon, ended his contract as Manager, and leased the land at Turnpike End to build his own Aylmer Hotel, which quickly became known simply as the Symmes Inn.
Two years later, in 1831, he partnered with others to start a steamboat service on the upper Ottawa and before long, Turnpike End came to be known as Symmes Landing. Bolstered by his success at the landing, Charles bought land and had it surveyed for village lots.
The settlement that began as a staging area, soon became a thriving village. Charles Symmes’s place as the founding father of Aylmer was thus marked forever, and although much has been made by historians about his "falling out with his uncle", he continued to do business and got along well enough with his Wright family to the very end of his life.
The Landing that Richmond Built
In that same year, 1818, the Crown made plans to award land grants to military veterans of the War of 1812, creating a settlement on the shores of the Jock River.
In the spring of 1818 the officers and men of the 99th Regiment who were at Quebec City, were offered their choice of a passage home to Ireland or to remain here in Canada where they would receive free grants of land in the Ottawa Valley. So, in late 1818, the village of Richmond was laid out, and Philemon Wright was called on to supply the new settlers from Richmond Landing, as he was the only one in the area then in a position to do that. However, because of the village's location the settlement began to fail almost immediately. Only much later would it begin to flourish.
The settlement was named Richmond in honour of Charles Lennox, 4th Duke of Richmond, Governor-in-chief of British North America and Governor-General of the Canadas. In fact, the Jock River was then known as the Goodwood River, in honour of the Duke's estate, so named in England.
The story goes that soon after the settlement was laid out, the Duke of Richmond came to inspect and began to show signs of hydrophobia (rabies), from a fox bite received in Sorel, weeks before. Cruel fate would have it that the Duke, who was born in a barn 55 years earlier, would die in another barn, this one on Chapman's farm, about four miles from the village.
In keeping with the theme of this post, though, it appears that the fox story may have been fake news - a story made up to mask the Duke's prodigious propensity to partake in all things alcoholic. The first eyewitness stories give historians reason to believe that the Duke actually died from liver failure, having drunk copious amounts of wine the day before. A certain Judge Pike of Montreal stated for the record that “the invincible impression on my mind is that fatigue & hot sun in the woods caused nervous affections; fever in his constitution and broken frame soon terminated his life...” (Marjorie Whitelaw, ed. The Dalhousie Journals, 1978)
So, the night before he died, the Duke may have seriously been in his cups, so to speak and ironically, the Masonic Arms Tavern, where the Duke had rested on the previous night, was renamed the Duke of Richmond Tavern. Little did the owner know how that tribute may have actually preserved the truth of the Duke's demise ... or might he have done that BECAUSE he knew?
Just one more curious anecdote of the wild, early settlements of the Ottawa Valley.