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Of Death and Rambles, o'er Falls and Brambles - Parts III & IV

Updated: Nov 22, 2020

The Billings Family in the Rapids (thanks, Photoshop!)

TWO MORE STORIES to complete this series, and a bonus story offered in honour of the upcoming Christmas season.

The first, entitled Falls, is from historian Robert Leggett who tells of the dangers that can come from being distracted while in a canoe.


Sabra and the Three Rocks

IN THE EARLIEST YEARS of settlement in the National Capital Region, the local economy was all about agriculture, which was of course the only means for survival of a burgeoning community. So, the barter and trade that developed among the settlers was created and dominated by those who first cleared, planted and developed the means by which they made their produce available to the community and got it to market.

Needless to say, all of the advantages went to the first, the industrious and the inventive so, because Philemon Wright was all three, it's no wonder that he and his family readily dominated the first permanent settlements in the Ottawa Valley.

Once the first working farms were established, timber quickly became the most valuable commodity. Timber, in fact, became the new currency.

Braddish Billings in Death

One first settler who quickly took a prominent position in that timber economy was Braddish Billings. He and his seventeen year-old bride, Lamira Dow, were the the first settlers to clear a farm in Gloucester in 1813. Before long, Braddish became Philemon Wright's point man on the Rideau River and eventually became a wealthy and important leader of the community. One incident on the Rideau, however, would make him a legend in his time and I'm certain he wishes it hadn't. Read on.

Les Environs de Cluses by Pierre-Louis de La Rive 1810

Long before the Canal and its dams were built, the place that we call Hog's Back was known as Three Rock Rapids. When the dam was built in 1828, the falls that were created in a man-made channel became fearsome, especially in the Springtime. Before then, the rapids themselves were also not to be taken lightly. In an earlier blog (found here), I told the story of how young George Smyth lost his life there while working on a log jam in the rapids.

Detail from map by Col. By, showing Three Rock Rapids & Billings 1827

It was said, however, that even the most experienced indigenous travelers would not attempt to shoot the Three Rock Rapids, but Braddish, Lamira and his young daughter Sabra did exactly that ... and survived! The account follows, taken from Robert Legett's Rideau Waterway.

"In 1814*, Mr and Mrs Billings, with their young daughter, Sabra, the first European child to be born in Gloucester Township, were returning from a canoe trip to Merrickville. They came to the portage around the falls at Hog's Back and there met Philemon Wright, who was also canoeing on the river. They talked before disembarking and became so interested in their discussion that nobody noticed that the Billings' canoe was edging towards the current which swept over the falls.

Too late, Philemon Wright shouted his warning but the frail craft with the Billings family in it was caught in the swift water and carried over the falls before the eyes of Wright's horrified party. Wright rushed around the short portage road, expecting to find battered bodies and a wrecked canoe. Instead he found the canoe afloat and Bradish Billings still in control of it, his wife safe with the baby quiet in her arms.

This is believed to have been the only occasion on which a canoe shot the Hog's Back Falls; even the most experienced Indian travellers would never attempt the feat. It is a measure of the character and skill of Bradish Billings as a woodsman that he was able to save his family by his handling of the canoe in this emergency."

*As Sabra Billings was born in 1815, the 1814 date cannot be correct.


THE SECOND TALE, entitled Brambles, is from our good friend John Mactaggart who tells the tale of some well-known historical figures on an arduous adventure of exploration - for Mactaggart, at least. It's the tale that marks the founding of the first mine and mining company in the Ottawa Valley.

I wa' jibbed aff th' horse's bak, n' left amongst the brambles agin.[1]

HAVING BEEN TOLD of mountains of iron ore, by my famous and worthy friend Philemon Wright, Esq. of Hull, we took our way on horseback through the forest to inspect the said ore-bed, that had begun to make some noise, and had hindered the magnetic needle of many a surveyor's compass from traversing properly. Four of us [2] mounted, with a guide, at the celebrated Columbian hotel,[3] and away we went; our conductor having provisions, axes, hammers, &c. in a bag on the saddle with him. Having cantered away a couple of miles through cleared land, we began to enter the wilderness; and as I am no great horseman, let the animal or the road be ever so good, I soon found my eyes and nose beginning to be scratched to death from the brushwood lashing and rubbing against them,-and soon, alas! I found myself comfortably landed on my back on the trunk of an old tree that had fallen by age many years before.

Horse in the Woods by Gustave Courbet 1863

On looking round me, I saw my quiet old pony, thinking for a wonder what was become of me, one of his fore feet having trod out the crown of a good new thirty-shilling hat I had bought in London. My companions gathered round, but could not prevail on me to mount again; the guide led the horse, and I trudged along on foot. Getting weary, however, and seeing the comparatively easy manner in which my friends the Americans got along, in spite of the thick brush-wood and old trees that lay stretching over one another at all angles, I got upon the back of the quiet little animal again, but soon found it almost impossible to follow my companions, without getting myself bruised in all quarters, and perhaps some of my bones broken. They had got about an hundred yards before, and hallooed out to me to follow; I exerted myself to the utmost, but one of my legs getting into the cleft of a small tree, I was torn off the horse's back, and left amongst the briers again. Bawling out, they waited until I came up: none of them but Mr. Mackay (sic), as good a Scotsman as lives, laughed, and I was almost inclined to curse him; the fellow being a good horseman, and used to the rough roads of Canada, could keep his seat on the saddle in a way, but the skin of his legs was partly peeled like my own, and his clothes torn in various places.

After travelling a great deal, riding but little, and being pulled down frequently as described, we got to a stream which the guide said had its origin in the iron-mountain. Proceeding up the stream to its source, we at last came upon the famous ore-bed; but through excessive fatigue, after having taken a little refreshment, I fell asleep, as did all my companions but one, the enterprising Lord of the Manor of Hull: he kindly let us take a nap for about an hour, when he roused us, much recovered. Traversing these wild mountains in all directions, we were much pleased with immense specimens of iron ore that everywhere appeared; and said to ourselves, that this place might be a muirkirk [4] at no very distant date. Mr. Mackay wielded the hammer with masonic skill, and laid the rich rocks open to inspection.

These mountains [5] seem to range over an extent of more than four miles square; at one place they are not more than two miles from the first Falls of the Gattineau (sic),[6] where a road might easily be constructed, and where machinery and engines could be erected at a very moderate rate, as waterpower may be had to any extent from the Falls. The country all round is growing thickly with hard wood, particularly maple, which makes the best charcoal of any. From all I can think, this is the best place for an iron-manufactory in Canada. While examining these mountains, we filled the bag with various specimens of minerals, such as iron felspar, hornblende, native iron ore, granite of various colours, white, grey, and red, and a kind of stone very common in Canada, which we called Limestone granite; it being limestone that calcinates to powder, yet to all appearance by fracture granite. We also found marble blocks of great variety, white, green, and variegated.

The stream before-mentioned discharges itself into the Gattineau near to the Falls, and has washed down, through a series of ages, great quantities of the finest particles of plumbago; the banks of the river in that neighbourhood being covered with it to a great extent. I tried its effect in furbishing metals, and found it surprising, making my rusty bush-knife gleam with brightness. We at length thought of returning to the inn. Night came on, and in the forenoon of .the next day I found myself alive at the Falls of Chaudiere: the troubles I had undergone were amply repaid, my bruises recovered, the skin came over my arms and legs, but I will never try to explore the wilds of Canada on horseback again.


AND LASTLY, a Curious Christmas story from, once again, the rummaging John Mactaggart.

A bonnie wee Christmas wi' ma friens [7]

WHEN JOHN MACTAGGART FIRST ARRIVED here to oversee the construction of the Rideau Canal, one of his first tasks was to reconnoitre the wilderness between the Ottawa and Rideau Rivers to determine the route the canal would take. That wilderness consisted almost entirely of scrub cedar, hemlock forest and swamp.

If you have ever taken a walk in the woods of the Ottawa Valley in late Fall, you know how unwelcoming the woods are when you wander just off-trail. The wilderness is chillingly cold and the underbrush can make walking in a straight line virtually impossible. Any sensible person who has done this quickly realizes that wandering far from any marked trail will put you into icy streams and swamps and unwelcome rock scrambles, which is why trails are blazed in the first place - to avoid that unpleasantness.

Mactaggart soon learned this the hard way, when his first attempt in early November of 1826 was not at all successful. He went into the bush with three assistants, three axemen and two porters.

With the axemen cutting the wood ahead, they took a "flying level", which is a rough measure per foot of the rise and fall of the terrain above the shoreline. Through three days, the party made a slogging assault through various wet gullies and huge swamps. Finding it virtually impossible to get through, they waded, crawling on hands and knees under the brush, sometimes almost drowning in the process. Every night, Mactaggart would journey back to report on the gullies, swamps, streams and mountains that were found. It took three days to reach the Three Rock Rapids on the Rideau River, known as Hog's Back today. It was decided that to do a proper survey, they would return when the ground was frozen.

Sketch of the route of the Rideau Canal from Canal Bay in the Ottawa to the foot of the Black rapids. 3 March 1827

And so, in late December, Mactaggart set off once again accompanied by a crew of axemen, porters and surveyors. There was no line of sight between the groups of men performing various tasks, so they had to communicate by means of horns. Once again, the men found it a tough-slog as now, there was a foot of snow on the ground. The axemen would cut, knowing very little of what was lying to the left or right of them, and Mactaggart would estimate the path a canal might take, trying to ascertain how it could eventually connect the two rivers.

Wigwam in the swamp

The routine, day after day, was to cover as much ground as possible, taking measurements with the heavy theodolite. [8] Then, before nightfall, two axemen would be sent off to find a spot on the edge of the swamp and build a wigwam [9] for their shelter. The edge of the swamp was chosen for three reasons: water was readily available under the ice, the hemlock boughs that were needed to cover the wigwam grew bushiest by the swamp and finally, there were plenty of dry cedar-trees found there for firewood. As Mactaggart wrote, "the bark of dry cedar is the best thing in the world for lighting a fire with."

The rest of the tale, I leave to Mactaggart to relate, in his own words:

"When the party got to the place, there was a very comfortable house set out, a blazing fire with a maple back log, ranging along for a length of twenty or thirty feet. There, on the bushy hemlock would we lie down ; roast pork before the fire on wooden prongs, each man roasting for himself; while plenty of tea was thrown into a large kettle of boiling water, the tin mug was turned out, the only tea-cup, which being filled, went round until all had drunk; then it was filled again, and so on; while each with his bush-knife cut toasted pork on a shive of bread, ever using the thumb-piece to protect the thumb from being burned: a tot or two round of weak grog finished the feast, when some would fall asleep,-others to sleep and snore; and after having lain an hour or so on one side, some one would cry Spoon! -the order to turn to the other which was often an agreeable order, if a spike of tree-root or such substance stuck up beneath the ribs. Reclining thus, like a parcel of spoons, our feet to the fire, we have found the hair of our heads often frozen to the place where we lay. For many days together did we lie in these wild places, before we could satisfy ourselves with a solution of the problem already represented. In Dow's great swamp, one of the most dismal places in the wilderness, did five Irishmen, two Englishmen, two Americans, one French Canadian, and one Scotchman, hold their merry Christmas of 1826,-or rather forgot to hold it at all."


[1] Old Scots translated: I was ripped off the horse's back and left among the briers again.

[2] The four men were: Mactaggart, Philemon, John McKay, Tiberius (Philemon's 2nd oldest son). This foray led to the founding of the Hull Mining Co. in 1826, of which Philemon was President and John Mactaggart, Alexander James Christie, Thomas McKay, John Redpath, and Robert Drummond were among the Directors. Click links for more info.

[3] The Columbia Hotel on the Common in Wright's Town was built by Philemon Wright Jr. in 1819.

[4] Muirkirk is a town in East Ayrshire, southwest Scotland. Once an iron ore mining centre.

[5] This area that Mactaggart mentions became the Forsyth Iron mine on the Old Mine Road (ch. de la Mine) just north of boul. des Hautes-Plaines in Hull. The Ironside area just southeast, bounded by the Gatineau River, gets its name from it as well.

[6] Today called Farmer's Rapids in Touraine, named for William Farmer who originally farmed Tiberius Wright's Gatenoe Farm, where Touraine is today. Not to be confused with the Wrights' original Gateno Farm downstream and on the opposite side of the Gatineau River - What, two Gateno farms, you ask? Another bit of the Capital's Curious History for a future blog. Notice the spelling difference.

[7] Old Scots translated: A lovely little Christmas with my friends.

[8] Theodolites are precision instruments used for measuring angles in the horizontal and vertical planes and are described according to the angle reading system incorporated in the instrument.

By Karl Bodmer (1809-1893)

[9] Many think the words tipi (commonly, teepee) and wigwam are synonymous but they are not. A tipi is the familiar pyramid-shaped travel shelter made from long branches draped with hides. A wigwam is a stationary, oblong or oval hut made from bent boughs and cedar bark or a thatch of hemlock boughs.


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