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Triumph and tragedy at the Chaudière

Updated: Jun 8

The Siren Song of the Falls


The Chaudière Falls by John Elliott Woolford 1821, National Gallery of Canada

The heart and soul of the National Capital has always resided within the precinct of the Chaudière Falls. It's where First Nations people came to worship and it's where the settlers came to settle. The lifeblood of this area was forever coursing through the falls.


Most people living in the National Capital Region have only a vague awareness of the Chaudière because for their lifetime, the Falls have been locked away from view by a rather ugly collection of industrial buildings built on the islands that surround them.


However, for some who know just what a sight they can be, there is the one spot on the bridge where the unbridled power of the Falls can be witnessed, when the ice melts on the Ottawa river. The fury of the torrent leads one to believe that the bridge could be swept away at any moment.


A ring dam built in 1908 tamed the Falls but it is said that in their original, untouched state, they were only rivaled in beauty by the mighty Niagara. In the springtime, as much as six times the volume of water over the Niagara flows over the Chaudière.


If that seems hard to believe, take a look at this river-level panoramic view of the Falls taken by William Notman in 1870. It is a composite of three images taken by Notman in the same location. Two images make the panorama, the third is a shot taken at the very same spot & angle, overlayed to add the figures standing on the very same promontory, giving us the true scale of the falls.


William Notman 1870

Joseph Bouchette, Surveyor-General of Lower Canada from 1814-1840, described the falls in his 1832 report, The British Dominions in North America:


"The principal falls are 60 feet high, and their width is measured by a chord of 212 feet. They are situated near the centre of the river, and attract by their forcible indraught a considerable proportion of the waters, which, strongly compressed by the circular shape of the rock that forms the boiling recipient, descend in heavy torrents, struggling violently to escape, and rising in spray-clouds which constantly conceal the lower half of the falls, and ascend at irregular intervals in revolving columns much above the summit of the cataract."


Union Bridge Plan by John Burrows 1828 - National Archives of Scotland

The principal falls? So where are the secondary falls?

Big and Little Kettle Falls at Wright's Town by James Pattison Cockburn 1828 - National Gallery of Canada

What is little-known today is that the Falls indeed have two sections, la Grande Chaudière (Big Kettle) and la Petite Chaudière (Little Kettle) [see map above].


Although the Falls were given many names [1] over the years, the name Little Kettle Falls is never heard anymore because they are invisible, covered over by the Hydro Station at the northern edge of the main falls.


At the Little Kettle Falls, however, there lurked a peril that was the stuff of legends; it would fire the imaginations of many a writer for decades. The Falls themselves were certainly dangerous enough for anyone foolhardy enough to venture near in a canoe, but worse yet, if they were to survive the plunge, they would soon after be caught in the snare of a permanent whirlpool that was aptly named ...


... the Devil's Hole. [2]

It was said that the Devil's Hole was a sub-riverain cave that ran deep underground for three kilometres and ended near the mouth of the Gatineau River. Tales from many sources said it was anywhere from 55 to 92 m deep, some saying it was bottomless ... what went in, never came out. Way too cool!


Philemon Wright left us a firsthand description of the Devil's Hole at Little Kettle:


"The Columbia Falls, which borders the village of Hull Township, is curious by nature. A chain of rocks stretching from one side of the river to the other forces the water to fall perpendicularly from a height of thirty feet; and at the top of this fall are three isles, one of which separates the stream, and causes a fourth part of this water to diverge, just a little, from its natural course, and to discharge into an immense abyss, which has been sounded to a depth of 113 feet; this water is then lost in the bowels of the earth, and no one has been able to uncover where this water finally discharges. ... The high waters of spring (carry) a quantity of trees and other woods; and it is astonishing to see with what velocity these woods revolve around the chasm, and this by the force of the water which forms and gathers together a prodigious quantity of scum and pitfalls, six or eight feet thick."


With that, we can see why Philemon constructed a dyke, built to avoid this perilous cascade (see map, above).

The Little Kettle at the Devil's Hole by John Elliott Woolford 1821 - National Art Gallery

There's an old tale that has been told again and again around the hearths of the Ottawa Valley, that still deserves to be told. It comes from an odd source, you may say, a Speaker of the House of Commons in 1896, Sir James David Edgar. It turns out though, that Sir James wrote poetry and it appears, was one of the best storytellers in the Capital. He begins:


« An old resident has told the writer that he remembers boys fishing in the hole with 180 feet [55 m] of line and sinkers two pounds [1 kg] in weight, and catching huge channel catfish. He also stated that when the mills were being built at this point, a horse and cart fell into the hole and disappeared. The cart was thrown up at the usual outlet down the river, but the poor horse was never seen again - the theory being that the catfish were too many for him. Yet any passer-by can still look down from the roadway on the Hull side of the bridge, and see the waters foaming far below in the mysterious depths where the Indians believed an evil spirit dwelt.»


Sadly, the Devil's Hole has claimed human victims as well:

  • « On July 16, 1894, a six-year-old boy named Brisebois, whose parents lived on the "Little Farm", drowned in the "Devil's Hole" and was never found. » (Benjamin Sulte, 1898)

  • « In the summer of 1940, Aimé Lapointe, a renowned diver from Wrightville [Hull district], descended to a depth of 75 feet [23 m] in the [Devil's Hole] which he was able to explore at leisure to the location of the automobile in which he found the body of Gorman Edwards of Ottawa. » (Joseph Jolicoeur, Société historique de l'ouest du Québec, 1977)


The other Devil's Hole

Plan and Elevation of a Bridge at the Falls of Chaudiere by John Burrows 1828

So maybe you had heard of the legend of the Devil's Hole, but did you know that there were actually two Devil's Holes? If you look at the map, at left, you'll see the second one in the Lost Channel [3].


In the painting by James Pattison Cockburn, below, you can see the wooden truss bridge being built over the Lost Channel and the artist has included two logs trapped in the second Devil's Hole.

Union Bridge over the Lost Channel by James Pattison Cockburn 1825


Timber Slide and Bridge on the Ottawa by W.H. Bartlett 1842



The familiar engraving by W.H. Bartlett, below, shows a timber raft going over the falls and about to enter Buchanan's Slide in the Lost Channel. Although we can't see the Devil's Hole, it is lurking just behind the raft within the cleft in the rocks.


As Bartlett illustrates, piloting rafts through the Chaudière was not a task for the timorous; there was real and imminent danger lurking in the timber channels ... which brings us to another story of triumph and tragedy at the Chaudière Falls - and this one contains both in one story.





"Merci, Tenk you, and back to da raft I go."

This next incident, from the (reprinted) story featured in the Bytown Packet, took place on the morning of the 2nd of June, 1848:

Perilous Situation of a Raft by William S. Hunter Jr. 1855

"Yesterday, about ten o'clock, A.M; an accident of a serious nature occurred. Two men were upon a crib of oak timber, endeavoring to make the head of the Chaudiere Government slides, but the current, proving too strong, carried them out of the channel. They observed their danger too late, and were carried with the crib over the lost channel. One of the men, named Baptiste Beaudran (Beaudoin?), jumped off the crib, and was carried over the chute. The other, named Paul Filardeau, kept his hold of the crib until it struck against the table rock. His situation was even here critical, for a dreadful rapid lay between him and the main shore, distant about one hundred and fifty yards. A crowd of the inhabitants, about 500 in number, were soon on the spot, and measures immediately taken to remove the poor fellow from his unpleasant situation. Messrs. McLachlin, Farley, Sullivan, Keefer, and Larmouth, were most active in the attempt. A small cord was first thrown over, to which was attached a stronger one, and finally a cable or hawser, which was attached by Filardeau firmly to the rock. Rings were slipped on to the hawser, to which cords were attached, and one end thrown over to the rock. Filardeau then tied the cords around his body, and slung himself to the rings. Great excitement occurred when he let himself off. He was immediately pulled in along the main rope, not, however, without touching the water several times. When the poor fellow reached the shore, he with the greatest coolness turned to his deliverers, and thanked them in both languages for their kindness. He then walked away, seeming not the least injured."

From The Foundation of The Rideau Canal to the Present Time by Gertrude Van Cortlandt, 1858


Although we are told of Filardeau's fate, nothing is known about how poor Beaudoin ended up.


The song of the three drowned boys at the Chaudière Falls

From an account in a book entitled Pioneers of Upper Ottawa-The Humours of the Valley written by Anson Gard in 1906, we read of a tragedy [4] whose story was told through a song entitled Where Foaming Waters Roar:

Chaudière Falls, Ottawa River, c. 1815, Ingrey, C.(London) 1830 Toronto Public Library

« I one day chanced to hear an old "Come-all-ye " being hummed by a man who had lived in South Hull. I asked what it was. "It is," said he, "a song written many years ago by a Hull school teacher, on the drowning of three young men, who attempted to run a boat over the Chaudière Falls. I learned it when a little boy, and have remembered the words ever since, as they made such an impression on my young mind. ... My mother sang that song to us." »


WHERE THE FOAMING WATERS ROAR.

When I think on my various thoughts, my meditations rise,

When I think on poor mortal man that dwells beneath the skies.

Viewing the works of nature, by water and by land,

When I think on the various ways God brings us to our end.

It was on the Grand River, near the falls called the Chaudière,

That four young men got in a boat and for them they did steer,

Intending for to run them o'er, their course they did pursue,

Their boat ran with swift motion and from it they were threw.

Benjamin Moore and Wm. Wright, likewise Asa Young,

Those three young men were drowned, and from their boat were flung;

But James McConnell was preserved, for he swam safe to shore,

Down by those islands where the foaming waters roar.

A little boy who, standing by, this dreadful sight did see,

And home to Benjamin's parents with the news did quickly flee.

The father and the mother, the sisters and brothers two,

With mournful cries came running down to see if it were true.

When they saw their son was drowned and buried in the deep,

Tears of affection they did shed, and bitterly did weep,

Crying, "Cease your cruel waters, and hush my child to rest,

What is your troubled motion, to what lies in my breast!"

"Why should we say, 'In nature there's nothing made in vain',

For beneath the foaming waters, where the hideous rocks remain,

The waters thrown by violence and whirlpools many too,

Why did you venture there, my son, or try for to go through?"

For six long days they sought them beneath the foaming tide,

And nothing of their bodies in any shape could find,

Till nine long days were passed and gone, their floating corpse they spied,

That once were like the lilies fair that bowed their heads and died.

Come old and young, come rich and poor, and bear it in your mind,

And be prepared to meet your Lord and unto death resigned;

Be you e'er so fair and blooming, and death so far away,

It soon will overtake you and fall its easy prey.


The Countess who counted her blessings

The building of the Union Bridge in 1827 brings us to our next story of triumph and tragedy at the Chaudière Falls.


It was Lord Dalhousie, Governor-General of British North-America, who gave the order to Colonel John By to bridge the divide between Lower Canada and Upper Canada. The raging torrent that gave the name Boiling Kettle to the falls, was a fearsome obstacle to overcome but Lord Dalhousie was a fierce champion of the project, arriving in person with Col. By and hosted in Wright's Town at Philemon Wright's mansion, The White House.


It was necessary to build the bridge before the Rideau Canal because all of the provisions and construction materials for the canal would have to come from Wright's Town on the north shore, the south shore being an utter wilderness.

Union Bridge: Bytown by RSM Bouchette - the original rope bridge in 1827

Nonetheless, bridge it, they did! After building a series of arches between the gaps of three islands, Captain Estabrook of the Royal Artillery loaded one of the two Wright's Town cannons [5] with a one-inch rope, and fired it over the widest spot to be bridged. Fixing larger cables to the rope, they fashioned two 10-foot wooden trestles and secured them to the rocks, then built a swaying rope bridge that sagged to within seven feet of the raging torrent beneath.


Imagine if you would, the idea of crossing that bridge for the first time. I don't think many men would have volunteered to do it. However, one woman did, and she was Christian (Broun) Ramsay, the Countess of Dalhousie.

The Countess Dalhousie crossing the Ottawa River at the Chaudière Falls using the swinging footbridge in 1827

There is little in her history that tells us of how this Lady of the Peerage would gather the courage to cross that rickety bridge - she was a champion of education, horticulture and agriculture - but it was likely her position as wife of Lord Dalhousie that pushed her to do so. She crossed successfully and came back across but it was the next event at the bridge that would cause any other woman to faint at the thought of what she had done.


For the full account, we hear from Joseph Bouchette once more, who wrote:

“We cannot forebear associating with our recollections of this picturesque bridge the heroism of a distinguished peeress [Countess Dalhousie], who we believe, was the first woman to venture across it.

The bridge’s ropes were then replaced with stronger chains. But as workmen were planking the floor of the bridge, the last step in its construction, disaster struck. First one then the other chain broke, throwing men and their equipment into the raging torrent. While accounts vary, as many as three men drowned."


Stronger chains, my eye!


While these are but a few accounts, there are many other stories of those who foolishly braved the falls - like the Great Farini who walked a tightrope across the chasm - or of those who lost their lives - like Lieut. Jon Cameron Edwards whose horrible brush with fate was told in another blogpost, the Ghosts of Gorffwysfa.


The place was perhaps tamed by industry and dams but its hold on our imagination persists, and some day maybe, the site's potential will prompt a future generation to release its spirit so that it can return to its former magnificence.

[1] Some of the names the falls were given are:

  • Àkikojiwan or Boiling Kettle and Akikpautik or the Pipe-Bowl Falls, by the Anishinàbeg Algonquin.

  • Tsitkanajoh or Floating Kettle by the Haudenosaunee (Five Nations), but also Katsidagweh niyoh or Chief Council Fire for the Onandaga.

  • Chaudière was the translation of Asticou according to Samuel de Champlain but many historians now say that Asticou was an incorrect transcription of the word akikok, meaning kettle.

  • Big Kettle and Little Kettle were what English settlers settled on. Philemon Wright would have preferred Columbia Falls, but the name never stuck.

  • Shier Falls was what was heard from the Irish settlers for a while but it was likely just the way that a thick Irish brogue pronounced the word Chaudière.

[2] Devil's Hole is a name that was historically given to treacherous whirlpools in running water, to sinkholes or to deep caverns (aka Devil's Arse). They were often the scenes of terrible accidents and often considered to be "bottomless" holes. In the National Capital Area, Pink's Lake was long-considered to be "bottomless".

[3] How the Lost Channel got its name is unknown but given that there is the Devil's Hole at its mouth, one can imagine that many logs, boats, maybe even lives were lost there. Many channels in rivers were named "Lost Channel" either because the channel became unnavigable at one time or, as in the case of the Lost Channel on the St. Lawrence, where a batteaux from the warship Onandaga was lost in a 1760 battle of the England/French Seven Year War.

[4] In the Wright Papers at the Library and Archives Canada, there is a letter dated July 16, 1815, from Ruggles Wright in which Ruggles announces the drowning of young Benjamin Moore.

[5] That cannon was probably one of two 3 lb. cannons that belonged to the Hull Militia, commanded by Philemon Wright. It could very well have been the one rolled into Ottawa by Andrew Leamy & Ruggles Wright on Wednesday September 17, 1849, to continue the Stony Monday riot. They didn't fire it. The gun now sits in front of the Perth Courthouse. (click here for story)

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