Ottawa Valley Culture

The Fur Trade and Logging

The fur trade of beaver pelts first brought Europeans to the Ottawa Valley in the 17th century and for the next two centuries thousands of European men travelled to North America to take part in this lucrative trade. Due to changing consumer patterns in Europe the fur trade dissipated in the early 19th century, however, the river network that had been the thoroughfare for the freighter canoes carrying pelts to the posts and ports became the highway for timber. Great Britain was in expansionist mode and needed timber for its ships, especially ships of war to engage the navies of France. While some mast and shipbuilding timber had been obtained from New Brunswick and the St. Lawrence area around 1800, the costs were much higher than for timber from the Baltic region. A strategic naval blockade of the Baltic region by France’s Napoleon in 1806 had cut off a critical timber supply for Britain, so it turned to its colonies. This and ongoing tariffs on foreign timber coming into Britain quickly made the Ottawa Valley timber trade lucrative starting with Philemon Wright’s rafting of timber in 1806 from the Gatineau River area to Quebec.

For the next century, the Ottawa Valley was the unrivalled pinery of the world. The White pine was the monarch of eastern Canadian forests, reaching to a height of 175 feet with as much as a six-foot diameter, growing in pure stands that would yield up to 50,000 board feet to the acre. Red pine, although not as large, was abundant at 100 feet high and up to three feet in diameter. This and other species such as oak were in high demand by an American building boom after the Reciprocity Treaty of 1854 opened up free trade between Canada and the US for all types of timber and lumber, round, hewn and sawn.

Before there were roads or railways, the timber trade from the Algonquin and Laurentian highlands depended on the rivers of the Ottawa River watershed to float massive timbers after winter harvesting to Atlantic cargo ships at Quebec City and latterly to saw mills in most Valley towns. These rivers included the Dumoine, Black, Coulonge, Gatineau, Lièvre, North Nation, Rouge and du Nord River on the Quebec side and the Mattawa, Petawawa, Bonnechère, Madawaska, Mississippi, Rideau and the South Nation rivers on the Ontario side. Sawmills were mainstays of quickly growing communities such as Pembroke, Fort Coulonge, Braeside, Arnprior and of course Ottawa. Forestry was the genesis of most of the Valley’s large and smaller towns strategically located at drops in the rivers where dams and water wheels were harnessed to power sawmills but also grist mills for a growing farming population. It was often the farmer who, in winter, would go to the bush as a shantyman to cut, square and haul the timber to the frozen rivers ahead of the spring river drive.

While there are significant changes happening in this industry, forestry remains important to the economy of Canada and especially the Ottawa Valley.