Before we had government there were trees and Ottawa was all about the lumber. Timber literally poured down the Ottawa River.
Mills located near the Chaudiere Falls cut millions of board feet every, beginning around 1854, but most years from 1806 to 1908, timber also came down the river in the form of huge rafts whose destination was Montreal, or more often Quebec City.
Alas, most of the sawmills burned down in the Great Hull-Ottawa fire of 1900. Eddy, Booth and Bronson all stopped cutting timber and went into the pulp and paper business, and the mills at Rideau Falls were removed. The result is that there’s not much evidence of Ottawa’s lumbering past to see anymore — except the timber slide between Amelia and Chaudiere Islands.
You can see the gate at top of the slide from Booth Street just before you get to Middle Street on Victoria Island. If you go into the parking lot across from the climbing gym on Victoria Island, you can seem the top of the timber slide itself, which now has an iron trough running through it.
You can get another view of the slide from the bridge to Ottawa Hydro Station #2, when the gate is open, and you can see the end of the slide where it come out from the Mill Brewery, or from the Portage Bridge.
You’ll see that the slide is now overgrown and V-shaped, much like a normal creek bed. But for most of its life the channel was square, and kept square by wooden walls. These walls were essential to its operation.
There’s two things to know about the operation, beginning with the fact that much of the timber that passed through Ottawa was cut into very large pieces called “square timbers” and “deals,” which would be sawn into lumber when they reached their destination. Way up river, the square timbers and deals were assembled into rectangular units called “cribs.” The cribs were then assembled into gigantic rafts, and the rafts sailed down the river.
The other thing to know is that, once the rafts reached Ottawa, their way was blocked by the Chaudiere Falls — which you really didn’t want to go over. It’s 35 feet straight down into a swirling cauldron of water and rocks!
The solution was to build a timber slide around the falls. The first was dug by the Ruggles Wright on the Quebec side of the river in 1829. Almost all evidence that slide disappeared when it was filled in the 1970s. A second was built on Ontario side between Chaudiere, Albert and Victoria island in 1836 by local lumberman George Buchanan. It was taken over by the government and replaced by the slide between Victoria and Amelia islands in 1845.
All slides on the Ottawa River were purchased by the government in 1849, but it was already in 1845
With the square-sided slide in place, timber rafts would halt above the falls and be disassembled into individual cribs. A few men would then ride, glide and steer the crib down the slide, hopefully without crashing into the walls. When they came out the other end, the men would maneuver the crib into the bay between the Supreme Court and Parliament Hill, where they would be reassembled into a raft and head off down the river again.
The ride down the slide was super-exciting. Whenever royalty came to town, between 1860 to 1901, the they would always arrange for trip aboard a crib, attended by a huge crowd. It seems to have been used as a place of amusement, was well as business.
The days of square timbers and deals came to an end in 1908. That’s when the last of the huge rafts passed around Chaudiere. The slides on both sides of the river continued to be used for pulp logs until 1972 when E.B Eddy closed its sulphite mill. That’s when the iron trough was installed. It’s job was to move single pulp logs around the Falls. The last official log drive on the Ottawa was in 1988.
There was no reason to maintain the walls of the channel though. Nature in the form of erosion gave the channel the bushes, trees, and V-shape, it has now.
Though overgrown and mostly out of site, let’s hope that timber slide — one of the last memories of Ottawa’s lumbering history — doesn’t disappear completely.