GVHS Logo

Up the Gatineau! Online Articles

The following article was first published in Up the Gatineau! Volume 27.

Early Aerial Photography of The Gatineau River Valley

by Duncan Marshall

The 1920s and 1930s were a pioneer period for aerial photography, and the Lower Gatineau River valley was one of a few Canadian areas intensively photographed during this time. Of particular interest is work done by the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) in recording the topography of a 14-mile-long strip reaching from just north of Ironside, near Hull, to just above Wakefield in 1926 and 1927. The National Air Photo Library holds 542 early aerial photographs of this region taken prior to the outbreak in 1939 of World War II.

This article looks at the involvement of the RCAF in this peacetime development of aerial photography, and explores the reasons why the lower Gatineau River was chosen as one of a few Canadian sites for extensive coverage. Finally, it comments on some present-day uses of these early aerial photographs.

Following World War I, Canada led the world in pioneering the peacetime use of aerial photography, developed for wartime purposes, in a major topographic mapping initiative. The reasons for this had to do with the convergence of two objectives: the creation and training of a Canadian air force, and the need for detailed topographic maps to expedite planning and development of Canada's enormous hydroelectric, mining and forestry potential.

In 1921, Captain édouard Deville, Canada's Surveyor General, had determined that aerial photography was an essential tool in the efficient and accurate production of topographic maps.1 His promotion of aerial photography was based on his work some 35 years earlier, which received world recognition in the 1880s and 1890s. At that time he had pioneered the use of panoramic cameras, which his field surveyors transported up to peaks in the Canadian Rockies. The photographic results were the basis for preparing detailed topographic maps of the mountainous terrain of western Alberta and eastern British Columbia.2 Deville also recognized that aerial photography would be useful in preparing topographic maps of large sections of the boreal forest, where for vast stretches there were few hills for his surveyors to climb for views of the terrain. Here, aerial photographs provided an ideal means to quickly record cartographic details over large areas.

Vickers Viking flying boat
Survey party in the cockpit of a Vickers Viking flying boat, 1924. Note the photographer with the camera in the exposed nose turret position. Photo: Canada Aviation Museum neg. 3039.

Despite some interest in its usefulness before World War I, the first extensive use of aerial photography was during that war. Don W. Thomson described how aerial photography came to be used for scouting enemy positions at the time, when an "odd assortment of fragile looking aeroplanes at the disposal of the warring nations was used mainly as a scouting aid supplementing cavalry probes."3 He noted that by the war's end, in 1918, ten million air photo prints had been made and delivered to units of the allied armies.

In 1919, immediately following World War I, the Canadian Government established an Air Board, under which the Royal Canadian Air Force was created in 1924. The World War I experience had demonstrated the usefulness of aerial photography and those promoting the new air force emphasized its potential role in adapting the wartime science of aerial photography as a basis for peacetime mapping applications. The result was the creation of five bases across Canada which carried out experimental aerial photography beginning in the early 1920s.

While the Conservative party had put in motion the steps leading up to the creation of a Canadian air force, William Lyon Mackenzie King was Prime Minister, at the head of the Liberal party, between 1921 and 1930. In 1921, (a few months before he became Prime Minister), King had expressed qualified endorsement of plans to establish a Canadian air force with the statement that "so far as this air service can be used for commercial, scientific and exploration purposes it should be fostered." According to Donald Thomson, King was loath to extend approval to anything that suggested military activity for the Canadian Air Force, an attitude very much in line with public opinion at the time.4

Influential Canadians, including academics and senior Canadian bureaucrats at the federal and provincial levels, as well as the air-minded veterans themselves, realized that a peacetime Canadian air force had to be justified on economic and public-interest grounds. The air force thus undertook a range of "civil" tasks: Treaty Payment deliveries to remote Indian communities, immigration patrols along the Canada-US border, forest fire patrols, spore collection for agricultural analysis, and aerial photography. Of these activities, only aerial photography continued without interruption, even through the Depression Years of the 1930s. No Canadian Air Force aircraft was armed for a decade.

In the latter part of the 1920s the RCAF quickly expanded the number of bases to 70 or 80 (most of them temporary) and located all across the country. These supported both aerial photography and forestry patrol activity. The experience of setting up bases would prove invaluable just over a decade later at the outset of World War II, when the RCAF was quickly able to implement the massive British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) in the early 1940s.5

The reports of the Air Board provide fascinating detailed accounts and statistics of the growth of aerial photography. From 4,300 photographs in 1923, the numbers more than tripled in 1924 to 14,075, while 62,000 were taken in 1927.6 Today the National Air Photo Library holds more than six million aerial photos, which cover every part of Canada

Of the five early bases, two were in western Canada, at Jericho Beach on the south side of English Bay near Vancouver and at High River, Alberta. In the east near Ottawa, Ontario, was Station Rockcliffe (there was also, briefly, a temporary seaplane base at Shirley's Bay), a base at Roberval, Quebec and one on the Atlantic coast at Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.

Both of the Ottawa-area seaplane bases were on the Ottawa River, in close proximity to the mouth of the Gatineau River, but this alone would not explain why the Lower Gatineau River valley was used as a test area. The attraction of the Lower Gatineau for aerial photography was very likely due to its wide variety of topographic features, which were conveniently arranged in a lineal fashion and within easy flying distance of Ottawa. The features included a relatively narrow river bordered by roads and railway tracks and a series of villages, bridges, sawmills, mines, and farms-all arranged in a single line up the Gatineau River.

As well, a portion of the route included tracts of lakes, forests and rock typical of the Canadian Shield. Such a variety of topographic features would not have been conveniently found by flying in any other direction from Ottawa. One might even generalize that this particular combination of factors continues to make the Lower Gatineau such an interesting area to both explore and live in today.

Gatineau River
Vertical photo showing the Gatineau River from Gleneagle to Kirk's Ferry, taken July 26, 1926. Note the old rail track, the new rail line under construction, and the partly-completed highway (now Route 105) which jogs right at Brown's farm to join the River Road. The highway section extending to Scott Road was completed in 1927. Photo: © National Air Photo Library HA 108-65; Distributor, Marshall-Maruska Aerial Images.

A second factor in the selection of the Lower Gatineau for aerial photography at that time was quite likely the opportunity to document topographic changes as a consequence of the construction of three massive hydroelectric dams being built for the Gatineau Power Company. These were begun in 1925, and located at Farmer's Rapids (south of Chelsea), at Chelsea itself and at Low. The Farmer's and Chelsea dams were built in the amazingly short time of 16 months and finished in the spring of 1927. The entire project cost some sixty million dollars and at the time ranked as one of the world's largest engineering projects.7

A third and more speculative reason for photographing the lower Gatineau, and in particular the area surrounding Kingsmere, was that the Prime Minister, Mackenzie King, had a summer home there. Both the Air Board and the RCAF would have recognized that as a demonstration of their aerial photographic skills, providing King with prints of an area with which he was most certainly quite familiar would be of special interest to the Prime Minister. Skyview Canada does not mention the Prime Minister's residence, but reports that "in September of 1922 tests were undertaken in the area centred on Kingsmere Lake. The Gatineau Hills with their densely wooded slopes, offered a study challenge to air survey work."8

At first the RCAF used surplus flying boats acquired from the British Air Ministry, but later on they had flying boat aircraft specifically adapted for aerial photography manufactured at the Vickers factory in Montreal. Flying boats were used because the vast territory to be mapped had no prepared airfields, and so all operations had to be conducted from temporary bases situated on the shorelines of lakes or rivers.

These early photographic aircraft were double-winged biplanes with enormous drag and must have been extremely uncomfortable for the camera operator. While the pilot sat in an open cockpit, he at least had some protection behind a small windscreen. The photographer, however, had to stand up in the nose of the aircraft with the upper half of his body directly exposed to the 70- to 80-mile-an-hour slipstream. Often he endured these conditions for five or six hours at a time, all the while manipulating his bulky camera.

Eaton's Chute
Oblique view of the same stretch of river looking north, taken Novenber 26, 1926. Eaton's Chute was a major cateract. Note the parallel river banks and extensive tracts of farmland that were about to be flooded the following spring. Photo: © National Air Photo Library HA 137-92; Distributor, Marshall-Maruska Aerial Images.

By today's standards the cameras were enormous and unwieldy. They had the shape and size of a beer keg, with a magazine holding 115 exposures. Motor-driven and powered by a storage battery, they were mounted on what was formerly the aircraft's machine gun mount, which enabled the operator to move the camera up and down for both vertical and oblique shots, as well as from side to side. Shutter speeds could be varied from 1/50th, 1/100th or 1/150th of a second, and the maximum lens opening was only f4.0.9 However, despite the slow shutter speeds and relatively small lens opening, the quality of the early aerial photographs is quite amazing in terms of definition.

The early Gatineau region aerial photographs in the National Air Photo Library are of two kinds: 230 are obliques and 312 are vertical photos. An oblique aerial photo, sometimes called a "scenic," is one taken at an angle, which provides the viewer with perspective. A vertical aerial photo is taken with the film at right angles to the earth's surface; that is, looking straight down from the aircraft. It gives a plan view of the earth's surface, and is the primary source of information for the preparation of topographic maps.

Some of the most interesting Gatineau-area photographs were taken in late November 1926, just four months before the water began to rise behind the Chelsea Dam. They include two flight lines of oblique photos taken November 6, and two flight lines of verticals taken two days later on November 8. There are 91 oblique photos, most having overlapping views with an adjacent one, taken from the relatively low altitude of approximately 1500 feet. The photo flight line began at Ironside, south of the Chelsea Dam, and extended 14 miles up to the covered bridge at Wakefield.

Looking at the photographs in sequence can give the impression of being taken aboard an airborne time machine flying over the valley 75 years ago. At the southern beginning of the flight line, the photos reveal in intricate detail the construction activity at both the Farmer's Rapids and Chelsea Dam sites. Moving upstream, one can clearly see all seven of the former waterfalls and rapids between Chelsea and Cascades that were submerged in 1927 and transformed into the eight-mile-long forebay one sees today.

Immediately above the Chelsea Dam is a raised rock outcrop which, four months after the photo was taken, became an island.10 Above this can be seen the very narrow Manitou Rapids, and just beyond, the formidable Eaton's Chute described by Patrick Evans in an article on Early Kirk's Ferry.11 To the left of Eaton's Chute is another rock outcrop that also became an island, where the Gatineau River Yacht Club established itself in the 1960s.

Upstream and beyond Eaton's Chute on both sides of the river were farms on the fertile valley lowland that disappeared when the river level was raised. In this stretch, the pre-flood river is completely different from today. Then it was quite narrow, only 600 to 700 feet across, with parallel shorelines extending north to the former location of the village of Kirk's Ferry. Today, the remains of that village lie underwater some 800 feet offshore from the end of Hellard Road.

At Cascades the Peerless Hotel and the village of Cascades are clearly apparent, as are the rapids vividly described by Bertha Wilson Holt in her story about growing up in Cascades, published in the first volume of Up the Gatineau!: "My home was at Cascades, so named because there were four waterfalls within two miles on the river...[a river that was] fascinating, turbulent, noisy, cool, deep, calm and treacherous."12

The photos illustrate activities or details connected with preparations for the flooding, including the clearing of tree cover on the lands that are about to be flooded, and some of the photos even contain views of the stacked wood as well as smouldering piles of burning slash.

Two days after the obliques were taken, on November 8, 1926, an aircraft returned to take 106 overlapping vertical photographs of the two shorelines over the 13-mile stretch of river from Chelsea Dam to just above Wakefield. These photographs taken from 7500 feet provide excellent cross-references for accurately locating features that appear on the oblique photos. On both November 8 and November 26 of 1926 there was a slight skiff of snow that helps accentuate some of the features. For example, ploughed furrows are highlighted as are roads, fence lines and paths that otherwise would not have stood out nearly so clearly, if at all.

In May and June of 1927, additional oblique and vertical photographs were taken that provide excellent views of the river's shoreline just as the water is rising to its new level following completion of the dam. Subsequently, various obliques were taken of the Chelsea and Wakefield area, and of the villages up the river as far as Maniwaki. Also, a considerable number of summer residences were photographed on several of the lakes to the north of Low: Blue Sea, Heeney, Pemichangan, and Thirty-one Mile Lake. For a short period, one of the RCAF's temporary bases was located on Blue Sea Lake near Messines.

After 1938 the RCAF took very few oblique photos, but since then the RCAF and private aerial photography companies repeated many flights taking vertical photographs of the entire Gatineau region. By arranging photos of the same area in a chronological sequence, it is often possible to date features quite accurately over a period of 75 years.

In Ottawa, a visible reminder of our pioneer aerial photography is the weather vane surmounting the Confederation Building (located on Wellington Street just west of the Parliament Buildings). The vane is actually a scale copper model of an RCAF Vickers Vedette flying boat, presented by the RCAF and installed in 1931. Flying 265 feet above ground, the vane appears small, but it weights 140 pounds and has a wing span of 5 feet, 6 inches.13 This is the same type of aircraft that undertook the photo mission up the Gatineau River in November 1926.

A closer tangible reminder for Gatineau-area residents of the region's role in early aerial imaging is visible every day above Kirk's Ferry on the Cantley skyline. This is the Canada Centre for Remote Sensing's Gatineau Satellite Station, erected in October of 1985.14 With two 10-metre-wide reception dishes, it continuously provides a reception point for thousands of satellite aerial images of Canada over an area extending from southeastern Alberta to the High Arctic and east far past Newfoundland.

Perhaps the most meaningful reminder of our aerial photographic legacy, however, is simply its current and continuing use. This is already happening, as authors researching topics for Up the Gatineau! seek out air photos to illustrate their articles. Jacques Lecours' article describing the great hydroelectric works on the Gatineau River provided a view of the Farmers Dam and Chelsea Dam construction sites (Volume 23, page 35), Donald Hogarth illustrated the Gemmil's phosphate mine site (Volume 25, page 37), and Norma Geggie showed the location of the Irwin farm in Wakefield (Volume 26, page 27).

Uses of historic aerial photographs are widely varied and can range from a history buff's desire to document natural and cultural changes over time to a cottager's interest in the disappearance of an old logging right-of-way or a farmer's interest in how his great-grandfather may have used a particular field. The Gatineau valley is indeed fortunate to have such a rich legacy of detailed aerial photographs documenting three-quarters of a century of change.

The National Air Photo Library is a rich source for old aerial photographs. In addition to Don W. Thomson's Skyview Canada, S. Bernard Shaw of Stittsville Ontario is completing a book entitled Photographing Canada from Flying Canoes, to be published by Generalstore Publishing House, Burnstown, Ontario and scheduled for release in June 2001. It will describe aerial photography in Canada, and in particular the stories of the RCAF personnel who undertook this work from 1919 to 1939.

1. Deville was Surveyor-General from 1885 to 1924.
2. Department of the Interior, Topographical Survey Bulletin No. 62, The Use of Aerial Photographs For Mapping, (Ottawa: F.A. Acland, Printer to the King's Most Excellent Majesty, 1932), 5-6.
3. Donald W. Thomson, Skyview Canada, A Story of Aerial Photography in Canada, (Ottawa: Department of Energy, Mines and Resources, 1975) 15.
4. Thomson, 33.
5. During World War II they developed and expanded 97 air bases across the country and trained 131,553 aircrew.
6. Dominion of Canada, Report of the Air Board for the Years ... [1922-1931], (Ottawa: F.A. Acland, Printer to the King's Most Excellent Majesty, 1922-1931).
7. For a detailed description of the dam projects see Jacques Lecours, "The Great Hydro- Electric Works on the Gatineau River," in Up the Gatineau!, Vol. 21, 35-44.
8. Thomson, 33.
9. Topographical Bulletin 62, Aerial Photographs, 7.
10. Now locally known as Phillips Island.
11. Patrick M. O. Evans, "Early Kirk's Ferry, Quebec,"Up the Gatineau! Vol. 1, 14.
12. Mrs. C. R. Holt, "Up the Gatineau!,"Up the Gatineau! Vol. 1, 4.
13. The Royal Canadian Air Force Publication Roundel, Vol. 5, No. 6 (June 1953), 45.
14. For more detailed information on The Gatineau Satellite Station (GSS) in Cantley see www.ccrs.nrcan.gc.ca/ccrs/tekrd/stations/gsse.html

Return to list of articles.