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The Way We Were

The following article first appeared in "The Low Down to Hull and Back News" in the October 13, 2010 issue. Reprinted with permission.

Pinning down Cascades gatekeeper takes its toll

by Stanley Cross

Foreward by Louise Schwartz: The following piece was written in 1991 by Stanley Cross, a talented writer of verse. He described Mr. William Coughlan, the keeper of the toll gate at Cascades, but was not entirely convinced the man in the photo was that same person. He calls Coughlan's wife Betsie, although her name was actually Jessie. She was Coughlan's junior by 20 years. Having had to look up the word "benedict, " used by Cross in his story, I share its definition with readers: a benedict is a recently-married man, especially one who seemed to be a confirmed bachelor. This story has been edited for length.

I would say that this picture of the Gatineau Road taken before the flooding of the river in 1926 was one of Coughlan standing before his toll gate. Note the gate from his right shoulder to his right wrist.

The Way We Were
Stanley Cross of Meech Creek Valley in his youth. Circa late 1930s. Photo courtesy GVHS.

When not in use, the gate was secured to his house by the simple expedient of a hole bored through the wall and a wooden pin pushed into the hole. If business was like it is today, Coughlan could have counted on at least a part of a night's sleep.

This was not to be. His occupation was beset with hazards, including the fact that his was a 24-hour proposition, including Christmas. However, because he was employed on the Government Road, we can logically presume that he was a permanent government employee subject to the perks in vogue.

In order to keep my story to some degree credible, I must tell you that at the time of the picture I would already have received one half of my formal education from the school immediately west of the Coughlan setup.

The brick house behind the gentleman in the picture belonged to my grandmother, who died in 1933. On occasion when I was billeted there, she had mentioned Coughlan visited her often and sometimes he whimpered.

To get back to my story, his work life and domestic life seemed to bear a striking resemblance. It could be assumed that one weighed heavily against the other. Even when in partial repose, his head would have to be within six inches of the pin in the wall. One commences to wonder if Coughlan really had a government position or if it had him.

Trouble never comes alone. He had come into the marriage with Betsie under very very low odds. She had previously been married, and upon the death of her husband acquired the enterprise, without encumbrance, a fact that my grandmother claimed Coughlan never seemed to forget.

The Way We Were
Wiliam Coughlan with two unidentified girls In front of the former tollgate at Old Cascades before the flooding of the Gatineau River. Circa early 1920s. Photo courtesy Gatineau Valley Historical Society.

She slept at the other end of the edifice and, as I mentioned before, he slept close to the pin. She was frugal and expected him to be diligent. If a customer hammered on the wall at any time or hour of the night to anounce his arrival and had to hammer a second time, he did not only have the customer to handle. She never called him by his first name, she would shout, "MISTER," and he performed immediately.

If it was Coughlan in the picture, the picture must have been taken within a few days of his arrival as a benedict, for board there never was a priority, secondly the constant strain of the business, not to mention other matters, would be such as to cause him to lose weight, and he would not look like the man in the picture probably wearing a fifty-two inch belt under his grey vest.

Stanley Cross came from a well-known Gatineau Valley family, and may have honed his writing skills with help from his uncles Walter and Jason, who also penned their own verse. Stanley Cross died in 2003 at the age of 87. His wife, Marjorie, lives in Ottawa and still visits the Gatineau Hills regularly. Their daughter, Trudy Stephen, wrote about the Cross family love of verse in Volume 35 of Up the Gatineau!


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