Today we know the Gatineau River as a pleasant body of water - almost lake-like. In the summer, it is a recreational waterway perfect for swimming, canoeing or sailing. However, this now placid river belies its previously treacherous nature, before its flooding in 1926 for a hydroelectric project.
In a 1975 story, Bertha Holt (nee Wilson) reminisced about her early childhood memories of the dangers of the river, noting that children learned to swim at an early age as a precaution. As a resident of Cantley on the east shore, every summer she would cross the river by boat to pick raspberries. Even a simple crossing was not without danger from floating logs, undertows and swirling eddies. Boats had been known to be swept over the falls further south.
The falls Bertha Holt remembered marked a rough piece of water extending across the river to Cantley from an area just south of Kirk's Ferry Rd. It was called Eaton's Chute, for a reason no longer known. The falls surged over and around large rocks, dropping rapidly from one level of rock to another lower one with a thunderous roar. Eaton's Chute appears to have been a tourist attraction and favoured picnic spot. This was especially true along the west shore, where the train ran close by, stopping as requested at the flag stop at Kirk's Ferry. Day trippers often set out for a picnic or walk near the falls.
Some evidence of this is found in a photo album from the early 1920's belonging to Phil and Eta Sherrin, cottagers who lived about a mile north of the falls. In this album there are snapshots of a picnic "tea" with friends, with Eaton's Chute in the background. In fact, Eaton's Chute appears to have been an oft photographed site - by professionals and amateurs alike. One 1898 photograph (published in "Art Work on Ottawa, Canada," by W.H. Carre) shows a posed couple standing near the now relocated rail line and pointing over at the rapids. (This same book includes another posed photo taken at the same time from Selwyn Point, further north along the river, and featured in an earlier-story in the Low Down). Other photos were taken by James Ballantyne, an Ottawa businessman (J&T Ballantyne, coal merchants) and amateur photographer who summered at Blue Sea Lake. Ballantyne was a Scot who emigrated to Canada in 1840 and became a well-known and active resident in (Old) Ottawa East. A founder of the Ottawa Camera Club, from about 1880 to 1910 he was an active photographer. His family photos at Eaton's Chute capture the awe-inspiring nature of the falls. Around 1926, the Gatineau Power Company initiated its project to harvest hydroelectric power by damming the river. This spelled the end of Eaton's Chute. The raising of the level of the river "drowned" the entire area and the waterfalls disappeared. A portion of the nearby mainland on the west shore, which had been on much higher ground, became an island. After passing through several owners, the island was bought by the Gatineau River Yacht Club in the 1960s. The once feared waterway is now a well-enjoyed spot for sailing and swimming.
Information was obtained from Volume 1 (Holt) of Up The Gatineau!, published by the Gatineau Valley Historical Society, Echoes from the Past columns by Pat Evans in the Low Down, and Bruce Ballantyne, whose great great uncle was James Ballantyne, the photographer of the accompanying photos.