The Way We Were

The following article first appeared in "The Low Down to Hull and Back News" in the September 14, 2011 issue. Reprinted with permission.

Gatineau survives feared death by electrocution

foreword by Louise Schwartz

One of the last words of the day on whether the 1926 Gatineau River hydroelectric project was a triumph or tragedy came from this piece in the Ottawa Journal in April 1927. It has been edited for length.

The Way We Were
Eighty four years ago, reporter James Lawler mused about what use residents would find for the newly becalmed Gatineau River. Sailing was taken up by many, although it would be almost four decades until the Gatineau River Yacht Club was established. This photo shows one of the club's founders, Gleneagle resident Allan Richens, with his wife Joyce and daughter Jennifer. The clubhouse in the background in this 1965 photo is on the island that was created when the river was flooded. Photo courtesy the Gatineau Valley Historical Society.

by James Lawler

Ma'm'selle Gatineau, who recently underwent a major surgical operation, is now able to sit up and take nourishment. She will soon be completely recovered, ready to receive her old friends, and - cheer up ye fearful lovers - not less beautiful than before.

The blasting of the first rock blasted the hopes of some, who paid a sad visit, and took a long last farewell of this old love of theirs, condemned, as they supposed, to death by electrocution.

They were altogether too pessimistic. They forgot that it was white coal, not black, that was being developed in the Gatineau. Black coal, as long as it holds out, has to be hacked and broken and sifted and burned; every operation noisy, dirty and sulphurous. Whereas white coal, once the vein is tapped and the turbine installed, flows on forever - into the powerhouse as water and out as electricity.

Cheer up, therefore brothers and rivals, we are going to get our old sweetheart back, a little more mature, perhaps, but just as lovely as before. We all knew for the last 15 years that this operation had to come and we worried about it.

Well it did come and the knives of the hydro surgeons cut deeply and our dear charmer's wounds are not all healed yet, but the worst is over, and the patient is gaining fresh strength and colour every day.

Let us see what has happened. The great dam at Chelsea has backed the water up for about twelve miles, clear to Wakefield, and wiped out every rapid and fall between, so that the power company's tugs - tugs, mind you, on the Gatineau - will be able to navigate from Chelsea to Wakefield.

Old spots of delight just above Chelsea are 50 and 60 feet under water, and in the place of the dashing, cascading river, a broad, placid stream separates the east and west shores. Tenaga Station has climbed up the steep bank, the site of the Kirk's Ferry we knew is in the middle of a lake, and at Cascades the tops of a row of electric light poles, 50 yards out from the west bank, show where the old railway and highway lie under eight or ten feet of water.

Both highway and railway leave their old courses at points near Tenaga and make a detour along the hills to the west, reaching the river again north of Cascades. The highway is always further up the valley side than the railway, so that now there are no level crossings between Ironsides and Cascades. Scores of cottages on both sides of the river have been demolished and many are being re-erected on higher ground.

The white clay and yellow loam of the new highway, the freshly broken stone, the felled trees and blackened stumps are scars on the landscape, many old landmarks have disappeared, but the Gatineau has not been destroyed and when kindly green has covered the bare spots she will be herself again.

The new highway built on high ground will be better than the old swamp trail along the valley bottom could ever have been. The old picturesque cottages, clinging precariously to the river bank, with the opportunities for a morning plunge from the verandah are gone, but new coigns of vantage with greatly widened views are available at hundreds of places.

What use can be made of the river by summer residents remains to be seen, but it seems clear that the evil reputation of that twelve miles of stream as one of the most treacherous, man-killing waterways in America is gone forever. There will be no more hurrying logs; so slow will the current be that the logs will require towing in booms. Currents dangerous for swimming will be eliminated.

The great Canadian power development at Niagara has been consummated not only without marring the scenery, but while adding to the comfort of all who dwell in the district, and there is no reason to believe that such will not be the case with the Gatineau development.

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