Up the Gatineau! Selected Articles

The Gilmour House

Volume 19, page 24

Hans Honegger and Warren Mayor

The remarkable enterprise, energy and vision of the Gilmour family were almost solely responsible for the initial development of large portions of the Outaouais Region.

Sadly, most of the Gilmours' commercial and industrial structures were destroyed by the flooding of the Gatineau River to accommodate hydro-electric requirements. Fortunately, their family home still stands intact and relatively unchanged in its original and spectacular location. The Gilmour house, built in the 1850s, is an invaluable historical resource. This structure has benefited from considerate residents, a regime of ongoing maintenance and the respectful replacement of missing features. Generally, time has been kind to it, and it remains only slightly altered.

The site and house

The property the Gilmours selected for their Chelsea home was 200 acres of Range VIII Lots 8 and 9 which were first settled by Nathaniel Chamberlin about the year 1822; he had been given the land on a Military Relocation Ticket for service in the 1812 War. Philemon Wright's Report of 1830 shows Chamberlin, “Farmer and Carpenter, 55 acres cultivated, 1 house, l barn, 1 wife, 3 labourers, 4 females, 2 horses, 11 cattle, 40 sheep, 10 pigs, no goats".

The site chosen for the residence stood on the brow of a hillside, 150 feet above the west bank of the Gatineau River, commanding a dramatic southern panorama of some ten to fifteen miles. By curious coincidence, the Gilmour house also directly overlooked The Chateau, the estate of their principal competitor, Alonzo Wright, on the east bank. (Between these two homes, in 1982, Hydro Quebec in its wisdom erected its 315 kilowatt transmission line).

The house type is a two storey, balloon framed,1 centre hall plan, with a hip roof and central gable. It sits on a solid rubble stone foundation. The windows, which consist of a composition of 20-over-25 panes, provide an unusually bright interior for a house of this age. An old photograph shows a covered front porch; it was later removed and the front door relocated to improve sun exposure. In 1905 a summer kitchen was added to the rear, and serves now as a library. The arrangement of the other downstairs rooms (parlour, dining room, hall and kitchen) has been somewhat altered over time. The floors are original natural wood, mostly tongue-and-groove white pine of random widths.

Gilmour house
Gilmour house: circa 1960 (NCC: National Capital Region Heritage). (GVHS 555.1/5)

The whole house was extensively restored in 1988 "from the outside in", right down to the plaster laths. The basic structure, framing and sheathing were nearly perfect after a century and a half. Wiring and insulation were replaced, along with the wood siding. The exterior, having been painted gray, white and yellow at various times, is again gray.

Of architectural history interest is the fact that this house plan had its origins in Scotland, as did the Gilmour family, its uniqueness rests in that in the old world this house would have been constructed entirely of stone. The Gilmours, demonstrating entrepreneurial opportunism, reinterpreted this Scottish model in local materials, milled but a few hundred yards away. Thus, the house also served the region as a model home. At present, although the mills are gone, the house remains as a manifestation of some of the first lumber runs produced at the Chelsea Mills and the vision of its first owners.

The site also includes several barns and sheds which date back to the construction of the house.

To this day, the overall complex is animated by a flock of grazing sheep, true to the nature of its original purpose. Furthermore, several ancient fruit trees remain productive in the location of the original Gilmour orchard.

The context of the Gilmour House, including its surrounding landscape, the white pines, the grazed pasture, the trail network, and the accompanying out-buildings tell a very rich story. It is, in a way, a very animated “eco-museum" where this region's beginnings, its social and economic history rests accessible and easily legible.

Historical and economic context

The Gilmour family played a pivotal role in the economic development of Quebec in the nineteenth century.

In the early 1800s, the Gilmour family firm, based in Glasgow, was one of the largest shipbuilders in the world. In search of high quality ships‘ timbers, they established outposts in Canada under various family members: first in Miramichi in 1812, then in Quebec in 1828, and in Montreal in 1832.

What began as a simple purchase-for-export operation evolved into a mainspring of the Canadian economy. The firm began to acquire logging rights, opened new territory and established shipbuilding in Quebec City (a tradition continued to this day); it built dams, mills, roads and harbour facilities, broadened its product base, opened new markets, pioneered innovative technologies, provided employment to a large workforce,2 and over time developed into a fully integrated and highly diversified independent Canadian forest products organization. At the centre of this evolution were the Gilmour house and mills on the Gatineau River at Chelsea.

The establishment of Chelsea

In 1841 the management and operation of the firm began to shift to the Outaouais, with the opening of an office here.

With the termination of the restrictive “Gatineau Privilege" in 1843, the Gilmours acquired the timber rights to 3,700 square miles.3

To deal with the rapidly-expanding log drive down the Gatineau, the Gilmours financed a stone-filled dam, a mill, and a two-mile lumber slide on the Gatineau River at Chelsea Falls. "Cette scierie de Gilmour complait parmi les plus renommées du pays par le pittoresque de son site et le perfectionnement de son outillage."4

By 1849, 45 saws were cutting 300,000 deals per year, employing 180 men in Chelsea.

John Gilmour
John Gilmour.

The 1854 Reciprocity Treaty with the USA signalled an outburst of expansion; planks and boards were now classed as raw materials and allowed free entry. Business prospered. Gilmours' Chelsea mill began producing "good strips, good siding, stocks, pickets, covers, lath, and shingles."5

From the outset it was also necessary for the Gilmours to provide housing for the workers. Fragmentary municipal tax records show that the company maintained over 50 houses. Chelsea became a community of some importance, with tri-weekly mail service and a population of 300, including blacksmiths, butchers, a land surveyor, two priests, a tailor, a shoemaker and a sash and door factory.6 No less than six hotels flourished and four stores of some size. It was during this time that the Gilmours built themselves a residence in Chelsea.

The Gilmour legacy

Before the Gilmours, local road transportation was a real impediment to economic development In 1844, “it took a whole day to make the trip to Hull... The road was so bad then that it was almost impossible to get a load up the Mile Hill with a team... The whole road was, at first, really only a sort of trail through the thick brush. One had to wind around stumps and pick the best spots."7

The Gilmours established the Hull and Wakefield Macadamized Road Company (HWMRC), opening up the Gatineau valley to settlement and agriculture. The HWMRC operated as a toll-road (with a toll station north of the Gilmour house). The tolls never paid for its upkeep. The Province finally accepted responsibility for the road on August 2, 1923. Today it is known as Highway 105.

The Gilmours also promoted and financed the Gatineau Log Drive Company and the Ottawa and Gatineau Valley Railroad Company. Gilmour and Company maintained several thousand men in shanties through a network of local roads, depots and company farms. Their Rivière Désert farm comprised 2000 acres. Here cows, sheep, chickens, draught horses, Berkshire pigs and short horn bulls were bred. "This had a good effect on the breed of settlers‘ animals in the region of the depots."8

In private life the Gilmours were no less prominent. It would seem that they were on intimate terms with Governor General Monck as these diary entries from Her Excellency‘s writings suggest:

Sat. 28 Jan 1854. Dinner at Mrs. Gilmour's. We had the usual oyster pies at supper; the very look of them makes me sick. Tuesday l8 April 1865. Yesterday Mrs. G. drove to town with me in the phaeton. The drift at their gate was so bod their waggon could not be got out. The old drifts along the road are marvellous. They have been cut through, and I can't describe the height of them.

The Governor General was also impressed by the Gilmours' pioneering philanthropic work on behalf of Ottawa's battered women, orphans, and elderly:

They sat down 56 to dinner yesterday. They have a school, a nurse, and a schoolmistress; the children of a drunken father would be taken in. Then they have many feeble old women; they have an infirmary for the sick, a laundry and baths. It is very clean and lofty. The institution is almost entirely supported by Mr. and Mrs. Gilmour.9

John Gilmour was the first Canadian-born president of Gilmour and Company, and oversaw all the Canadian operations, including new sawmills in Trenton and on the Nation and Blanche Rivers. He was “one of the lumber trade pioneers of the Gatineau, who lived many years in a dwelling overlooking the Gatineau River, at Chelsea."10

John and Jesse Gilmour often returned from a ball or dinner in Ottawa six miles to Chelsea, well wrapped in furs in their sleigh, with a coachman on the box, behind two splendid horses.11

In Chelsea they raised eight children. Three sons (David, Sutherland, and Hamilton) formed the nucleus of the famous "Silver Seven" hockey team which brought the Stanley Cup to Ottawa for the first time, and, years later, was voted Canada's outstanding hockey team during the first half century. "When the mother entertained friends in the Gilmour home, this trophy was always given a prominent place at the centre of the table."12

John Gilmour also served for a time as President of the Wakefield Trout Fishing Club, Denholm. Anglers may wish to note Rule 27: “No member shall be allowed to take out more than 50 pounds of fish at any one time."13

In 1904 John Gilmour bought a large stone house at 29 Cartier Street in Ottawa, subsequently the home of the Royal Canadian Legion. After of John Gilmour's death, the firm was sold to the Gatineau Company Limited, then Riordon, then the Canadian International Paper Company. CIP still uses the Gilmour “G” barkmark to mark its logs.

In 1926 the entire area of the mills at Chelsea was flooded for hydroelectric development.

A footnote on succession

Historical records do not tell us what became of Nathaniel Chamberlin, his 1 house, his 1 barn, or his 1 wife. Nor is it clear just how the Gilmours came to own Chamberlin's farm, along with most of the other river frontage north of the Mile Hill.

Nor can it be said with certainty how long the Gilmours lived in Chelsea. A reorganization of Gilmour and Company in 1891 guaranteed John Gilmour use free of charge of the house and premises (and an annual salary of six thousand dollars, plus expenses).

The house in Chelsea was still listed among the assets of Gilmour and Company in a further reorganization in April 1908. John Gilmour died in 1912.

If the Chelsea house belonged to the Company, presumably only the Company could sell it.

But something was awry. In April 1921, a last will and testament was read in Hull — that of Mr. Paul Alfred Lefebvre "en son vivant fabricant de ceruse14 et de blanc de zinc, demeurant à Lille, Nord, France". The Gilmour house was claimed as part of Lefebvre's estate. Lefebvre declared he had bought it in 1912 from William Leney, who had bought it in 1907 from William D. Hopper. Now the heir, Mr. Paul Gaspard Joseph Lefebvre, “en religion Don Gaspard, prieur au monastère de St. Benoit à Parahybado Morte (Brésil) autrefois prieur de l'Abbeye de St. André à Bruges", sent authorization for the property to be sold to J. Arthur Pharand, a civil servant, who sold it on the same day in March 1921 to John Wallace. John Wallace seems at the time to have been less preoccupied with clear title than with harnesses:

The present sale includes all farming implements and also 2 sets of harness whereof one set of cart harnesses and one express harness and all the scrap harness the said vendor only reserving a set of double harness.

In July 1921, when Gilmour and Company was sold to the Gatineau Company Ltd., the list of assets covered several pages and included the Chelsea house. John Wallace passed the property to his son Bill in 1926, but the family remembers the long struggle over clear title15 with "the Catholics and the Company".

In October 1946, Bill Wallace sold the house and 74 acres to Col. J.A. Warburton. Bill had a change of heart the next day and asked the Colonel to take his $1,000 deposit back; he was refused. According to his brother Austin, Bill by then was a bit of a hermit, living in one room at a time, and moving when it got too messy. Bill relocated to a caboose in Deschénes, and the Colonel designated his new estate Garryhinch, apparently recalling his Irish forebears. The Warburtons sold the house to the Majors in 1972; unfortunately, the purchase price did not include the Krieghof over the mantelpiece or the bulk of the farm, sold separately.

Thus, a century and a half after the original settlement by Nathaniel Chamberlin (in whose memory the road to the house was officially named in 1992), the tally still reads: "1 house, 1 bam, 1 wife, 40 sheep, no goats."

  1. This is apparently the first wood-frame house tn the Gatineau; earlier houses were of log or stack-wall construction.
  2. Perhaps the best known of the Gilmours‘ employees was the legendary Joseph Montferrand, who was taken on as a rafting foreman on the Ottawa River in 1829.
  3. Anastase Roy. Mannwak, (Ottawa: Imprimerie du Droit, 1935).
  4. Lucien Brault, M.A., Hull 1880-1950, (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1950)
  5. National Archives of Canada, Gilmour & Co. Papers, Volume 136
  6. Canada Directory, 1857.
  7. Charles W. Chamberlin, "Some Reminiscences of Charles Waters Chamberlin" in Up the Gatineau, No. ll (Chelsea: The Historical Society of the Gatineau, l985).
  8. John W. Hughson and Courtney C.J. Bond, Hurling Down the Pine, (Old Chelsea: The Historical Society of the Gatineau, 1964).
  9. Frances E.O. Monck, Diary, My Canadian Leaves, (London: 1895).
  10. Henry J. Morgan, Canadian Men and Women of the Time, (Toronto: William Briggs, 1912).
  11. Hughson and Bond, Hurling Down the Pine.
  12. National Encyclopaedia of Canadian Biography, (Toronto: Dominion Publishing Co., 1935).
  13. National Archives, Gilmour & Co. Daybooks, 1882.
  14. Ceruse: base carbonate of lead; a poison, used in the manufacture of paint until 1915, when it was made illegal.
  15. The surveyors‘ legal descriptions of the property probably did not help much. Sample: "South by a fence East from the road to a pine and thence along bottom of a gully to Gatineau River."

List of articles - Volume 19