Up the Gatineau! Selected Articles
The following article was first published in Up the Gatineau! Volume 47.
“Cemented in Forever” in the Gatineau Hills: Thomas Maxwell and Katie Burnett
By Valérie Crevier
Embedded in a rock cliff in northern Cantley are two small bronze plaques that appear to be typical grave markers. Each plaque is inscribed with a name and date: “Thomas Maxwell 1888–1942” and “Katie Grieg Burnett Maxwell 1885–1973.”
Who was this couple, and could their cremated remains be hidden behind the plaques in the rock? Who placed these plaques so carefully within the rock face? Why was this particular location chosen—an isolated site above the Gatineau River’s east shoreline opposite the Cascades neighbourhood of Chelsea?
These are the questions that Cantley’s Marthe Charlebois and her family wanted answers to. Her son had stumbled onto the intriguing plaques in summer 2007, when they moved to their Mont Cascades property. It was only in 2019 that Marthe started inquiring about the plaques with her neighbours, with Cantley 1889 (the local historical society), and with the Gatineau Valley Historical Society (GVHS). No one was aware of the existence of these plaques, nor familiar with these two individuals. As a director on the Cantley 1889 board, I was one of the many drawn into solving this mystery.
Our first breakthrough came when we approached lifelong Chelsea resident and local historian R. J. Hughes. In an email exchange, he wrote:
Whoa, never in my dreams did I ever expect to see pictures of a long-forgotten folklore of the Gatineau Hills, circa 1950 and talked about up and down the river and beyond. Overheard by [my]self, listening to the elders talk of a man who so loved the hills he chiselled out a hole in the granite where he was cemented in forever.
This boyhood memory of an unnamed man suggests that Thomas Maxwell’s plaque was indeed installed sometime after his death in 1942, and that his ashes were probably contained behind it. With some genealogical training in my background and experience in researching local history, I was determined to uncover more clues to the story of Thomas Maxwell and Katie Burnett.
The surnames Maxwell and Burnett are familiar to residents of Chelsea as neighbouring roads in the northern area of the municipality, the names deriving from the families who first farmed there. Were Thomas Maxwell and Katie Burnett—we presumed they were husband and wife—related to these families?
Interestingly, a GVHS map documenting property owners in 1875 revealed that the lot a few metres away from the plaques was once owned by another Thomas Maxwell, a settler from Ireland, and who was not related to the Chelsea-shore Maxwells noted above. Although this Thomas Maxwell had died in 1897, more than 65 years before the plaques were set in the rock, perhaps the younger Thomas Maxwell, born in 1888, was his descendant? Perhaps a grandson?
I started my research by examining topographical maps of Cantley ranging from 1939 to 1984, given that Thomas had died in 1942 and Katie in 1973. The maps showed that no buildings had ever been recorded in surveys in that area, nor had any official roads been built near the plaques. Land registry records detailed the property’s expropriation in 1926 by the Gatineau Power Company (now Hydro-Québec) for its hydroelectric project. The vacant land was eventually sold by Hydro-Québec in 1973 and changed hands several times before a house was built there in 1992. This raised more questions: why was this couple memorialized on nearly unreachable and isolated private property—most likely shortly after their deaths in 1942 and 1973?
Genealogical research was my next step. Using the names and dates on the plaques, I searched newspaper obituaries and related social column announcements, such as weddings. These led me to the individuals I was hunting for. In spite of the presence of several different Maxwell families in the Gatineau Valley—in Cantley, Chelsea and La Pêche—no links could be found to connect them with Thomas Maxwell. It appears that their common surnames are simply coincidences. Although familial ties cannot be ruled out, they would be unlikely. Census records show that Thomas’s father and a few of his siblings were born in the United States, and that his grandfather had immigrated from Ireland before settling in Garafraxa Township in Ontario in the 1840s, quite far from the Gatineau Valley.
In Katie Burnett’s case, since her family origins can be proven more conclusively, we can state that she had no connection to the Burnetts of Chelsea. Her ancestors were from Scotland, with her father, James, immigrating to Canada in 1870. The Burnett family of Chelsea had emigrated from Ireland to this area some time before that.
This left unanswered the question of Thomas and Katie’s connection to the Gatineau Valley—a connection so strong it led them to be memorialized here. Would looking back at Thomas and Katie’s lives provide some clues? Civil records show that Thomas was born in Amaranth Township, county of Dufferin, Ontario, on July 28, 1888, to a farming family. His mother, Elizabeth (Eliza) Rainey died of typhoid a few days before his fifth birthday, and his father died shortly after, leaving Thomas an orphan at age seven. His much older half-sister Emily Jane took in Thomas and his siblings. They immigrated to Michigan to live with her and her husband, John Alfred Jordan, a maritime engineer who travelled extensively for his work.
As an adult, Thomas followed the travelling ways of his brother-in-law. The 1910 Minnesota census records him as a bookkeeper for a drilling company in Stuntz Township. That same year, he married Katherine (“Katie”) Grieg Burnett, on the American side of Sault Ste. Marie in Michigan. The couple immigrated back to Canada in 1915. This was also Katie’s return to Canada. She had been born in Owen Sound, Ontario, on November 4, 1885, to a carpenter, James Burnett, and Mary Ann Walker, a homemaker. Her paternal grandmother’s surname was Greig, which must have accounted for Katie’s unusual middle name. However, this name seems to have been misspelled at some point, appearing as “Grieg” on her memorial.
Fortuitously for my research, Thomas had become a travelling salesman for the Woods Manufacturing Company, confirmed by multiple censuses. Although they lived in Nepean, Ontario, for a while, the couple ended up in Hull at 285 Laurier Street (now the site of the Tour Notre-Dame). The Woods Manufacturing textile plant was conveniently located a short walk away from his home, at 200 Laurier (now the site of a parking lot). From 1906 until its expropriation by the National Capital Commission in 1960, the plant produced sportswear and canvas goods. During the world wars, the company made products vital to the war effort, including tents and gas mask covers.
Thomas was clearly a well-known and popular salesman for this company. When he died in 1942, at age 55, obituaries were placed in newspapers across the United States, in places such as Virginia, Florida, Mississippi, Texas and Colorado. One local obituary commented that he was “highly respected for his quiet manner and had made a host of friends throughout Ontario” and had “a large circle of friends, both in Ottawa and Hull.” A notice of his death made the front page of the Ottawa Citizen. It is possible these friendships and connections allowed the plaque and his ashes to be placed on the then Hydro-Québec-owned land in Cantley.
The newspaper tributes revealed that Thomas had been cremated at the Mount Royal Crematorium in Montreal. While Montreal may seem like quite a journey away, at the time it was the only place in Quebec where one could be legally cremated. Since the Maxwells were of Baptist and Presbyterian faith, Catholic restrictions that forbade cremation did not apply to them. On the other hand, this was an uncommon practice in the 1940s. Fewer than three percent of the deceased were cremated at that time. In response to my query, the Mount Royal Cemetery advised that Thomas Maxwell’s burial location was unknown.1 Katie’s name was not found in Mount Royal Cemetery records, nor could I find the location of her burial. Based on my research and similar to her husband, I believe her burial location is undocumented.
My newspaper research also finally uncovered the Maxwells’ elusive connection to the Gatineau Valley. Thomas’s tribute in the Ottawa Citizen noted that floral offerings were received from “neighbors of Ramsey’s Crossing” (a misspelling of “Ramsay”). This was once a well-known reference to the Ramsay Road area, in the Cascades neighbourhood of Chelsea, and it was the clue that led me to many of the answers to this mystery. Clearly, Thomas and Katie had lived on Ramsay Road at some time, leading to a new line of investigation.
We approached Chelsea residents familiar with Cascades, asking if they remembered the Maxwell couple. We met with success when Catherine Joyce, a former cottager on Ramsay Road at the end of Beattie Point, was able to confirm the location of the Maxwells’ Gatineau River waterfront cottage, recalling it from her youth. It was on a high hill with a narrow access down to the water, across the river from the bronze plaques in Cantley. This would finally explain the likely motivation for the location of Thomas and Katie’s plaques—the couple must have selected this site since it overlooks a landscape they had both likely cherished.
My genealogical research connected me to a living Maxwell relative—a daughter-in-law, Olga Maxwell, now residing in Montreal. Elderly herself, she conveyed through a caregiver that she recalled little about her in-laws’ final resting place. She did share, however, that her husband, Thomas and Katie’s son, had been cremated and interred on private property in Nova Scotia. She added that after the sale of their land, his ashes were moved and reinterred in a local cemetery. This suggests a non-traditional pattern in Maxwell family burial practices and, combined with the existence of the local folklore from the 1950s, supports the premise that the family ashes were indeed interred in rock in Cantley.
The mystery behind these almost-forgotten memorial plaques, protecting the cremated Maxwell remains, motivated this investigation and inspired one’s imagination. The names of Thomas Maxwell and Katie Burnett, cemented in the solid prehistoric rock of the Gatineau Hills will, perhaps, remain forever.
The author wishes to thank Marthe Charlebois and her family, R. J. (“Bob”) Hughes, Catherine Joyce, Louise Schwartz, Frances Curry, Margaret Phillips and Greg Searle for their contributions to unravelling the mystery of the Cantley plaques. She offers a special note of gratitude to Olga Maxwell. If you have any additional information on Thomas H. Maxwell or Katie Grieg Burnett, please contact Valérie Crevier via Cantley 1889 at email@example.com.
1 Conflicting information appeared on the findagrave.com website, which listed Mount Royal Cemetery as Thomas Maxwell’s burial site. However, the reliability of this information comes into question, since the database details can be created and edited by anyone, with no sources required. In November 2020, I entered a correction to the Maxwell information on findagrave.
2 Unknown to Catherine, Thomas Maxwell had died years earlier, so only Mrs. Maxwell was in residence.