Up the Gatineau! Articles
The following article was first published in Up the Gatineau! Volume 47.
High Times at High Falls
During the early 1900s, life was dominated by World War I, the 1918 influenza epidemic, prohibition, industrialization, and social and economic change. City dwellers found an escape 15 kilometres from Ottawa on the shore of the Gatineau River in Cantley.
Nearly opposite the river from Chelsea is a clearing and grove known as High Falls. Owing to its beautiful situation, it is very popular, though not very easy of access. It is reached by driving up the Chelsea road from Hull, and crossing at the Wright bridge above Ironsides. A further stretch of three miles along the river road and this pretty ground is reached, the distance being ten miles from Ottawa.
The Evening Citizen, June 4, 1910
This “pretty ground” in Cantley was beautifully situated indeed, at the foot of a forested hill that sloped to a lovely meadow and a shady riverside grove. It became known as “High Falls,” the same name as the spectacular Gatineau River rapids and waterfall that washed against its shallow rocky shoreline. At times it was referred to as “Cantley Grove” or, because of its proximity to the Alonzo Wright Bridge, as “Wright’s Grove.”
In those days, the strong south-flowing river broke against the 20-acre Chelsea Island, which blocked its path. This generated turbulent rapids, creating the High Falls waterfall between the Cantley shore and the east side of the island. Today, Hydro-Québec’s Chelsea Dam and power plant sit on the semi-submerged island, joining the Cantley and Chelsea shores. After the dam’s construction in 1927 the river was flooded, creating a tranquil reservoir known as Horseshoe Bay. Submerged under its waters are centuries of human history with mysteries yet to be solved.
In the mid-1800s, the High Falls waterfall was perfect for the lucrative timber industry:
The Montreal Herald, in an article entitled “How a Deal1 gets to London,” thus describes the Saw Mills of Messrs. Gilmour & Co. the High Falls of the Gattineau [sic]: At this point the river is divided into branches by a steep rocky island, the Eastern and largest branch being some seven hundred and fifty yards wide, with a fall of thirty or forty feet. The water power is obtained from the Eastern channel, and the whole breadth between the island and the main land is covered with mill buildings and the necessary weirs, dams, flood gates, and bridges.
The Ottawa Daily Citizen, July 10, 1852
The island referred to in the previous quote was Chelsea Island, with its industrial community of Gilmours’ Gatineau Mills. The Gilmour Company, later Gilmour and Hughson, owned all land and timber rights on the island and the nearby mainland on both the Cantley and Chelsea shores. By 1900, after the mills had closed, the island was developed as a cottage resort beside the High Falls waterfall, which by then was also becoming known as “Chelsea Falls.” The nearby Chelsea mainland became a recreational area, with its large parkland area known as “the Grove.” The opposite Cantley shore was becoming popular for visitors too, and on that side the waterfall was still referred to as High Falls.
As Chelsea developed, so too did tourism. Especially when train service to Chelsea from Ottawa was introduced in the 1890s, tourists from Hull and Ottawa began to discover the beauty of the Gatineau River. A short bridge connected the mainland to Chelsea Island, with its sandy beach on the eastern shore. From here was a spectacular view of the falls, with the rugged Cantley mainland as background.
Early photos confirm that tourists and photographers travelled to both Chelsea and Cantley shores to view the churning rapids and dramatic falls, especially during the turbulent high water levels of spring. Photos from the Cantley side prove there were intrepid visitors intrigued enough to explore Cantley’s undeveloped wild and natural landscape.
However, one drawback to tourism was that travel to High Falls was not as easy as getting to Chelsea. Unlike Chelsea, Cantley had no train service. To travel to and from “town,” most Cantley residents preferred the ferry crossing to the village of Kirk’s Ferry, quite a distance upriver from High Falls. Of course, there was a road to Cantley from Ottawa, which first followed the west side of the river, then crossed the Alonzo Wright Bridge and travelled almost five kilometres northward along the main Cantley Road. Horse-drawn carriage was still common in this early period.
Long-distance walking was also popular. The great Canadian poet Archibald Lampman often walked from Ottawa to the Gatineau Hills. His poem “Heat” was inspired after walking up the steep Mile Hill, which begins at the junction of the main road to Chelsea (now Highway 105) and the approach to the Alonzo Wright Bridge. Was Lampman ever adventurous enough to cross that bridge, then hike along the river to explore Cantley’s High Falls? Many walkers likely did.
Did river-lovers walk, wade or swim across the river from Chelsea Island to explore the opposite Cantley shore? It was quite possible. Cantley’s Lola Foley (1911–2007) remembered summers before the 1927 flooding. The river “dried up,” making it easy to “hop from rock to rock” across to Chelsea where her family attended summer St. Stephen’s church services.2
By 1910, cars were becoming more affordable and popular. City drivers looked for interesting places to drive outside the city, perhaps for a picnic by the river. According to newspaper accounts, High Falls seemed a popular destination for automobiles.Was there a swimming area at Cantley’s High Falls? It appears so:
Numerous complaints have been received by the Hull provincial authorities against the conduct of bathers along the east bank of the Gatineau River in the neighbourhood of High Falls. This nuisance has been especially noticeable during week-ends, and reports given the authorities state that parties of automobilists from Ottawa have been in the habit of parking their cars on the Cantley side of the river and bathing without costumes.
“Heard about Town,” The Citizen, July 18, 1921.
Apart from the “numerous complaints,” the High Falls parkland had fewer restrictions than the residential Chelsea Island and its developed nearby mainland. Residents close to Chelsea’s Grove complained about the noise and individuals who were “drunk and boisterous ... disgraceful to our village and disastrous to the morals of children and young people ....” By 1913, to control the crowds and their behaviour, the Grove closed on Sundays, and group outings had to be booked ahead on Saturdays.3 Where else could groups go to enjoy the Gatineau on their weekends?
The newspapers reported on several events that took place at High Falls on Sundays. Activities involved large gatherings, which suggest there was a sizeable field there.
On June 28, 1917, the Ottawa Evening Journal reported:
The annual Sunday School picnic of Zion Presbyterian Church, of Hull, was one of the most successful in the history of the Church. A spot on the Gatineau, just below High Falls, was chosen as the picnic grounds, and a very enjoyable day was spent.
The article noted some of the many entertaining races that took place, including that “Mr. R. G. Nesbitt had the distinction of being the only person on the grounds to carry off three prizes in one race, being the only entry in the married man’s race ...” and that, for one of the ladies’ races, “In order to win, the contestant had to choose a man at one end of the track and bring him back to the starting point ....” The article ended with this: “Quite a sum of money was realized from an ice cream booth which was in charge of the young ladies.”
Groups were permitted to sell ice cream and soft drinks at High Falls. This is confirmed in the minutes of the Cantley Council meeting of July 1921:
Councillor Raphael Ricard now enters and presented petition of Philorum Charron for license to sell Ice Cream and Soft Drinks for summer season of 1921 at or near High Falls. Moved ... that this application be granted for the sum of Three Dollars. Carried.4
The remote location of High Falls, surrounded by forest, was ideal for clandestine activities such as the centuries-old blood sport of cockfighting. A “cocking main” is a prestige fight involving specially bred cocks outfitted with paraphernalia such as spurs with sharp hooks. The birds are placed in an enclosed pit to fight for the purposes of gambling and entertainment. This “sport” has always been illegal in Canada, yet it survives surreptitiously in certain quarters of the country. In May 1910, The Evening Citizen reported about such an event, in an article dramatically titled and laid out.
POLICE RAIDED COCKING MAIN
Wholesale Capture Up The
Over 50 Names Taken And
Police Got a Tip and others
... The two officers started shortly after noon taking the road up the river driving steadily until they reached High Falls, a little resort about opposite Chelsea. Here they found the cocking main in full progress, two battles having been pulled off.
At the entrance to the grove the two officers were held up by a man in charge of the gate who demanded 25 cents admission from each. This they refused to pay, pushing through the grove right into the pit where the birds were struggling. A crowd of over two hundred men were intently watching the birds in the pit and the presence of the officers was not noticed for a few minutes. The gate keeper arrived in the wake of the constables, however, and a general alarm was shouted. There was a wild scurrying for cover and the audience soon melted into the woods, but not before the names of over fifty had been secured. The officers then proceeded to confiscate the birds, which they found tethered in the regulation manner .... Rev. Father Dumhaut had warned his parishioners against attending the fight ....
... High Falls is about seven miles from Hull and the spot where the main was pulled off is in the neighbourhood of Wright’s grove .... most of the birds were owned locally and some of those taken were very valuable. The penalty for taking part in the main is a very severe one. It is said that before the police arrived between $200 and $300 had changed hands on the fight.
A few days later, on June 4, the same newspaper reported:
... Were it not for the occasional crate of live “chickens” in the rigs, it would have appeared as if a very large picnic was being held. The appliance of the excursionists differed somewhat from the ordinary picnickers seen around this locality. No ladies were present, and the “wet goods” played a rather prominent part in the procession.
When the authorities arrived on the grounds early in the afternoon it was difficult to convince them that it was not a cock fight, and it will take a strong argument to show the judge that it was otherwise. The hilarity displayed in the early morning was conspicuous by its absence on the homeward trip.
Were Cantley residents aware of their popular High Falls Grove? So far, there has been no mention of it in local reminiscences or family stories shared with Cantley 1889, our local historical society. Perhaps there are reasons for this.
Most Cantley folk were members of hard-working farming families who preferred to relax away from nature with friends and family—sharing meals, playing cards, and enjoying seasonal parties. For the close-knit Cantley community, “city people” were strangers. Social highlights were the annual Cantley Picnic and the Orange Hall’s community suppers, dances and bingos. Riverside picnics and swimming were of no interest to the majority of Cantley people. The river meant danger to their livestock if they strayed too close to shore. From the main Cantley Road, the High Falls shore was hidden behind woodland at the southern edge of Cantley, so perhaps many Cantley people were unaware it even existed.
By 1925, the Gatineau Power Company (now Hydro-Québec) had expropriated Chelsea Island and the nearby mainland on both the Cantley and Chelsea sides of the river to build the Chelsea Dam. Much of this land, previously owned by a few farmers, but mostly by the Gilmour and Hughson Company, is still owned by Hydro-Québec.
Today, most of High Falls—the spectacular waterfall and the pretty grove on the east shore—rest beneath the calm waters of Horseshoe Bay. Nearby, adjacent to the Chelsea Dam parking lot and hydro pylons, there remains an eight-acre property of gently sloping forest with shallow rocky shoreline. In 2016, the Municipality of Cantley purchased this property from Hydro-Québec. What will its future be?
The author thanks Cantley 1889 researcher Patricia Lawlor and Up the Gatineau! contributor Frances Curry for their excellent research on this area.
- A deal was a term used during the 19th century lumber era for a specific size of wood plank or, in other situations, a type of timber. Refer to woodworkinghistory.com.
- An 1899 survey noted in a 1909 report confirms seasonal differences in water levels. From a Canada Mines Branch publication by Fritz Cirkel, “Report on the Iron Ore Deposits along the Ottawa (Quebec side) and Gatineau Rivers,” Ottawa, Government Printing Bureau, 1909, pp. 138–139.
- Minutes from the municipal council meeting of East Hull held in Cantley’s town hall, July 4, 1921. City of Gatineau Archives, Ville de Touraine (1889–1974) Procès-verbaux/G003_1921.