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The following article was first published in Up the Gatineau! Volume 6.

Summer Bridges: Early Ferries on the Gatineau

by Joanne MacDonald

The ferry-scows on the lower Gatineau River served as summer bridges for the rural settlers who were predominantly of Irish and Scottish origins. The ferries, operating between the east and west banks in the ice-free season from late spring to late fall, were the only regular water transportation across the swiftly flowing river with its many rapids and waterfalls.

Crossings by these ferries spanned a period of nearly 100 years; the first scow appeared about 1850 and the last ceased operation about 1940. They were rendered obsolete with the construction of roads and convenient bridges, and lastly through the flooding by the hydro dams in the 1920s.

The scows were generally in the service of people living on the east side of the Gatineau who wanted access to the better roads and services on the west side.

Ownership of the 18 ferries between Kirk's Ferry and Low was either municipal of cooperative among a few families, no charge being levied in either case. The only commercial ferry was the most southerly, Kirk's (and later Fleming's), about 12 miles north of Hull. The scows that served as ferries were all flat-bottomed with upturned ends, and operated by oars, though five were connected to cables, and at least two had rudder-type boards.

Kirk's Ferry

What was probably the first ferry established on the Gatineau River is commemorated in the name of the settlement of Kirk's Ferry. Details of its nineteenth century operation are skimpy and the only reference to it in print appears in Rev. John Gourlay's book, History of the Ottawa Valley, published in 1896:

Mr. Thomas Kirk from Londonderry, Ireland came to the Gatineau shortly after the Blackburns [1829] and got land on both sides of the Gatineau at a place where the stream is flat and placid for some distance, a thing not that common on that rapid river. There he established what was long known as Kirk's Ferry. Teams and loads were ferried on a scow.

Canada's early census records make no mention of the occupation of ferryman. Thomas Kirk's occupation is listed several times as shoemaker, and by 1861 he was 76 years old and a widower. His youngest son, John, lived on the right bank opposite his father and is listed at that time as a tavern keeper, age 26, married to Mary Brooks, with six children. It seems logical that John could have initiated the ferry service as a commercial venture in conjunction with Kirk's Tavern, a popular stopping place for shantymen and coach travellers.

By the 1850s the ferry would have been part of the daily routine. The rural life style necessitated trips to the grist mill and the only one in the area was MacLaren's at Wakefield. The scows were the only way teams and wagons could cross the river. The earliest bridge across the river was the Alonzo Wright toll bridge at Limbour, built about 1860 in conjunction with Wright's "chateau."

The mail had to cross the river, as the stage coach travelled up the more densely populated west side. William Hamilton, Cantley's first post master, in 1857, may have used the ferry, or possibly just rowed across. A rowboat service existed certainly after the turn of the century. Sunday traffic must have been quite heavy as there were 55 Catholic families on the east side of the Gatineau in the 1850s whose closest place of worship was Old Chelsea until a chapel was built in Cantley in 1858.

How long the Kirks operated a ferry is uncertain. To quote Gourlay again: " ... the scow seems to have ceased as nothing larger than a small boat has been seen here for years." If Kirk's ferry service had ceased by the 1890s, it seems certain that the east bank residents were crossing, probably by rowboat, to catch the train at Kirk's Ferry station on its daily run between Hull and Kazabazua.

Fleming's ferry crossed about a half mile north of Eaton Chute, a narrow, picturesque waterfall which made many travellers nervous, but no boat or scow is ever remembered going over it. From Hellard Road to Prud'homme Road in Cantley is presumably the same crossing used by Kirk.

Paddy Fleming ferry
The Paddy Fleming ferry at Kirk's Ferry, photographed from the Cantley side of the Gatineau, circa 1912.

Paddy Fleming [of Cantley] operated the ferry from some time after the turn of the century until his early death in 1923, at which time Christie, a relative, took over, though only for a few years until the construction of the Chelsea Dam in 1927.

Fleming operated with large oars, but at a later date a submerged cable was added. Oarsmen were still needed in the spring, as the cable wasn't attached until after the high water period. There were also times when a rowboat with a motor would be chained to the side of the ferry to speed up the trip.

The cable was submerged in the water, but came up and over two pulleys mounted on posts on the upstream side of the ferry. The operator pulled the scow along the cable with a notched board. This cable still exists in Cantley. Alfred Hogan used it for a while in his hay hoist, and his son Mervyn later installed it in his sawmill.

Paddy is remembered as a practical joker-not above telling an evening passenger that they were at shore only to have him step out into the dark night waters. Apparently, he wouldn't try to collect that fare. Hector Milks of Cantley recalls the winter night he ignored Paddy's shouts, only to discover the next day that he had been walking on the ice dangerously close to open water as he crossed the river.

Though the ferry-scows coincided more closely with the horse-and-wagon period, cars started to appear about 1912. The toll regulations of 1920 issued by the West Hull Council included both:

For each passenger ten cents; luggage belonging to or carried by passengers and exceeding 25 pounds and not over 100 pounds, ten cents; for each additional hundred pounds or fraction thereof, ten cents. For each horse or single vehicle, thirty cents; for team of horses, fifty cents; for each sheep or hog, twenty-five cents; for hooved cattle, twenty-five cents; and all other goods and materials ten cents per hundred pounds or fraction thereof.

Presumably, Paddy had an arrangement, based on weight, for the mica and phosphate wagon loads he ferried to the train for Walter Cross.

In the summer, church picnics drew people from up the valley. William Mahon of Farrellton remembers taking the ferry to a 12th of July picnic and being met on the Cantley side by a three-seater express.

Ferries south of Wakefield

Copeland's ferry served about a dozen east bank families who lived along what is now the Edelweiss Road, and in toward Wilson's Corners. The William Copeland farm, about three quarters of a mile south of Wakefield village, and the Rockhurst train station were purchased by Eli Scharf in 1905. The municipally-funded ferry continued to run from the Copeland/Scharf landing until about 1918. By that time, its patrons had access to the covered bridge, known as Gendron's, built in 1915 and still in use [in 1980, later destroyed by fire and rebuilt as a pedestrian only bridge].

The Caves ferry
The Caves ferry, circa 1940.

Ira Scharf remembers the last scow built at his father's landing by John O'Connor and Charlie Stevenson, about 1912-1914. This was the period when second scows were built at various places along the river. As a young lad Ira recalls the supplies for Deziel's store in St-Pierre-de-Wakefield coming over on the ferry. People seemed to prefer to use the toll road along the west bank of the river rather than the east bank road.

To the south of Copeland's were four scows maintained by the farm families who used them. The Bradley scow, had an elevated cable similar to the one further north, at Alcove, and also had a board on the upstream side. It operated until about 1925, when the Bradleys got road access out to Edelweiss. They crossed to the Moffat-Craig farm.

To the south, the families of Clarks, Daugherty and Tom McBryde crossed by scow with an elevated cable, to the town line of Hull and Wakefield [the line dividing the municipalities of Hull or West Hull and Wakefield]. Their scow had a four-foot-long pine board, pivoted in the middle, with a chain and crank at each end to raise and lower it into the water. Their water travel ended when the river road was built about 1925.

The Caves' and Reids' scow landed just north of the outlet of Meech Creek into the Gatineau. It used oars, as the current was never strong enough for a cable, according to William Caves. It continued in use until about 1940, and appears to have been the longest running one on the lower Gatineau. Joe Burnett and Hugh Clark, just north of Larrimac, used the scow built, among others, by Davey Caves to move farm machinery across to the west bank about 1904.

Ferries north of Wakefield: Alcove to Farrellton and Low

The Alcove scow probably carried the most traffic of the ten scows in the area. Municipally funded and sometimes known as McSheffrey's ferry, it transported the families of Rogers, Woodburns, Dowds, Maxwells, McLaughlins, and three families of McSheffreys.

The first ferry at Alcove was known as the "school house" ferry as it linked up with the school on the west bank. After the turn of the century it was moored more to the south, and about 1912-1914 it was fixed to an elevated cable. The cable, "as high as the ceiling," ran from near the Methodist church to the east bank. When the water was high, in the spring, it was possible to pull the ferry along the cable by hand, rather than reaching up with a stick. The water was so high one spring that Alfie Pierce was thrown from his rowboat by the cable, but he hung on and was rescued.

The Alcove scow
The Alcove scow, about 1912.

The ferry was attached to the cable by two chains with pulleys. The short chain was in the bow and was adjusted from the bottom. Upon disembarking, chains were wrapped around stout posts to secure the ferry. This could be an awkward time for nervous horses, and teams were known to back up unexpectedly, dumping the contents of the express, not to mention the driver, into the river.

Livestock occasionally rode the ferry. William Mahon of Farrellton remembers the time he was rowing across with a dozen cattle when they all shifted "and the scow sank to my waist." They all made if safely to shore. Generally, men and animals were so well used to the ferry that wheels were rarely blocked, according to one long-time resident, though one would be careful transporting a donkey engine.

The Alcove ferry ceased to operate when the River Road was built on the east side, about 1920, which gave access to the Gendron Bridge.

Nearby, Alfie Pierce's scow had an elevated cable and ran over to "the main road to Masham." Just to the south was Jack Donovan's Ferry, used by the Connors and McClintons.

Above Alcove, about a mile and a half, was Mullins' Landing, used mainly by the Fairbairns and Colberts. The east side landing was about 600 yards north of Mullin's Creek, and on the west bank a large camping ground now occupies the area. From Mullin's, people could walk on the tracks to either the Alcove or Farrellton train station, about the same distance either way.

The last scow at Mullin's was built in 1913 by Charlie Johanssen of Rupert, assisted by William Mahon. "I made the irons for it . . . I cut up old wagon tires and made braces. . . . They fit one and a half feet on the bottom and two feet on the top."

There were two floors about four inches apart. The top planks were loose, so they could be lifted for bailing out the scow. For this purpose, the farmers used a broad grain shovel, "something everyone had."

Moving northward, the next scow belonged to the McSheffreys-Joe, John, David and James. Above them was the Jim and Bob Colbert scow, and farther up, the scow of Edward Colbert and son George.

About a mile south of the Farrellton bridge was Daly's Landing, where the scow operated on an elevated cable. It served three or four families of Newcombes and Paddy Bradley. John McSheffrey described it as "a big scow, 25 by 30 feet, sheathed on the underside, tarred and with runners. There were three stringers to carry the floor."

North of the present Farrellton bridge, about a half mile, the Wells and Thompsons operated a scow. A few miles above them, Jim Kelly and the Carls operated the last scow before Low. The building of the Farrellton covered bridge, Pont Chenier, in 1914, ended the scow era, though there was a lapse of a few years until all had overland access to it.


The village of Low is noted for the spectacular Paugan Falls, and the Fitzpatricks operated a scow about a half mile below it. Mrs. Ruggles Fitzpatrick, married in 1915, remembers their scow was the second one built. They shared it with the Nelson Fitzpatrick family, Albert and Walter Wilson, and William and George Gracey.

Being located so close to the falls, it took two men to operate the oars and in the fall they had to cope with heavy slush conditions. Even when crossing the river by rowboat, an experienced man took the oars.

A winter roadway existed at the main ferry crossings. To strengthen the ice, it was watered for four or five nights with the water shovelled out of cut holes. Boughs marked the finished road.

During the construction of the Paugan Dam in 1928, the river course was altered and the scow couldn't land, as the banks were too soft. At that time, a big rowboat was substituted.

When the roadway opened on top of the Paugan Dam in 1928, crossing the river was still exciting. The view from the 135-foot-high dam is breathtaking and Mrs. Fitzpatrick recalls, "There was no railing on the roadway, which wasn't too upsetting if the horses were quiet."

To cross the Gatineau safely in the early days, the people either took a ferry or a rowboat, or waited until the river was well frozen. The first person crossing would carry a long pole. Many men and horses were lost as they pushed their luck in the few weeks at either end of winter, when it was normally impossible to cross.

Replaced by year-round bridges, the ferries were put aside. The farmers, no doubt, were glad to be rid of their maintenance, and the tough job of pulling them up in the winter.

There was a co-operativeness about ferry-scows, inherent in their use. Farm machinery crossed the river regularly, sometimes to finish work on the owner's split farm, but often to help out a neighbour. Sometimes a mower would be tied between two rowboats and ferried across in a manner requiring great coordination and courage.

If the construction of bridges and dams hadn't stopped the scows, their demise was assured in any case. "Now that the logs are so plentiful, you couldn't use a scow," said a man who remembers when the logs in the river were giant pine, not the choking pulp logs.

[This article was originally published in 1980. The information and photos were collected by the author from local seniors between 1973 and 1977. The Gatineau River is no longer used to float pulp logs which were encased in booms and monitored by river tug boats.]

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