Steamboats on the Ottawa River

Between 1832 and 1914, steamers plied on Lac Deschênes between Aylmer and Chats Falls. From Quyon Wharf in Pontiac Bay a horse railway took passengers to Chats Lake where other steamships continued on to Portage du Fort, Cobden, and Pembroke.

For more than 80 years Lac Deschênes was the home of speedy steamboats. It started in 1832 when Lady Colborne was launched from the wharf near Symmes Inn in Aylmer. Charles Symmes and his friends Joseph Aumond and John Egan had formed Aylmer’s first steamship company in 1831. Symmes also built the stone Inn to accommodate passengers using the steamer service. Lady Colborne was a wooden ship, 100 feet long, with a beam of 34 feet over her paddle boxes and with a 34 horsepower engine. For seven months of the year, she left Aylmer four mornings a week for Fitzroy Harbour, returning the same day. On the other days she was rented for towing.

Passenger service was extended beyond Lac Deschênes in 1836 when a second steamship, George Buchanan, was launched above Chats Falls. Lady Colborne then added a stop at the island in midriver (the Chats Falls were much wider before the dam and power house were built) to let passengers transfer. A portage trail across the island had been improved and led to a small wharf on Chats Lake. When the river flow was suitable the Buchanan could reach Portage du Fort, but at other times the upstream journey ended at the head of Chats Lake.

In June 1846, a larger and more splendid iron steamer called the Emerald was launched by the Union Forwarding and Railway (UF&R) Company. She was built in Aylmer, and was 140 feet long, and had two decks. The Emerald had staterooms, and a well-appointed dining room and bar. In September 1846, the Company launched a second ship above Chats Falls, the Oregon. To transfer passengers and freight around the falls and between the two ships the Company built a three mile long railway, raised on trestles above the rocky and marshy ground. Horse drawn cars were used to transport travellers and goods, so there were no steep gradients, but passengers had to climb a long set of steps to reach it from the new wharf, called Quyon Wharf and built at the SW corner of Pontiac Bay.

The photo shows S.S. Ann Sisson at Quyon Wharf in the 1870s. The white horse of the horse railway can just be seen on the platform at the right, reached by a long stairway.

For a few years it was possible to sail up the Ottawa from Ste Anne’s locks in Montreal to Mattawa, in steamships which became smaller as the journey proceeded upriver. Rapids and waterfalls had to be bypassed by portage roads and trails, and this must have been an exciting journey. (From the Mattawa River, there was a short portage to Lake Nipissing, and then down French River to Georgian Bay, a route 300 miles shorter than the St Lawrence River route.)

From Ottawa one could take a ‘first class omnibus’ to catch the 8:30 am sailing of the Ann Sisson at Aylmer. “Breakfast was enjoyed during the leisurely sail on Lac Deschênes with several stops at small settlements on the way. The ride around Chats Falls on the horse-railroad took about twenty minutes, at the end of which one would board the Alliance, due to sail at 11:00 am. Midday dinner was taken in the ‘palatial’ dining saloon of this Chats Lake vessel. If it was possible to get up as far as Gould’s Wharf (Portage du Fort), one then took the waiting stagecoach for the twelve mile ride through the forests to Cobden, there to board the Muskrat for the final sail to near Pembroke. Another meal, described as ‘tea’, was taken on this small vessel, completing the experience of enjoying three meals in one day on three different steamboats. Pembroke would be reached in the early evening. To go further upriver after spending the night at Pembroke, one had to start at 1:00 pm next day on the Pembroke or the Pontiac for the sail to Des Joachims, where an overnight stay could be made in another of the riverside hotels then famous. The return journey to Aylmer could be done in three days, but most travellers took more time in order to enjoy fully the beauties of the great river, not a few going all the way to Mattawa as long as the service lasted.” (Legget).

By the 1860s the UF&R Company owned nine steamers, which travelled between Lake Deschênes and Portage du Fort, and the Upper Ottawa Steamboat Company started up in competition. However the railway was advancing slowly up the valley. Once the railway reached Pembroke, the UF&R Company gave up hope of competing and stopped all passenger services, including the horse railway, at the end of the 1879 navigation season.

The G.B. Greene, often described as the ‘Queen of the River,’ was built for the Upper Ottawa Improvement Company in 1896. She was used primarily for hauling logs on Lac Deschênes, but provided occasional passenger trips out of Aylmer, notably evening excursion trips which became very popular in the years just before the First World War.

Pleasure trips are an idea that could be revived. Or how about a commuter ferry from Aylmer, meeting buses at Britannia or Stillwater Park, to reduce some of the congestion on the Champlain Bridge?

This article first appeared in Telltale, Nepean Sailing club newsletter, Oct 1993, p 8-9.
Sources: “Ottawa Waterway” by Robert Legget, University of Toronto Press, and
“Aylmer, Québec, Its Heritage” by Diane Aldred, Aylmer Heritage Association.