The Forgotten Wharves of
The United Counties of Prescott - Russell

by Jean - François Beaulieu
Cumberland, Ontario


here was a time when commercial navigation played a major role in the United Counties of Prescott-Russell. Some 41 wharves existed in the seven townships of the United Counties. These wharves were situated in East Hawkesbury, West Hawkesbury, Longueuil, Alfred, North Plantagenet, Clarence and Cumberland. In this article, I will briefly give an overview of the early history of the commercial navigation, then I will discuss the building methods and finally I will elaborate on the historical aspect of the various wharves encountered in each township.

Early History Of The Commercial Navigation

Since the late 18th Century, numerous land concessions were given to settlers in the above-mentioned townships. The development of the various settlements of the townships was delayed because of the lack of good roads and infrastructure. In the early 19th Century, Pointe-Fortune, Hawkesbury and l’Orignal were the main settlements in Eastern Ontario. Early settlers were mainly United Empire Loyalists. The early boats used by some forwarding companies were Durham boats and Batteaux but they were very slow. Thomas (1896) and Perspective Jeunesse (1975) mention that the lumber industry developed the steam navigation on the Ottawa River in 1819, year of the construction of the first steamship, the ‘Union’ by Thomas Mears of Hawkesbury for Philimon Wright of Hull. From 1819 up to 1828, two steamers only used the Upper Ottawa River regularly. The commercial navigation, which was a seasonal event going from spring to late fall, began slowly in the early 19th Century. According to Thomas (1896) there were several active boat companies in 1831 including: The Ottawa and Rideau Forwarding Company, The Montreal and Rideau Forwarding Company and The Ottawa Steamboat Company. The year 1834, saw the opening of the Carillon, Chute à Blondeau, and Grenville canals which allowed steamships to travel between Montreal and Ottawa. Another steamship company, the Ottawa Steamers opened in 1841. The wharves prosperity extended from the 1830s onward reaching their highest peak in the late 1880s. Since the 1850s, several wharves were also serving as ferry landings. Intense commercial activities were seen around the wharves. By the mid 19th Century, numerous river-front villages were thriving, among them: Chute à Blondeau, Little Rideau, Treadwell, Wendover, Clarence, Cumberland. In the late 1860s and 1870s settlements such as Rockland and Lefaivre became villages due to the presence of the wharves. In 1864, Ottawa Steamers became the Ottawa River Navigation Company which acquired the Carillon-Grenville Railroad company. In 1883, the Atlantic Railroad Company, owned by the lumber baron J.R. Booth arrived inland in the various townships followed by the Grand Trunk Railroad Company and other companies. In 1890, The Ottawa Forwarding Company, a boat company, opened for business followed in 1892 by the Ottawa Transportation company. In 1914, The Ottawa River Navigation Company, The Ottawa Forwarding Company, and the Ottawa Transportation Company merged to become the Ottawa Transport Company in an effort to compete with the railroads.

Three Wharf Construction Methods

The first type: The early wooden wharves were built with timber-crib boxes. The lumber used was mainly pine and tamarack which contained a natural creosote. Peter Adams (1989) indicates that 20 pieces of timber were lashed together to form cribs. Derry and Williams (1961) state that a similar technique, the Coffer Dam technique, was used since the 1830s and that the caissons technique was introduced in England in the 1840s. According to George Ellis (1906) caissons and Coffer Dam techniques were also used in pier construction for railroad bridges and docks. Caissons formed of square timber and filled with earth and stone were used as permanent piers. Different types of Coffer Dams, watertight walls of timber filled with clay, were used only during the construction in order to exclude water from portions of the river beds. Both techniques were used by architects and engineers. (Two paintings of Robert C. Todd exhibited at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa depict the sawmill, shipyard and caissons wharves of Allan Gilmour at Wolf Cove near Québec City in 1840) Air-tight caissons were used extensively in the 1850s. Early maps show the wharves in a square shape. Caissons piers were added to certain square wharves extending them into a rectangular shape. The second type: consists of concrete wharves. There is indication that concrete was in use in Hawkesbury as early as the 1820s. According to Derry and Williams (1961), reinforced concrete using cast iron mesh was first developed in the 1840s. Elisabeth Vincent (1993) shows that the use of Hydraulic Portland Cement, imported from England by steamboats, was becoming predominant in Canada in the late 1850s. She (1993) further states that in Coffer Dam were used to make concrete walls and slabs. Industrial concrete wharves were found in Hawkesbury in the 1860s and in Rockland in the 1880s.

The third type: the wooden wharves on piles which became popular in the early 1870s were of a vertical L - or T- shape with a rectangular earth and stone embankment. The wooden wharves had a normal life span of about 50 years mainly because of the inclement weather. They constantly had to be repaired or rebuilt. Most of the wharves were located on boundary line lots. Each settlement had roads built to give access to the wharf. Wooden and concrete wharves were used until the mid 1920s. It is probable that all three types of wharves coexisted.

This page was launched April 28, 1997.