by Michael Davidson - April 1998.
Between 1873 and 1930 the Gilmour and Hughson Company had a lumber mill operation at the eastern part of Jacques-Cartier Park. The historical remains in the park, while not spectacular, will reward the intelligent visitor with a pleasant visit to the lumbering past of Ottawa. This paper presents a guide to these remains.
The eastern end of Jacques-Cartier Park is not as well known as the western end where the Winterlude snow park and Canada Day festivities take place. It gets its share of traffic, though, either through cyclists touring through the bike trail or from soccer players using the field for their games. The park has your basic green leafy civic park grassy landscaping which, although pleasant enough on a sunny day, usually suggests any historical artifacts were long ago covered with grass sod by the groundskeeper. The photograph here shows Gilmour's steam mill at the mouth of Brewery Creek in the 1920's.
Passerby’s of the park entrance on Laurier besides the bridge will find a panel reminding them of the great fire of Hull in 1900 and how it spread through the Gilmour and Hughson Company wood piles which were located in the park. Motorists parking at the lower parking lot to admire the view of the Rideau Falls will find there a plaque telling them of the natives, intrepid explorers, and voyageurs who have traveled along the Ottawa River. While these are an excellent start to our expedition, and our first notice of the Gilmour and Hughson Company, today we are hunting bigger game than just historical plaques.
In 1841 James and Allan Gilmour took over the Montreal branch of their parent firm Ritchie & Co. Shortly afterwards the new firm Gilmour & Co. opened an office in Bytown, at Wellington and Kent, from which they carried on the business of procuring timber and sawn lumber for the Quebec market. They also sold supplies for lumber camps. Through 1841-1853 Gilmour and Co. teams were lumbering along the Gatineau River where the company had acquired rights to cut trees. The Brewery Creek site was bought in 1874. At this time they built a wood mill which burnt down a year later. In 1880 Gilmour & Co. moved to more central Elgin Street offices although the eighties were for them, as many other wood mills along the Ottawa, a decade of extensive debt and retrenchment. Skead Mills at Westboro failed at the same time for example.
Gilmour and Hughson built the Brewery Creek office and a new mill in 1893. In the mill logs clamped to carriages would be forced by steam engines against high speed saw blades. The cut lumber was carried by horse drawn railcars and stacked over the area of the modern Jacques Cartier Park. It would be loaded onto barges from either the Hull wharf, then known as the ship yards, or their own wharf at the bottom of Brewery creek.
In the year 1900 the great fire swept through Hull. Two million board-feet of of their stacked wood was lost although the office building was spared. As a result of the fire there was widespread public protest against the practice of stacking wood inside city limits. The International Pulp and Paper Company bought the site in the 1920’s and the company was dismantled in 1930. The Federal District Commission purchased the land from the IPPC in 1933 and removed the entire mill infrastructure excepting the head office and mill smokestack. The smokestack was demolished in the 1950’s.
The most prominent monument in the park to the Gilmour and Hughson Company is the head office which is a charming stone building which still graces the park at the extreme end of Laurier. Built in 1893 by mason Richard Lester this two story structure uses a motley variety of types and finishes of tone. There is a band of red sandstone around the ashlar foundation and on the chimney. The lintels and window bases are of brown sandstone. The walls themselves are a mix of smaller fine limestone mixes with larger blocks of fossiliferous limestone with corals and shells. While most stone surfaces show natural breaks, some have been mechanically milled flat. There are some stone carving stuck here and there on the walls, not as a part of some grand architectural scheme but, apparently because the stone supplier had them surplus and made the mason a good deal on them. The high quality of these carvings and the type of stone used suggest they may have been left over from the construction of the Parliament buildings.
The inside of the building is not very interesting although if you find it open you might want to step in and have a look. There was a bicycle lending operation there in the summer of 1997. During the sixties the building hosted a Hull theatre troupe. Today the park maintenance staff uses it.
As Jocelyne Cossette has pointed out, the Gilmour and Hughson building has a striking different architecture than the headquarters of the other lumber companies. The Bronson Company office on Victoria Island is made of red brick and is very residential looking. The Booth Company, now E.B. Eddy, office on Albert Island is constructed in brick and has a utilitarian shoebox-shape. The old E.B. Eddy Company office, now lost, in Hull was made of stone but was larger and more of a corporate centre than the homely Gilmour and Hughson building.
Go to the bike trail behind the office and walk north for about 50 paces. At this point you want to duck into the trees and look down to the bottom of the ravine at Brewery creek. What you should see, right at the water’s edge, is an old stone foundation wall. The adventurous may climb down the hill to explore it further but it is a difficult climb. There are informal trails which go about the ravine slope and these are very worthwhile to explore. This structure was likely built around the time the Gilmour and Company bought and set up the Brewery Creek site in 1874. It was a base for a conveyor, or jack-hammer as they were called, that would pull sorted logs up the hill to be cut by a steam powered saw. The structure that was to become the ruins is not shown on the insurance plan of the site for 1903 or 1918. On these plans it does show that there was a big U-shaped mill with its own piling area just up the hill from our ruin which the conveyor was likely feeding. The photograph below, scanned from Hurling Down the Pine shows a log on a jack-ladder at Boyle's Mill in Fort Coulonge, Quebec.
The ruin foundation
is about 9.2 meters across along the waterfront and 8.9 meters deep.
The front wall is 2.8 meters high and 70 cm thick. In the walls there
are two openings each only 75 cm wide - one facing the river and the other
facing north. Perhaps there was a door at the back which is now lost.
The concrete used in the building has aged well. There is no floor
visible. Instead it looks like the building had red brick walls and
one of these walls had tumbled down flat inside. There is also a pile of
sawdust dumped there. The bottom lintel of the front door was finished
using some kind of mechanical stone cutter/grinder. At the bottom
of the south wall there are other finely finished architectural stones
which were not originally destined for this rough project.
Just to one side of the structure are a dozen or so concrete anchors. The concrete anchor blocks are about 1.2 meter square at the base plate and taper up to 1.5 meters high. The anchors were made from about a cubic meter of mixed stone and concrete each. Each has a steel peg poking through the top. These were used to anchor the floating walkways used by the workers sorting the logs brought down from the Gatineau River. When the creek was rehabilitated, the anchors were dragged up on shore and left in a heap.
A definite soil layer of rotting sawdust from a foot to eight feet deep is exposed along the bank of Brewery Creek. During the winter, if you walk on the ice up from the estuary, or skirt along the trail beside the creek in summer, you can see how great mounds of sawdust were dumped over the banks.
In 1888, the mills in the Ottawa area were producing around 288 million board feet of lumber. The mill saws had blades a half-inch thick and produced sawdust and wood waste in a volume comparable to the cut lumber production. Tales of Yankee Power: in the 19th century, an Order-In-Council exempted the mills on the Ottawa River for two miles above and below the Chaudiere Falls from the River and Streams Protection act. When they were building the MacDonald-Cartier Bridge, the construction team had to dig through ten meters of sawdust, logs and wood waste to get to the river bottom. It was estimated that 8% of logs transported an average distance by water became waterlogged and sank. The rotting sawdust would accumulate methane and be in danger of exploding.
Courtney Bond in "Hurling Down the Pine" writes:
"The sawdust question was almost a perennial one. In 1913 aquatic clubs in Ottawa protested that "every night between 5 and 6 great blocks of scrap came floating down." Booth was using a slash-burner by then; it was probably not from his mills. In 1919, sawdust "explosions" occurred in the river, and a shoal of sawdust a hundred yards long lay below "Bronson Island" behind the Parliament buildings."
In the shallow water along the shore of Brewery Creek may be found antique debris left from the operation although the heavy underbrush will make it difficult for the explorer to keep near the water in his or her search. Iron cable, links of chain, old rusty iron strap connectors and other iron pieces such as blacksmith spikes and nails may be found in abundance. I found a part of a saw blade from the mill and also shards of Victorian-looking pottery that I think may have been ice-rafted from further up the creek. Bricks, especially fire bricks, and some other remains may be found along the Ottawa River shore.
There is a short riveted steel tower which was likely set up as a convenient steering mark for boats rounding the bend at Rockcliffe Park. Its riveted construction suggests that it was fabricated around 1920. If you go due east from the tower you will see in the river remains of the company wharf. That wharf almost certainly dates to the 19th century. The steel tower was likely built after the mill closed else it would have interferred with traffic on and off the wharf. Various kinds of debris are found in the shallow water to the south of the wharf and tower along the shore of the Ottawa.
Brewery Creek is a channel of the Ottawa River that passes around Hull making it in fact an island. The Indians were said to use the route to bypass the Chaudier falls. The lower part of the creek is a delightful and secluded nature reserve. In the years 1944-45, the British High Commissioner, Malcolm MacDonald, would row across the river from his home at Earnscliffe, to study the birds there. The result was the book The Birds of Brewery Creek, published in 1947. I have seen herons and other beautiful birds along the creek as well as carp splashing around in the shallows in the spring.
Hurling Down the Pine. Courtney C.J. Bond and John W. Hughson. The Historical Society of Gatineau, 1964. An excellent and extremely valuable book as are all the books by Bond.
Bureau de la Gilmour and Hughson Limited, Parc Jacques-Cartier, Hull, Québec. Jocelyne Cossette. Bureau d’examen des édifices fédéraux à valeur patrimoniale. Commission du la capitale nationale (CCN) Rapport 91-53.