The 1881 construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway deliberately took out the North West Company's dam on the La Vase River virtually blocking the historic Portage Route which was almost 4,700 years old.
I was given a copy of the Globe newspaper dated Sept 13th, 1881 by Nestor Prisco. To me, this is the first and only report of the re - commencement of building what it know known as the CPR.
I believe that the CCR (Canada Central Road) built the trackbed from Pembroke to Thorncliffe (where it stopped just before the headpond and marsh of the NWC fur trade dam that was on the La Vase River since circa 1770.)
For the most part this trackbed covered the 1853 Mattawan - Nipissinque Colonization Road first surveyed by Duncan Sinclair to survey the area for railroad and canal routes that were as far away from U.S. as possible.
the trackbed must have been prepared by the CCR (Canada Central Railway)
which seems to have started at a siding called Thorncliffe.
Due to it's age, it is hard to read, so I transcribed part of it because it gives a first hand account of the re-commencement of the building of the Canadian Pacific Railroad starting at Thornecliffe, the end of the CCR roadbed in 1881.
From that point on the historic fur trade route fell into disuse mainly because the loss of the headpond waterway and the embankment that the Cp put in with a measly little culvert! To get sand for that embankment they pretty much demolished the Middle Portage too and quite probably demolished that time also. Tracks can still be found where that portage was!
Those dams had been constructed, maintained and enhanced by the North West Company (circa 1770) to reduce the overland portage length allowing the heavily laden 36 foot fur trade canoes to navigate from the foot of the First La Vase Portage, to the head of the Second portage and after that the head of the Third La Vase Portage.
Given the strong longshore drift (moving sand) along Lake Nipissing's shore means that there was bound to be a blockage by trees and other debris causing the mouth of the La Vase River to enter the lake by a number of small branches.
To get those very large through canoes through it makes sense that a small canal was built and maintained.
The reason the La Vase river mouth looks like it does today is because the dipper dredge the Mattawa was used to widen and straighten the rivers mouth just to get the logs down into Nipissing.
The La Ronde house probably housed the people who did this chore on the dams and the canal at the mouth while still serving as a stop of the canoe brigades crossing Lake Nipissing.
- There was/is a canal like this from Dugas Bay to Brandy Lake and it is still visible between Hwy 17 and the Bay.
- Indications are that they camped and stayed on Brandy Lake for the night
- and started out at 3 am they crossed the Upper Portage, Upper dam headpond and the middle portage to have breakfast at the end of the Middle Portage.
After that they crossed the Lower dam headpond, then the Lower portage and went down to the mouth to stay for the rest of the day and night.
- They would get up as 3 am the next day hoping to cross Nipissing on the morning calm.
When the HBC took over much of the trade goods that were transported over this route were carried went by the a wagon road around the Niagara Falls and Great Lakes sailing ships
- but up until 1850 the HBC continued to us express canoes to bring in the people, to staff the Fur Trade, and then to take out quantities of furs (much quicker than Great Lakes travel.)
Some background documentation to my conclusions above:
- In 1845 Geological Surveys of Canada's A. E. Logan the first modern instrument survey of the La Vase Portages but without monumentation. His journals and notes indicate that there was a 20' wide dam, 8' in height at the head of the rapids and at the start of lower La Vase Portage. Following is a copy of his original map. By the way, he camped on the ruins of Fort La Ronde and a follow up survey 1851 GSC Murray confirmed this - it's location can be determined.
Click for a PDF
In 1858 a Shanly (Peng)/Stewart (PLS) survey for a ship canal from Montreal to French River produced this map which had an "indian" dam on it at the same location. Actually they were levelling so the surveys are not near as accurate.
click for a PDF
This survey was highly accurate and defined the Portages very well - these would be considered as highways under the Public Lands Act with a 66' ROW. On top of that the plans showed flooded conditions which would be the two headponds of the La Vase Portages dams -- there can be very little doubt of their existance!
But earlier there was also a roadway that crossed at this same point probably on top of this Indian dam.
EXHIBIT 1 ARCHAEOLOGICAL BACKGROUND REPORT - Dr. John W. Pollock SETTLEMENT SURVEYS LTD.
"2.3 Winter Routes, The fur trade brigades passed between the
Ottawa River and Lake Nipissing in open water season. Aboriginal
people, however, must have continued to travel back and forth on
winter trails. The location of such routes is unknown, although one
portage road can be identified. The Hudsonís Bay Company, which took over from the North West Company in 1821, had a winter road from the eastern end of Lake
Nipissing to Mattawa. Surveyor Duncan Sinclair encountered it in
October of 1853, when he was laying out the colonization road
between Mattawa and Lake Nipissing. He had planted his starting
post on the northern bank of the La Vase River on October 11th (Murrays 1851 map indicated a survey stake right on top of the ruins of the La Ronde house where W E Logand camp)and proceeded inland parallel to the river. At 28 chains past the two mile post (plotting this distance puts it at this "indian dam") Sinclair "met old portage road of the Hudson Bay Company from Mattawa to Nippissingue Sinclair 1853:25-26."
- In 1996 Archaeological Services Inc. published the "The La Vase archaeological project" for the City of North Bay this was Page 78 which I annotated and showed the limits of the lower headpond. The flora also tell the story.
- I put together a collage of 1929 air photos highlighting the obvious hydric soil conditions extracted from the NAPL, the MNR (1958), Engineering Soils maps and from Google Earth (2010.) I then embellished this with excerpts of historical writings that I have acquired.
Click for PDF
- The Europeans had been improving waterways for power and canals because of the Industrial Revolution they needed economical and reliable ways to transport goods and commodities in large quantities and this was achieved by canals. Some 29 river navigation improvements took place in England alone during the 16th and 17th centuries.
There are records of improvements in the waterway passage by the NWC downstream on the Mattawa and Ottawa (canals, locks, landings, etc.) and of a lift lock with a half mile canal topped off by a log roadway for draught animals alongside Sault Ste. Marie. It makes sense that the NWC would also improve the La Vase Portage Route as much as possible.
In my following transcription of the 1881 Globe article I put his writing in italics and some of his remarks I consider germane to this story in red and I
added comments and explanations in maroon like this introduction
"Aug - 1881"
"Dinner over, the voyage was resumed, and shortly after three we reached the Portage, about three miles up the Riviere La Vase, where, as before mentioned, the Count Chanplain resumed his water voyage, and there is now a storage station of the Canada Pacific - a log house built within the last few weeks.
It is a fortunate thing for those whose business calls them to travel,or reside on the banks of the La Vase that the river is of so short a length. A filthier stream it has never been my lot to travel upon. The Thames before the main drainage scheme was completed; the Chicago River in it's worst day; even the Younge-street lip in our own Toronto must yield the palm to the La Vase. What should make the water of this small river so insufferably odorous is not clear, but with every stroke of the paddle a noisome vapour is released that tells of animal and vegetable matter in the last stage of decay. In the evening a foul mist is formed on the surface of the water, and a sickly, overpowering smell, of thousands of decayed waterlilies offends the nose."
Anybody who has been near a beaver dam that went out a few months earlier knows this smell!
"This is the principal river flowing into the East Bay from the north side. It is passable to a good-sized Collingwod boat (centre-board)"
english design open sail boats with oars (20' to 30' long) - much the same as these york boats.
"crosses about 5 miles up. Indeed on the entire north coast of East Bay the water shoals so gradually that wherever the steamboat landing may be, a wharf of half a mile in length will have to be built. This piece of information is given on trust, for I, have not gone over the whole of the route."
"At the portage on the La Vase we found the C. P. storage station in charge of a keeper and two or three assistants, who put us on the right track for the railway works by following for about a mile and a half a track made by the Company's teams travelling to and from the depot, when we came suddenly in the midst of the wilderness upon the MUCH TALKED OF EASTERN SECTION."
"It appears that on the 1st of July, according the terms of the contract work was commenced somewhere near the La Vase - exactly where we could not learn and has since been prosecuted in both directions. Roughly speaking the line runs parallel with the north shore of East Bay, and not nearer than four miles to it's shores. The direction of the line is therefore from north-west to south-east, and from what we saw of the works on two miles of the north-western part we were prepared to accept with reserve the statement that the principal labour had been bestowed north-easterly. The first evidence that the traveller was about to debouch upon the line of a great transcontinental railway was furnished by the SOUND OF AXES, chop, chop, chopping away in the forest."
"By degrees the thickness of the bush began to diminish in the direction we were going. Then we emerged into the daylight and struck simultaneously the CANADA PACIFIC and A BEAVER MEADOW. The first skirts the edge of the other. My guide here told me that he had canoed it in four and five feet of water over this beaver meadow for many and many a spring time.
- There simply wasn't any way that horses were brought in by water (as then the Inter Ocean was just built and was then stuck in sand of the South River.)
Folk tales of draught animals and cattle being brought into Nipissing Village and Restoule by canoe and portage are very suspect.
- It is far more likely that these animals came in via the 1853 Mattawan to Nipissingue Colonization Road (Plan S-6-5 Field Notes 2234 and 2235) which actually extended to Callander and then to Nipissing Village, on the South River, to get to deep water harbours
- The horses and wagon tracks mentioned further on in this article had to be from Bonfield (then end of track) which crossed at the head of the lower portage and from there went to where Premier Road and Lakeshore Drive are now (a survey monument is described.) The beaches would be used as roads for horse and wagon all the way to North Bay.
- The boats would have been brought in the same way probably to the end of the Lower portage because the colonial government's focus was to build a canal and they needed to get surveyors and engineers along with their equipment and gear into Lake Nipissing where they could do these operations from collingwood boats and canoes all the way up the line to Verner on the Vueve River.
- To my mind, this was a covert operation because the British Colonial government of the time were exceptionally leery of the United States with good reason because of the events of the 1812 war, the Louisanna Purchase, the Mexican Invasion all under their Manifest Destiny Doctrine of which they made no secret. The British colonial government had the grand plan of surveying and planning for transportation by water (canal) and railroad transportation as far as possible from United States territory.
- it is interesting to note that the CPR line was almost all built very close of almost directly on top of the Mattawan-Nipissingue road but it still exists.
- at his time the grading of the railbed was finished right up to Thornecliffe but the tracks stopped at Bonfield when the Pacific Scandal uprooted the government holding up construction of the trans continental railway for several years.
That beaver meado caused the stench the reporter objected to because the Canada Pacific contractors had destroyed a substantial century old dam letting the water causing that stink. Even though that was 130 plus years ago no trees have grown back in that headpond bed yet.
"The railway will be on an embankment high enough to be out of the way of the flood and further, we were given to understand the company will put a few shots into a ridge of rock which dams up the creek (a tributary of the La Vase) running through the beaver meadow. By this means the height of future floods will probably be reduced."
The railway was never in danger of flooding, as it is at least 20' above the current water level, the dam was destroyed so that the trestles could be built in the dry and the embankments constructed! These was no reason that I could understand to blow the rock dyke out of the head of the rapids with dynamite and I don't think they did!
"Our FIRST VIEW OF THE WORKERS was furnished by the appearance of two young men smoking, and carrying, at the rate of two miles an hour, one pail of water each, with which to extinguish a fire running in the bush and occupying about an acre in extent. The fire had apparently spread from the burning of the underbrush where the railway had been chopped out. A hundred men working like beaver could not have extinguished it. This was the most north-westerly point of chopping."
"There had been no stumping done anywhere that we saw, and no grading, but we were told that GRADING WAS TO COMMENCE THE NEXT DAY. A little further on we came to another detachment of workers who were squaring pine logs for use in building stores, stables, boarding-houses, etc. They all stopped work as long as we were in sight."
They didn't bother to stump and there was no known way to end dump material so they built wooden trestles where the height of embankments exceeded a few feet or the ground was mucky, like along this beaver meadow.They then laid the tracks on these. They they would load sand fill (from what is now Poulin's Pit, there are still light gauge track there) onto shallow box cars and push these box cars out onto the trestle. Men shovelled this material off to the sides leaving the trestles in the resulting embankments. The cuts were mostly rock and they tried to blow as much of it into the bush as possible. This form of building railway continued into the 1930's and it is still causing problems with the railbeds!
"Still further on were to see double teams purporting to be engaged in drawing beaver hay. The horses were large and powerful beasts in first-rate order. There loads were about four hundred pounds of hay on a sleigh for each team. After every fifty yards of hauling the drivers seemed to think that the constitution of themselves and their horses required a good long rest. Consequently we were not surprised, on our return, after have gone forward for a half a mile, which had consumed at least half an hour in conversation with persons found there, to find that those teams had not advance more than two hundred yards from the place where we first found them. The actions of these teamsters, and of the two men composing the fire brigade were a fair sample of all the work that we saw in progress."
"The main object of the men seemed to be to avoid earning more that the ELEVEN CENTS AN HOUR without board, which is their wages -- subject to certain deduction and retentions by the Company. We learnt that there were, in all, thirty hands employed on the works, but we did not see above a third of the number, not deeming it worth while to see any more of the kind of work we had seen."
"So, after inspecting a large storehouse and a boarding-house built by the Company on a hillock in the beaver meadow, we turned our faces again towards Nipissing."
They were looking across the north tributary of the La Vase to Thorncliffe which was the end of CCR grading in 1873 when MacDonald resigned because of the Pacific Scandal.
"But first we made a small diversion from the track to inspect the OPERATION OF SOME SETTLERS who had taken up land near the road. A farmer named Drainey, who has just moved in from about twenty five miles southward, has made the most progress. He already has a large log-house built, in which he boards twenty railroad men and settlers. He is located at a line which crosses the railway here, and is confident that, if, any town does grow up it must be there, for the other side lines between Lake Nipissing and the lakes to east cross the railway at places unsuitable for settlement."
"There are already THREE THOUSAND ACRES TAKEN UP by settlers hereabouts, and on most of the lots chopping and building is in motive progress. There are some ridges of rock, but not much loose stone. A good deal of the land is very light, but some settlers assured us that their lots were of good clay loam of the best class."
"It was now about half-past five and Mr Drainey was pressing us to take supper and stay with him for the night. The supper was accepted thankfully enough. but to stay all night among the mosquitoes which had not ceased to pepper us since we first stepped out of the canoe, your correspondent demurred.
As the evening was fine and warm, without a sign of a change of weather, I suggested to Mr. Armstrong that we get out into the lake and, if we afterward found the night was too dark for us to prosecute our journey, that we camp on an island. After an objection to the effect that we had no blankets, which objection the hunter weakly allowed to overruled by a valiant "Who cares for blankets in this weather!" we started on our RETURN JOURNEY, which proved was to be an ?reaful one.
It was half past six by the time the canoe was reached and, as we bade adieu to the stinking stream with the pretty name, the haze of bush fires raging on the shore brought twilight prematurely up us."
Here are links to the 2 part Globe newspaper article.
Click for PDF
Alexander Dreany said he was located on a line (old term for a side line meaning a ROW road between each 5 lots (N/S.) I expect, that by now, the reader must be very confused with regard to the roads that have been referred to. (I know I was!) So I decided to take a 1929 air photo of this area and identify all the relevant roads and openings on them (that I could make out) along with the date of their appearance. I stand and hope to be corrected. In addition to the legend these show:
click for pdf
The following 1905 photo shows what Dreany's (misspelled as Drainey) 2-story "hotel" looked like along with the log bridge over the dam that was removed to gain access to the beaches of Lake Nipissing and the CPR supply station at the foot of the Lower La Vase Portage.
- the flooded area of the headpond (from recent data) - blue hatching.
- the location of the 1853 Mattawan/Nipissing Colonization Road - cyan buffer
- the location of the Lower La Vase Portage red line arrows
- the CPR supply station - purple icon
- and Dreany's hotel - purple icon.
- Part I This is an interesting look at the journey from Toronto to Nipissing Village on the South River in 1881.
- Part II While the first part of this is a transcripted copy I used for the above, the rest of it does have an interesting look at Lake Nipissing.