RUNNING THE TIMBER SLIDES
Guiding logs downriver to market was risky work requiring fast footwork and nerves of steel.
It started out like any other summer day at Chaudière Falls on the Ottawa River. It was August 1854, and the river was busy with raftsmen steering timber rafts — known as cribs — towards a slide that would run them safely around the frightening cataract. It was hazardous work but the men were famous for their skills on the water and were usually able to avoid danger. This day would be different, however.
A crib of heavy timbers carrying several raftsmen who were intending to run the slide missed the entrance. They were on their way to being swept over the falls — and to certain death — but miraculously the crib got stuck on a rock at the brink of the falls. Still, they were left helpless with the raging water falling more than fifteen metres below them and a wide abyss separating them from safety.
A crowd of townspeople soon gathered on the shore and carried out an ingenious rescue. First, the onlookers threw a light cord across the gap, to which was attached a strong rope and, lastly, a thick cable. The raftsmen fastened their end of the cable to the crib, while the townspeople built a tripod on the shore to secure the other end. The men tied themselves to a ring on the cable and were pulled to safety. The dramatic rescue caused a great sensation in the towns on either side of the falls — Bytown (renamed Ottawa in 1855) and Hull, Quebec (now Gatineau).
Timber cribs were a common sight on the Ottawa River throughout the nineteenth century. The river was the centre of the square timber trade in Canada, and it was raftsmen and timber slides that kept the industry moving smoothly. The timbers were usually white pine or red pine logs that had been hewn square in the bush.
They were hauled out of the bush and dumped into the river, where fifteen to twenty were lashed together into small cribs measuring less than five metres in width. The cribs were banded together into an extended raft and floated down the Ottawa and St. Lawrence rivers to Quebec City, where the timber would be sold and shipped to Great Britain.
Some years as many as two hundred rafts would descend the Ottawa River. One raft could contain as many as two hundred cribs, cover an area the size of an acre, and be worth as much as a million dollars in today’s money.
The men who took the raft downriver lived on board for the entire journey, which could take as long as several months. Guiding these cumbersome contrivances down the river was no easy task, however, for numerous waterfalls blocked their passage. Allowing the timber to run through these cataracts would cause serious damage to the timber; so, in the early years, both rafts and cribs were taken apart, every stick carted by wagon around each cataract, and everything reassembled in the calm waters below. It was a laborious, expensive, and time-consuming process. Sometimes it took two or three weeks to get a large raft of timber past Chaudière Falls.
The problem was ultimately resolved by the invention of the crib-sized timber slide. This was the work of Ruggles Wright, son
of a pioneering family living at Wrightstown (now part of Gatineau). His father, Philemon, was one of the first men in central Canada to produce squared timber for export.
The junior Wright came upon the idea of a timber slide while visiting Europe. There he saw lumbermen using narrow wooden flumes filled with rushing water to bring logs down steeply sloping streams one stick at a time. Back home in 1829, he blasted a rough channel through rock close to the Hull side of Chaudière Falls; inside the cut, he built a wide, wooden ramp to carry a sheet of water from the rushing river above the cataract to the still water below. With this ramp, he was able to slide a full timber crib down the slope and safely around the falls.
After 1829 rafts still had to be taken apart and reassembled, but Wright’s innovation allowed complete cribs to bypass waterfalls with speed and without damage. Timbermen could get a large raft of timber cribs past the falls in two or three days.
Wright’s creation was a success from the outset. Soon every timber baron on the Ottawa River was using the slide, paying Wright a toll for each crib that descended the new facility. Before long, other investors followed his lead, building additional slides on the river, one on the Bytown side of Chaudière Falls and several more at waterfalls farther upstream. In the 1840s the government purchased the existing slides and went on to construct further bypasses on the Ottawa, following Wright’s basic design. The slides were heavily used, so, in most years, the tolls the government collected more than paid the costs of operations.
The later facilities were designed with gentler slopes. Wright’s model had a steep pitch that caused timber cribs to descend with considerable speed and, sometimes, to fall apart. One rebuilt facility at Bytown featured four slides separated by short stretches of level water and was designed to account for seasonal waterlevel changes. These changes made things a little safer for the men riding the cribs.
Generally, two or more raftsmen rode on each crib, using poles or oars to navigate it safely towards the entrance of the slide. Contrary winds could encumber their steering, and the closer the crib got to the falls the faster the river current ran. If the men missed the entrance they could be flung over the waterfall, as almost happened in 1854; an unknown number of raftsmen perished in this manner over the years.
Once in the slide the men had to keep the crib straight so that it would not catch on the sides of the ramp. In 1889, for example, a crib running the Chaudière slide got stuck partway down, possibly because there was too little water flowing through it. The men on board crawled out and scrambled back to the top of the slide just as another crib was about to enter. The men on the second crib aborted their descent, avoiding a likely fatal collision.
While renowned for their skills and bravery, raftsmen were also notorious for their sometimes rowdy and reckless behaviour. Unscrupulous tavern keepers made things worse, setting up shop close to the slides and pestering the men to drink cheap grog while carrying out their dangerous work. Accidents inevitably resulted; violence too.
In August 1876 two crews of raftsmen were both running the Chaudière slide on the same day. Each crew was trying to run as many cribs as possible down the slide before darkness closed the facility for the day. Tensions rose as each tried to get ahead of the other, and fighting broke out. Police were called in, and four raftsmen were arrested. The local newspaper blamed the violence on drinking on the job.
The sense of danger involved in riding a timber crib brought a cachet of adventure to the slides of the Ottawa Valley. As early as 1837 the Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, Sir Francis Bond Head, rode a crib down the Chaudière slide. Thereafter it became a tradition to invite dignitaries to take a ceremonial run, usually down the slide on the Ontario side of the falls. The Prince of Wales (Queen Victoria’s son, later King Edward VII) eagerly accepted the challenge during his 1860 visit to Canada. In 1883, his sister, Princess Louise, ran the slide with her husband, the Marquess of Lorne, Governor General of Canada, accompanied by their guest Mark Twain. And, in 1901, the Duke of York and Princess Mary (later King George V and Queen Mary) took the plunge, escorted by Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier and Lady Laurier.
No doubt, timbermen and government officials took care to ensure the dignitaries a safe passage, securing the cribs more tightly than usual and enlisting the best raftsmen to pilot them. Nevertheless, the cribs could reach impressive speeds in the descent. The Ottawa River drops more than thirteen metres at Chaudière Falls, and timber cribs could weigh one or more tonnes.
In comparison to modern-day whitewater rafting, the ride would have been smoother and shorter but carried out with less protective equipment. For people in the nineteenth century, the fastest speed anyone could experience would probably be on a railway coach, and the speeds reached on the slides may have come close to those on the fastest trains. More significant, though, the gradients of a railway line, even those in the Rocky Mountains, were gentler than the more abrupt drops of a timber slide. Besides, travelling in an enclosed railway coach would have been more reassuring than riding in the open air, where danger was more easily felt. All in all, running a timber slide was an exhilarating experience for most people.
In all, eleven crib-sized timber slides were built in the Ottawa Valley. The only other river where Ruggles Wright’s innovation was taken up was the Trent River of Ontario, where the government constructed five timber slides in the nineteenth century. Rafting on the Ottawa River ended in 1908, and the slides were removed or simply left to rot away. When the last raft arrived at Chaudière Falls, a large crowd of people gathered to watch the cribs run the slide — so many that police had to be called to prevent the spectators from trying to jump on board.
An illustration by William Hunter depicts loggers being rescued from a raft stuck at the edge of Chaudière Falls on the Ottawa River, August 1854.
Raftsmen ride logs down a timber slide at Bytown, Canada West (Ottawa, Ontario), circa 1851.
Loggers relax at a cookhouse on a timber raft.