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Mystery holes evidence of an attempt to build a shipping canal in Georgian Bay

This week Back Roads Bill tells us of a megaproject that would have changed the course of Northern Ontario’s history

Ships the length of two football fields laden with grain from the prairies could have crossed Highways 11, 17 and 69 and Lake Nipissing, including entering canals along the French, Mattawa and Ottawa Rivers. This vision at one time almost became a reality, where’s the evidence?

After the leaves fall it is a good time to discover secrets which the three-season deciduous vegetation hides. After a “back roads” treasure hunt of mystery holes, a trip to a vista and maybe a search on “back” shelves of a library your heritage appreciation may be piqued.

Mystery Holes – The Canal

You can drive, hike or paddle by and never know there is a mystery right beside you. When you discover an anomaly detective work is required.

There are mystery holes that substantiate the story; it is one of the only pieces of physical evidence that indicates what almost became a reality.

It was the age of canal building. Canals came into being because the Industrial Revolution (which began in Britain during the mid-18th century) demanded an economic and reliable way to transport goods and commodities in large quantities.

One Canadian example was the Rideau Canal, it was a navigable waterway between Lake Ontario and the Ottawa River; it was conceived after the War of 1812 (you remember; the war where Canada beat back the invading Americans). It was designed to provide a secure supply route from Montréal to Kingston, avoiding the vulnerable St. Lawrence River route. By November 1831 construction had essentially been completed with 47 masonry locks and 52 dams creating a 202 km (125 miles) waterway, another one of the greatest engineering feats of the 19th century.

The proposed Georgian Bay Ship Canal was promoted as a megaproject when compared to the magnitude of the Panama and Suez Canals. The Panama Canal

(1914) is 77 km (48 miles); the Suez Canal (1869) is 193 km (111 miles). The Georgian Bay was to have 48 km (30 miles) of canals over its 740 km (460 miles). This waterway would have allowed Great Lake freighters to travel directly from Lake Huron to Montreal.

In 1837, the Family Compact members of the Assembly of Upper Canada ordered a survey of the possible route. The War of 1812 was still fresh in the minds of the politicians and an inland waterway would skirt American influence.

Canada's first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, recognized the potential of the project: The Ottawa Ship Canal and the Pacific Railroad must be constructed and no voice should be raised against the great national work which would open the western states and the colonies to the seaboard.

There were a number of advantages claimed for the proposed ship canal. It was the shortest route from the upper Great lakes to the ocean harbour of Montreal. The northern route, being sheltered and cooler than the lower Great Lakes, would enable grain and cattle to be shipped in better condition

One of the biggest engineering stumbling blocks was the area between Lake Nipissing and Trout Lake in the North Bay area. It was necessary to overcome the height of land between the two lakes (the two drainage systems), through the creation of a lift lock, 202 metres long and 20 metres wide. If this lock had been constructed it would be located just south of the West Ferris area on Gertrude St.

Published Heritage

Ray Love grew up in Muskoka and returned to pursue a career in education as an educator and administrator. Now retired he has written a number of heritage books including The Georgian Bay Ship Canal - Canada's Abandoned National Dream.

The canal scheme was supported by no fewer than six Canadian Prime Ministers and for a century less two years was surveyed a dozen times. It was also hotly debated in the Canadian Senate and House of Commons.

The scheme was supported by lobby groups in Northern and Eastern Ontario as well as the Montreal business elite. It was strongly criticized by citizen groups in cities along the shores of the rival Welland-St. Lawrence route.

The scheme originated with a citizens group in Ottawa as that city battled Toronto for industrial and financial supremacy in Ontario.

Citizens, businessmen and politicians in Northern Ontario soon joined the bandwagon as it meant an opportunity for jobs and income in shipping, warehousing, flour milling, mineral processing, etc.

It also could have been an early extension of subsidized hydropower through Ontario Hydro as that utility was late in coming to the North. With power came industry.

Love describes the impact.

It is impossible to accurately predict the “what if” scenarios but it is a classic industrial development versus the environment saga. The North would certainly be more prosperous and had a larger urban population but at the expense of two fine heritage river parks in the French River and Mattawa River.

All of the invasive species (lamprey eel, zebra mussels, quagga mussels) and disruptions to the ecology of rivers through hydro dams and shipping channels suffered by the St. Lawrence Seaway would have taken place on the French and Mattawa rivers.

The story told is why the scheme, despite its geographical advantages, failed to see the bucket of a steam shovel.

It is a story of political intrigue, Northern Ontario versus the South and the role that federal government overspending played in its demise. It was also at the centre of the battle between federal and provincial governments over control of the lucrative resource of hydroelectricity.

You can find it here.

The Original Study

Because of the pandemic you probably haven’t been to the library for a while. Nestled on the not-seen shelves within the reference section, downstairs, within the North Bay Public Library is one of Northern Ontario’s oldest published books.

It is Walter Shanly’s report of 1863, it sits there among other Georgian Bay Ship Canal leather-bound reports, authored after the turn of the next century. They have that old book smell; the pages are brittle and discoloured. The impression is made when you start reading. Shanly advocated the enlargement of the Canadian canal system, envisioning a continuous ten-ship canal from Montreal to Lake Nipissing.

The other reports available include the exhaustive engineering studies of the making of the canal system a reality.

In 1904, the Department of Public Works was instructed to undertake a detailed field study of the route. The finished report of 1907 included a geological survey of rock formations, depth soundings of Lake Nipissing and engineering details of dams and canals.

The original 600-page document contains a wealth of detail and gives evidence of an impressive study.

The French River, including the creation of a lock and dam at the Chaudiere rapids, would be an important bridging point that would allow the lake level to rise. This was necessary to accommodate ships that would have a draft of almost seven metres deep. The high steel gates at the Big Chaudiere Dam on the French River were designed in preparation for such a canal.

The series is beautifully bound and contains detailed drawings of lock and canal locations, elevation datum and precise, surveyed maps; worth a look-see.

The Rideau and the Welland Canals (1829) were warm-ups to this project. The Georgian Bay Ship Canal was one way to foster nationalism and also an economic response to the demands of the new frontier the prairies.

With the movement of cattle, grain, lumber and minerals through the Nipissing Passageway, a significant economic impact would have been created.

North Bay would have become the logical location for a variety of processing plants. Goods manufactured in the area would have been transported to lucrative Southern Ontario markets.

The mega project's demise can be attributed to the might of the powerful railway conglomerates of the day, that had their own visions of transportation.

The technology to construct the plan was in place, but the railway companies thought it was best to lay down railway tracks, rather than try to blast through the Canadian Shield.

Canals that had previously been constructed, throughout North America, were not turning profits.

Apart from practical considerations, the political ramifications certainly were overwhelming. The competition between Toronto and Montreal as Canada's leading centres was a determining factor in turning support away from such a project. No project that would benefit the development of Montreal as a major terminus of the waterway would be allowed by Ontario politicians.

In 1953, work began on the St. Lawrence Seaway. It was a longer distance than the Georgian Bay Ship Canal and involved much American development funding. The dream of a navigable waterway from Lake Huron to Montreal was dead. (But even in the 1960s, up until 1988 it was promoted by the Chamber of Commerce: there remained the possibility of a marine railroad/waterway, providing access for pleasure boaters from Georgian Bay, along the French River to Lake Nipissing.)

Access to the Holes

There are two locations to see the former evidence of the Georgian Bay Ship Canal survey. The surveyors of the day followed the watercourses and the portages and dug test pits right alongside well-beaten pathways.

The portage between Talon Lake and Pine Lake is the historic portage called Portage Pin de Musique. It is 6.6 km from Highway 17 on Pine Lk. Rd., east of Bonfield.

The portage connecting the two lakes is 456 paces in length. You should walk the portage and get a sense of the difference in elevation between Talon and Pine Lakes, very discernible and you can see why this was a test pit site; (there is no watercourse between the two lakes, it is a separating height of land. You will walk, 32 metres from the road, on the portage, northwards towards Talon Lake.

The first test pit is on the right or east side two metres off of the trail at the following coordinates. Both test pits are a little more than two metres deep and four metres long - oval in shape. The second pit is 16 metres beyond the bisecting power line again on the right or east side of the trail.

The other test hole is on the portage leaving Pimisi Bay, Portage de Perches. Launch at the roadside picnic area just east of Rutherglen and paddle north across the bay to the outlet and the portage. It is about two-thirds of the way across on the left or west side, you can’t miss the hole.

The Vista

The panoramic view is found on Highway 69 South adjacent to Ontario Park’s French River Visitor Centre. Take a look from the bridge and then take the short hike or snowshoe west to Recollet Falls. Imagine freighters plying these waters.

I wrote about this mega project in my first book, North Words, in 1992. The story was entitled Dream Canal and I have done subsequent stories. Each time I paddle somewhere on the Mattawa and French Rivers and Lake Nipissing I think of what could have been.

Here is a Back Roads tourism vignette on the ship canal shot from the bridge.

And the evidence, the map for the holes and the view.

Before or after the snow flies go and have a look at the evidence at these locations. The holes and the view remain as souvenirs from the past – yours to discover.