The Aylmer hydro ruins is located near the Deschênes Rapids. They are hard to miss since the path hugs the shore of the Ottawa River in the area next to the rapids. There are several places to stop and check things out, one of these offers a great view of the ruins of an old dam structure that was built in the late 1800s to harness hydroelectric power from the rapids. If the water is high and running fast (typically in spring), it is truly an impressive sight to see the force of the Ottawa River as it runs through these ruins. It is worth noting that there were plans to rebuild this dam across part of the river as recently as ten years ago (plans to do so fell apart in the face of local opposition).
The river is quite narrow at the rapids, and you can see the Britannia Yacht Club on the opposite shore. The club's yacht basins trace their origins to excavation work of an abandoned project to build a canal around the rapids. If it is a nice day with good wind, this part of the Ottawa River just west of the rapids (also known as Lac Deschênes) will be teeming with sailboats from the four clubs which are located on this body of water.
The historical information was written and provided by Outaouais’ Forest History organization.
The locality of Deschênes is situated on the North shore of the Ottawa River, at the southern end of the Vanier Road, near Aylmer, in the City of Gatineau. Its name dates back to 1686, the fateful year in which the Chevalier de Troyes went up the Ottawa River and crossed the Abitibi Region with a French military contingent, with orders to launch a surprise attack on the English Forts that stood on the shore of Hudson’s Bay. The celebrated Pierre Lemoyne d’Iberville accompanied him on that campaign (audio).
By giving the name Deschênes to the portage path that he and his men walked up to go around the Deschênes Rapids1, the Chevalier de Troyes simply officialised the French equivalent of the name the Algonquin had already given to it. To them, it was Miciminj or a place where oaks grew in abundance. That portage path connected a small bay at the foot of the rapids to another at the head of the portage. It was known as the Portage du Haut (The Upper Portage), or Third Chaudière Portage, and used by travellers until the middle of the 19th century.
In 1821, after the amalgamation of the North-West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company, Ithamar Hubble Day, an old fur trader, opened a small trading post on the Deschênes Portage. He went into business with another petty trader, Murdock McGillivray, and together until 1832 they traded furs in the Allumettes Lake Region and as far up as Lake Timiskaming. Having lost money in his dealings, Ithamar Day broke off his association with McGillivray and left the Ottawa Region2. The McConnell Brothers, who were very active in the timber industry on the Upper Ottawa, took up from where Day had left off and became part-time fur traders on the side. This lasted until approximately 18473.
Ithamar H. Day operated a sawmill, a forge and a fulling mill at the Deschênes Rapids around 1828.4Around 1840, Robert Conroy Senior seems to have followed in Day’s footsteps. Later on, around 1870, his two sons, Robert and William Conroy, had a large new sawmill built. From 1884 to 1888, they carried out improvements to increase the sawmill’s output capacity (image). During the same period, Narcisse Cormier operated a flour mill there. Wheat, oats and buckwheat, harvested by the region’s farms, were milled locally at Deschênes.
In 1895, the Deschênes Rapids industrial site was radically transformed. The site’s hydraulic powers were harnessed to produce electricity. The main shareholders of the Hull Electric Railway Company, William Conroy of Aylmer and Mr. Seybold of Ottawa, decided to have a dam and hydro-electric power station built (plan) to supply electricity to the Town of Aylmer and to power the electric tramway network that was being planned to connect Aylmer, Hull and Ottawa. In 1899, the Canadian Pacific Railway bought out the Hull Electric Railway Company and ran it until 1926, when it was sold out to Canadian International Paper (CIP). In 1946, when the Hull Electric Company closed down, the Gatineau Power Company, a subsidiary of the CIP, was in charge of the site’s management.
The ruins of the stone walls that still jut out of the foaming rapids of the Ottawa River remind us of Deschênes’ early industrial history.