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CHANGING PATTERNS OF GROWTH ALONG THE OTTAWA RIVER (FOLLOWING THE CONSTRUCTION OF THE PONTIAC PACIFIC JUNCTION RAILWAY)

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Reid Residence, Portage du Fort. (Photo - Matthew Farfan)With the abandonment of the up and down river steamboat service in 1879, the fate of river ports was definitely in doubt. Nowhere was this uncertainty felt more than in Pontiac’s largest village, Portage du Fort. The village had been incorporated in 1836 and by 1844 advertisements for building lots appeared in Ottawa newspapers. In the 1850s there were so many retail stores in Portage that it was said that all Pontiac did their Christmas shopping there! Most of the moneyed people of the county lived there.

Portage remained unchallenged and supremely confident of its prospects even after the PPJ passed ten miles to the north. The village by the Chenaux felt that even if the PPJ was not smart enough to build a branch line to serve them, some other enterprising company would tap their potential. No railway arrived, however, and in the 1890s, Portage declined from 741 individuals to less than 450. In 1914 Portage did get a rail link with Canadian Northern’s transcontinental line passing just north of the village. In an ironic twist, that same year, a terrible fire devastated what remained of the town. Over 80 percent of the village burned. It was a blow from which Portage could not recover.Other towns along the river declined. Pontiac Village disappeared. Bristol declined in importance. Bryson, once the seat of county government, lost its title as capital to its upstart western neighbour, Campbell’s Bay, in 1928. The population of Chapeau, despite its lack of a railway link, remained stable. Because of its position as a service centre for an entire region without rail service, Chapeau could survive in an era of rail transportation. Other river towns like Fort William and Rapides des Joachim were also beyond the reach of the PPJ. Like Chapeau, these villages served as transhipment points for goods and passengers bound for railways on the Ontario side. Towns which were fortunate enough to obtain rail service literally boomed in the late 1880s. The sound of hammer and saw rang out in Quyon, Shawville, Campbell’s Bay and Fort Coulonge. Quyon, Shawville, and Campbell’s Bay shipped much lumber from their stations, but these towns developed into essentially agricultural service centres. The relatively good soil of the lower end of the county dictated this fact. Farms of this district had grown beyond the self-sufficient levels of the pioneering era. Surpluses were expected and with the coming of the railway these surpluses were shipped to new and far away markets. The farms of this end no longer shipped all their produce to the lumber shanties. Grain elevators and stock yards in these villages reflected the agricultural status of the area. Besides privately owned elevators, the PPJ itself built grain handling facilities at Campbell’s Bay and Quyon (and also at McKee and Wyman in Bristol). Its largest facilities were at Shawville where three elevators (capacity 25,000 bushels each) and one storehouse (10,000 bushels) were built.

In the upper end of the county, agriculture was tied much more firmly to the timber economy. Farm produce there was mostly shipped to the shanties. Fort Coulonge was the town through which much of this produce was shipped to the Coulonge, Black, and Dumoine river operations. Fort Coulonge was a lumber town. The square timber shipped out by the Brysons in the 1830s was no longer common. Instead, several large sawmills were turning out hundreds of thousands of feet of sawn lumber. With the arrival of the railway, Fort Coulonge also became a pulp wood shipping town. In January 1890 the Equity reported that 125 carloads of pulp wood were shipped from Fort Coulonge to E.B. Eddy’s mills in Hull. The shipment of raw logs, square timber, and sawn lumber all added to Fort Coulonge’s status as Pontiac’s timber town. By 1911, the village had become Pontiac’s largest, a title it keeps to this day. Over a period of several decades the railway had shifted population within the county. The new mode of transportation largely dictated which villages grew and prospered and those which did not.