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GEORGE BRYSON, THE TIMBER TRADE, AND THE GRANDE CHUTE OF THE COULONGE RIVER

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Coulonge River. (Photo - Matthew Farfan)In 1805, England was in the midst of a war with Napoleon. A French blockade of the Scandinavian countries denied Britain access to its source of timber. Even after the British naval victory at Trafalgar, Napoleon continued to control continental Europe.

Britain needed new sources of timber in order to sustain the life of its fleet, and the construction of new ships. Britain turned to Canada, which had been acquired from France in 1763 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris. Ironically, England preferred Guadeloupe Island, for its sugar cane, to Canada. The lucrative textile industry in Britain had reached a certain point of saturation, and Scotland was burdened with a surplus of weavers and managers. Therefore, England saw fit to sponsor the voyage of this extra manpower to Canada. These Scots would handle the timber industry on behalf of the mother country. It was around this time that the great barons of the timber industry came to Canada – the Gillies, the McNabbs, and the Brysons, to name just a few.

Falls on the Coulonge River. (Photo - Matthew Farfan)

One particular family, the Brysons, settled in Lanark County near Ottawa. In 1825, young George Bryson (1813-1900), decided to come up the Ottawa River to the area of Fort Coulonge to explore the possibilities of the timber industry there. He settled in Fort Coulonge and proceeded to cut the great white pine that was evident as far as the eye could see. These majestic trees were cut into sixty-foot lengths, and squared in the bush with broad axes, by the men who worked the shanties.

The greatest stands of white pine were located along the Coulonge River, which runs 150 miles from above what is currently La Vérandrye Park and empties into the Ottawa River near Davidson. Bryson, however, faced a major obstacle in the utilization of his timber – namely La Grande Chute. The 157-foot waterfall was capable of severely damaging or breaking the huge logs being floated down the Coulonge River. In order to surmount this obstacle, Bryson built a slide measuring approximately 3,000 feet long along the walls of the great canyon formed by the waterfall. His men would guide the square-cut timber down this slide in which ran a minimum amount of water. He also built a slide master’s cabin from which the slide could be supervised and money collected from other private businessmen using his facility.

George Bryson’s house, Fort Coulonge. (Photo - Matthew Farfan)

After the timber had bypassed La Grande Chute, it would be assembled in rafts at the mouth of the Coulonge, near Davidson. From there, the rafts would be floated down the Ottawa River. In the big bay below the Chaudière Falls, just down river from the present Parliament buildings, the timber would be auctioned off to the highest bidder. It would then be floated further down river to Montreal, and eventually to Quebec City, for export to Great Britain.George Bryson conducted his business in this manner until the mid-1840s. Long-term European stability in the post-Napoleonic era, however, drastically reduced the demand for square-cut timber. In addition, Britain’s move to a free trade policy in 1845 removed Canada’s competitive advantage over other countries. Bryson’s operations were becoming non-viable.

Trade with the United States, however, was soon to gain importance. American cities were mushrooming and local supplies could not meet the demand for building materials. The American Civil War put a further strain on the U.S. economy in the 1860s, and the northern states looked to Canada as a source of supply.Bryson had established contacts with American businessmen, which helped him find new markets for sawn lumber. He built a water-powered lumber mill on a small island at the head of La Grande Chute, and exported his products to the U.S.

It is interesting to note that a large portion of the timber on the banks of the Coulonge River was used to help build the cities of Boston, New York, and Chicago.

A twenty-dollar bill from the Bank of Ottawa. (Photo - Private collection)

George Bryson prospered as a result of this new trade. He built a mansion near where the red covered bridge now crosses the Coulonge River. Later generations of Brysons would follow in their patriarch’s footsteps in the lumber trade, as well as branching out into politics and other business endeavours. Bryson’s vision also extended beyond the limits of the timber trade. Early on in his career, he identified problems in banking and finance, and with other businessmen, he founded the Bank of Ottawa. The original building housing this bank’s facilities in Fort Coulonge still stands. Bryson’s vignette even appeared on some bills issued by the Bank of Ottawa, which would later amalgamate with the Bank of Nova Scotia.

Despite a century and a half of continuous logging, visitors are still captivated by the grandeur of this region that Bryson helped to open up. And eighty miles up the Coulonge River, the greatest stands of white pine in North America may still be found..

(*Editor’s note: this article has been modified slightly from the original version)