The depth of Ottawa Valley’s history can’t be found in the pages of a book — it is in the place names, people and abandoned buildings of its landscape.
Remnants of the Valley’s history still stand in the numerous ghost towns along its old government settlement roads, signaled by simple plaques and crumbling graveyards. Each is tied, in one way or another, to the timber and agriculture industries that thrived in the Valley in the mid 1800s and sustained the area’s early pioneers.
THE BEGINNING OF THE VALLEY
Although government officials did not want to encourage settlement of "Upper Canada" in the late 18th century, the influx of Loyalists and immigrants that came to Canada after the War of 1812 forced them to begin surveying Ontario’s interior for settlement. Homesteads spread northward from the lush lakefront lots near lakes Ontario and Erie. By the mid 1800s, available agricultural land in Ontario was rapidly decreasing, so “Three Great Lines” or colonization roads were cut into the Canadian Shield — the Addington Road, the Hastings Road and the Ottawa and Opeongo Road (Opeongo, or Ope au wingauk in Algonquian, means “sandy at the narrows”).
Advertisements of free land and great farming drew mostly agrarian immigrants over rocky or corduroy roads — paths paved with laid logs — to the thin, acidic soils scraped over the impenetrable layer of granite characteristic of the Shield country. Despite their lack of experience or capital, many determined pioneers forged their way into the Valley.
The Opeongo line, which starts at the Ottawa River’s Farrell’s Landing and was meant to end at Lake Opeongo in Algonquin Park but instead peters off near Whitney, Ontario, drew its life from the timber industry, rather than the farming that was advertised, servicing loggers as they staked their way up to the pineries. With some exceptions, such as the Germans in Renfrew County and the Kashubs in Barry’s Bay-Wilno, many of these small communities were characterized by a “boom and bust” pattern, giving up on the mostly barren land once the timber industry moved on.
Some of these pioneer towns still exist, whereas others have only a few residents compared to the hundreds that once lived there. But more than the vestigial population remains — visible echoes of the Valley’s history still stand in the stone fence grids, aged graveyards, abandoned mills, and dilapidated barns.