When the ice-age receded from our Precambrian Shield some 16,000 years previous, it left behind a landscape of massive limestone canyons, rolling hills and deep valleys--the Ottawa Valley carved by rivers.
The Ottawa River originates deep within a canyon-like valley at Temiskaming in northern Ontario, levelling out along relatively shallow shores from Deep River through to Ottawa, as it flows to its mouth at the St. Lawrence.
Flowing from the aptly-named Source Lake in Algonquin Provincial Park, the Madawaska River courses through the Madawaska Valley to a confluence with the Ottawa at Arnprior. At places it resembles one long waterfall crashing through rock-wall gorges, with a drop of 224m from source to mouth.
The Bonnechere River descends from an elevation of over 300m above sea level in Algonquin Park, through a distance of 160km to its confluence with the Ottawa near Castleford.
The waters of Algonquin Park drain into a deep channel which bisects the region diagonally. At its height, the flow through this canyon was 1,000 times that of Niagra Falls today, cutting a deeper channel each year and creating the Barron River Canyon.
Although archaeological discoveries indicate that man has travelled these rivers for over 5,000 years, it was the Native Indians who first settled this land. Later the voyageurs of the fur trade, then the lumbermen with their timber, plied the mighty waters. As settlements sprung up along their shores, the rivers were often the most practical travel route throughout the Valley. But these water routes were not unimpeded: waterfalls and white-water presented a constant challenge.
"There is scarcely a portage, or cleared point, jutting out into the river where you do not meet with wooden crosses, on which are rudely carved the initials of some unfortunate victim of the restless waters." C. Keefer, Civil Engineer.
Necessity being the mother of invention, the Algonquin natives developed the birch bark canoe -- buoyant, relatively lightweight and extremely durable. Later, with the dawn of the industrial age, came the Cockburn Pointer Boat. Designed by Pembroke native John Cockburn, and built thereafter by generations of his family, this craft was the workhorse used to establish the Arctic Dew Line and develop riverways and ports across Canada.
By the late 1800s, two railroads were built to link communities throughout the Valley. Lumberman J. R. Booth was the driving force behind the Arnprior and Parry Sound Railway -- a road of steel stretching from the nation's capital at Ottawa through the wilds of Algonquin park and on to Georgian Bay. The Kingston and Pembroke Railway was built to transport natural resources from our wilderness forests to Lake Ontario. (J. R. Booth to the right standing beside a train load of squared timber.)
Of the many train stations that were built at the time, only the one at Barry's Bay has been faithfully restored and today serves the public as an Ottawa Valley Visitor Information Centre. Across the street the original wooden water tower stands as a landmark, and to the west, a turn-of-the-century lumbermen's hotel still welcomes travelling families year-round. Booth also built a roundhouse at Madawaska, where the coal-fired engines were maintained and rerouted. Until recently the remains of this structure stood along the shores of the Madawaska River -- much like an old Roman ruin, complete with imposing architecture and arched doorways.
Before roads, our waterways brought people and their cargo into the wilderness of the Ottawa Valley. By the 1850s, as sawmills and settlements opened up the interior a series of colonization roads were developed throughout central Ontario. New settlers and immigrants were lured by land grants, but the challenge proved too difficult -- the land was unforgiving. The giant virgin pine forest was harvested, the ever-hopeful pioneers moved on, and forests eventually reclaimed the primitive homesteads. Today, reminders of this pioneering spirit still exist along the grid of stone and rail fences, reflected in the broken panes of weathered farm house windows and the aged tombstones in century-old graveyards.
The Opeongo Line, as it is now known, began at Farrell's Landing near Castleford on the Ottawa River -- linking several wilderness routs along the way to an unceremonious end north of the village of Barry's Bay.
"The Provincial Government have recently opened out Three Great Lines of Road, now in course of completion," said the advertisements of the 1850s. "These roads, as advertised by the Agents of the Government appointed to the respective localities to afford information to the Settler, are known as The Ottawa and Opeongo Road, The Addington Road and the The Hastings Road." Thus began the Valley's Opeongo Line as it is often referred to today, so well known to early inhabitants but only recently rediscovered as more and more tourists come to see its many log buildings. (Many sections of the Opeongo Line were "crosswayed" or "corduroyed". Logs laid across soft sections of road resembled surface of corduray cloth.) "sudden vistas of silver lakes and streams gleaming in the blue folds of the hills where eagles still wheel above the crags and the wolves track the deer to watering haunts and the loon calls for wind or rain at twilight" Harry J. Walker Leading Historian of the Valley
Today's visitor can travel this route in ease and comfort far removed from that of settlement times. Along the Line, many of the original log barns are still filled each summer with hay and grain harvested from the small fields. The remnants of the great hardwood forest still cloak the hills and stand cheek by jowl with areas of cultivated land separated by fences of stone. And while many of the once-bustling communities are now relative ghost towns, the spirit of adventure that attracted our pioneers remains.
The County of Renfrew was formed on June 8, 1861 by an Act of Legislature of the Province entitled "An Act to provide for the separation of the County of Renfrew from the County of Lanark".