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Charles Roberts: The Canadian Guidebook

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We will suppose that the tourist has taken the direct route from Toronto to Ottawa, by the Canadian Pacific, already described. If he has gone first to Montreal, he may go thence to Ottawa by the Canadian Pacific, the Canada Atlantic, or by boat up the Ottawa River. We should advise the route up by rail, and the return by boat.

Ottawa, the capital of the federated provinces of Canada, is in the province of Ontario, on the south shore of the Ottawa River, 126 miles from its mouth. For picturesque grandeur the site of Ottawa is second only to that of Quebec. At this point the great river roars down into the terrific caldron of Chaudiere Falls, to whose vindictive deity the Indians of old were wont to make propitiatory offerings of tobacco. At this point also the Ottawa is joined by its tributary, the Rideau River, which flows in over a fall of wonderful grace and beauty. The shifting, curtain-like folds of this cascade give the river its name of Rideau, or the " Curtain."

Like Quebec, Ottawa consists of an Upper and a Lower Town. In the double city flows a double life -- the life of a rich capital and the life of a rafting and milling center -- the life of that society that clusters around the government and the life of the French-Canadian lumberman. Ottawa is not only the seat of government but a hive of industry as well. It is the city of laws and saws. Its Upper Town rings with the eloquence of our legislators; its’ Lower with the shriek of our unremitting sawmills.

Ottawa is growing as no mere bureaucratic center can grow, and has a population of over 40,000, where, forty years ago there were but 7,000 or 8,000 inhabitants. It is a city of deeps and heights, of sharp contrasts alike in its landscapes and its life; and both are alike dominated by the truly splendid pile of the Parliament Buildings, which imperially crown the loftiest point of the city.

In the days of the "old regime," when the Ottawa River was the chief path of the fur-trade, on which New France subsisted, the place of portage around the falls of the Chaudiere had not even a wigwam to mark it as the site of a future city. It was a place of horror and of lying-in-wait; for here the Iroquois came to intercept the Algonquin of the North Country, on their way to Quebec, with their canoe-loads of peltries. In 1693 so closely did the Iroquois bar the stream that a three-years' gathering of beaver-skins was held up at Michilimackinac unable to make its market; and it took Frontenac himself, the Deus ex Machina of New France, to break the dread blockade. Most of the romantic history of Old Canada, however, went by the other way, and left the difficult passes of the Ottawa un-haloed.

The most interesting part of Lower Town is crowded about Chaudiere Falls.

This is the lumber region, a city of deals, but not such deals as are to be had in Wall St. The air is full of the smell of fresh-cut pine and fir, and thro shop-windows are stocked saws and axes, chains and pike-poles, cant-dogs and gigantic leg-boots. Sawdust is the pervading element. As we approach the water our ears tingle under the shrieking crescendo and diminuendo of the innumerable saws.

The mills crowd halfway across the river. Every point of rock is packed with structures, and out from every point of vantage are thrust great embankments of stone and timber, on which more mills are heaped. Besides the sawmills, there are flourmills and cement-mills, and wool-mills; and on the other side of the cataract, reaching out from the Hull shore, a gigantic structure where matches are made, and woodenware. There, also, are yet more mills.

The great river has been caught and put in harness. A portion of its water is permitted to thunder over the falls, which form a great semicircular chasm in mid-channel, and are crossed by a suspension bridge. The rest of the current is forced to labor in the mills, ere it may continue its journey to the sea; for a thousand sluices have begun to hem his watery march, and dam his streams and split his currents.

In the sawmills, the chaos of strange and strident noises is indescribable, and the scene is beyond measure novel and impressive. By day in the yellow gloom, by night in the white glare of the countless electric lights, go on the rending and the biting of the saws. In the dark, sawdust flecked water about the foot of the dripping slides wallow the rough brown logs. Great chains and hooks descend, and the logs are grabbed and dragged up the slide into the dens where the myriad teeth await them.

What are known as the upright saws are set together to the number of two or three dozen, in a combination called a "gate" which keeps darting up and down in a terrible and gigantic dance. Against their teeth the logs are driven; steadily and irresistibly the steel bites its loud way from end to end; and the logs pass forth on the other side in the shape of yellow planks and boards.

On every side, and of all sizes, hum the circulars, revolving so fast that they appear stationary and cannot show their teeth. A log or plank approaches the innocent-looking, humming disk; it touches, and there rises a soaring shriek that may quaver through the whole gamut. The timber divides swiftly, as if it were some impalpable fabric of a dream, and behind the saw shoots up a curving yellow spray of sawdust.


Charles Roberts

Charles Roberts was once considered Canada’s most prominent writer, a “Confederation Poet” of such eminence he was Knighted in1935, becoming overnight Sir Charles G D Roberts.

Despite the Sir and the middle-name-initials, one thing never changed for Charles Roberts. He was a working writer, and while he achieved fame for his poetry and his short stories, he wrote everything.

In 1891 Roberts wrote The Canadian Guide-book: The Tourist’s and Sportsman’s Guide to Eastern Canada and Newfoundland, published in New York by the D. Appleton Company. The book let him travel extensively through the country, including a first-time visit to Ottawa (Roberts was from Fredericton, New Brunswick.)

What happens when a be-knighted poet sees the Chaudiere Falls for the first time? Here is an excerpt from the Canadian Guide-book, by Sir Charles G. D. Roberts.