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Madawaska Highlander>Historical Story: A River Flows by us

A River flows by us.
By Bill Graham Editor: The Madawaska Highlander

More than anything it is the river-The Madawaska-that binds us. It flows through all of the geographic townships that were amalgamated into Greater Madawaska. It is fundamental to the history of this area since it is the first highway by which people first travelled here. It is not a particularly long river but it was once among the fiercest rivers of the region. The Madawaska River is 230 kilometres long and drains an area of 8,740 square kilometres. From its beginning at the aptly named Source Lake in Algonquin Park, to where it joins the Ottawa River at Arnprior, the Madawaska River drops 224 metres. This sharp descent gave it the dangerous reputation it had in the past and even today it is one of the best white-water rivers in Eastern Ontario.

One tends to think that the river is a constant that never changes, but like everything else it also changes. Most recently it has been hydro electric development that has changed the Madawaska. Dams and reservoirs have tamed the river by flooding some of its rapids and changed the very look of the landscape by creating new bodies of water like the creation of Centennial Lake during the 1960s. Old settlements like Black Donald Mines are now under 80-feet of water.

It was 8,000 years ago that modern drainage of rivers in Eastern Ontario became established. In geological time that makes the Madawaska River very young. At one time the southern end of the Canadian Shield was raised more than 15-kilometres along a world-famous fault zone called the Grenville Front. As a consequence of this uplift, rivers fl owed north from the Gatineau area to the Arctic Islands! With erosion, continental glaciations and other geological processes the land and the waterways were reshaped into their present form.

The first people

Archaeological evidence indicates that people have been travelling The Madawaska that we know today for about 5,000 years. Europeans have been travelling the river for only a few hundred years. There are a number of ideas about the derivation of the name Madawaska. One source say the name derives from the Algonquin word "Madoueskak", which means "Land of the Porcupine." Another source says that the name derives from the Algonquin sub-nation who lived in the Upper Ottawa Valley along the Madawaska River. They were called the "Matouweskarini" or the "People of the Shallows."

Too far north for agriculture, most Algonquin were loosely organized into small, semi-nomadic bands of hunter-gatherers. In this, they resembled the closely related Ojibway. The Algonquin lived somewhat outside the wild rice region, which provided an important part of the diet for other tribes in the northern Great Lakes. Although a few southern bands were just beginning to grow corn in 1608, the Algonquin relied heavily on hunting for their food, which made them excellent hunters and trappers, skills that quickly attracted the attention of French fur traders after 1603.

The Algonquin also made good use of their birch-bark canoes to travel great distances for trade, and their strategic location on the Ottawa River became the preferred route between the French on the St. Lawrence River and the tribes of the western Great Lakes. Groups of Algonquin would gather during the summer for fishing and socializing, but at the approach of winter, they separated into small hunting camps of extended families.

The first contact the Aboriginal People of this area had with Europeans was probably with Samuel de Champlain in 1613 or 1614. It was not long be fore the French became allies of The Algonquin in their long-standing war with the Mohawk in exchange for a monopoly on their furs. Increasingly firearms became a factor in these "Indian Wars" and other European rivals like the English and the Dutch became involved. The Mohawk prevailed and drove the French and Algonquin from the Lower Ottawa River and during 1650 the remaining Algonquin in the upper Ottawa Valley were attacked and overrun. The survivors retreated, far to headwaters of the rivers, like the Madawaska, feeding the Upper Ottawa River where the Cree afforded a certain amount of support and protection.

Local history buff Garry Ferguson believes that some of the bands fleeing the Mohawk may have ended up in the Matawatchan area. When he was a boy his teacher brought his class to meet an old local woman by the name of Julie-Leclair-Harrison. She spoke a mixture of English, French and Algonquin and was part Algonquin herself. She told the class that the word Matawatchan meant "hidden village" in the Algonquin language. Garry conjectures that if the village was hidden then it was hiding from something and that historically it was most likely that the village was being hidden from the Mohawks who had driven most of the Algonquin from the Ottawa Valley.


Timber on the Madawaska
Nothing is recorded concerning life along the Madawaska until the early 1800s. However, it can be resumed that the river was a transportation route for Aboriginal people and for Europeans involved in the fur trade. The decline of the fur trade coincided with the Napoleonic Wars and the disruption of the timber trade with Scandinavia. The British navy found a new source of timber in Canada to build and repair its growing navy.


During the first half of the nineteenth century logging companies worked along the tributaries of the Ottawa River. Lumbermen harvested white pine, red pine and oak along the Petawawa, the Bonnechere and the Madawaska, water routes that made access easy for logging companies and exits easy for timber they felled. Settlements followed the shanty-men who worked the river and the surrounding forest. They would bring their families and settle close by. Settlers were also moving up the trails cut by the loggers and along the way the land was cultivated, farms were established and soon small settlements sprang up to provide services for the men working in the bush.


The Madawaska River witnessed some of the earliest commercial lumbering activities in Ontario, with the greatest activity occurring in the period from 1860 to 1890. As early as the 1840s, the government was providing assistance to lumber companies by building slides and booms to facilitate log drives on the river. By 1867, the logging companies had built dams on the upper main reservoirs including the Bark Lake and Palmer Rapids Dams. Dams were also constructed at Highland Chute, Mountain Chute, Calabogie and Arnprior to assist operations.

Huge Pines were Harvested

Hydro development

By 1920 the use of the Madawaska for the transportation of timber had declined and the river was again exploited by ambitious men, this time for hydro-electric power. Private interests had built a number of dams on the tributaries of the river. Ontario Hydro first became involved on the river in 1929, with the purchase of the Calabogie Generating Station from the M.J. O'Brien interests, along with the two upper reservoir dams at Bark Lake and Palmer Rapids.

Ontario Hydro, as it was called then, describes the history of hydro development on the Madawaska this way: "By 1940, the demand for energy was growing as a result of World War II. Bark Lake Dam was re-constructed raising the level by 8-metres and creating a significant storage reservoir. The lake was operated to provide flood storage and moderate flows in the river. Barrett Chute Generating Station was constructed and became operational in 1942. Building of Stewartville Generating Station began in 1946 and it was opened in 1948. Energy demand in Ontario continued to grow during the 1960s requiring additional resources. Mountain Chute Generating Station was built in 1965-66. Barrett Chute GS and Stewartville GS were re-developed by adding generators. The capacity of the stations was increased by a factor of four. Arnprior Generating Station was the last dam constructed and began operating in 1976."

Hydro development has tamed the Madawaska considerably. It is no longer the very dangerous river that it once was. There are many loggers who paid the ultimate price while working on this river. You can still see markers along the river that name loggers lost to the Madawaska. Flooding created, in places, a deeper river, which eliminated some rapids and also created new lakes. Today tourism, recreation and cottage life is a major benefit that the Madawaska River provides to those who live along its shores.

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