The Chaudière Ring Dam

19 December 1908

It would be hard to underestimate the importance of the Chaudière Falls to the development of the city of Ottawa. Along with the Rideau Canal, the city owes its existence to the power that was (and continues to be) generated at the Falls. Indeed, one could argue that without the Falls, the lumber industry, which was the economic life blood of the city through the nineteenth century, would have located elsewhere. And without its mills, it’s hard to imagine that little Ottawa would have been a viable candidate to be the capital of Canada in 1857 notwithstanding its ideal location.

From the early nineteenth century, settlers recognized the energy potential of the Falls. Lumber mills popped up on both sides of the River as well as on the islands that straddle the border between Ontario and Quebec, including the Wright’s, Chaudière, Victoria, Albert and Amelia Islands. Logs cut in the Ottawa hinterland were floated down the Ottawa River and its tributaries to these mills. In the years before electricity, the mills were powered by water wheels.

By the early 1880s, water-powered turbines had advanced to the point where it was economic to convert the energy of flowing water into electricity. The first hydro-electric plant in North America opened in 1881 on the U.S. side of the Niagara Falls. That same year, E.B. Eddy used a generator run by waterpower to power arc lights in his lumber, match and woodenware factory in Hull.

By the mid-1890s, Ottawa was known as the “Electric City,” due importantly to the development of electrical power made possible by harnessing the Chaudière Falls. At the time, it was estimated that 20 per cent of Ottawa’s population and 75 per cent of Hull’s population were directly dependent on the Falls for their livelihoods.

The two men most responsible for this electrical revolution, were Thomas Ahearn and Warren Soper. Ahearn was an inventor par excellence, Canada’s answer to Thomas Edison, while Warren Soper was the man with the business acumen. Together, the duo formed a powerful partnership that dominated Ottawa for a generation. In 1896, the Illustrated Buffalo Express newspaper wrote:

Through the splendid supply of cheap power afforded by the falls, combined with the business foresight and ability of two of its citizens [Ahearn and Soper], Ottawa has led the van, not only for the Dominion but also in many respects for the continent, in the way of the development of practical electricity.

In addition to powering a timber industry worth $5 million per year, a huge sum in those days, Ahearn and Soper’s Ottawa Electric Company provided power to many Ottawa-area businesses—as long as they were located within four miles of the generators at the Chaudière Falls. The Canadian Atlantic Railway Company’s repair shops in LeBreton Flats were powered by electricity. R.A. McCormick, a pharmacy on Spark Street, was heated electrically. The Ottawa Canoe Club even used an electric motor for hauling canoes out of the water. Ahearn and Soper’s electric railway system was also powered by hydro-electricity. The streetcar system had thirty miles of track with 40 cars running daily through the year. The streetcars were heated and lighted electrically, unheard of luxuries just a few years earlier.

The Ottawa Electric Company also provided street lighting throughout the city as well power for most of the 60,000 incandescent light bulbs in use in Ottawa at that time. The Buffalo newspaper enthused that is amounted to more than one bulb for every inhabitant, “a proportion claimed to be unequal by any other town of like size in America.”

While less expensive than using manufactured gas to light lamps, electricity did not come cheap, notwithstanding what the Buffalo newspaper said. In 1903, electricity reportedly cost 8 cents per kilowatt hour in Ottawa, equivalent to roughly $2 per kilowatt hour in 2019 dollars. The 2019 Ottawa Hydro’s off-peak rate is 6.5 cents a kilowatt hour.

Chaudiere Falls dam 3328647 Dept of Public Works

Picture of the Chaudière Ring Dam shortly after completion in December 1908, Department of Public Works, Library and Archives Canada, 3328647.

Growing demand for electricity as electrical lines were strung across the city, combined with economic growth, led to pressures to increase the production of hydro power at the Falls. However, conflicting interests and bickering among the power owners at the Chaudière caused long delays. On the Ottawa side of the river alone, there were 26 water lots lettered A to Z, most of which were controlled by electric power generators, lumber and flour companies. These lots were leased from the Dominion government for $100 per year. Added to the complexity of the problem was the fact that any agreement among the Ontario and Quebec power owners at the Grand Chaudière Falls had to respect the rights of power owners at the upstream Little Chaudière Falls. While the Dominion government recognized the importance of developing water power on the Ottawa river, it was not going to move until the private power owners came up with a solution to their disagreements.

In 1907, a settlement was finally reached among the water powers on the Ottawa River that settled “the vexed and prolonged differences between the users of water power at the Chaudière Falls.” The agreement was executed on the Ontario side by J.R. Booth, the Ottawa Electric Company, the Ottawa Electric Railway Company, the Ottawa Power Company, the Bronson Company, and the Ottawa Investment Company. On the Quebec side were the E.B. Eddy Company and the Ottawa and Hull Power Company. To facilitate matters, Thomas Ahearn and the Ottawa Land Association gave up their water rights at the Little Chaudière Falls.

The agreement was quite simple, and hugely profitable for the power producers. The Ontario and Quebec companies would share the water equally. They would also build a modern dam at the Chaudière Falls, replacing the existing submerged dam built forty years earlier. The new dam would raise the head of water at the cost of partially drowning the Little Chaudière Falls. For its part, the Dominion government would dam the upper reaches of the Ottawa river. By storing water upstream, water could be saved during the spring freshet and slowly released during the low water months of later summer and autumn. A steady, regulated flow of water would allow the hydro turbines to run more consistently and efficiently through the year. It would also improve navigation on the Ottawa River. As well, spring flooding would be mitigated. The City of Ottawa would also benefit. A higher water level behind a new dam would reduce the problem of anchor and frazil ice in the winter that blocked intakes to the City’s waterworks located upstream from the Falls. Anchor ice is submerged ice that forms in face-moving rivers at very low temperatures. Frazil ice is slushy ice that also forms in turbulent, super cold water.

Work began on a new dam in early August 1908 and proceeded rapidly in part owing to the Ottawa River’s extraordinarily low water level that year. The power owners established a committee in charge of the work consisting of George Millen, representing the north shore owners, William Baldwin, representing the south shore owners, and two engineers, J.B. McRae and William Kennedy Jr. Messrs. Quinlan and Robinson of Montreal were the contractors. The site’s superintendent was Mr. J. B. Laflamme who had considerable experience, having worked on the bridge across the Rio Grande River between the United States and Mexico at Eagle Pass and on the Trent Valley Canal. He kept a firm grip on the workers. He is reported as saying: “Two things I do not permit among my men are swearing and drinking.”  In charge of the concrete gangs was Uldric Marcotte would had worked on the piers for the Quebec bridge and the power dam on the Severn River at Ragged Rapids.

The first task was to take some two thousand soundings to determine the elevation of the river bed. Tests were also done to determine the velocity of the water at various points. Detailed drawings and specifications were approved for the contracts for concrete, steelwork, etc. Divers also cleaned the river bed. A temporary road to transport supplies to the site from the Chaudière Bridge was constructed along with a tool house, cement shed and a store shed.

Work began on the dam proper in late August on the Quebec side. Work commenced on the Ontario side shortly afterwards. As many as three hundred men were employed on the site working day and night to ensure that the dam was completed before the end of the season. The cost was $250,000.

Chaudiere dam winch 3326122 Topley LAC

The travelling winch used to raise the stoplogs that controlled the flow of the river, Topley Studios, Library and Archives Canada, 3326122.

The dam consisted of 49 concrete piers and two abutments constructed in the form of an arc of a circle with a radius of 546 feet, 9 inches, with the centre of the arc situated at a point within the Big Kettle of the Falls. Each pier was made of reinforced concrete, with steel rods bolted together. 1¾ inch anchor bolts fasten the rods to the bedrock of the river. To construct the piers, a wooden mould, made exactly to the shape of the pier, was filled with concrete and allowed to set. Each pier was 39 feet 5 inches long and four feet thick on the upstream side and 2 feet thick on the downstream side. To protect them from ice floes in the winter, the upstream sides were faced with a curved ½ inch steel plate.

The final pier was completed at 2.45 pm on Saturday, 19 December 1908. When the last bucket of concrete was poured, workmen hoisted the Union Jack on an improvised flagstaff in the presence of the engineers and representatives of the contractor. So accurately were the piers positioned, that holes drilled in the steel beams that connected the tops of the piers were only ½ inch out when the final pier was connected.

In total, the construction of the Chaudière Ring Dam entailed the excavation of 7,400 cubic yards of rock, the laying of 8,926 cubic yards of concrete, and the installation of 700 tons of steel.

To regulate the flow of the river through the dam, large stoplogs of British Columbian Douglas fir were purchased from Cameron & Company, and transported by rail across the country, arriving in Ottawa by mid-November. There were 550 pieces, totally more than 300,000 board feet of lumber. According to their position in the dam, the logs, each roughly 24 feet long, came in three sizes, 14 inches x 16 inches, 16 inches x 16 inches, and 16 inches by 18 inches. They were lowered between the piers by an electrically-operated, travelling winch with a lifting capacity of 50 tons. The winch travelled along a rail laid on top of a concrete road that connected the piers.

By the summer of 1909, several thousand horse-power of electricity was ready for sale at $15 per horse power per year, equivalent to 1.7 cents per kilowatt hour. 14,000 additional horse-power (roughly 10 Megawatts) could be made available with the installation of additional generators. Once the government had completed the water storage dams on the Upper Ottawa, many times that amount could be generated.

The Chaudière Ring Dam was the principal source of electrical power in Ottawa for the next twenty years. By 1928, however, electrical demand finally outstripped what could be generated at the Falls. Increasingly, additional power had to be purchased from the Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario, later known as Ontario Hydro.

Chaudiere Ring Dam 2019

Aerial View of the Chaudière Ring Dam, courtesy of Jeff Young.

Today, the Chaudière Ring Dam produces 84.6 Megawatts of clean, renewable hydro-electricity. This is enough power to supply 58,000 homes. All of the six hydro-electric facilities in operation at the Chaudière Falls on both sides of the Ottawa River are owned and operated by Portage Power, a subsidiary of Hydro Ottawa. This includes Canada’s oldest operating hydro-electric plant situated on Victoria Island, which dates back to 1891. In 2017, Generating Station No. 5 located on Chaudière Island, was opened. Its state-of-the art powerhouse with four turbines was constructed entirely below ground. This permitted the creation of the Chaudière Falls Park with a viewing platform over the Falls, thereby restoring public access to the area for the first time in over 100 years.  To reinforce the eco-friendly nature of the new hydro facility, a fish ladder was installed to facilitate the migration of the American eel up the Ottawa River. As well, a sturgeon spawning bed was created to help restore the sturgeon population on the Ottawa River, devastated in the past by pollution.

Despite the environmental credentials of the hydro-electric facilities at the Chaudière Falls, the Chaudière Ring Dam remains controversial given its location at a site long considered sacred by Algonquin First Nations. The area, indeed all of Ottawa, remains unceded Algonquin territory. A “Free The Falls” group seeks the demolition of the Chaudière Ring Dam and the return of the Chaudière and Victoria Islands to their natural state or parkland.

 

Sources:

Back, Margaret, 2016. “Report of March meeting: Franz Kropp – Electrical Power Generation at the Chaudière Falls,” Historical Society of Ottawa, HSO Newsletter, June.

Illustrated Buffalo Express, 1896. “Making the Waterfalls Work,” 27 December.

Lambert, Lindsey, 2014. “Free Chaudiere Falls,” Ontario Rivers Alliance, https://www.ontarioriversalliance.ca/free-chaudiere-falls-lindsay-lambert/.

Ottawa Citizen, 1907. “Water Power Interests Settle Their Differences,” 25 November.

——————-, 1908. “Begin Work on Chaudiere Dam,” 11 August.

——————-, 1908. “Rapid Progress,” 18 August.

——————-, 1908. “Dam’s Progress,” 3 November.

——————-, 1908. “A Most Serious Condition,” 26 November.

——————-, 1908. “Piers Completed At Chaudiere,” 22 December.

——————-, 1909. “Ottawa’s Wealth Of Cheap Water Power,” 9 October.

——————-, 1909. “Electric Power Is Plentiful,” 6 November.

——————-, 1912. “Judge Gunn’s Report,” 2 December.

——————-, 2017. “Chaudière Falls opens up to the public with new viewing platform, free show, 10 October.

Portage Power, 2019. Portage Power, http://portagepower.com/.

 

The Grand Chaudière Dam

16 October 1868

We have in our very midst unrivalled water powers, and it would argue the utmost lack of energy, the blindest fatuity, were they to remain undeveloped. “Impressions of Ottawa,” Ottawa Citizen, 6 November 1860.

The mighty Ottawa River, also known as the Kichissippi in Algonquin and the Outaouais in French, stretches more than 1,100 kilometres. Its source is Lac Capitmichigama in central Quebec from which it runs west to Lake Timiskaming before heading south to form the boundary between Ontario and Quebec, passing through the National Capital Region on its way to meet the St. Lawrence at the Lac des Deux Montagnes in Montreal. Its watershed covers an area of more than 146,000 square kilometres.

For countless generations, the Ottawa was a key transportation and trading route for the indigenous peoples of this land. Later, it became the route for European explorers and settlers into Canada’s interior. Led by native guides, Samuel de Champlain explored the Ottawa River in 1613. It subsequently became an important thoroughfare for French voyageurs and coureurs des bois trading manufactured goods with the First Nations for beaver and other pelts which were in high demand in Europe. Later still, loggers and lumbermen of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, who were exploiting the ancient forests of the Ottawa Valley, relied on the river to transport logs and square timber (logs that had been stripped of their bark and roughly squared) to markets.

With a vertical descent of 365 metres, the Ottawa River is turbulent and fast-flowing even today despite more than 50 dams and hydro facilities constructed along its main branch and tributaries.  According to the Ottawa Riverkeeper, the Ottawa is one of the most regulated rivers in Canada. Nonetheless, it remains a magnet for white-water canoers and rafters.

For nineteenth century lumbermen trying to bring rafts of logs down the Ottawa, its rapids and falls were a nightmare, posing dangers to life and limb. However, the entrepreneurs of Ottawa and Hull saw the potential for profit from those same rapids and falls if they could be harnessed to produce the motive power necessary to drive the big saws that processed the raw lumber. By damming the Ottawa, mill owners could channel the flow of water through their mills. A tamed river also meant a safer river for the log drivers.

One of the major obstacles on the Ottawa River was the Chaudière Falls, known as the Giant Kettle in English. In 1829, Ruggles Wright, the son of Philemon Wright who founded Hull, built a timber slide on the Quebec side of the river to permit logs and rafts of timber to bypass the falls. Three years later, another slide was constructed by George Buchanan on the Ontario side of the river. To build the slide, a dam was constructed that ran roughly parallel to the shore to divert water into a channel. (The dam can be seen in an 1832 plan of the first Union Bridge across the Ottawa River by Joseph Bouchette.)

Plan and elevation of Union Bridge by Burrows in Joseph Buchette, 1831, p.82 (2)
The initial 1832 dam built by George Buchanan can be seen in the middle left hand side of the map of the Chaudière Falls and Bridge from Joseph Bouchette, The British Dominions in North America, 1832.

In 1854, at the behest of the mill-owners and lumbermen of Bytown, the Department of Public Works of the Provincial Government, constructed a 640-foot dam with log booms on the south side of the Chaudière Falls. It extended from the pier built by George Buchanan at the head of his timber slide to Russell Island above the Falls. The purpose of the dam was threefold. First, it would provide a more constant supply of water during the low water summer months. Second, it would furnish a 140-acre pool of calm water for the storage of logs waiting to be processed in the adjacent mills. Previously, only a day’s worth of logs could be stored. Third, it would reduce the loss of timber inadvertently going over the Falls. It was reported that £3,000 pounds worth of logs was lost annually owing to the timber cribs getting into the wrong channel. There was no mention of the fate of the men driving the logs.

A second dam with booms was also constructed on the north side of the river to ensure a constant supply of water for the Hull mills. According to the Citizen, “There is no limit to the extent of the commerce that may be created by the mills and factories that can be put into motion by the water of the Chaudière.”

Despite the hyperbole, the newspaper was on to something. Between 1856 and 1860, the timber industry expanded rapidly with Messrs. Perley, Booth and Eddy joining timber pioneers such as Messrs. Baldwin, Bronson, Harris and Young. The millowners sought more River “improvements” to expand their capacity. Reportedly, the lumber barons, to whom the government had leased water rights, were “exceedingly irritated and annoyed” to go with out water for their mills during the low water summer months while at the same time “a mighty volume of water [was] plunging over the Falls.” With many mills forced to close for part of the year, there was a loss of profit, especially as mill owners tried to keep skilled workers on payrolls as long as possible fearing that they might leave the region if they were laid off. Even so, many found themselves temporarily unemployed during the low water months—a serious condition as there was no unemployment insurance. The Citizen opined that “fathers of families, others younger—the hope and strength of the country—[were] standing idle, in want of work…while the mighty volume of the Ottawa rushed by the silent mills uncurbed and useless to man.”

Mr. Baldwin proposed that the government build a submerged dam across the main channel a few hundred yards above (west of) the Chaudière Falls, to divert the river towards the lumber mills. However, excess water would continue to flow over the dam during periods of high water and avert spring flooding. The government was not convinced. To allay governmental concerns about potential flooding, Baldwin suggested lowering Russell Island, located at the south end of the proposed dam, by six feet to provide an additional area of discharge during periods of high water. During low water, it would stand above the waterline and would act as an auxiliary dam. He figured that the water running over the lowered island during the spring freshet would offset the obstruction caused by the proposed dam. Still unconvinced, the Department of Public Works refused to fund the project and demanded the backers of the project, should they go ahead themselves, provide bonds of indemnity to compensate landowners who might be flooded by the dam.

With the capital for the venture provided by “a large party of the leading residents of the city and others,” the project went ahead under the supervision of Mr. John O’Connor during the fall of 1868. The submerged dam was 350 feet long and 75 feet wide at the base, tapering to 24 to 48 feet wide at the top. It was built of strong crib-work filled in with stone and braced with longitudinal timbers faced with 5-inch thick planks upon which guard timbers were attached using iron bolts. Guard piers protected each end of the dam. Reportedly, workers excavated 8,000 tons of rock, presumably from Russell Island.  The project costed roughly $10,000, and was completed in five weeks using a workforce of 200 men.

The Grand Chaudière Dam was inaugurated on 16 October 1868, a day which the Citizen said would be “long remembered in the annals of the lumber interest of the valley.” The paper also praised the “enterprise of our American citizens—by whom the majority of the milling establishments at the Chaudière are owned.”

A few days later, sixty of the leading citizens of Ottawa assembled on Russell Island for a celebration to mark the completion of the dam, “and pledge a bumper to the health of the builder, and prosperity to the trade.” Chairing the gathering was Richard Scott, the Liberal member of the legislative assembly who represented Ottawa in the Ontario legislature. Other attendees included, Joseph M. Currier, the Conservative member of parliament for the City of Ottawa, Mayor Henry Friel, and a number of Dominion Government cabinet ministers despite the government’s earlier opposition to the project. Samuel Tilley, the Minister of Inland Revenue, apologized for the absence of Sir George Cartier and others who could not attend owing to important engagements elsewhere. James Skead, a prominent area businessman and senator, argued that similar works like the Chaudière dam were needed elsewhere on the Ottawa River.

Chaudiere Falls pre 1900
Map of the Chaudière area before the construction of the Chaudière Ring dam in 1908. The 1854 dam between Chaudière Island and Russell Island can be seen in the middle left of the map. The Grand Chaudière Dam is not visible.

The impact on timber production owing to the construction of the Grand Chaudière Dam was considerable. Reportedly, the small mill owned by Mr. Young increased its monthly production by 1 million feet of lumber, the product of 5,000 standard logs, during the first dry season after the completion of the dam. Extrapolating these figures to include the much larger operations of Messrs. Baldwin, Bronson, Booth and Perley, the Citizen calculated that a total of 13 million additional feet of lumber were produced every month during the dry season. With a dry season averaging three months, the value of increased production amounted to an estimated $507,000 dollars—a huge sum. As well, there was no flooding during the spring freshet as feared by the government. The expectations of the dam’s backers were more than fully met.

With the mills working at full capacity from the beginning to the end of the milling season, the Citizen wrote: The completion and successful working of the dam may be said to be the crowning point of numerous victories over great natural obstructions and difficulties. The vast water power which has for ages been conserved in the Chaudière Falls, has now been utilized to an extent which few of the last generation ever dreamt of, and which but few of the present generation, who thoroughly understood the difficulties, could, a few years ago, have supposed could be realized.

Today, the Grand Chaudière Dam, which permitted a huge expansion of the Ottawa timber business during the second half of the nineteenth century, is long gone. It was replaced by the Chaudière Ring Dam in 1908 which massively expanded the hydro-electric generating capacity of the Chaudière Falls, and provided the bulk of Ottawa’s electricity during the early twentieth century.

Sources:

Haxton Tim & Chubbuck, Don, 2002, Review of the historical and existing natural environment and resource uses on the Ottawa River, Ontario Power Generation, https://www.ottawariverkeeper.ca/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/tim_haxton_report.pdf.

Ottawa Citizen, 1854. “No Title,” 29 July.

——————, 1854. “Ottawa Improvements,” 7 October.

——————, 1854. “Public Works On The Ottawa,” 28 October.

——————, 1868. “Inauguration Of The Great Chaudiere Dam,” 23 October.

——————, 1869. “The Pubic Works on the Ottawa And Its Tributaries,” 12 August.

——————, 1869. “The Lumbering Interests Of Ottawa, 16 August.

Ottawa Riverkeeper, 2019. Dams, https://www.ottawariverkeeper.ca/home/explore-the-river/dams/.