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BACK ROADS BILL: Chutes along the back roads

This Thanksgiving weekend Bill takes us to a bit of back roads anomaly related to our logging heritage

There are “neat” things to see on the back roads, some are well hidden; most of the time they disappear with the passing of time, Mother Nature does that. But not these…there are amusement park rides patterned after these logging chutes.

Log chutes used to look like this.

Most logging chutes were made of hewn timber and were either dismantled or slowly decomposed. But not the steel logging chutes (Gillies Chutes by name) found near the Matabitchuan Generating Station (GS). These are so different, a “diamond in the rough” when considering our resource heritage.

The use of chutes to transport logs was used extensively prior to the 1930’s. Logging chutes were primarily gravity chutes, used to transport logs down steep inclines to circumnavigate river obstacles. At the Matabitchuan River location, a permanent steel chute was constructed more than one hundred years ago. Someone was thinking ahead.

Information was supplied by Marcel Pelchat, Public Affairs Officer, Ontario Power Generation,

“The station has been in service since 1910. It was acquired by our predecessor, the Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario (Ontario Hydro), in 1944,” Marcel Pelchat, Public Affairs Officer, Ontario Power Generation, said

At one time there were two log chutes at Matabitchuan – one at the control dam (spillway) and one at the intake (generating station), he added.

In the beginning

The steel log slide was built in 1912 most likely because of the volume of red and white pine logs that were being cut in the Temagami Forest says a 1991 Ontario Hydro publication Ontario Hydro’s History and Description of Hydro Electric Generating Stations.

The Matabitchuan River runs almost parallel with the Montreal River, merging with it at the western shore of Lake Temiskaming. In earlier times the two rivers did not meet at the lake even before it was flooded downstream because of the control dams at Témiscaming. Huge sand bars extended out into the lake, and it is said that travel from Ontario to Quebec on the sand bars was possible.

It is interesting to note that "Matabitchuan" means "the meeting of the waters,” (such as Mattawa) and is therefore a literal description of the setting for the two rivers.

A Hudson Bay Post was established at what was known as "the narrows," as well as "The Old Fort", and a Jesuit Mission was located on the Ontario side of the river. Recorded history of the River Matabitchuan dates back to 1688. The fort was utilized as a stop-over by Chevalier de Troyes during his 1686 expedition.

The earliest settlers located at the mouth of the Matabitchuan River. In the 1870's, "The Farm" was established. Being a lumber operation, the farm was used to raise feed and to pasture their teams in summer. During the winter months it became a depot for travellers. Logs were floated on the two rivers and were taken in booms by tugboats to Témiscaming , located at the south end of Lac Témiscamingue (the early beginnings of the Tembec, now the Rayonier pulp mill).

About this time E.A. Walberg recognized the potential of the rivers as a source of hydroelectric power, needed for the silver rush and on his initial construction commenced on the Matabitchuan powerhouse in 1910. The moving of all materials, machinery, plant, and supplies from Témiscaming, a point on the Canadian Pacific Railway, to within about 0.4 km (0.25 mile) from the site of the plant, was done by means of scows and tugs up Lake Temiskaming.

The powerhouse and dam

The construction of the upper dam and the powerhouse is an interesting story. “All the powerhouse concrete was distributed from the mixer by wheelbarrows. A small crusher was used for crushing stone and boulders picked from the riverbed. The sand was obtained near the mouth of the river,” said Mr. Pelchat.

“The dam being 0.8 km (0.5 mile) from any other portion of the works necessitated a completely separate plant for its construction. As there was no gravel of good quality nearby, stone had to be crushed, and a quarry was opened about 61 m (200 ft.) from the east end of the dam. All sand for the dam had to be hauled from near the mouth of the river up the 91 m (300 ft.) incline, and about 0.8 km (0.5 mile) across the upper level, where it was conveyed and dumped into the bins of the mixing plant.”

Logging was still the major industry in the valley, and the steel log slide was constructed from the lake to the river in 1912. With the advent of hydropower came the establishment of a permanent community.

The Northern Ontario Power Company was taken over by the Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario in 1944 and the demand for power continued to increase.

The steel log chute continued to be used. In 1947 the Gillies Bros. & Co. built a sawmill at Temagami (Cassels Lake – foundations remain, 4 km from the train station) to saw eleven million board feet per year to utilize a 400 square mile limit in that area. This mill was closed down and dismantled in 1958 but the logs continued to be floated 210 miles down the Ottawa River to their mill in Pembroke (Braeside). It was some time in the 1960s when logs ceased to be flumed through these chutes. The power utility dismantled some of the sections and it is now incomplete.

See the chutes

It is an easy access to see the steel chutes - journey through Cobalt on Highway 11 B to North Cobalt. Take Highway 567, 38 km, SSE to the Lower Notch GS. (completed in 1971). Drive over the diversion channel, which is the Montreal River, a very interesting view of the dam and sluiceway.

Drive on another 5 km, SSW, to the Matabitchuan River GS. You will encounter some hills and you will be driving through an old-growth white pine forest, called the Matabitchuan River Conservation Reserve. It was selected as a site representing old-growth red and white pine forest communities.

Drive past the powerhouse (automated in 1972) and up the hill over the penstock. The road will twist south to west or to the right. Park at the top of the reservoir (access point to Fourbass Lake) and walk back down the hill to the first opening on the NW (left) side, see the map.

Associated with the conservation reserve are a few hiking trails that lead to Beaver Mountain Lookout and Copper Lake. The view from Beaver Mountain is worth the effort. You can snowshoe to Beaver Mountain from near the steel chutes location (“halfway up the hill”).

Find online, the book, Discovering Wild Temiskaming: One Day Adventures and Beyond: Featuring the Ottawa-Temiskaming Highland Trail by Murray and Vicky Muir. See the Nastawgan trails organization. See pages 58/59 for the hiking trails at the dam. On the way to the steel slides, you will go right by the Devil’s Rock one of the best vistas in northern Ontario.

You will want to watch this short video on the steel chutes a clip by North Country Aerial, it is a gem.

Time has stood still. You will appreciate the size of the slide. It is one of those hidden gems worth a look-see on a Sunday drive along the back roads.

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Bill Steer

About the Author: Bill Steer

Back Roads Bill Steer is an avid outdoorsman and is founder of the Canadian Ecology Centre
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