If the French River could speak to us…
March 19, 2017
It is the only witness to the intensive logging of the French River (Ontario) forests that is still functioning. Built in 1875 at the mouth of the river, its beacon led the boats of Georgian Bay up to two sawmills in the workers' village nearby. However, the industrial boom seen by this small lighthouse was short lived. In the 1910s, the easily exploitable timber resources were exhausted and sawdust pollution was poisoning the Georgian Bay fisheries. The village was abandoned once and for all, and became a ghost town. Logging shifted further south, to where the recent arrival of the railway meant that transporting logs was more profitable.
Photo : Canadian Heritage Rivers System
Today, the small lighthouse still stands like a sentinel on the French River, this centuries-old waterway that was once ravaged but now is regulated and protected. Let us now listen to the small lighthouse. Of course, the light tells us the story of the people living along the river, but it also calls to mind the history of the voyageurs, for the lighthouse has a secret: once night falls, it listens to “Voices of the River”...
"I was alarmed by the money-grubbing frenzy of men, who abused the French River for such a long time. There’s no denying that Nature has taken over once more, but almost all the old-growth trees were felled and the new trees are still very young. The skyline now is no longer the same ... And yet, I'm still there, my beacon active, with high hopes for the future of the river. I'll explain why ... "
"... In 1910, following thirty years of logging, I saw the first warning. It did not come from the forest, but from the commercial fishery. The fishers of Georgian Bay saw their fish stocks were declining and they began to protest to the provincial authorities. It is the wake-up call that leads Ontario to pass one of the very first nature conservation laws in the history of Canada. The main logging company on the river, the Ontario Lumber Company, had to pay a heavy fine for exceeding their authorized sawdust discharge. It was a fatal blow for the company, whereas the activity of the river was already beginning to undergo a thorough change toward a brighter future ... "
Photo : Ontario's Historical Plaques
"... We need to understand the extent to which the topography of the area is so special. The French River flows through the rocky soils of the Canadian Shield. It forms a 110 km long, branching (ramified) corridor, strewn with rapids, waterfalls, gorges and lakes. This magnificent natural space was perfectly adapted for recreational use, but it took a triggering factor before tourism could get off the ground...This was the arrival of the first train from Ottawa at North Bay Railway Station, on the north shore of Lake Nipissing in December 1882.Then came new rail lines linking Toronto to North Bay (1886), and Toronto to Sudbury (1908) ... "
"… Soon too, settlers flocked to the north side of the river. There the land was arable, and among the newcomers were many French Canadians. This is where the small towns of Alban, Noëlville and Monetville sprang up; today these towns comprise the bilingual municipality of French River. In 1986, the French River was the first river designated a Canadian Heritage River and in 1989 the French River Provincial Park was created. I am pleased that this historic waterway, that flows through the Ojibway First Nations reserves is now protected ... But night has just fallen and it's time for me to lend an ear: now I listen to “Voices of the River”... ".
The small lighthouse is plunged in respectful silence and will say nothing more, but we need not worry, the river's reminiscence is well preserved! The French River Visitor Centre is located on Highway 69 near a suspension bridge that offers magnificent views of the river. Designed in partnership with the First Nations, and inaugurated in 2006, the building received a Governor General's Medal in Architecture in Canada in 2010. This award recognizes the perfect harmony of the building and its interior decoration with the surrounding natural environment and history of the river’s indigenous peoples and voyageurs.
Photo : RAIC Architecture Canada
And so we find ourselves here, because, apart from its geology and ecology, the Visitor Centre showcases the river’s multicultural history in the permanent exhibition, “Voices of the River”. Here at last is evidence of those early explorers, missionaries and French fur traders who took to the river! Contact with them meant the life of the indigenous peoples underwent a profound transformation. These same Frenchmen also gave the river its present name.
If the French River could tell the story of its voyageurs, would it tell us the story too?
- Toni Harting, French River: Canoeing the River of the Stick-Wavers, The Boston Mills Press, Erin (Ontario), 1996.
- Wayne Kelly, Capturing the French River: Images Along One of Canada’s Most Famous Waterways, 1910-1927, Natural Heritage Books, The Dundurn Group, Toronto, 2007.
- Rivière des Français, Réseau des rivières du patrimoine canadien.
- Parc provincial de la rivière des Français, Parcs Ontario.
- French River Front Range Light, www.lighthousefriends.com
About the author
Jean-Marc Agator is a French public research engineer in the field of new energy technologies. He is passionate about the history of Canada and of francophone communities throughout North America in all of their cultural diversity. He is the author of the website Chemins de la francophonie where he shares his passion through articles destined to a large francophone audience.