During my university studies, I worked for a small local newspaper in Hawkesbury, ON. The newspaper office was then located on Main Street and every day at noon I would cross over the Long-Sault Bridge to spend my lunch break at Confederation Park, located on Chenail Island. It was for me the perfect peaceful lunch spot. I could watch the Ottawa River, with the city of Hawkesbury on one side, and the Laurentians Mountains on the other.
Over the course of my summers working there, I learned more about the island. I was surprised to learn that Chenail Island, on which we find today only a stone house and a large park, is a, in fact, where the city was born. Afterwards, during my lunch break there, I tried to imagine what the place looked like then, when many people lived and worked there.
A sawmill was built at the end of the 17th century on Chenail Island, but it was really when the Hamilton family took possession of it in 1811 that it really took off. At the time, the Ottawa River was an important hub for the forest industry. The location of the island was ideal, and the sawmill quickly expanded. At its peak, it employed more than 1,000 people and was one of the largest in Canada. The wood that came out was often shipped to Liverpool, England.
On the island, there was not only the sawmill. Some workers and their families settled in what eventually became the Chenail district. On the mainland, the village of Hawkesbury grew and other industries (including pulp and paper) started booming and added to the flourishing economy of the area.
The economic crisis of the 1930s, however, took a heavy toll on the forest industry. Then, in the 1950s, the construction of the Carillon Dam, further east on the river, sounded the death knell of the community on Chenail Island. As the water level of the Ottawa River rose (thus decreasing the size of the island), the fifty or so families who lived there were expropriated and their homes demolished.
Only the building that housed the administrative offices of the sawmill remains today. A pavilion and some historic panels have been built there, but it is still difficult to imagine that this large, tranquil park was once busy with people living and working there.