Influences that Changed the River Forever



"It was composed of a large river that varied in width from 50 to 200 yards, with a voluminous flow of water. In its 32-mile southerly course from Lake Nipigon, it once descended 313 feet over 15 well- accelerated rapids and seven waterfalls, losing its identity only temporarily when it flowed through four lakes. It has been described as having three ecologies: 10 miles of lakes, 10 miles of river, and 10 miles of rapids."


The Nipigon River has an interesting past that includes prehistoric peoples, the fur trade, the building of the railway, early gentlemen anglers, and log drives. Power generation is arguably the most disruptive development that has occurred in the Nipigon watershed.

On the Nipigon River, over-fishing in the 1800s and the creation of dams from the 1920s to the 1950s, lead to habitat destruction and fluctuating water. Consequently, from the 1960s to the 1980s, brook trout on the river became increasingly rare.


Cultural History of the 'Nepigon'


Native families in birch bark canoes
(Nipigon museum blog spot)

Since the last ice age, Aboriginal people have inhabited the area around Lake Nipigon. These nomadic hunters and gatherers relied on the fish, wild plants, small game and big game (likely caribou) in the area. Trade routes were developed and expanded during these early times. Extensive exchange networks were established which stretched from the eastern seaboard to the Rocky Mountains. These routes were used for thousands of years to transport trade materials over great distances (Old Fort William 2000). These routes and the intimate knowledge the Natives had of the landscape, were the foundations upon which the historical fur trade was built.

    European entrepreneurs arrived at the mouth of the Nipigon River in the early 1650s, drawn by the seemingly limitless beaver, otter, fox and muskrat associated with the Nipigon waterways (OMNR 1987). The first well documented excursion to Lake Nipigon dates back to 1667 when Father Claude Allouez, a Jesuit Missionary, came in search of a band of Nipissing Indians who had fled southern Ontario in the wake of the Iroquois wars of 1650 (Allouez 1672). The Hudson Bay Company was created in 1670 with the support of King Charles II of England. Company posts were established along the Hudson Bay coast and the company conducted trade by having the Natives travel to them. In order to reach the Albany River, Native traders traveled in freighter canoes constructed from white cedar, birchbark, rootlets and spruce gum (Hudson Bay Company 2002). The area around Lake Nipigon became the most profitable furbearing district along the north shore of Lake Superior.

    The French, having lost a large portion of the trade, moved into the interior of Northern Ontario to establish trading posts. It was more convenient for the Natives of the northern forest to trade with the French who were close by, rather than to travel the Albany River to James Bay. Consequently, trade with the Hudson’s Bay company declined dramatically. Thus ensued a long battle between the English and the French for the fur trade. The Nipigon Basin was at the centre of this conflict and was the site of many fur trading posts. These Montreal fur traders banded together in 1779 to reduce expenses and eliminate the rivalry between individual traders. The group became known as the North West Company and grew into the Hudson Bay Company’s fiercest competitor (MNR 1987). In 1786, the North West Company built their first post in the Nipigon area at the mouth of the Nipigon River called Nipigon River House (Umfreville 1929). By 1800, the North West Company dominated the fur trade in northern Ontario.


Gentlemen Anglers and Royalty

In 1865, the first gentlemen anglers came to the Nipigon River to fish. Red Rock House, at the mouth of the Nipigon River, was an important outfitting station between 1870 and 1880. In 1915 Dr. J.W. Cook of Fort William caught the world record brook trout (14.5 lbs.) at Rabbit Rapids on the Nipigon River. The legendary appeal of the area also led to visits by Royalty. However, by the early 1900’s fish sizes and numbers had begun to decline.

“it is no longer possible, as it was twenty-five years ago, to take in a day a barrel of trout averaging 4 pounds,
nor can the angler now quickly fill his basket within sight of Red Rock landing.”
MacDonough (1888)


Railway Affects the Nipigon


Railway and road construction across the Nipigon River just below Gapen's Pool
(Nipigon museum blog spot)

In the spring of 1871, Sanford Fleming, Chief Engineer of government surveys for the proposed Pacific Railway, sent a party of surveyors to the Nipigon region. Their mission was to locate a practical route for a railway running east to west from a point about 32 kilometers north of Lake Nipigon (Todd 1977). At that time, running a rail line along the rocky northern shores of Lake Superior was not considered feasible (OMNR 2001).

The Canadian Pacific Railway was built through the Nipigon region from 1883-1885. Nipigon town site and the river were important links in the supply route from Lake Superior to the railway location. This section of the Canadian Pacific was among the most difficult and expensive to complete due to the rocky and rugged topography (OMNR 2001).

A second transcontinental line was deemed necessary to deal with the increasing occupation and economic activity in western Canada. This line was to run north of the Canadian Pacific from Quebec to Vancouver (Todd 1977). Government survey crews selected a route north of Lake Nipigon. Transporting equipment and supplies into this remote northern location proved to be a difficult task. Horse and dog teams were used to haul supplies to various construction sites. In the summer, the Nipigon water route was used. The problem of portaging supplies around the Nipigon River was resolved in 1908 by building an eighteen mile long 3-foot gauge tramway along the Nipigon River called the Nipigon Tramway.

This tramway ran 3 miles west of the river from Alexander Landing to South Bay on Lake Nipigon. At Lake Nipigon, the supplies were transported north by steamer.

No sooner had construction on the National Transcontinental begun than the intention to build a Pacific and eastern extension to the railway, creating a third Trans-Canada railway was announced. After running along the Nipigon River, the line crossed and turned northeast along the shore of Orient Bay.

The construction of this railway was completed in 1914 and transcontinental service for passengers began to move along this line in 1915.


Commercial Fishing

Commercial fishing on Lake Nipigon began in 1917 as a result of food shortages brought on by World War I. Icehouses were established at Macdiarmid, near the C.N.R. rail line and the newly built railway transported the fish to markets. Large-scale, mechanized commercial fishing did not occur in the Lake Nipigon Basin until the early 1900’s. Mechanization led quickly to over-fishing, with a harvest of 2.3 million pounds in 1919. Since that time, stock harvests have depended on factors such as market price, weather, fishing effort and stock abundance. Lake Nipigon’s fish community has remained relatively unchanged since the early 1900’s with the exception of the introduction of smelt in 1976.


Logging on the River


The Pine Portage dam with remants of a log schute

The construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway through the Nipigon area between 1883 and 1885 required extensive use of forest resources. Thousands of axe-made ties were taken from within and adjacent to the right-of-way. A similar demand for ties occurred with the construction of the National Transcontinental Railway in 1908- 1910 and the Canadian Northern Railway in 1913-1915.

The first attempt to drive logs down any part of the Nipigon River was made by James Whalen in 1900. At this time, prior to the dam construction, the river was very rough and proved to be a challenge. Karas (1997) describes the river of the past.

“It was composed of a large river that varied in width from 50 to 200 yards,

with a voluminous flow of water; 5500 cu. feet per second.

In its 32-mile southerly course from Lake Nipigon,

it once descended 313 feet over 15 well-accelerated rapids and seven waterfalls,

losing its identity only temporarily when it flowed through four lakes."

Log jams often occurred on sections of the river between Alexander Falls and Jessie Lake. Whalen established camps along the Nipigon River. Pine logs were cut along the river and driven down to Nipigon. Whalen’s operation continued until 1907. Full log drive started again on the Nipigon River in 1923 after the construction of the Cameron Falls dam and continued until 1973.

All the log boom towing on the Nipigon River was done by Abitibi Power and Paper Company. Abitibi held the rights to the river drive and their employees carried out the drives. Companies paid Abitibi an annual toll that was based on the amount of wood they expected to move and on Abitibi’s estimate of expenses. There were 2-6 different companies operating log drives from ice out to late September. Wood was towed in booms of up to 7,000 cords each to Virgin Falls. The annual volume was between 200,000 and 400,000 cords.

The release of the boom into the river was controlled by opening the boom with a winch (Mutch 1991). Once the logs were “spilled”, river crews kept them moving down the river to Lake Superior. A single drive took a month from the time wood was spilled above Virgin Falls until it cleared Lake Helen. Company records show that the number of drives ranged from a high of 10 in 1942 to two in 1971 with an average of five drives a year (Mutch 1991).

Approximately 100 workers were required to handle the logs. These workers were predominantly French Canadians and First Nations with a few Finnish and Swedish workers (Mutch 1991).

The main drive camp was located above MacDonald’s Rapids. There were four other camps located further downstream to house the men who worked the lower stretches of the Nipigon River. These camps were located at strategic points along the Nipigon River including Virgin Falls, Pine Portage, Cameron Falls, and Lake Helen. They were all linked by short-wave radio, by which the Drive Supervisor got reports and gave orders (Mutch 1991).

The river was divided into sections, with the wood from any one drive (i.e. the wood of one particular company) being confined to one section at a time. Once it was in a given section of the river, that area would be closed at both ends with booms, so that some other company’s wood could be released into the section above. Logs were stored in Lake Hannah above White Chutes, above the dams at Pine Portage and Cameron Falls (at the south end of the Lake Jessie) and to a limited extent above Alexander Falls. Pine Portage and Alexander Falls dams had control booms and lug chutes; Cameron Falls had no chutes; the movement of wood was controlled by stop logs (Mutch 1991).

Once the drive moved through each section of the river, the boom was closed and the river was “reared” up to release any wood that was held within that section. If water levels had been lowered while the logs were being driven down a section, Hydro would restore it to its original level to facilitate the rearing effort. This might mean high water levels were restored for two or three days at a time, then returned to the lower levels before the next phase of the drive was begun (Mutch 1991).


The Thurst for Power

The Nipigon River has been significantly altered from its original state by the construction of four waterpower dams (Swainson 2002b). Over the past century, multiple dams have been built on the Nipigon river and and on rivers above Lake Nipigon to redirect flow and "enable the total flow of the Nipigon River to be utilized for power development as the load requires it." (HEPC 1927). The consequences were immediateand severe. Portions of the river were flooded and fluctuating water levels destroyed natural spawning beds of the Brook Trout. It wasn't until1994, that a long-term Nipigon River Water Management Strategy was developed. From this strategy, an Operating Plan to guide the day to day dam operations was developed.





"Conserve and Protect"