Exploring the Opeongo — in 1851

This is the first in a series of posts about the history of the Opeongo Road that we hope will inspire you to connect with the pilgrims of years past as you make your own spiritual journey to St. Ann’s this summer.

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Most people believe that the route for the Opeongo Road was surveyed by the famous Ottawa Valley businessman and publisher Robert Bell. What few people know is that, though he received credit for the survey, Bell rarely set foot on the Opeongo!

Bell was hired in 1850 to survey a road line from the Ottawa River, through Renfrew, to Lake Opeongo, “avoiding as much as possible rocky, broken, and swampy land or ground otherwise unfit for settlement.” As you will see from your walk along today’s Opeongo, this was no easy chore!

Bell’s first task was to gather supplies and arrange for depots to be established at key points along the proposed route. He purchased supplies from J. L. McDougall in Renfrew. While you might carry with you a backpack with some snacks, a change of socks, and a sleeping bag, Bell’s crew of ten did not pack light. The order from McDougall’s store included: 18 axes, 2 hammers, 1 rod, 1 grindstone, 1 whetstone, 15 tumplines, 40 bags for flour, 27 blankets, 111 yards of cotton for tents, 35 yards of cotton for repairing tents, 12 pair of snowshoes, deerskins for strings, 1 bake oven, 1 pair pot hooks, 2 tin kettles, 25 tin dishes (various sizes), 2 tin pails, 12 spoons, and 1 flat for men carrying provisions. Imagine that on your back!

Supply depots were set up at John Egan’s farm at Fairfield on the Bonnechere River (Fairfield later became Eganville), Byers’ Farm on Kamaniskeg Lake (near Barry’s Bay) and McDougald’s farm on Lake Opeongo itself.

Bell then turned over the work of the survey to his subordinates: A. H. Sims and Hamlet Burritt. Much of what we now know about the actual conduct of the survey comes from Burritt’s private diary, discovered by accident in the attic of a home in Merrickville, Ontario in 1980.

From Joan Finnigan, Life Along the Opeongo Line (Renfrew: Penumbra Press, 2004)

From Joan Finnigan, Life Along the Opeongo Line (Renfrew: Penumbra Press, 2004)

Sims was the career bureaucrat—a city slicker who complained about blackflies, had a flare for the dramatic, and spent much of his time darning socks. Burritt was dour and serious about his work—a hardy bush man with the ability to carve his own pen from an eagle quill and little patience for the specious Sims. In describing their relationship, Burritt said, “I am consulted about everything but he generally gives the orders to the men. In fact, I can safely say that I plan and he executes.” Of course, we have only Burritt’s word for this, but it makes for an amusing partnership.

On more than one occasion, Sims was a source of levity for Burritt and the other men. When the men cut a tree to act as a bridge over a creek, Sims got into trouble. As Burritt recounts, “Mr. Sims when crossing missed his step and fell into the creek head first backwards. He got up on his feet as soon as possible but he was nearly strangled. After getting up but still standing in the water after puffing and blowing for a little he cried out very angrily, ‘By God!’ and then he began to laugh very heartily, but I think that I never saw a neater duck in my life before!”

It took Burritt and Sims three months to walk from Renfrew to Lake Opeongo and another eight months to complete the survey. It shouldn’t take you that long to walk to Cormac, but you can imagine yourself following the path carved out by these men in their search for the “Great Opeongo Lake”.

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