Ottawa Valley has many big attractions in small towns

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This boat is on display in Parc Brosseau in Portage-du-Fort. From 1860 onward, Portage-du-Fort was an important centre of the Pontiac with its mills, train station and its terminus for steamboats carrying grain and wood on the Ottawa River.

Small is the big new in places like Portage du Fort

Portage du Fort, PQ. —  Frances Shea believes in thinking big and as a proud Ottawa Valley resident, she says now is the time for the smaller communities on both sides of the Ottawa River to look around their own backyards and discover 50 local landmarks that are not only unique and help establish a community’s identity, but the promotion of these hidden treasures can help draw visitors to the area.

More importantly as she points out, attracting visitors to the area could have several positive aspects.

“What has happened over the last year with COVID is that a lot of people living in big cities like Ottawa and Toronto have decided they don’t want to be in a crowded neighbourhood and they are leaving the city looking for a more spacious and less populated area to live,” she said.

“When restrictions were lifted we had more cars and visitors passing through the village than we have seen in all the time we have been here. Now is the time for us to promote Portage as a place not only to live, but a great place to start a business.”

Ms. Shea, a retired engineer who spent several years working at a local pulp and paper mill, is one of those individuals who can see potential in an otherwise bleak situation. Unlike many who only see why something can’t be done, she can come up with 50 reasons for success and diplomatically brush aside the naysayers and move forward on a project.

“If you would have asked me five years ago if I saw myself as being the unofficial champion of Portage and all the incredible things that make this community a desirable place to visit or live, I likely would have had a great laugh about it all,” she said while walking through the quiet streets of the community along the Ottawa River.

“We came here for a yard sale about five years ago and my husband, Cletus and I just loved the area and we ended up buying a mobile home before we purchased the old stone house, a house that included stables from the 19th and  20th century.”

Although they officially reside in Ontario just outside of Renfrew, the couple immersed themselves on a five-year renovation project. They transformed the cottage they purchased from a run-down 176-year-old stone stable into a pristine modernized seasonal residence that combines the original stone foundation and wooden interior into a modern home with all the amenities available in the 21st century.

The Lakeside Hotel is one of the few remaining hotels in the Pontiac Region. It was a hot spot for many Ontarians after bars closed here.

Historical Walking Tour

Within a few years Ms. Shea and other like-minded residents began to have regular meetings to come up with ideas to promote the village and stop it from becoming just another ghost town found in some parts of the Valley.

“We wanted to make sure that Portage stayed on the map for tourists and visitors who come through the village and we wanted them to see some of the original landmarks that have been here for more than 150 years.

“We have a really good group of volunteers who live here and all of us see so much potential for Portage. I mean, just look at the waterfront and we have the original Monument of Lady Head to greet the boaters and those coming to fish off our docks. It really ties into our theme of linking the past which was built by the lumber trade and reminding them that Portage was one of the busiest towns in all of the Ottawa Valley.”

The monument of Lady Anna Maria Head, built of calcific marble in 1856, celebrates her accomplishment as the first woman to travel the Ottawa River in a birch bark canoe. She was the wife of the Province of Canada’s then Governor General Sir Edmund Head, and her trip down the length of the river symbolized the economic and cultural importance of the Ottawa Valley in the future meetings which laid the groundwork for confederation.

It is no accident that the monument, located on the beach and at the foot of the legendary Lakeside Hotel, the one-time hottest spot on the Ottawa River when the bars closed on the Ontario side and carloads of eager would-be customers crossed the bridge at the Cheneaux Dam in order to continue their late-night activities.

The volunteer group partnered with all levels of government and some local cultural groups to produce a slick and easy-to-use Historical Walking Tour of Portage-du-Fort, a book filled with photographs dating back to the 1840s and highlights some of the village’s most recognizable century homes. It also highlights other landmarks such as the village’s three churches, or an original grindstone placed in the park by Father Basil Tanguay in 2017.

The guide comes in both English and French and is an incredible historical reference for the stone houses that survived the devastating fire of May 1914 when 80 per cent of the village was lost.

“To have these homes still standing after that fire, and with so many staying in the same family for generations, they are in great shape,” Ms. Shea said. “Today, when a “For Sale” sign goes up, it doesn’t stay up very long as they are selling so fast. Some of the new owners are from Ottawa or other large cities and they want to get back to a more stress-free and less-crowded environment they grew tired of being part of.”

The volunteers successfully obtained funding to create a series of plaques that are placed in front of landmarks and each plaque contains a short essay outlining the history of the site. Among the colourful stories behind the doors of some include the Sauve House which was used over the years as a watchmaker’s shop, a commercial warehouse, a lunch counter and a confectionary.

The Purvis House on Main Street is seen by many as the cultural anchor of Portage. Built in 1855 by Dr. George Purvis, he was one of the Pontiac’s first doctors and a fully equipped clinic operated out of there. Over the years it has been the home to a Catholic school and later used by Humber College before the Pontiac Artists’ Association started renting space in 2009 to showcase their artwork.

Today, the Purvis House is one of the most popular sites on the tour and it is also home to several exhibits featuring the works of local artists.

“This really is a big draw and on weekends there are plenty of cars that stop there and we joke it is sometimes as busy the corner store,” she said. “That is why some of us who live across from the Purvis House on Craig and Nancy Lane really go all out to make our laneways as attractive and accessible as possible. Most people don’t even realize we are on real roads owned by the village so why not show it off.”

Ms. Shea and some nearby neighbours are also talented artists and some, including herself, have built small galleries and they have created what can best be described as a natural artists’ alley. Visitors and residents can walk down the laneways and see some rather unique creations. Ms. Shea said it really comes down to keeping things simple and affordable and when people on both sides of the river consider a daytrip, Portage du Fort should be one of their top destination choices.

The Reid House is one of many beautiful old stone buildings in the village.

Back From The Brink

“After the Smurfit Pulp Mill announced its closing back in 2008, everyone naturally thought it was going to be the death of Portage,” she said. “For about 10 years it was tough going and people started to leave. Then about three years ago our committee started to get involved in promoting the area and people started to come and that was when I realized we had way more than the 24 landmarks found in our walking guide.”

The Shea’s started a campaign built around the premise that Small is the New Big and they listed 50 (plus three more recent additions) great ways to enjoy the village of Portage du Fort. The list includes things that can only be found in Portage including the ability to walk along the dams located on the Ottawa River and see first-hand the incredible velocity of the heritage river.

When she looks onto the river from her back porch, a porch the couple built over the original stables, she points to the main floor that once housed many horses back in the 19th century.

“Old is new and small is the new big,” she said with a laugh. “People are being drawn back to the simplicity of rural life and Portage is the ideal link to get them here. The list of 50 items has real physical items like the houses, but the list also contains some facts. We are proud to say that our town does not contribute to any pollution in the Ottawa River because we have septic systems, and we have fresh water and when people come to look at a house for sale, they are usually shocked when they hear how affordable it is to live in Portage.”

She admits there are several communities up and down the Valley with similar water conditions and low housing costs. That is exactly the point she is trying to make.

“We are coming out of COVID and folks in the big cities just want to get out of the city they have been locked up in for over a year,” she said. “Once all the restrictions are lifted people will be scrambling to do something they couldn’t do for a year. Many of them discovered the Ottawa Valley and some are moving here for the first time.

“I think of this as almost a challenge to all the little towns and villages up and down the Valley.  “Community volunteers know who they are and they don’t need a lot of time to go from talking to doing. Make a list of 50 little things that make your community a destination for visitors. It is bad to say it, but COVID may have given Portage and all the towns out there a new chance to start self-promoting and that will help all their businesses.

In the end, Ms. Shea said it all comes down to one simple belief.

“Give people something to see and they will come.”