Rideau Ferry – Old Days

Ferry’s John Oliver One of Rideau’s Colourful Characters

The History of Rideau Ferry was compiled by Mrs. E.W. Joynt of Lombardy, assisted by Mrs. Wm. J. McLean, R.R. 5, Perth, and submitted to “The Perth Courier” by Mrs. Mary Armstrong, R.R. 3, Smiths Falls.  The history was written in about 1965.

Rideau Ferry – 1912 – Coutts House in the background

“In the Township of Beckwith in Lanark County, Upper Canada, Ontario was one of the earliest settlements of which we read.  Settlers arrived here from the Old Lands “to carve out for themselves and their children homes in the dense forests where churches, schools and modern conveniences were unknown.  Log homes arose, tiny settlements took shape, and the need for spiritual guidance was recognized by these God-fearing people.  So it was that following a petition from the people in the year 1821, the Presbytery of Edinburgh sent out the Rev. George Buchanan from Cuper Angus, Scotland.

Rev. Buchanan was a graduate in medicine and a licentiate of the Associated Presbyterian Synod.  He sailed from Greenoch, Scotland in May 1822 with his wife and ten children. An ocean voyage of 36 days brought them to Quebec, thence to Brockville and on to the village of Franktown.

In 1826, his third daughter, Elizabeth, married Archibald Campbell of Rideau (Oliver’s) Ferry.  The Campbell’s were pioneers in Lanark County, influential, progressive and respected.  They lived in a frame house built in 1853 on the north side of the Rideau Lake.  The marriage was blessed with four daughters:  Ann, Margaret, Helen, and Elizabeth.  Previous to this they lived in a log house.

Rev. George Buchanan – the “old Presbyterian burial grounds”, Perth, Ontario

In 1843 Peter Coutts of Bendochy Presbytery of Meiga, Perthshire, in Scotland arrived in Ontario.  Just where they settled is unknown, probably in Lanark County where he would have to make a home for his wife and six children, 3 boys and 3 girls.  John the eldest was 12 years of age when he came to this country.  When the family grew up he and his brother James settled in North Elmsley.  John bought a farm from Duncan Campbell.  When Duncan Campbell lived there he lived in a stone house near Rideau Lake which was burned down.

Rideau Ferry 1908

On Dec. 16, 1856, Helen Buchanan Campbell, 2nd daughter of Archibald Campbell was married to John Coutts a son of Peter Coutts.  They made their home in a log house on Lot 22 Con. 6, North Elmsley.  This land remained in the Coutts name until 1961.  Here the family of 3 sons and 3 daughters were born.  Archie, the 3rd son, married and spent his lifetime there.  In 1896 he built a red brick house, a comfortable farm home which was later owned by his son Ross.  In Jan. 1860 at the age of 96 Archibald Coutts died after a life of industry and Christian endeavour.  In 1870 Archie’s parents Mr. and Mrs. John Coutts moved from their log home to a frame house near the Rideau Ferry; this house had been built by Mrs. Coutts’ father, Archibald Campbell in 1853.  In the years to be, this place became widely known as the ‘Coutts House”.

Coutt’s House, Rideau Ferry

In these early days men walked to Brockville and back again carrying bags of wheat to have it ground into flour.  Since there was not a bridge to connect the road from Brockville to Perth, Mr. A. Campbell decided to build a scow.  This was a large, flat-bottomed boat, propelled by oars and a cable and was used to transport or ‘ferry’ horses, cattle and produce across the waterway.

For a number of years it was termed “Oliver’s Ferry”. The operator of the scow was one, John Oliver.  He resided on the south side of the lake at the point where the scow made its crossings.  He was a notorious character and the story is told that when travellers from Brockville or Perth remained at his home overnight they were robbed. His farm was sold to Joseph Thompson and then to Patrick Wills.  It remains in the Wills family.  Mr. Thompson’s wife was a daughter of Archibald Campbell.

In 1826 the construction of the Rideau Canal connecting Kingston to Ottawa (Bytown) the capital of Upper Canada was begun.  During its construction history tells that in 1830 there were 1, 316 employed on the project between Kingston Mills and Newboro and that 500 of them died of malaria in that year.  The work was completed by the end of 1831 and on May 21, 1832 the side wheeler “Pumper” made the first complete trip from Kingston to Ottawa passing enroute through the Rideau Ferry.  Produce and goods of all kinds were transported over the waterway and this prompted Archibald Campbell to erect a wharf and warehouses at the lake front in 1832.

The “Pumper”, 1834, Archives of Ontario

He put teams and wagons on the roads carrying vast quantities of freight to and from the towns and villages in the surrounding district.  These storehouses were a landmark and served the useful purpose of storing commodities of all kinds until the time came when other modes of transportation became more convenient.  One of these buildings was then removed; sold to a farmer in the district who rebuilt it as a farm building.

Mr. Archibald Campbell died of cholera in 1834.  His wife recovered from the dread disease and was spared to raise her family of four daughters. She carried on the business for many years until the building of the railroad from Brockville to Perth in 1859 diverted a good portion of the traffic.  In 1875 Mrs. Campbell died and was buried beside her husband in the old burying grounds in Perth.

Mrs. A. Campbell’s properties included a brick house; this home was originally a frame dwelling located some distance from the Ferry on the Perth Road.  Mrs. Campbell moved it near to the lake shore at the Ferry, enlarged and brick veneered it.  This house was willed to Helen, Mrs. John Coutts; the frame house in which she lived was willed to Ann, Mrs. Henry Smith.  Helen wished to conduct a boarding house and because the frame one was more suited to this purpose, she and Ann traded houses.  This was the beginning of the “Coutts House”, as mentioned previously.  This business grew into a fine summer hotel for folks, seeking pleasant recreation and leisure time.

In 1893 an addition was built to the back of the house.  This consisted of three floors.  The first floor was a large dining room and the second and third floors were 15 bedrooms and a bathroom, making 30 bedrooms in all.  A well was drilled and a windmill erected so water was forced into the kitchen for cooking and drinking.  Pipes were laid from the lake and the water forced to the top story by a force pump.  Guests coming by train to Perth and Smiths Falls, a distance of 8 miles, were met by the proprietor with horse and buggy.

In 1888 the store and dwelling recently occupied by Mrs. Stewart was built by Mr. Peter Coutts, father of Mrs. Edward Joynt.  During the summer home-made ice cream and ginger beer were made and sold in large quantities; crusty homemade bread from the family kitchen was sold at 6 cents a loaf.  All types of fishing tackle, groceries and provisions found a ready sale.

About 1893, the telephone line was strung from Perth to Rideau Ferry.  The first and only telephone was located in Mr. Coutt’s store.  The ground wire was carried to the old graphite factory near the lake.  Every month Mr. Coutts sent reports of all messages to Desoronto.  The charge was not very high and the telephone booth was a busy place in the summer.

Mr. Peter Coutts moved into the Coutts House in 1898, and operated this busy place for 7 years.  For several years after it was rented to various people until 1947 it was purchased by Mr. Wallace of Osgoode.  He tore down the old wooden structure and replaced it with a modern one of cinder block construction.

On the first floor, bordered by a broad veranda is a huge dining room with large plate glass windows looking out over the lake.  Above it is a dance floor where young folks enjoy modern dancing.  The barns and stables at the back were torn down and a number of cabins were built.  This has been sold and resold since the new building was erected.  It is now operated by Jack Fitzgerald of Smiths Falls.  A swimming pool was built in 1961 on the lawn facing the lake.

Rideau Ferry Inn 1947-1986

The mail for Rideau Ferry District arrived at the railway station at Port Elmsley, there to be picked up by a courier.  Mrs. Wm. McCue, who brought it to his home in which the post office was situated.  The Rideau Ferry Postmistress Mrs. Ann Campbell Smith, would drive her pony to McCue’s, receive her share from the mail bags and return to her office in the red brick house at the Ferry.  The neighbourhood folk and summer tourists eagerly awaited their letters and papers.  It is said that news items often reached the public via the penny post card and the Postmistress.  In later years, a stage plying between Perth and the Rideau Ferry, driven by Samuel Hall, brough the mail bags and the other commodities to the post office and the village stores.  This in turn was replaced by our modern rural mail delivery.  The post office is now located in Mr. Stewart’s store.

Postmark from the Rideau Ferry Post Office, 1938

A recent story about Rideau Ferry has just been found and follows, the composer of this is unknown:

In 1826 Archibald Campbell built a scow, as previously mentioned. This was operated by oars and cable under the management of a hired man named John Oliver; hence the name “Oliver’s Ferry”.

Oliver’s Ferry, 1830 – photo: Library and Archives Canada

Oliver’s Ferry, 1834, Rideau Lake, looking toward Bytown, photo:Ontario Archives

In 1844 Mrs. Anne Smith, living in a brick house near the bridge, owned a tract of land along the road on the east side and on the lake on the south side of this field.  She had the field surveyed into lots and gave Oliver’s Ferry the name of Rideau Centre. To the year 1893 it was called Rideau Centre, but in 1909 it was called Rideau Ferry.  So, between these years Mrs. Smith who was Postmistress had changed the name again. Mrs. Smith died Dec. 25, 1908.  In 1909 her brick house was sold to James Allen of Perth.  Mrs. W.S. Robertson of Perth bought four lots facing the lake; Mrs. Sam Hall bought the four acre field which has since been surveyed and divided among Mr. Hall’s family.  Mrs. Max Hall built on his lot near the lake some years ago and still lives there.

In 1909 Mrs. Smith’s household effects were sold by auction.  Of special interest was an antique chair of Spanish mahogany which she used in the post office.  It may be seen in the museum in Perth Ontario now.

Rideau Ferry Bridge with new spans – 1896

In 1871, by joint auction of the Town of Perth and the Government of Canada, a substantial wooden bridge was built across the Rideau, thus ending the operation of the Ferry.  In 1896, the first bridge was replaced with a 501 ft. iron bridge of two sections – one section which swings open allows the larger craft to go through. 

Rideau Ferry Bridge – 1918

The first Bridgemaster, working 24 hours a day was Duncan Campbell, a brother of Archibald Campbell.  Their wives were the Buchanan sisters.  Duncan lived in a frame house built in 1872 on the south end of the bridge, a house which still stands and is now remodelled as a summer home for the Campbell descendants.

The Bridgemaster is appointed by the Dept. of Transport of the Dominion government and now occupies the Government-owned red brick house at the north end of the bridge.  This bridge stood the ravages of time until the summer of 1961 when a heavily loaded transport tank carrying caustic soda caused the collapse of one span.  It was immediately replaced by another. A petition has been sent to the Dominion and Provincial governments urging them to replace this 67-year old structure with a modern one to accommodate the heavy flow of traffic.  The present Bridgemaster is Mr. MacKenzie.

One of the early landmarks of this district was a flourishing lead mine, operating about one mile north of Rideau Ferry.  A factory was built at the Ferry, and to it, teams drew the ore which was converted into graphite to be used in the manufacture of ammunition.  Many of the employees boarded at the “Coutts House”.  In later years the “Globe Graphite Company” erected a mill at Port Elmsley and the ore was taken there for processing.  For many years the mill was idle, since it was not producing sufficient ore to make it a paying enterprise.  In 1896 the 100’ long graphite factory was torn down.  Robert Miller bought 60 ft. of this and Archie Coutts the remaining 40 ft.  It is said that for many years the fine lead dust could be seen in the huge beams.  A huge stone roller used to grind the ore, stands in front of the Ferry Inn.  It is used as a base for the flag pole.

Rideau Ferry Inn

Rideau Ferry Inn

About the year 1898 Mrs. John Coutts retired from the “Coutts House”.  On the site of the old factory he built a comfortable red brick house.  He and his wife lived there for the rest of their lives cared for by their daughter.  Mr. Coutts died in 1904 and his wife passed on three years later.

Rideau Ferry Bridge – 1935

As the towns grew and prospered, people began seeking more summer homes for pleasure and recreation.  Summer homes were built along the picturesque shores of the lake as early as 1870.  Names to be remembered are: the Bethunes, Senator Peter McLaren, F.W. Hall, C.J. Sewell, Lawrence Gemmill, Dr. A.E. Hanna of Perth, the John Dietrick family, the Charles Frost family of Smiths Falls.  Guests at the “Coutts House” were the Ormes and Lindsays of Ottawa, J.H. Mendels of Smiths Falls, and many visitors from the United States.  July and August were the busy months at the “Coutts House”, always a full house. 

Life was a gay and interesting time.  Pleasure boats from Perth and Smiths Falls transported moonlight and daytime excursions and sightseers; band music and sing-songs could be heard across the waters.  Two boats from Kingston, “The Rideau King”, and the “Rideau Queen”, made regular trips between Ottawa and Kingston carrying passengers to summer homes and providing pleasure outings for organizations and groups of people from the cities.”

Rideau King

Rideau Queen – 1905

Rideau Queen – narrow hallway with cabins on each side

Rideau Queen – cabin and washroom

Rideau Queen lounge and piano parlor

Cabins and Guest House at the Rideau Ferry Inn

Water Skiing at Rideau Ferry

(Article from: May 26, 1982, p. 17 and p. 22, “The Perth Courier”, written by: Mrs. E.W. Joynt of Lombardy, assisted by Mrs. Wm. J. McLean, R.R. 5, Perth, c. 1965)

And so, the early days of Rideau Ferry, or Oliver’s Ferry as it was known were similar to many of the settlements built along waterways. From the days of the early ferry used to transport goods, through the times of establishing a post office, telephone service, building bridges, and eventually prosperity, partly from the influx of tourists and visitors who came for recreation along these peaceful shores.

Rideau Ferry will remain a place to pause along her magnificent waterways, and in the stillness and the beauty that surrounds you, feel the sense of her history, and the stories of those long-forgotten souls, who walked those same paths, so many years ago.

Arlene Stafford-Wilson


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