The Historic Opeongo Line
Download the audio file (mp3) for a narrated guided tour while you drive.
This route traces the historic Ottawa and Opeongo Road which was established by the Canadian government in the 1850s to lure European settlers into the hinterland.
Depart Farrell's Landing at Castleford.
Just west of the bridge on your right, look for the plaque commemorating Lt Christopher James Bell, a veteran of the War of 1812, who settled on the Bonnechere in 1829. In the time when rivers were the highways of trade and commerce, those making the trek up the Bonnechere River from the mighty Ottawa used Farrell's Landing (a few kilometres up-river) and the village of Castleford as jumping-off points to the interior. Timber barons, loggers, teamsters, and the pioneer squatters who established farms up-river to supply the logging camps disembarked here.
From River Rd 1, turn right onto Thomson Rd and travel 1.4 km (0.8mi) to the driveway beyond the spruce plantation on your right. Walk up to the next driveway on your right to access the First Chute via a tree-lined lane.
2. Bonnechere River
You'll hear the rushing waters as soon as you turn off the ignition. Follow the wooded path to the rocky shore, but be careful, ambling along the steep grade requires caution. This is the First Chute of the Bonnechere River, which stretches 145km (90mi) from its headwaters near McAskill Lake in Algonquin Park. A great place for photography and fishing.
Wind you way along Thompson Rd. Turn right onto Lochwinnoch Rd. 6 and then right again on Hwy 17 to reach Renfrew.
Renfrew was incorporated in 1858 and became industrial and commercial hub of southeastern Renfrew County, much as it is today. Raglan Street, its vibrant main thoroughfare, is lined with century-old commercial buildings, stately homes and towering church steeples.
Feel like walking over water? Take the swing foot bridge across the Bonnechere River in Renfrew - it's one of only two in all of Ontario. Built in 1895 to provide workers access to the industrial area around the mill, the bridge eventually fell into disrepair, but was rebuilt in 1983. The adjacent McDougall Mill Museum tells the history of Creamery Town, as Renfrew has come to be known since the first creamery was built here in 1895. Production was so significant that by the early 1900s butter was being shipped through Eastern Ontario and overseas to Britain.
From Renfrew, head up the Opeongo Line by travelling west via Hwy 132 to the Ferguslea bypass.
4. The Ottawa and Opeongo Road
One of several colonization routes proposed by the Canadian government in the early 1850’s, this one was to follow a westward course from the Ottawa River, to Opeongo Lake in present-day Algonquin Park, and eventually link with Georgian Bay. By the late 1850’s the road was essentially complete as far as Barry’s Bay and the land it bisected was populated by European immigrants who had been lured to this new country with promises of grants of fertile farm land. But the dream of developing a farming base which would rival that of Upper Canada was dashed by the realities of rocky, shallow soils, poor drainage and a short growing season. A decade later the Opeongo Line project was cancelled and many of the settlers moved on in search of an easier way of life. However the road continued to be maintained, with some re-routing, until the 1890’s, when the railway was built and took over the travel route. Today the Opeongo Road remains intact and has retained much of its century-old ambience: log-constructed farmsteads, stone and split-rail fences, and various 19th century structures.
The biway into Ferguslea follows the route of the original Opeongo Line past several original log homes and rustic wood fences reminiscent of early Canada. The Kingston and Pembroke Railway (known as the Kick'n Push) came through in 1884, and for years thereafter passengers would disembark and overnight at the once-bustling Opeongo Hotel.
Continue west along Ferguslea Rd back to Hwy 132; turn left and proceed to Dacre.
Of all the villages established along the Ottawa and Opeongo Settlement Road, Dacre remains the most viable. From here, traffic and trade coursed in six different directions, and the town boasted a church, a school, stores and two hotels. A motel sits where the whimsically named California House once stood. As you travel through town, note the piles of unpolished marble mined in the Madawaska Highlands nearby.
From Dacre travel north to Scotch Bush Rd to Balaclava.
Ever visit a ghost town? Here's your chance to get a feel for one. For many years, dammed water from Constant Creek powered a large sawmill at Balaclava. Today, the mill, a sawdust burner, and several historic buildings stand abandoned - some leaning slightly under the weight of time. From the bridge look to the far shore on Constant Lake to the forest of stumps - remnants of trees flooded when the dam was first built. Anglers will want to dip a line for some tasty panfry.
Proceed north on Scotch Bush Rd to Scotch Bush and turn left onto Constant Lake Rd. Proceed west to Hwy 41 and turn left. Proceed south for a few kilometres and turn right onto Opeongo Rd. Watch for the biway on your left approximately 1.0km (0.6mi) after you turn onto Opeongo Rd from Hwy 41.
8. Opeongo Line Fence
As you drive along, you will notice that the Opeongo Line is much improved since it was a cart track and bone-jarring corduroy road. Fortunately, some stretches have been pre-served, including a peaceful picnic spot along a stretch of original splitrail fence.
About 1.5km (0.9mi) beyond the roadside biway, look for the Opeongo Oasis on the right side of the road.
9. Opeongo Oasis
Early settlers, shantymen and travellers often stopped here on their journey up the line to quench their thirst. Legend has it that since these stops sometimes resulted in heated discussion and bloody conflict, the creek would at times run red with blood. Others contend that the water was coloured by the red wine which was split during the common practice of diluting to make the bottle last longer.
St Joseph's Roman Catholic Church, built in 1890, marks the remains of the hamlet of Esmonde. From here the road skirts the base of the Opeongo Hills along the southern edge of the Bonnechere Valley.
Continue your ascent northwest along Opeongo Rd to the intersection of Foymount Rd 512. Turn left and proceed for a short distance to Foymount.
If you're aiming for the top, this is it. Foymount is Ontario's highest populated point at 500m (1650') above sea level. This high altitude was exploited in the 1950s, when a now-dismantled radar base was established as part of the Pinetree Radar Line, designed to detect Soviet bombers coming over the polar ice cap. Enjoy a sweeping view of the Bonnechere Valley from the parking lot at the top of Sebastopol Dr.
Wind your way back downhill along Foymount Rd 512, to Brudenell.
Established in the 1850s and boasting a blacksmith, a racetrack, and three hotels that served liquor, Brudenell fast gained a reputation. Apparently, a Brudenell Saturday night was a thing to behold - and Sunday morning at Our Lady of Angels church… a sorry sight, indeed! As you enter Brudenell, the concrete foundation on you left is all that remains of Bill Costello's hotel, which later became the offices of the Brudenell and Lyndoch Telephone Company. The private home next door, at one time the town hall, still retains some of its original grandeur with its veranda and gingerbread trim. When this establishment was operated by Cooey Costello, it was known locally as the "sin bin", and its main salon featured a grand piano.
At the intersection of Foymount Rd 512 and Opeongo Rd in Brudenell, proceed west on Opeongo Rd towards Hopefield.
12. Up the Line
Offering breathtaking scenery all year round, it is in fall-time that this corner of the Ottawa Valley, with its blend of hillside mixed forests turns truly glorious --- a natural tapestry of reds, golds and greens. Since traveling up the line today is far removed from that of settlement times, each summer and fall several local artisans open their doors to visitors on the Madawaska Valley Studio Tour and special Wilno Weekends.
Continue west on the Opeongo Rd. About 2km past the Wilno South Rd turnoff, the original Opeongo line, now impassable to motor vehicles, can be seen in an opening to the left. In 1886 this extremely rugged section was by-passed by the section you are now driving on through to Yantha Lake, where it joins the present day Highway 60. Turn left into Barry’s Bay.
It's an ear-popping motor descent into Wilno, Canada's oldest Polish settlement. Established in 1864, the community flourished when the railroad was built through the Wilno Pass in 1895. Today, anchored by the towering spires of the village church and an historic roadside tavern, Wilno is a mélange of traditional farmers and loggers, and colourful musicians and artisans. As they say in these parts, if you don't know about this place --- soon, you Wilno!
Turn right onto Hwy 60 to the scenic lookout.
Visit Shrine Hill for one of the most stunning views in the Valley. From here, one can see Round Lake straight-ahead and Golden Lake to the far right. An historic plaque commemorates the Kazubian pioneers who settled this rocky landscape so reminiscent of their homeland. Pack a picnic and your camera for a high elevation lunch and photo op.
From Wilno, travel west on Hwy 60 to Barry's Bay.
14. Barry's Bay
Barry's Bay was established as a rough and tumble lumber town on Lake Kamaniskeg, at what was to become the terminus of the Ottawa Opeongo Road. The Bay was the site of several sawmills which drove the town's economy. Today, this Irish/Polish community is a hub of tourism and government within Renfrew County.
Of the many railway stations that once dotted the Ottawa Valley, only the one at Barry's Bay has been faithfully restored. It serves as an Ottawa Valley Visitor Information Centre; be sure to drop in for travel information and Ottawa Valley souvenirs: t-shirts, sweatshirts or fleece mitts. The original railway hotel and water tower stand nearby.
From Barry's Bay, continue travelling west along Hwy 60 to the Algonquin Park Visitor Centre.
15. An Unceremonious End
Construction of the Ottawa and Opeongo Road came to an unceremonious end somewhere North of Bark Lake. In 1864, Road Agent T.P. French resigned, having done his level best in the cause of a flawed scheme. Several successors were also unable to complete this colonization route which was to continue through present-day Algonquin Park and on to Georgian Bay.
16. Algonquin Provincial Park
Algonquin Provincial Park which borders Renfrew County to the northwest, is Ontario's oldest provincial park and one of the largest in Canada. Algonquin stretches across 7,725km2 (3,000mi2) of wild and beautiful lakes and forests. Its rocky ridges and spruce bogs are ideal for hiking and guided wolf howls; they're also one of the best places for viewing moose in their natural habitat, particularly in spring and summer. Algonquin's Visitor Centre includes exhibits on local wildlife and cultural history. The whole family will enjoy the outdoor logging museum which features detailed reconstructions of a camboose camp and horse stable, a steam-powered alligator tug boat, and a working dam and log chute, all set along a woodland trail.
Renowned Ottawa Valley lumber baron J.R. Booth built a railway round house at Madawaska to turn around the rail cars of the Ottawa, Arnprior and Parry Sound Railway, for their journey back into the Valley.
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