From the French word for basin or cauldron (what the current falls drop into), Chaudière Falls and Chaudière Island sit just west of Ottawa's downtown core, along the Ottawa River. The falls themselves, where Samuel de Champlain would have first seen them in 1613, sit where the Booth Street bridge passes from the western end of Centretown into Gatineau, crossing the Ottawa River (also known as the Gatineau, or the Grand River), very close to where Chinatown meets Little Italy in Ottawa, and very close to Pubwells Restaurant, where most of the Chaudiere Books schemes were first imagined and dreamed up.
When the Domtar-E.B. Eddy site at historic Chaudière Falls and Chaudière Island announced mill closings in early December 2005, the first talk was about transforming the area into a major tourist attraction, opening up the scenery to the public, and encouraging multiple uses, such as Vancouver's Granville Island. Offering stunning scenery on a site that encompasses historic sites associated with First Nations, early settlers and industrial pioneers such as lumber baron E.B. Eddy and J.B. Booth, the closings created an opportunity for the National Capital Commission to acquire a property that the federal government has been coveting for about one hundred years.
Considered a kind of treed oasis by Jacques Greber, who penned "The Greber Report" in 1949, the first official city plan that Ottawa had commissioned, Chaudière Island and Victoria Island have otherwise been somewhat dormant as cultural or tourist spaces, well below the potential of both. Victoria Island, rich with First Nations history, aboriginal peoples were known to have carried their canoes along a portage on the Gatineau site of the Ottawa River for more than 1,000 years in a detour around the island.
Considered a blow to both Cornwall (closing its own Domtar site) and Ottawa-Gatineau, it means the city would lose one of the last links to Bytown's own beginnings as an important 18th century lumber town, starting with the first mill built by the Chaudiere in the early 1800s by Philemon Wright (founder of Wright's Village, at the Quebec-side foot of the Chaudière Falls, which eventually became known as Wrightsville, Wrightstown, Hull and finally, Gatineau), whose son, Ruggles, built the first timber slide in North America there in 1829. There was even a joke for the years book-ending 1900, that you weren't a real Ottawa poet unless you had written a poem on the Chaudière Falls or Rapids. Who are we to argue with history?
A number of the Confederation Poets of the late 1800s and early 1900s lived and worked in the city for various government departments, and it held like a bad joke that, if you hadn't written a poem on the Chaudière Falls or Rapids, you weren't really an Ottawa poet. One of the strongholds of poetry in the late 19th century, Ottawa modernism held strong and overstayed its welcome, writing too far into twentieth century.
From a book he's currently working on about 19th century Ottawa writers, literary historian Steven Artelle writes:
Although locals took for granted the proto-urban character of their city, the evidence of industrial intervention along the Ottawa River was another matter. The river's Chaudiére Falls - the French designation for "boiling cauldron" had overruled the indigenous equivalent, "Asticou" - was a well-established social, commercial and spiritual venue for the region's aboriginal population long before these dimensions were first recorded in Samuel de Champlain's journal of 1612, the text in which these Falls enter into Euro-Canadian culture as a literary site.
Over three hundred years later, before Parliament Hill became Ottawa's focal point, and before "sawdust, slabs, and stern improvement gave / A turbid deathstroke to [the Ottawa River's] limpid wave," the Chaudiére served as a requisite destination for poets seeking inspiration in Canada.
Among the "Poems, Songs and Sonnets, Written Chiefly in Canada" by the popular Gaelic poet Evan McColl, pride of place was given to "The Chaudiére. A scene on the River Ottawa," dated 13 September 1859, in which the poet proclaimed that "it seems almost a crime / To be ought else than mute near a scene so sublime" as "the mighty Chaudiére" with its "God-speaking voice."
In Hesperus, and Other Poems and Lyrics (1860), Charles Sangster affirmed the site's sacred properties with his claim in the poem "The Falls of the Chaudiére, Ottawa" that he had "seen the Athiest in terror start, / Awed to contrition by the strong appeal" of "The wild Chaudiére's eternal jubilee" (55).
On 16 May 1876, William Pittman Lett recorded his own testament of the site's spiritual power in "To The Chaudière Falls":
Go, Atheist, stand upon its brink,
And for a moment pause and think,
While gazing on this mighty link
Of grand Creation's chain!