Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Knows Every Treacherous Spot In St. Lawrence Rapids
The Standard-Freeholder (Cornwall, ON), 12 Jul 1935
Full Text

If Captain Joseph Alfred Ouellette made any pretence of being an author and decided to write a book he might properly call it “Life On The St. Lawrence River.”

For Captain Ouellette has been travelling up and down the St. Lawrence longer than any living man and knows every nook and cranny, crag and stone, in the beautiful body of water which flows from Lake Ontario to the Atlantic Ocean, particularly that portion of it between Kingston and Montreal.

Seen by Down The Lane during a recent lunch hour at the King George Hotel, Captain Ouellette laid bare a portion of his life on the big water highway. Between the career of his father, Captain Edouard Ouellette, and his own, they have a record of splendid service on the river of more than 100 years, for the former was a riverman for half a century, while the latter is now in his 57th year as an active pilot and served his apprenticeship on board boats and at the wheel previous to qualifying for his captaincy, having started in as a boy in his 16th year.

In his long and honorable career, he has piloted all the celebrities of Canada, the United States, the British Isles and several European countries who made the rapids runs to Montreal, and on several occasions has been warmly complimented on the dexterity with which he handled his boat through the turbulent waters of the various rapids and brought his distinguished passengers safely into the port of Montreal.

In his long experience, Captain Ouellette has encountered some bad storms on the river, but he has never had a serious mishap. On a couple of occasions his boat was marooned in the rapids, once in the Split Rock Rapids and again in the Lachine Rapids, but the boat was taken off safely without much damage and without loss of life.

The most serious of these occurred during the summer of 1923, when a rudder chain on the steamer Rapids Prince gave way. The chain, Captain Ouellette explained, was a brand new one and had been inspected before being placed in position. An enquiry into the cause of the accident, after it was all over, revealed the fact that there was a flaw in one link and that was the cause of all the trouble.

The Rapids Prince had to be left in the rapids for 40 days before being released, as nothing could be done until the close of navigation, as huge cables had to be stretched across the foaming waters and these would have prevented other vessels from descending the rapids. The passengers were all removed safely in motor boats, in itself a rather hazardous task, but it was accomplished successfully. The Prince was very little damaged and was on her run as usual the next season after minor repairs had been made.

The accident in Split Rock Rapids occurred to the steamer Columbian, but Captain Ouellette said it was of such an unimportant nature that it is scarcely worth recording.

In his early career as a pilot Captain Ouellette ran both ways as a mate as well as a pilot for one season and in 1894 succeeded his father, Captain Edouard Ouellette and he has been a chief pilot ever since, his father retiring after an honorable career of 50 years. In his long service he has piloted boats for the former Richelieu and Ontario Navigation Company and the present Canada Steamships and has seen many changes in the various craft as they were improved from one decade to another until today the service and accommodation can be classed as deluxe.

One of the early R.& O. boats Captain Ouellette handled was the steamer Cultivateur on an excursion out of Montreal and down the Lachine Rapids that being as popular a run 57 years ago as the trip up the Cornwall canal and down the Longue Sault Rapids was in the days when middle aged people of Cornwall today were in their early teens and younger.

The Columbian — One of the first boats Captain Ouellette navigated from Kingston to Montreal was the old Columbian, later the Rapids Queen, a trim craft in its day. The Longue Sault was the first big rapid encountered and after stopping at Cornwall to take on or discharge passengers, the boat would proceed to Montreal.

Other succeeding boats which Captain Ouellette controlled on their descent of the rapids were the Passport, Corsican, Spartan, Algerian, Corinthian, Magnet, and in later years the rapids boats, the Rapids Prince, Rapids Queen and Rapids King.

During the last three seasons the rapids boats have only run to Lachine, as a change in the schedule necessitated turning the boats at that port in order to make proper connections with the steamers Toronto and Kingston at Prescott. Had the boats continued to Montreal, sufficient time would not be given to maintain the daily service and one boat is now covering the run from Prescott east.

Captain Ouellette pointed out that before the big Lachine Rapids are reached there are practically four rapids in one in a radius of 20 miles, those known as Coteau, Cedars, Split Rock and Cascades, there being a drop of 85 feet in the river along this portion of the run. The drop is fairly gradual, however, and the passengers on the big liners do not experience the same thrill as when they make a single drop of 45 feet in descending the Lachine Rapids.

340-Foot Vessel — Captain Ouellette is the proud possessor of a gold watch, presented him in 1902 by the R.& O. Navigation Company for successfully piloting the steamer Montreal from Toronto, where it was built, for use on the river from Montreal to Quebec. The Montreal was 340 feet long. The big boat was the victim of fires on two occasions, first while in port in Montreal, after which it was rebuilt, and a few years later while on her way to Quebec opposite Vercheres. One of the crew was drowned when he jumped overboard. Captain Ouellette thinks a great deal of his timepiece, and would not part with it for any money. The watch is suitably inscribed, giving date and reason for its award.

One of the important commissions carried out by Captain Ouellette was taking a large Standard Oil Company’s barge down the rapids during the Spanish-American War. He took charge at Prescott and piloted the big craft to Montreal, where it was turned over to United States sailors. It was to be used to carry fresh water to sailors and soldiers of the United States navy and army. In the earlier days he also ran many rafts of lumber down the various rapids.

Captain Ouellette was associated with Captain George Batten, of Kingston, over a good many seasons, the last boat he commanded prior to his death being the Rapids Queen. On the death of Captain Batten the company recalled Captain Joseph Edouard Ouellette from service on the Upper Lakes and for 12 years he has been associated with his uncle on the rapids run. Captain Joseph E. Ouellette started his boating career in 1901 on the old steamer Spartan and served for ten years on rapids boats and then went to the lakes, where he became a Master, and for the last dozen years, uncle and nephew have travelled together, the younger Captain Joseph E. Ouellette being as adept at the wheel as his uncle, Captain Joseph A. Ouellette.

Always Carries Umbrella — For many years Captain Joseph Alfred Ouellette has trod from his hotel to the East End wharf to board the liner. It is tradition with him to carry an umbrella. Every day in the week, Sunday included, he comes up on the morning train from Montreal from June 10 to September 15, and every day, rain or shine, he carries his “rain stick,” and, after partaking of lunch, walks to the liner’s dock, just for the exercise. He has an especial interest in Cornwall from the fact that one of his sisters, Mrs. Oscar LeBlanc, has spent most of her married life here.

Though Captain Ouellette is nearing his 72nd birthday, he is still carrying on and looks good for many more years of service. He was born quite close to the river St. Lawrence and Lachine Rapids, both of which he has navigated so often being a native of Lachine, Que. His birthday was October 10, 1863, and he will be 72 next October. He was a son of Captain Edouard Ouellette and piloting and boating was evidently born in him. His mother was Adeline Coron. They had four sons and four daughters - Joseph Alfred Ouellette, the subject of today’s Down The Lane; Leo Ouellette, who is dead; Joseph Ouellette, who is in faraway Los Angeles, Calif.; John B. Ouellette, in Detroit; Mrs. Oscar LeBlanc (Adeline Ouellette), of Cornwall; Mrs. Martin (Angeline Ouellette), wife of Dr. J.B. Martin, of Pointe Claire, Que.; Mrs. Belanger (Louisa Ouellette), wife of Dr. Belanger, of Detroit; Miss Maria Ouellette, of Detroit.

Captain Ouellette was twice married, first to Miss Rosina Mallette, on January 13, 1893. They had four children - the only son Edouard, was wounded in the Great War, returned to Canada and died in Montreal from the effects of his wounds - and three daughters, Miss Adeline Ouellette, Aurore Ouellette (Mrs. Armand Leclair), of Montreal; and Rosalie Ouellette (Mrs. Edmond Daoust), of Montreal.

Mrs. Ouellette died in 1907. The present Mrs. Ouellette was, before her marriage, Martha Otts, of Oswego, N.Y. There are no children by the second marriage.

Captain Ouellette always made his home in Montreal, until last year when he moved to Toronto, his present residence being at 250 Kingswood Road. He seldom sees his new Toronto home during the navigation season, as his duties confine him between Montreal and Cornwall, so that his “holiday season” as he calls it, is decidedly longer than most people are favored with. He is kept really busy from the middle of June to midway in September, but from that date on to the next June he has a rather long holiday so far as boating is concerned.

A Healthy Life — His life on the water each summer evidently agrees with him. He is as smart and spry as many men his junior, is alert of step, bright of eye and all one has to do to get him in a talkative mood is to mention the St. Lawrence or its rapids and he soon gets away to a good start.

Asked what they do in the off season to kill time between the closing of navigation one season and its opening the next, the elder Captain Ouellette, with a shrug of his shoulders, characteristic of the French-Canadian, replied “shovel snow.” The younger man may shovel snow, too, on occasions, but he did not admit it. “We only boat for three months in the year,” was his response, “and I have to do something in the other nine months, so I sell insurance in all its branches, life, fire, marine, accident and automobile. Between the two occupations I am kept pretty busy the year round, and enjoy both the summer and winter vocations.” Captain Joseph E. Ouellette resides in Notre Dame de Grace, at 5363 Duquette.

As Down The Lane talked to the genial pilot and his affable nephew as they lunched at the King George Hotel a few days ago, they seemed deeply interested in their lifework of safely carrying passengers from one port to another and appeared to enjoy telling of their career just as much as the writer did in listening to them. And we did take pleasure in passing it all on to readers of this column.

Down The Lane
Item Type
Date of Publication
12 Jul 1935
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 45.0183078644576 Longitude: -74.728605151613
Lyall Manson
Copyright Statement
Public domain: Copyright has expired according to the applicable Canadian or American laws. No restrictions on use.
Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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Knows Every Treacherous Spot In St. Lawrence Rapids