Living Along the Otonabee River

Living Along the Otonabee River

The Otonabee River flows along side our 195 acre property – here is story written in our local newspaper about the history and signifigance of the Otonabee River.

In the first of a two-part series, freelance writer Bill Eekhof looks at the Otonabee River and the impact it has had in shaping the Peterborough we know today


Otonabee River. The Otonabee River has helped shape Peterborough’s history. Lance Anderson

We drink it. We swim and play in it. We also flush our waste into it. We rely on it to help power our 21st lifestyle, even as it was harnessed to generate settlement and business development in the Peterborough area over the last two centuries.

Thousands live along it and, while it has inspired many, others have also felt the devastating force of its waters. ‘It’ is the Otonabee River, and without this water course, it’s highly unlikely there would be the Peterborough we know today.

The Otonabee River fits the name that First Nations people gave it centuries ago. Otonabee, meaning ‘flashing waters running swiftly,’ is an eloquent way to describe the 48.5-kilometre river, which flows south from Lake Katchewanooka at Lakefield, through the heart of Peterborough, and down to Rice Lake. The Otonabee River drains the northern Kawartha Lakes and their tributaries in a catchment area that is 8,284 square kilometers in size.

While the Otonabee’s 32-kilometre stretch from Peterborough to Rice Lake is relatively flat, smooth and navigable, historically the river’s northern section has been more turbulent. Over the 16-kilometre stretch from Lakefield to Peterborough, the Otonabee drops 42.5 metres, or roughly two-thirds the height of Niagara Falls. To avoid these rough waters, First Nations people picked up their canoes at what is now Peterborough and portaged up to Chemong Lake. For early European settlers, this northern stretch of the Otonabee became known as the Nine Mile Rapids, and only in the last century-and-a-half has this section of river been relatively tamed by locks and dams.

Peter Adams, former Peterborough MP and Trent University professor, knows a lot about the Otonabee, having paddled and studied it. The Otonabee River, he says, is part of a natural water route used by people for centuries to get from the upper Great Lakes to Lake Ontario. This included French explorer Samuel de Champlain, who joined a First Nations group that traveled through this area in 1615.

Between 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, Mr. Adams notes, this area was covered by a giant ice sheet that stretched from Hudson Bay to New York State. As the ice began to melt, the glaciers retreated, helping to form drumlins (small hills), the Oak Ridges Moraine and other parts of the local landscape. A very large outpouring of water from the melting glaciers came down two routes: what are now the Otonabee and Indian rivers.

At this time, the Otonabee River would have been much wider, says Mr. Adams, “likely the same size as the St. Lawrence River.” To put that in perspective, he notes the Otonabee that runs beside Trent University would, back then, have stretched west up to the steep embankment behind the Tim Hortons on Water Street. The river’s east bank would have extended to where present-day Otonabee College is situated, he adds.

Over time, as flows along this great river slowed, the water retreated. Today, the “remnant” of this watercourse is the Otonabee River and Little Lake, Mr. Adams adds.

From the arrival of the first European settlers to the area in the early 1800s, people have been using and trying to exploit the Otonabee for their gain. Early business and industries such as lumber operations, saw mills, grist mills, distilleries and canoe manufacturing facilities all sprang up along the river to tap its natural resources, says Kim Reid, the curator at the Peterborough Museum and Archives.

Industrial development was further enhanced by the realization that the Otonabee River could be used to generate hydroelectricity, she adds. Hydroelectric generating stations were built along the river in the late 1800s, allowing Peterborough to become one of first centres in Ontario with electricity. Cheap, accessible power was also a factor in Peterborough luring industrial mainstays – General Electric and Quaker Oats – to the city.

The Otonabee has shaped Peterborough in other ways. The community was laid out with the river in mind, with the first streets built to run parallel and perpendicular to the Otonabee. Over the years, people also tapped the river as a source for water, first for firefighting and eventually for drinking purposes.

Early settlers also began leaving their mark on the Otonabee, building bridges to span the river and constructing dams and other water control measures in a bid to stem flooding and control its flow. However, the Otonabee was not easily tamed.

“Flooding along the shores of the Kawartha Lakes and the Otonabee River was far worse (than) what it is today,” notes Kathy Reid, co-ordinator of communication and education with the Otonabee Region Conservation Authority (ORCA).

“Early historical accounts of flooding in Peterborough, for example, speak to lives being lost and infrastructure, such as bridges over the Otonabee River, being washed downstream on a nearly annual basis.”

A case in point is the river crossing at Hunter Street in Peterborough. Before the current 80-year-old Hunter Street bridge was built, almost half a dozen structures were constructed, and failed for various reasons, to span the river in this place. (Even today, controlling the flow of the Otonabee is not always foolproof. According to Ms Reid, while the development of the Trent-Severn Waterway and the myriad dams it controls north of the river has improved flood management on the Otonabee, flooding still occurs on an almost annual basis in low-lying areas along the river, especially south of Lock 19).

The role of the Otonabee River as a transportation corridor and a place for recreational pursuits — begun in the 19th century and enhanced by the completion of the Peterborough Lift Lock and Trent-Severn Waterway in the early years of the 20th century — remains strong today, adds Kim Reid, of the Peterborough Museum.

“Would there be a Peterborough without the river? I don’t think so,” she notes.

While Kim Reid believes that people have, and still do, take the Otonabee River for granted, she sees hopeful signs of change. The Otonabee River was once a dumping ground for industry and a literal sewer in which people flushed their waste, but that is much less the case now.

“Over time, people started to think differently about the water and the Otonabee,” Kim Reid says.

“It was a general change, until now we are in this age where there is much more green thinking and environmental consciousness.”

Mr. Adams agrees.

“The community was built with people looking away from the river,” he says, “and only now are they turning back to it.”

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