Once the subject of a 1959 National Film Board documentary, the Jean Richard now lies shipwrecked in the Ottawa River.
DISCOVERING THE WRECK
I am fascinated by maps. Maps can reveal a great many things about our region’s history, especially if you study them closely enough. Current satellite maps, old maps of the city and vintage road maps all reveal details we may otherwise miss from a ground perspective. After scanning an aerial photo of downtown Ottawa I noticed what appeared to be the outline of a ship’s hull along the shore of the Ottawa River.
With the Ottawa River being a major supply route for hundreds of years, I’ve heard of many shipwrecks lying below the river’s surface so I thought this could possibly be one of them. Aerial maps can be deceptive, but this clearly looked like a ship half submerged in the water, so I decided to see what was actually there and confirm if it really was the remains of a ship. The only way to find out was to pack an adventure bag, a lunch, and call the girlfriend to see if she wanted to join me in finding shipwreck.
INTO THE WOODS
Heading into the woods near the shore of the Ottawa River we used an iphone mapping system to pinpoint where the remains of this possible wreck would be. A gorgeous, sunny warm fall day, we trudged through thin brush and following a small path, hiked in about 20 minutes from the nearest road. Pushing aside some branches at the river’s edge we stumbled across a magnificent scene….a half submerged, 100 foot wooden hulk of a shipwreck.
EXPLORING THE WRECK
In awe that there was a large shipwreck sitting in about 8 feet of water in a hidden inlet off the Ottawa River, I quickly changed into swim trunks, grabbed the camera and climbed aboard to record this amazing find. Obviously I was not the first one to know about this wreck, as a bike path is nearby and remnants of field parties were strewn about the area.
Approximately 100 feet long and using wooden timbers and what seemed like ship building techniques from the 1800’s, the shipwreck was miraculously well preserved sitting in the water.
I sketched and measured the ship’s hull shape and filmed whatever I could to determine later what this shipwreck was and why it is just sitting here in the Ottawa River. As we took a break to eat our packed sandwiches, a muffled animal sound came from the woods and a starving, abandoned kitten appeared.
We fed the emaciated little kitten some sandwich cheese and packed up our gear; me with tons of photos and questions, my girlfriend with a new kitten.
WHAT IS THIS SHIPWRECK?
After scouring the internet, books, and libraries trying to find out what this shipwreck was, I contacted my good friend Glen over at OttawaStart about the shipwreck. Always one to help out and promote local history, Glen made sure to spread the word through his popular website in a bid to gather more information from readers who may know more about the wreck and why it’s sitting in the shallows of the Ottawa River. The Ottawa Citizen and CBC News caught wind of the wreck story and proceeded to do their own research, even calling in a representative from the Eastern Ontario Chapter of “Save Our Ships” which has an extensive catalogue of recorded shipwrecks. The story was deemed a dead end for the media, and the shipwreck remained a mystery. I contacted the Great Lakes Maritime Museum in Kington, On to see if they had information on our Ottawa shipwreck but received no response to my requests. The ship seemed doomed to remain a mystery….that is, until this week.
IT’S ALL IN THE NAME
Almost four months after the initial discovery of the shipwreck I received a Twitter message from Glen that included an old map he had found showing various shipwrecks in the Ottawa River. Composed by the Underwater Society Of Ottawa, the map shows many shipwrecks that lie at the bottom of the river, and miraculously, the shipwreck we had come across four months earlier was clearly marked. THE JEAN RICHARD. We now had a name to our ship. The research into the Jean Richard could now begin…
THE JEAN RICHARD
It turns out this ship has quite an interesting past and that the Jean Richard has a special place in Canadian history.
At Petite-Rivière in Quebec on May 23, 1959, St. Lawrence sailors launched their last wooden schooner, the Jean Richard. It was built by Philippe Lavoie, carpenter, Paul-Émile Square Port-au-Persil.
With most of the wooden ship building techniques giving way to the longer lasting and easier to maintain steel hulled ships, Petite-Rivière wooden ship builders knew their boat building techniques was coming to an end after almost 200 years. The National Film Board also knew this was a dying craft, and in 1959 sent a film crew to record the building of the regions’s last wooden schooner, The Jean Richard.
A small riverside village approximately 100kms upriver from Quebec City in the Charlevoix region, it was responsible for building the majority of the wooden schooners, freighters and other ships that travelled throughout the St. Lawrence river from the 1800’s to the early 1960s.
THE NATIONAL FILM BOARD
Produced by Ottawa’s very own production company, Crawley Films, a film crew set off to document the centuries old construction process of building the region’s last wooden freight schooner. Known as a “goélette” in French, these wooden boats were being replaced by steel ships and the NFB wanted to record this important part of our Canadian heritage for future generations.
I quickly contacted the NFB head offices in Montreal to see if they had a copy of this film, and they courteously couriered the film to me which I immediately watched, studied and compared to the Ottawa shipwreck photos. It was indeed a match. The 96 foot long, 28 foot wide Jean Richard, shown in construction in this film was built with true old world techniques and pride of craftsmanship.
An annual event where the fisherman in the village gather to build a ship, the JEAN Richard is shown being built from its inception as logs chopped down in a hillside forest. Then, using axes, adzes and steam boxes to shape the timbers in the same way they built ships over a century ago. All the ship’s details observed on the wreck were clearly shown in the film.
The 30 minute film ends with an all night party and the Jean Richard is launched at dawn into the St. Lawrence to serve the sailors who ply its waters carrying cargo, fish, and other supplies up Canada’s arterial waterway.
After it was launched in 1959 the Jean Richard served for almost twenty years on the St. Lawrence then brought down the Ottawa River and converted into a cruise ship and renamed “Ville de Vanier”.
Operating out of Ottawa/Gatineau waters from 1976 onwards, the Jean Richard was then converted into a floating cottage. A fire is said to have scorched the wooden ship in 1987. Its charred, lifeless hulk was hauled off to rot in a concealed inlet off the Ottawa River, abandoned and left to decay into history where it now lies.
This once glorious old ship was the last of its kind, worthy enough to be documented by the NFB 55 years ago, a vessel that is an example of old world Canadian ship building techniques that have since been lost in time. A wreck of great nautical importance now lies decaying slowly in 8 feet of water, half submerged in the Ottawa River only five minutes from downtown Ottawa. It needs to be saved, recognized and preserved for the sake of future generations much like the NFB did when they filmed it being built long ago.
UPDATE: February 1 2014
Thanks to the great work by fellow shipwreck enthusiasts Glen Gower, Christopher Ryan and Ian Brown, who have done extensive research into the Jean Richard. Thanks to them and other readers, we have some new info and photos.
Also, the Ottawa Citizen covered the story of our shipwreck in the Jan.31 edition of the paper: http://www.ottawacitizen.com/technology/Mystery+Ottawa+River+shipwreck+revealed/9450569/story.html
Thanks to OttawaStart.com we now know the following:
- The Jean-Richard had a series of owners. The original owner was Paul-Émile Carré, who owned it from its launch in 1959 until he died 1963. Guy Gagnon from La Malbaie owned it from 1965-1971. From 1971-1974 it was owned by the Banque d’expansion industrielle / Transport Maritime St-Bernard Ltée. Claude Longrin of Montreal owned it from 1974-1975, then Jean Fournier owned it from 1975-1977.
- Jean Fournier, was from Ville de Vanier near Quebec City (actually now a part of Quebec City.)
- Desjardin’s records show that the boat was re-christened “Ville de Vanier” in 1977 beforeit arrived on the Ottawa River. The boat had major modifications done in 1976 (at Bassin-Louise, Quebec City).
- It was owned by Enteprises Maritimes Vanier Inc. at Ville de Vanier, Quebec from 1977-1979.
- It was eventually sold to Jean-Paul Barette of Hull in 1979, where it operated as a pleasure craft.
- Desjardins’ notes indicate that the boat was abandoned in 1985 after a fire near Gatineau Boom Co., and was destroyed in 1986.
- Mr. Desjardins also suggests that we should not be using the term “goélettes”, which should only be used to refer to boats that use a sail. He prefers the term “caboteur en bois”.
The Ville De Vanier operated as a “disco-casino” party ship on the Ottawa River, based in Gatineau. Local personality John Turmel was reportedly a frequent passenger aboard the ship during this time in the late 1970s.
A marine museum in Charlevoix has been contacted and hopefully we can move forward with preserving what’s left of the ship and its unique history.
National Film Board of Canada