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The Carbide Willson ruins in Gatineau Park. Photo: NCC website.

613 Geotours: The Carbide Willson ruins are a showcase for nature and ingenuity

By Bruce Burwell on August 25, 2020


This week’s geotour will take you to a newly reopened NCC site – the Carbide Willson ruins in Gatineau Park. You’ll get a moderate hike, a scenic ruin with lots of Instagram cred, and a dose of local history that you may not be aware of.

I like a hike with a destination. A loop trail is fine, but when you are done you are back where you started, so what have you actually accomplished? After you’ve done this hike, you’ll have visited some very cool ruins and you’ll remember at least one fact about the amazing Carbide Willson.

A spectacular view of the ruins. Photo: b.k./Flickr.

The hike to the Carbide Willson ruins starts at P11 near Meech Lake. It’s not a long hike to the ruins and back (about 3 km) and it’s very pretty, since it runs past Meech Lake. You can’t hike here after November 15, since it’s a cross-country ski trail in the winter. The ruins have just been reopened after repair work was done on a small bridge at the site.

As you approach the ruins, you’ll be going up a small incline before they come into view. The ruins themselves wouldn’t knock you out visually if they were located, say, in downtown Ottawa. But they have a small stream and a waterfall running around them and they are something you really don’t expect to encounter deep inside Gatineau Park.

So what is it you are looking at here? The structures are what is left of three industrial buildings built early in the last century by Thomas (Carbide) Willson. They were intended to be a site for research into the production of fertilizer. There was an acid condensation tower, a dam, and a mill. After a fire destroyed the tower, the site was left in ruins. Today, the mill is the major remaining structure.

Carbide Willson deserves to be much better known in this region. He was a prolific inventor with a taste for big projects who really left his mark on the Ottawa area. His elegant summer house on Meech Lake, close to where you started the hike, was where the Meech Lake Accord was signed. In downtown Ottawa, you’ll go past the shell of the Willson Carbide Mill on Victoria Island any time you go over the Portage Bridge. You can read more about Willson’s busy life here. The tidbit that he was Ottawa’s very first car owner triggered a lot of questions in my mind: Were there parking laws back then? Who did his oil changes?

Willson’s house at Meech Lake. Photo: Roger Curtis/Flickr.

After you’ve visited the ruins and taken some pics, you can check out some other trails in the park, or maybe go for a swim at nearby O’Brien Beach.

Now would be a great time to visit the Carbide Willson ruins. Once the leaves start to change, I’d expect that a greater than normal number of hikers will be in the park this year.

And that reminds me: I thought that in a future geotour, I might suggest a few places to go to view the fall colours that are NOT within Gatineau Park. I have a couple of ideas, but would love to hear yours in the comments.