Exploring Ontario’s Forsaken Area

There’s an area in Eastern Ontario I like to call “The Forsaken Area”.

It lies south of the Ottawa Valley, and just East of Algonquin Park, and is also known as the Madawaska Highlands.

It’s where the grid-square pattern of farmland stops and suddenly gives way to the rolling hills and lakes of Canadian shield.

The change is quite abrupt:  in only a few hundred meters, the landscape changes from cultivated fields and thriving towns, into sparsely-populated forested hills of bedrock.

Not that people didnt’ try to settle this region.  The Opeongo Road was built in the 1850’s to open up the then-virgin area  and encourage immigrants to start farms.

Anyone who applied was given a parcel of 100 acres of land, and it was theirs to keep, provided that within four years, they built a house, and cleared and cultivated 12 acres of land.

Unfortunately, this was easier said than done.   The region was remote, the climate harsh, and the soil was thin and infertile.  Many of these farms failed and were subsequently abandoned.

Later, mining towns were built, and logging briefly thrived.  But the good timber was soon exhausted, and the mines went bust by the early 1900’s.    By the 1940’s, a lot of these places closed down and everyone had moved out.

Nowadays, there’s not much left to see.    Even the summer cottages are sparse, as there aren’t that many lakes or nice beaches in the area.  It’s mostly just 2nd-growth forest and rocky soil.

But there’s something to the Forsaken Area that keeps bringing me back.

It’s like some kind of “Lost Zone” that time forgot.    Everywhere else around this region seems to have thrived.   But for whatever reason, the Forsaken Area itself seems to be stuck in the past.

It’s like going back 40 years, before everything got built-up and spoiled, like the over-developed cottage areas to the North, West and South.

Even today, mention “the Opeongo Road”, and only the locals will know about it.  It’s still considered in the middle of nowhere.

But I love exploring the back-roads of the Forsaken Area, because I never know what I’ll find.

Like ghost towns, such as Khartum, Letterkenny, Newfoundout and Brudenell.   Where all that might be left is a falling-apart church, where a once-thriving settlement once stood.

One of the better-preserved ghost towns is Balaclava, where a water-powered sawmill ran as recently as 1967.

But a few towns have managed to linger on.  Like Quadeville, where Al Capone was reputed to have a hide-out back in the 30s.

(Smart man, that Al Capone.  Very few people today even know where Quadeville is…let alone 80 years ago!)

There are plenty of long, winding roads in the middle of nowhere, where you wont’ see a soul for miles.

Get off the pavement, though, and it’s even more remote.   In this case, you better make sure you your car has 4WD and a GPS, because believe me, you don’t want to get stuck here.   Or lost.

Even recent attempts to develop this area have failed.    Like the ski hill that didn’t quite succeed, and is slowly being re-claimed by the forest.

Or the abandoned military base in Foymount, which once formed part of the  “Pinetree Radar Line“.   This installation was used to detect detect Soviet bombers flying over the North Pole during the Cold War.

But the base became obsolete and was shut down in 1974.   A few people still live in Foymount, and you can still see the decaying apartments, military buildings and the schoolyards slowly falling  apart.

What I like is seeing the old farms themselves.   Occasionally, a settler did manage to find a rare patch of fertile soil amongst the rocky hills.  These lucky farms succeeded and are still operating.

Other farms appear to be on life-suport, and like the ski hill, are slowly being reclaimed by the forest.

But what I like best are the square-cut timbers of these early barns.

Notice these buildings arent’ made from planks of wood cut from a sawmill.

That’s because when these farms were first carved out of the wilderness, there weren’t any sawmills close by.   The pioneers had to cut and notch the logs themselves, from the surrounding trees.

And many of these original barns are still standing.

It just goes to show, how young Canada is as a country.

Even in the populated eastern part of this province, less than 150 kilometers from the Nation’s Capital, we’re not that far removed from the time when this was all virgin wilderness.

In face, we can still see traces of it.

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51 Comments on “Exploring Ontario’s Forsaken Area”

  1. Brett Legree Says:

    (As you know) my family is from The Forsaken Area.

    Which might explain a few things… (like the twitch)

    I still have relatives in Combermere and Dacre, and that ski hill used to belong to my family. I can tell you a few stories about that one.

    We owned a hotel in Dacre too.

  2. Friar Says:

    @Brett

    Oooh. Downtown Dacre…a happenin’ place! 🙂

    That ski hill surprises me, though. Because it’s wasn’t a Mickey-Mouse operation. It looks like it was quite decent, as far as Ontario hills go.

    But ask anyone in the nearby Big City. I bet you most people would never have heard about it.


  3. Thanks for posting the beautiful pictures! My parents used to have a cottage in the Forsaken Area & I’ve been all over the Area with my grandparents – Cloyne, Plevna, Weslemecoon, Bon Echo…

    The autumn pics are my favourites – warm beautiful days and no mosquitoes.

  4. Friar's Mom Says:

    @Wee Friar,

    Yours is quite an informative post. You missed your calling History Perfesser.

    In my younger days, I cycled Opeongo Road with some friends. There are seven rises to that sucker. Just when you think you’ve mastered one rise, there’s another one around the bend.

    I love old log homes and barns. It brings me back to my childhood. The problem with log barns is they eventually lose their “chinking” and one can see through spaces in the structure.

    The pioneers were very ingenious folk, they filled the spaces between the hewn logs with a mixture of mud and straw, sticks, bark, dried mosses, grasses, wooden wedges, rocks, horsehair, hog bristles, newspaper or whatever was available.

  5. Brett Legree Says:

    It was one of those “family squabble” things, in a nutshell.

  6. Friar Says:

    @Canadian Army Wife

    Back when I drove to grad school, I used to drive past that sign that indicated the “Ompah Plevna” turn-off all the time. The words never ceased to crack me up. “Ompah Plevna”. (*snicker*) My siblings and I made a game of it…every time we saw “Ompah”, we’d have to honk the horn.

    @Friar’s Mom
    …and to think, I’ve never taken a history class, since Grade 8.

    But really, what I’m just doing is regurgitating what I’ve read elsewhere.

    @Brett
    I heard the ski hill never recovered, once the lodge had burnt down.

    You hardly see Mom-and-Pop ski resorts anymore, though. They can’t compete with the Big Corporations with all their snow-making and grooming machines and express-quad chairs. Kinda sad, though. It’s the end of an era.

  7. XUP Says:

    I think if we raze all those gloomy trees and build a 4-lane highway, some big box stores and a strip mall of fast food joints and dollar stores we could slap up a nice suburb with some really big houses. I’m sure savy Ottawans would be happy to make the commute to own a McMansion at the cost of a regular suburban house.

  8. Friar Says:

    @XUP

    I just came back from a business trip to the Big Smoke.

    What you said describes Highway 400 and Highway 11, to a tee. All the way up from Toronto to Hunstville.

  9. Spalpeen Says:

    I like these pictures and stories yes I do.

  10. XUP Says:

    I know. Sad, eh? Not too long ago that was more or less “forsaken” too.

  11. Friar Says:

    @Spalpeen
    I’m glad liked them, yes, me too.

    @XUP
    I used to live in Southern Ontario. But I’ve gotten desentizited to the huge urban sprawl. Now, every time I visit, I’m shocked at how much the place has grown. Even in the past 6 months, you can see the difference.

  12. Brett Legree Says:

    So, when are we going to go to see the ski hill together?

    I know this weekend is Easter, so we’re all probably busy, but maybe one soon before the flies come out, we could go if it is sunny and have a cook out (could haul a hibachi up there and have some MEAT and BEER!)

  13. Friar Says:

    @Brett

    Hey…I’ve been trying to get you to go for the past year now. But you’re the one with the four Brettlings and busy schedule! 🙂

    This weekend, I’m gone skiing (yes…SKIING…one last time).

    But any time after that, I’m pretty much game.

    We can even stop at that “Friar” chip-wagon in the Lesser-Small town.

  14. Brett Legree Says:

    You know how it is… 😉 either I’m busy or you’re out in The Forbidden Zone heh heh

    Does the chip-wagon serve meat?

  15. Friar Says:

    @Brett

    Yup…they got hamburgers. And also pogos and hot dogs.

    It’s quite the happenin’ place, in the downtown Lesser-Small Town.

  16. Friar's Mom Says:

    @Brett,

    Why don’t you make a day of it and take your dog and the Brettlings for an adventure at the ski hill?

    Momma Brett can pack a family lunch and then take the day off.

    Uncle Friar can amuse your huge hound and the Brettlings.

  17. Friar Says:

    @Friar’s Mom

    Yeah…we could take the leash of the hound, and let him run up and down the hill. Maybe he’ll try to eat the T-bar.

    Dunno about the Brettlings, though. It’s an hour drive just to get there. Short attention spans might not appreciate the point of this trip. Mabye the Elder Brettling, though.

  18. Friar's Mom Says:

    @Wee Friar,

    Wondering about Brett’s hound. Is the ski area in bear country? Bears are hungry when they venture forth from their hibernation dens.

  19. Friar Says:

    @Friar’s Mom

    The ski hill is too close to farms and such. I don’t think we have to worry about Teddy Bears.

    Though even if we did meet one, there’s nothing to worry about. (1) The Hound, by now, is at least as BIG as a bear. and (2) he’d probably try to play with it (or hump it).

  20. Eyeteaguy Says:

    The next time I am up we are going to a ghost town! Those are cool. I read a book about Ontario’s ghost towns and I recognize a few.

    When I was a kid I went to away camp and we went on this week long out trip (by canoe) we were camping on the shore of a lake. While looking for wood we came across an old car, from the 40’s it looked like. So we went deeper and……found a house. A full on house with doors and windows intact, but it had been abandoned for quite a while. Then we noticed a utility pole and followed it. It went into this ghost town. It was small, about 10-15 buildings but was that weird. The place had been vandalized long ago and the forest had reclaimed it, there was a tree inside the General Store, growing through the roof.

    We have go to go see some more of those. I’ll see if I can’t find that book. Then we can read some of the history.

    Eyeteaguy

  21. Friar Says:

    @Eyeteaguy

    This is one of my favorite sites, on the subject.

    http://www.ghosttownpix.com/ontario/

    Maybe you’ll find some in your area you didn’t know existed.

  22. geonarcissa Says:

    Great post. Just came back from a trip to this area. I’ve found some of the interesting spots because of geocaching. There’s a geocache close to Newfoundout, and another one by the old Capone place. Your post has me intrigued about the other stuff there is to find.

  23. Friar Says:

    @Geonarcissa

    Hey, I know where Newfoundout is! I’ve driven by the turn-off many times. Just never bothered to stop and look.

    It’s on my short-list of things to do.

    Have you tried LetterKenny Road? That’s the long straight road, the 4th photo after the map. Feels really spooky and out of the way…the trees almost close in over top of you and you don’t see a hose for miles.

  24. rosalie5 Says:

    You dont by chance have a pic of the old general store in quadville??? My great uncle owned the house and rented it to AL Capone!

  25. Friar Says:

    @Rosalie5
    Nahhh…sorry. I know the store you’re talking about. Have driven by it many times. But I don’t have any photos of it.

  26. Rick Says:

    @rosalie5 I just went to look at the cottage today, saw the general store, unfortunately didn’t get pics. The cabin is a mess, no doors, you wouldn’t believe the amount of deer droppings in that place, literally everywhere.
    A lot of the stories I heard from that place sound a little bit off, so your great uncle rented it to Capone, it wasn’t built for him? Feel free to email me at shokid_99@hotmail.com
    Rick

  27. svc Says:

    Great pictures. I love the old church, the mill, and pics of the deserted overgrown ski hill. I may be tempted to paint the church or the mill or one of the seats on ski lift … lol

    For me these areas always bring to me a mixture of a feelings: sadness, history, honor, mystery, spirits gone past, but also hope as mother earth returns to her original state, and overcomes the carnage of man.

  28. Matt Says:

    I am looking to find out more about the current owner of the Dacre ski Hill. Brett would you be able to point me in their direction?

  29. Jen Says:

    HeyBrett, we are from Napanee and many of us used to go to Dacre Heights to. Ski in high school, wasn’t bad, wondering what happened? Batawa is still open so. Couldn’t have been the size, hehe.

  30. Richard Says:

    Hi Friar…..thanks for the pictures and tales. I grew up in Perth and well I remember those cold, dark winter mornings, we would pile into my best friend’s dad’s Volvo and we would hit the road thru Lanark, up to Calabogie and on to Dacre to ski all day. We would get into the car at the end of the day and drive all the way back to Perth, and be up at 5:30 or 6 AM on Sunday morning, to do it all over again. I have the fondest memories of skiing there in the early 1960’s. It was a gathering spot for skiing kids from all over that part of eastern Ontario. Before discovering Dacre, we used to ski out at Lemieux’s ski hill on Christie Lake, with its single rope tow. Dacre was big time in comparison. I had cousins from Mount Saint Patrick who would come to ski and I developed a great friendship with a skier from Deep River or Chalk River, can’t remember which. We would seek each other out early each day and spent the whole day racing each other down the hill. What ever happened to the hill is likely complex and whatever. And the Gatineau Hills were developing like a house on fire. I know after a winter and a half skiing there, we were lured to Camp Fortune and Edelweiss. Anne Hegteveitt from Ottawa had won her gold medal at the 1960 Squaw Valley Olympics and put Camp Fortune on the map. Anyway, thanks for great pics and the stimulus of memories from a long time ago. I have lived in Vancouver for over 40 years now, but never forget “the time of my life”.

  31. Friar Says:

    @Rhichard

    Thanks. I only kinda “discovered” the area 5 years ago, and it’s always fascinated me.

  32. Friar Says:

    @Richard

    On a related note…since I wrote this post a few years ago, they have dismantled the ski lifts and taken them away. The trails are growing in and it’s looking less like a ski hill every year…


  33. […] I’ve blogged about it before, and I always take lots of photos,  many of which end up as watercolor paintings. […]

  34. Ron O'Shea Says:

    Have enjoyed travelling to the Madawaska area for a number of years now.My wife and I believe it is one of the most beautiful areas in Canada to visit,particularly in early October when the trees are ablaze in colour.We live in Wellington close by to lake Ontario where some of the best fresh water beaches in Ontario are located and if you are fond of wine we have plenty of wineries to go around too.
    This fall we plan on a drive through Algonquin Park and will probably overnight in Petawawa.A few years ago while driving through Petawawa we came across a small ski hill just a short distance from CFB Petawawa.We stopped to have a pinic lunch and were soon joined by the owners of the hill,a nice couple whose last name was Molson…….no not that Molson.They insisted that we see their club house pointing out the celebrities appearing in pictures on the club house wall who had visited their course over the years.The Molsons were in the talking stages of putting their business up for sale.I wonder if they ever did?
    You mentioned Foymount in your narrative.While a member of the RCAF I was in the process of being posted there but the powers to be decided on Falconbridge instead.Such is life! It surprises me that a chain of some sort hasn’t secured the property and built a resort. Given the natural beauty of the area it would appeal to many.
    I have certainly enjoyed your thoughts and photos.Keep up the good work.

  35. stacy Says:

    im a lafleur if any one has in on the lafleur homestead story or pics id be interested you can find me on facebook …..stacy lafleur

  36. Joyce (O'Brien) Kane Says:

    Love the pictures and the story. I grew up in Quadeville on a 200 acre farm my grandparents built. My mom still lives there and every summer my husband and kids and now grandkids make the 8 hour drive from Windsor to spend a long weekend with the family. One place that’s worth visiting is Rockingham falls.

  37. Mike Says:

    Yikes, I never thought Dacre Heights would become forsaken.lol. I learned how to ski on that hill and would spend most winter weekend on that hill. It didnt make it though, its too bad the staff were so nice there unlike some other hills in the area.

  38. Roy hunter Says:

    Yes it is really sad that all this is vanishing except for the rich tourist,s that build house,s down here and screw the tax,s up for every one else Oh well when it,s gone it,s gone

  39. MHP Says:

    My family left Toronto almost 30 years ago to move to Combermere to raise our children in this beautiful magnificent place. The people here are amongst the best, caring, supportive and friendly community. Although we don’t want to turn into a huge cottage area, we do love and need our visitors to help our economy. You are wrong on one point, we do have beautiful beaches, you just need to find them. Ask at the visitor centre, they will direct you to one, or many. Our waters are pristine, you are unlikely to find such clear, clean lakes anywhere else. Our big challenge is jobs…so come visit, you won’t regret it.


  40. In 1970, a bunch of 20 year olds, mostly connected to Humber College went looking for land. We heard about Killaloe and the Highlands and one thing that got mentioned was that land was so cheap that there we’re no real estate agents who thought it worth bothering with. The late, great Barney McCaffrey suggested we put an ad in the Eganville Leader, and, amazingly, we got 15 replies. The obvious choice was 250 acres on what is now called McCauley Mountain Road, about 2 kms from and 650 feet above Cormac. I t was all rather miraculous since, as anyone from there would know, comefromaways we’re seldom offered such an opportunity. We did pay about twice the going rate for upland, stoney pasture and cut over bush but at $500. per share we weren’t particularly price sensitive. Today, the bush has come back and every year it looks more like a park. Starting summer of 71, up went 2 domes, 4 relocated log houses and various other aframes and cabin’s. This summer we celebrate 45 years, 12 families, still talking to each other, and still happily partying together at every opportunity. Best thing that ever happened to me.

  41. Elvira White Says:

    Elvira White Yes it looks like Algonquin Park except for the paths and fields that are kept cleared by the full time residents like you. Just one of the many benefits we part time folk are grateful for. Also grateful that we got to spend time with the oldtimers in the area whose families [Irish in our case] were many of the original settlers. A hardy colorful people who welcomed us “Hippies” because they loved a good story, which they always embellished of course.Yes surely one of the best things to ever happen to any of us.


  42. Very evocative article highlighting an area of Ontario where nature is still too resilient to become dominated by humanity. One point though: there are dozens of small, beautiful lakes in that area! That is it’s main draw for cottagers. There are quite a few beaches and other places to go for a swim and the fishing is very good. This area made up of portions of Renfrew, Hastings, and Haliburton counties is very overlooked but has so much to offer to people who are willing to drive an extra hour to get into some really deep forest.

  43. Anne Says:

    Yep I was there from 1969 – 1971 and still own property along the Opeongo line – overgrown thicket and lots of mean biting flies in the summer. The connection was Rochdale College.

  44. Ken Says:

    Ken Says:
    I have been born & raised in this area Know as “Rosenthal”. At the Time we Lived to exist in this area (1940’s to 60’s), but as you get older, and as I who went to the BIG city to work, & now returned to retire here, our appreciation for this area is just to great to express.
    In Ont. this is a Really great Treasure.

  45. Bernie Head Says:

    Thanks to Julie Dumbroskie for posting this on Facebook and thanks to all of you ‘locals’ for the pictures, your stories and your comments. I am from and now live in Newfoundland. I was in the military and had two postings to Petawawa and Ottawa each. Each time I had to go to CFB Borden for training, I would never drive the boring 401, but preferred to drive the beautiful country route, out thru the back of Renfrew, cross country to Orillia and down to Borden. I loved your ‘Forsaken’ area, but I never knew it was called that. I always wanted to stop and explore, but never did as I was always, alone and in a hurry to finish my ~5 hour drive home for my weekend and then get back to school in Borden. Since I love the woods, I would love to have lived in a log cabin in this area – even today. That area always gave me such a peaceful feeling. I’m so glad I saw this article. Thanks! 🙂

  46. Cindy - from Belleville, Ontario Says:

    Thank you for the update on what happened to Dacre Ski Hill. My father use to own Oak Hills Ski Hill overlooking the present golf club just outside of Stirling, Ontario from 1964 through to 1975. But when time allowed, he would take us kids to Candiac in Dacre and it was always a wonderful excursion and a real going concern at the time with literally hundreds of skiers there each weekend. I wanted to go again and visit it with my husband this summer, but after reading your posts that it’s now closed and the chalet had burned long ago, it would be rather bittersweet to do so although seeing the runs would certainly bring back fond of schussing down them in the 70’s. Regards.

  47. Laura Says:

    Anyone who worked at the ski hill when the township tried to reopen know of the many reasons why it didn’t work out and it wasn’t a lack of customers. There was all kinds of awful things being pulled behind the scenes.

  48. TG Says:

    I’ve spent 40 summers at Constant Lake, where that water-powered sawmill is located. My husband has spent 67 summers there. He recalls the Legrees’ hotel in Dacre and could place many of the other references above. Thanks for sharing this story.

  49. Sue Says:

    We have a farm stay accommodation business near Foymount. It is a very special place and a great location to visit all the history, small towns and peaceful lakes in the area. http://www.foymountfarm.biz/

  50. Colleen Payer Says:

    My Grandfather was the blacksmith in Dacre and we loved to visit, we loved the road from Dacre to Hyndford. We also enjoyed skiing at Candiac! Lots of lovely summers spent in this neck of the woods!

  51. Bev Says:

    If it looks deserted, show up for the Brudenell Church supper the last weekend in August….or check out the Rural Ramble in the fall. Hiding in all those trees are most amazing people, beautiful gardens, small home based businesses, some terrific B&B accommodations, and many fine artists whose work will blow your socks off. I lived on the Opeongo for the last 44 years and have had nothing but wonderful loving and caring experiences with my neighbours and friends. Always a helping hand if you need it. It is a special place!


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