The Mattawa-Ottawa river system was long a major north-south artery in central Canada. The area was first inhabited by Aboriginal Peoples who used the Mattawa River as a major transportation corridor. Early in the seventeenth century, French explorers Étienne Brûlé, Radisson, Des Groseilliers, La Vérendrye, and Samuel de Champlain canoed through the Mattawa area. Soon, both French and British fur traders employed this route either south from Hudson Bay or west from Quebec City. Since Lake Temiskaming was approximately halfway along the main canoe route between the St. Lawrence River and Hudson Bay, La Compagnie du Nord of French-Canadian merchants constructed a fort on the lake near the mouth of the Montreal River in 1679 to compete with the Hudson’s Bay Company posts to the north. Nine years later the Iroquois destroyed the fort and when the French re-established it in 1720 Fort Témiscamingue was constructed on the east side of the lake where the water narrows to 250 metres. This fort soon played an important strategic role in the struggle between France and Great Britain for control of the region’s fur trade. Following Great Britain’s conquest of New France the post was occupied by the North West Company (1788) and later by the Hudson’s Bay Company (1821). In 1837, the Hudson’s Bay Company opened Mattawa House, which became its most important trading post in the Ottawa Valley.
Located at the confluence of the Mattawa and Ottawa rivers, the village of Mattawa, which means “meeting of rivers” in Ashinabe, was at the crossroads between the Ottawa River and Lake Temiskaming. Travelers heading north towards Hudson Bay from Mattawa had to traverse a chain of lakes varying in length from 15 to 50 km and in width from 2 to 8 km, and separated from each other by rapids and waterfalls (a total drop of 17 metres), before reaching the village of Temiscaming at the south end of Lake Temiskaming.
Until near the end of the nineteenth century, water transport was virtually the only means to and from Lake Temiskaming, which at 108 km long and 9 km at its widest was, in reality, an enlargement of the Ottawa River. The first official French-Canadian settlers arrived at Baie des Peres (Ville-Marie) in 1882. They were aided by the Canadian Pacific Railway which had reached Mattawa the previous year. Three years later, Father Paradis helped to establish the Société de Colonization du Lac Temiscamingue to promote settlement in the area. To do so, it improved the portages around the rapids between Mattawa and the village of Temiscaming at the bottom of the lake and placed several small steamboats between the rapids. Not long afterwards, the La Compagnie de Chemin de fer de Témiscamingue (Temiskaming Colonization Railway) constructed several narrow gauge tramways around the rapids. This was done under the direction of the Oblate priests who hoped to attract French Canadians from Quebec and repatriate Franco-Americans by providing cheap land in the Temiskaming region.
Settlement, however, took second place to the logging industry. By the 1880s such timber barons as J.R. Booth, the Gillies Bros, and Alex Lumsden were harvesting large stands of white pine and towing the logs by steamboats to their sawmills. Mattawa was now the hub for both loggers and settlers. After the CPR branch line, the Temiskaming Colonization Railway, linked Mattawa with Temiscaming at the foot of Lake Temiskaming in 1894, passengers could leave Ottawa around midnight, arrive in Mattawa for breakfast, take the ferry across the Ottawa River, bypass 60 km miles of rapids and small lakes to the foot of the lake by rail, and then board the Meteor for Haileybury and New Liskeard.
Mr. F. Kosmack, an early setter, offered this advice to prospective colonists:
“The ‘Meteor’ is a large and commodious steamer. Settlers and their effects are landed wherever they desire. The distance from Temiskaming Station to Thornloe [New Liskeard] is about 70 miles. For the first 40 miles the lake is quite narrow and very deep, with an occasional bay. The shores continue rocky and picturesque — most beautiful from the tourist’s standpoint — most uninviting to the land-seeker. After that the lake becomes wider and shallower, the shores become lower, till at the northern end of the lake an enormous extent of fine level farming-land is reached.”
Until the Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Railway reached New Liskeard in 1905, the Meteor (and other steamboats) provided a necessary and vital link to the outside world.