Saturday, August 16, 2014

Lost school house on McKenna Road near Marlborough Forest

About 40km southwest of Ottawa, on Dwyer Hill Road near Richmond, lies the rugged Marlborough Forest. Like much of the area between Ottawa and Carleton Place, the Marlborough terrain consists of barren patches of limestone pavement punctuated by broad swamps and scrubby thickets of spruce and cedar. Not exactly farm country, but full of all kinds of wildlife including bears, deer, and some rare species of plants, snails, and other small creatures. Great terrain to explore on a dual sport bike: the motor allows you to evade the bugs (mostly) and make somewhat of a cool breeze on an otherwise hot, shadeless day. 

Unfortunately for dual sport riders, the intriguing forest trails that continue off O’Neil Road, Roger Stevens Drive, and Flood Road in Marlborough Forest are now closed from March to September—prime riding season. Since I wasn’t about to make a special trip back to mountain bike the area, exploration will have to wait until there’s a safe window around hunting season. It’s disappointing but the need to restrict access is entirely understandable. Too bad some people ruin access for everyone by not following with the rules. If you do choose to ride here, please stay on the roads and be gentle on the landscape. We're lucky to have this rare natural environment so close to an urban centre--let's keep it in good condition!

Fortunately, the closing of one riding opportunity often enables other interesting finds. 

One find in particular is an unmarked pioneer burial ground that lies near the rail crossing at Dwyer Hill Road. It's a rare bit of history and testimony to the hardscrabble existence the early Europeans faced when homesteading in this area. The pervasive limestone prevented digging graves, so burials consisted of piling stones on the remains. Coincidentally, CBC Radio featured a story on this very site shortly after my visit. Apparently it's not listed in the registry of Ontario burial grounds and may need an archaeological assessment. 

While returning from Marlborough Forest west along Roger Stevens Drive, I took a random turn down McKenna Road and soon encountered this intriguing old one-room school house.

All by its lonesome down an uninhabited road (it’s funny to think of the Google street view car coming down here), the building appears to date from the early 1900s and was probably still used as a school house up to the 1960s or even 1970s. A hand pump stood in the overgrown yard, and behind the building were remnants of a two-seater outhouse.

It looks like the outhouse used cans located under the seat and behind an access door at the back (I grew up with a similar arrangement in Australia). The rock would not have allowed excavation of a pit. It was probably a punishment for some poor student to have to dump the cans at the back of the lot somewhere. 

Surprisingly, the school house is open and maintained on the inside. 

None of the information posted inside indicated the history of the building. A web search revealed it’s owned by the Ministry of Natural Resources and serves as a base for hiking trails on adjacent lands. Later, I tried to find out about the history of the building but couldn’t find a record of it in my usual sources. didn't have a listing either. Since then I've managed to find out more - see the end of this posting for an update.  

Traveling past the school house, the road deteriorates into a rough track that passes a lonely abandoned homestead and then crosses a swamp. Don't be deterred by the swamp. You can ride through it quite easily on a large bike with 50/50 tires because the bottom is solid gravel and the muddy parts are not very slippery. In any case, the track joins a main gravel road just a few dozen metres past the water crossing. 

This was a great little find of pioneer history right on the doorstep of our nation's capital.


Owen Cooke, a volunteer at the Rideau Township Archives, was kind enough to show me a binder of historical records they have on this school house. These consist mainly of handwritten bylaws dating back to 1887 that cover the formation of the school sections. I took pictures of all the contents - contact me if you want copies. Below are some highlights I've pieced together.

Note: The wording of the bylaws is a bit confusing because it refers to both the formation of school sections, and schools. I'm not sure what relates specifically to the school house in question. Some of the details would need to be compared with contemporary maps of the area.
  • Known as S. S. No. 17 Marlborough Township. Location indicated as Part Lot 28, Conc 6, one half acre in Ontario Archives. Also indicated as Lot 27, Con 7 (perhaps incorrectly?) on 1975 photo.

  • Also known as the "McKenna School" because many McKennas went there. 
  • Bylaw 146 dated September 24, 1887 in Marlborough Township describes the formation of Protestant Separate School number 1 under the Separate Schools Act of 1886. At that time the area was largely settled by Irish Catholics. It seems that Protestants had to form a certain minimum number and petition for their own school section. The bylaw defines the parcels of land within the section area. 

  • Bylaw 206 dated 1899 repeals Bylaw 146 and describes the formation of Public School Section number 16 to replace Protestant Separate School number 1 (a.k.a. "section" number 1). This appears to have been done at the request of the Protestants who requested the formation of the original separate school section. The area of the school section is also enlarged substantially to at least 2700 acres. It is likely the larger catchment area contains additional school houses built or repurposed to serve the larger population. Contemporary maps show additional school houses in the general area, but I haven't compared their locations to the specific catchment area. 
  • Bylaw 232 dated December 24, 1902 describes the formation of the school as a Protestant Separate School (S. S. #1); they seemed to have formed a quorum and made their case around June 7, 1902. 
  • Bylaw 251 dated May 21, 1904 describes Protestant S. S. #1 being dissolved and thereafter being known as S. S. #17 (a public school).
  • Bylaw 322 dated June 1, 1912, describes the formation of school section 18, which includes portions of school sections 1 & 3. Amalgamation!
  • Teachers included Lula Hulladay of North Montague (1905), and Viola Argue (1930-31).
My interpretation is that the school sections were being formed and reformed throughout the period from 1887 and on, to support the shifting and growing needs of the population. This particular school house was probably built in the late 1800s or early 1900s (but before 1905). It's possible the present building is the original school house built to serve the larger population associated with the newly formed and larger Public School Section (Bylaws 206 and 251), and in particular the growing family of McKennas nearby.


  1. Great article! Have you heard back from I'd love to hear more about the history of the area.
    We just moved to North Gower on August 23rd, and I just started discovering Marlborough Forest today. I'm definitely going to continue jogging there as it's a beautiful landscape.

  2. Thanks, Steven! No news: looks like this one's off the radar. Will have to dig into the county archives to see what I can learn.

    As for Marlborough, be very careful of hunters at this time of year. Hunting with firearms and archery is allowed, but some hunters have reported stray bullets near them. Wear fluorescent orange if you run in there!

  3. I've been in touch with the folks at the local archive and they have some info on the school house. Unfortunately their archives are only open on Tuesdays and I haven't had a chance to visit. However, it's on my list and will post an update once I've been through their material.

  4. Great post. I've been reading many posts on your blog. I live in Ottawa and just got a DRZ400S. I rode my bicycle through the Marlborough Forest from Kettles Road to Paden Road last July (so wet & buggy!) and have spent a lot of time mapping the ATV trails in Google Earth and marking various entry points. Might bring my bicycle in there again soon and explore more on my DRZ in the fall. Cheers.

  5. Thanks, Paul! Congrats on the new ride. Let me know if you want to hit up some trails further west. Lots of good riding in Lanark Country and beyond.

  6. That'd be great! That area is definitely on my to-do list. I think my email address is in my profile (I couldn't find yours). Feel free to send me a message there. Cheers and thanks.