Philemon Wright (September 3, 1760 - June 3, 1839) was a farmer and entrepreneur who founded Wrightstown, the first permanent settlement in the National Capital Region of Canada. Wrightstown later became incorporated in 1875 and renamed Hull, Quebec, and then in 2002, as a result of a municipal amalgamation, it acquired its present name of the City of Gatineau.
Wright was born in Woburn, Massachusetts into the family of Thomas Wright and Elizabeth Chandler, a prosperous Woburn family that had been amongst the town’s founders 120 years before. Raised as a farmer, Philemon Wright, as a young man, was thrust into service for two years with the rebel forces in the first years of the American Revolution. He worked very hard.
Feeling the strain of overpopulation in Massachusetts, Wright first came to see the then isolated and unsettled area of the Ottawa Valley in 1796, returned again in 1798, and once more in 1799. He finally decided that the best location for a new settlement would be next to the Chaudière Falls, near the intersection of the Gatineau and Ottawa rivers, where he found thousands of acres of good soil.
Wright used his natural leadership abilities to convince a group of Massachusetts settlers to come north with him. He led a group of 5 families and 25 labourers (axemen) to the area in the winter of 1800. With the help of a native scout, who volunteered to help the group negotiate the treacherous voyage over ice from Carillon to the Chaudière Falls, the group arrived on the western shore of the Gatineau River where it meets the Ottawa and began to clear land. At first their objective was to clear what was needed for homes and farmland for their survival. Having been very successful, Wright began to build his village at the foot of the Chaudière Falls the very next year, in 1801.
The process was long and difficult and by 1806 Wright had nearly exhausted his capital. In an effort to earn money and in order to keep his workers busy in the winter time, he began the cutting of timber. Then, he attempted what was then thought impossible: to build a raft of timber and float it all the way to Quebec City. There, it would be sold for export to Britain. The first raft he built, he named "Colombo". Despite taking two months and encountering many hurdles he reached Quebec and sold his 700 logs and 6000 barrel staves. The timber trade on the Ottawa River had begun.
In Wrightstown, Wright quickly built several enterprises, shops and mills so that the small community would not be dependent on the expensive practice of importing goods from Montreal. He built a lumber mill, a hemp mill and a grist mill to fulfill their needs. He also built a foundry in a stone building large enough for four fires and four bellows operated hydraulically. He built shops for a shoemaker, a tailor, and a baker, as well as a tannery for curing leather. Always the opportunist, he also saw to it that a brewery and distillery were operating to slake the thirsts of the many employees he employed. Before long, he and his wife Abigail saw to it that there was a teacher to teach school to all of the children in the community.
He founded several companies, amongst them, a limestone quarry, The Hull Mining Company and P. Wright & Sons which, in particular, made him a great deal of money exporting timber, especially during the Napoleonic Wars when Britain was cut off from its traditional Baltic region suppliers. As a pioneer and an entrepreneur, Wright had few equals. He was the point man for every builder, land speculator and government project in the region. According to several contemporaries, Wright should also be credited with having been the person who first suggested the building of the Rideau Canal, and once the canal's construction was under way, Wright secured most of the contracts for supplies, materials and craftsmen.
Wright was elected to the legislature of Lower Canada to represent Ottawa County in 1830 and he and his settlement both saw great success. He voted against the Ninety-Two Resolutions. He and his community faced near bankruptcy on several occasions when his town was ravaged by fires, with one fire in 1808 which practically wiped out the village.
Although he and his family spent their lives as lumber barons, Philemon Wright was always a farmer at heart. By 1823, the Wright family had created several lucrative farms. These included the Gatineau Farm, near Leamy Lake, the site of the original clearing by the Wright expedition in 1800, where stood Philemon Wright's first home, called "The Wigwam". This farm was used to raise animals and operate a distillery, and was directed by Sarah Wright, the widow of Philemon Jr., who had died in 1821. There was Philemon Sr.’s farm at the Chaudière, where Wright built his second (Standish Hall) and third homes (The White House). The Columbia Farm of 800 acres (3.2 km2) was located at the junction of the-then Brigham Road (now Gamelin) and Chelsea roads (now boul. St. Joseph), and was operated by Thomas Brigham, who had married Wright’s daughter, Abigail. At the site of the current Collège St-Alexandre in Limbour, Tiberius Wright established a farm in 1816, which his son Alonzo Wright would inherit. By 1823, nearly 800 acres (3.2 km2) at this farm had been cleared. Philemon Jr. had also established a farm at Lac Deschênes in Aylmer and after his tragic death, in 1821, in a stagecoach accident, it came under the supervision of Charles Symmes, a nephew of Wright Sr. As well, there were additional Wright farms along the Aylmer Road, Mountain Road, and on both shores of the Gatineau River. At the end of his life, Philemon Sr. retired to another farm, this time in Onslow Township. In fact, the Wright agricultural community was more developed than other land grants of the time in Lower Canada, many of which were held only for speculation. Hull’s renown in Canada, the U.S., and Britain as a fine agricultural community was well deserved.
Wright died on June 3, 1839, in Onslow, Lower Canada (now the province of Quebec) and is buried in St. James Anglican Cemetery, Gatineau (Hull Sector). He was survived by a large family, including his son Ruggles Wright who would go on to invent the timber slide.
Philemon Wright is regarded as the founder of both the cities of Ottawa and of Gatineau. Philemon Wright High School in Gatineau is named after him.
- Outaouais Heritage Web Magazine Bruce S. Elliot (Text reprinted with permission from Up the Gatineau!, Vol. 26)
- Journals of the House of Assembly of Lower Canada, from the 7th January to the 18th March, 1834 p. 337
- Wright Carr-Harris, Bertha: The White Chief of the Ottawa, page 28. William Briggs, Toronto 1903.
- Laberge, Edward P. (1989), Philemon Wright, a Yankee who helped build Canada. Bytown pamphlet series., Ottawa, Ontario: The Historical Society of Ottawa
- "Biography". Dictionnaire des parlementaires du Québec de 1792 à nos jours (in French). National Assembly of Quebec.
- "Philemon Wright". Dictionary of Canadian Biography (online ed.). University of Toronto Press. 1979–2005.
- The Family of John and Priscilla Wright