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George Jackett Remembers Working in a Logging Camp

August 11, 2023

George Jackett using pig's feet to load logs in his first winter at Kearney

For generations, many residents of the Kawarthas travelled north for the winter to work in logging camps. Well into the twentieth century, many of the largest local businesses were producing goods from the forests, including timbers, lumber, pulp and paper and wooden manufactures. By the end of the nineteenth century, the export of squared timbers to Britain and the rush to get out the virgin pine forests were essentially over, but there was still plenty of lumber that could be used for other purposes. With the advent of trucks, the log drives down the Trent Watershed petered out in the 1920s. But for many years afterwards, local boys continued to trek north for the winter to work in a camp.

In the late 1950s, George Jackett spent three winters working in logging camps in Muskoka and Haliburton. When George was about 22 years old, his father, Wilfrid, who operated W.G. Jackett and Sons Construction, took a job loading logs at Rainy Lake (Algonquin Park), near Kearney. George’s Uncle, Lorne Greenway worked in the same logging camp, and helped arrange for Wilf to get the job.

The Jacketts were among the first local construction companies to acquire heavy equipment. At the time, they owned a Quickway, a rubber-tired cable machine that could be used as a crane, or to excavate. While digging, unlike a modern hydraulic excavator, the bucket just dangled from cables. Whereas excavators today use hydraulic levers, the Quickway operated on three hubs. Each one had a clutch and a brake to release or stop the cable from moving. One hub controlled the A-frame, another pulled the bucket in, while the third was for the dipper stick. It took both hands and both feet to perform the motion of digging. Operating a cable machine required a hoisting licence and a lot of practice.

It was more difficult to operate a cable machine than a modern hydraulic excavator. “Once the clutch released the hoist line, if you did not hit the brake at the right time, the load would be coming straight down. It was not possible to drop the weight on yourself, the boom would not stand up straight, but it could fall on something else.”

“My Dad bought the Quickway in 1954 when I was 18 years old, and I got my licence soon after—my Dad did not have a licence to operate the machine. To get my hoisting licence I went to Toronto with Garnet Harrison. The exam was 12 or 13 pages long. I arrived at 9 am and I wasn’t finished until after 3 in the afternoon. It was just a written exam.”

Though there was work in construction in the summer, winters could be quieter, and Wilf was happy to pick up a job for the winter that would keep his investment profitably employed. “I went to work in the camps because there was nothing else to do that winter,” George recalls. “I drove the machine from here to Kearney, then they loaded it on a train, and took the rail line into the camp. The Quickway was four-wheel drive, with a gas engine, and could travel at 30 miles an hour. It was a right hand drive machine.”

While he was at the camp at Rainy Lake, the train would roll in at 7:30 in the morning. George was expected to load 12 rail cars per day, so each day the train would bring a dozen empty cars and pick up those that George had loaded. In the days of railways, produce had to follow the rail networks, which were not always the most direct. Many of the logs that George was loading were maple, and the company had a sawmill at Kearney. They also sold logs, and some of them would be shipped to a mill in Wilberforce that would process them. Though it was a little circuitous, some of the logs went on the train through Fenelon Falls to move from Algonquin Park to Haliburton County by rail.

In his first winter working up in the camps, they used pig’s feet to hold the logs, which were opened by pulling a rope. “It was always a tussle to get them off in the car, so there was a top loader in the car, who directed where the log was to be put and guided it into the space. When I knew I was going up there the second year, I took two ploughs and made a clam bucket, so the log would be in the operator’s control all the time—no one had to pull a rope to straighten it up. But it still needed a top loader, because when you swung over the car, you could not see in, so the top loader would tell you where to drop it in.”

Though George was working long after the virgin pine forest had been cut over, he remembers one massive pine log. “It weighed more than nine tons. It was six feet in diameter, and it arrived at the skidway on a Mack Truck. Most of the truckers were getting paid by the piece, so they didn’t want to take the one massive log out, when they could take 10 or 15 smaller ones instead.”

George’s Uncle Lorne operated a TD-18 bulldozer, and he worked making the bush roads, so the trucks could get the logs out to the rail lines. For generations, horses had hauled the logs to the skidways, however by George’s day, trucks were becoming more common. The horses or trucks would skid out the logs, but only the bulldozer could pull the largest ones. The logging was typically done in the summer and fall, when it was easiest to truck the logs to the skidway. When the logs arrived at the skidway, they were stacked onto two parallel logs so they would not freeze to the ground.

Though many of the workers who lived closer to the camp would go home for the weekend, George stayed at the camp from about New Years to mid march. “There were about 10 or 12 workers staying in the cabin, with a married couple living in their own separate room. Everyone else slept in the same room. The couple cooked and made the beds for us.”

“We had to get up early to get ready for the day. We had our breakfast at 6 am. Before I ate, I would go out and start the machine to let it get warmed up while I had breakfast.” The morning meal was typically bacon and eggs and porridge. By 7:00 George would be at work, “if I had all the cars loaded, then I didn’t have to get up too early, because the train arrived about 7:30 . Before George loaded the logs, team of horses would sort them, putting the logs beside their corresponding cars. “All the pine logs were put in front of one car, with the veneer logs in front of another.”  The other two meals of the day were meat and potatoes—often pork chops or roast beef, as would be the case back home. There would be more mouths to feed at lunch time—perhaps 15 or 20—because the truckers would be stopping in.

“We had bunk beds to sleep in. I slept in the top bunk—one was about 16 inches and the other about 4-5 feet off the floor. I always chose the top bunk because it was the warmest. There was a cookstove, like the cookstoves that were common around here, and it sat in the centre of the sleeping quarters. There were nights that if the fire went out, the water pot on top of the stove would be frozen by morning.” Because there was no insulation in the building, giant icicles formed at the eaves. The cookhouse was beside the sleeping quarters, with the cook’s quarters at the far end of the building.

The workers relied on an outhouse, even on the frostiest nights. “We had a washroom back home, and it was cold going out there. You would put your long johns on to keep warm. You didn’t hang around out there.” The outhouse was located between the rail siding and the cookhouse, so the train crew could use it as well. There was a well and a hand pump for water.

“There was not much entertainment in the camp. We were there to work. A lot of the guys would go out on the train on Friday night and would come back on Monday morning. No one had a musical instrument and singing was not done. We didn’t have time to read. It was black dark by the time you got in from work. When you got in at the end of the day, it would be 6 or 7 pm and you would just eat and go to bed.”

Since George was working for his Dad, he would just get paid when he got home. “At that point, I was soon going to be married and was saving up to build the house that we would live in. Dad gave me the lot, and I used the money I earned to buy the materials.”

George would work two winters at Rainy Lake, before moving to another camp with his uncle at Crown Lake—they would cut near Dividing and Rockaway Lakes. Their camp was at Neely’s Pond, which was northwest of Dividing Lake. Lorne was well known as a trapper and had several trapping cabins in the area—and he would be away for weeks at a time as he travelled his circuits. “That was the last winter that I went to work in the logging camps. It was the end of their logging rights, they had cut all the logs they could. Once I was married I didn’t need to go to work in the logging camps and I doubt there would be anything left of either camp today.”

This story is a memory and nobody’s memory is perfect. Sometimes details get a little mixed up, things get forgotten or overlooked, and the perspective is inevitably subjective. If you notice something that not right, have something you would like to tell us, or a memory to share the museum would be happy to hear from you:

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