History of the Burnt River
February 15, 2023
Three Brothers Falls
By Guy Scott
Of all the features of the Kinmount area, none dominates like the Burnt River. It is the single largest barrier in the entire area. It defined the road system, settlement pattern and actual location of Kinmount Village. The village of Kinmount was born at the spot the Bobcaygeon Colonization Road crossed the Burnt River. The bridge became the focal point of the village, even more so than the dam until the later railway station became the town centre. It was so difficult to bridge the mighty Burnt, that the Kinmount bridge remained the only such structure over the river for many miles both upstream and downstream. Likewise, Minden was born on the spot where the road crossed the equally mighty Gull River. Even today, the next bridges over the Burnt River north are above Gelert or at Furnace Falls. South of town, bridges eventually were built at the 11th Line of Somerville (Watson’s Siding), 9th Line (Byrne’s Line), 2 Bridges at Burnt River and one last attempt at the 3rd Line of Somerville (Baddow). These bridges all suffered destruction in the spring flood at one time or another; and the 9th and 3rd Line bridges were not replaced.
The Burnt River (likely) derives its name form the burnt (brown) colour of its water. One theory has it named after a huge forest fire that charred the whole area just before settlement. Another theory has it that suspended iron ore particles that ‘browned’ its waters, but both these theories are false. The fast current of the river makes it a natural to collect lots of suspended soil, dirt if you please, and the brown colour comes from the dirt particles being washed along. It is no coincidence it was not named the ‘Crystal Clear’ River!
The Burnt River runs from its headwaters in Haliburton to Rosedale, where it empties in Cameron Lake. It drains an area of 1300 square kilometres: a good portion of east Haliburton County as well as large chunks of Galway & Somerville Townships. There are 14 dams on the watershed: 13 used by the Trent-Severn Waterway to control water flow and the dam at Kinmount. The Kinmount dam is the property of the MNR and may be termed a ‘historical’ dam. It does nothing for the Trent Canal, but was rather geared to sawmills at Kinmount. There are 3 main branches of the Burnt River that converge just above Kinmount at the Three Brothers Falls: Irondale, Burnt (Centre) and Drag branches. The Irondale branch is the largest tributary.
The Burnt River is a ‘tumultuous’ river. It is broken by a large number of waterfalls, rapids and chutes which make it a challenging course for canoers and kayakers; more so if you are travelling downstream. Since it has a steep fall in altitude, the River features a very noticeable current along most of its route. The largest falls include the Three Brothers Falls north of Kinmount and the High Falls just south of town. However, there are many smaller falls and rapids including Furnace Falls and Jacob’s Ladder north of the village and Low (or Little) Falls south of town. After the Burnt River tumbles over the High Falls, it leaves the Canadian Shield or granite landform and becomes noticeably less turbulent. The little falls at Burnt River is the head of navigation from Cameron Lake: the furthest point where boats can reach without a portage.
As a water transport route, the Burnt River was essentially useless. Too many waterfalls and rapids obstructed the river north of Burnt River village to make water transport of goods practical. To the pioneer moving north, it followed a wandering, tortuous course freely interspersed with fallen trees: blocked by waterfalls and featuring a fierce current. No doubt a few fur trappers paddled north to reap furs from the rich Haliburton trapping grounds, but most early trappers preferred the more placid Gull River route into the Haliburton Highlands.
Likewise, the Burnt River was useless as a cadge route for the lumbermen. Their supplies were drawn by horse and wagon up the Bobcaygeon Road to the winter shanties. But the Burnt River was essential to the lumber industry as a route the cut logs travelled on the way south to the mills along the Kawartha Lakes. In fact, the Burnt River route was preferable to the Gull route simply because of its fast-paced current and lack of large lakes. On the Gull system, it was necessary to ‘warp’ or tow the logs across the still lakes. This was a painful and time consuming exercise. In the early days, a raft with a team of horses on a capstan would likely warp the booms of logs across the lake until they could be sent down the outlet river (to the next lake!). Eventually the alligator steam boat replaced the noble horse. This mini-tugboat simply towed the boom of logs across the lake. The Alligator could even ‘warp’ itself overland to the next lake on some smaller portages. The only place these aids were used on the Burnt River watershed was from Haliburton (Head Lake) to Ingoldsby (Kashagawigamog Lake). After that it was downhill all the way on the Drag-Burnt branch. The Central and Irondale branches involved no lakes & hence no aids. Yes, the falls and rapids were a nuisance, but to cost-conscious lumberman, speed was a bonus!
The log drives often took a couple of months to pass through Kinmount Village. Of course the logs were forced to go over the dam. Stop logs were removed to form a spillway and sweating river drivers would push the logs on their way with long pike poles. Often different companies’ log drives would get mixed together at the dam and the drivers were forced to sort the logs. Each company stamped its property with a brand simply by hammering the log with a hammer bearing its brand. A stone sorting jack was built on the west side of the river to help sort the logs.
River driving was a dangerous profession, practiced only by the bravest and most skilled (or foolish?) of lumber workers. At the many waterfalls and especially rapids, the logs would often catch on the rocks and create a log jam. Sometimes the jam could be freed before it grew to mammoth proportions, but other times… In such circumstances, jam crackers were brought in to clear the mess. Usually there was a ‘key-log’ that once pried free, allowed the jam to dissolve. At times the jam broke up too quickly for the cracker or drivers to safely escape. In such times, tragic results were often the result. The many rapids and waterfalls of the Burnt River claimed its share of victims; in fact, these trouble spots were often graded by the number of graves that filled their impromptu little cemeteries. The Hawk River Chute in Stanhope Township was the most dangerous in the area, its cemetery contained 11 graves. The Devil’s Chute at Irondale memorialized 7 or 9 drivers’ last resting place. The High Falls south of Kinmount had at least 3 burials. Life was dangerous on the River Drive.
The earliest lumbermen noted low water levels as problems for their log drives. After the spring freshet passed, the Burnt slowed down and became full of obstacles like deadheads, rocks, sandbars, etc. But this problem could be fixed by creating a series of dams at key points. These dams could store water and prolong the spring flood until the log drives had passed. The dams also kept the water levels higher at key points like Kinmount and Ingoldsby. Many other minor dams were built in various places for temporary use until the lumbermen moved on.
By the early 1900s, the last of the big log drives were gone, but sawmills at Kinmount and Burnt River still used the Burnt to float its raw material to the mill. The logs were often stored in the river until their turn with the saw came. Thus the Burnt River would be filled with logs most of the summer. Even as late as 1970, booms filled with logs were still a sight in town.
The River also serves the area residents in other ways. The village always had a town swimming hole. In winter its frozen surface became a hockey rink if weather permitted. But the turbulent nature of the Burnt River made safe ice a precarious affair, and local residents have always been wary of the River. The wariness has meant that drowning in the River has been quite rare. In fact, area lakes and smaller streams are more often hazardous drowning sites simply because people let their guard down.
The Burnt River was a noted fishing spot for the local anglers. The dam created a ‘lake’ with deep water all the way up to the Three Brothers’ Falls and was the haunt of muskies, pickerel, bass and trout to name the most popular species. The dam was also a popular spot, but many local anglers kept small boats above the dam to fish upstream. Downstream, trout & pickerel were the favourite catches. The smaller tributaries of the Burnt were often filled with trout in the spring. The Burnt around Kinmount was rather unique in that it featured both cold water fish (trout) and warm water fish (muskie & pickerel). In recent times, fishing upon the Burnt has declined as the fish have almost disappeared due to a variety of reasons.
The Burnt River still serves as a water source for the village of Kinmount. The pioneers preferred wells to the dark waters of the River. Not only was the water dark, but it was often filled with ‘foreign substances’ or garbage (or worse!) Upstream farmers dumped manure, trash etc. in the river. It was not unusual to see a dead cow or horse floating down the river. Hotels on the Main Street had stables along the riverbank complete with trapdoors for quick ‘disposal’ of the manure.
But in today’s world, larger supplies of water are necessary for modern homes. Improved water filtration systems made exploitation of the River practicable and by the 1940s a ‘town water system’ was in operation. Today, a much improved pump house has been constructed to convert the Burnt River water for residents and businesses of the village. Today, the log drives are long done. The Burnt River is the haunt of the canoer, the fishermen and those who just admire the waterfront view.