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How the Forests were Stolen

January 27, 2022


From the 1860s to the 1890s, when the export of virgin pine from the Kawarthas and Haliburton was booming, most of the timber that was worth cutting was owned by either the Crown or the Canada Land and Emigration Company (CLEC). (Much of Haliburton was granted to an English company that was expecting to find people to migrate to Canada to farm that county). Neither one of them really knew what was going on in the bush.

Being a timber baron was an extremely risky business, especially in exporting to Britain. The market fluctuations were greater than the profit margins, not to mention the chance of having an accident and losing the raft somewhere between Haliburton and England. Most timber barons went bankrupt at least once—today it is easy to remember the one person who became stupendously wealthy, and forget everyone who went broke trying. In a game of chance where the odds were stacked against the businessmen, stealing a significant amount of the timber made turning a profit much more likely. Not everyone in the forest industries was crooked, but the odds of survival were so much better for those who were. In time, they earned a collective reputation as robber barons.

The government accepted that not everyone would get a licence for all the timber that they cut, so when the raft got to Quebec City (or later Belleville) the company would report how much was cut in trespass. If the company did report that some timber was cut in trespass, they would pay a 200% on that amount. It was easy to see how many logs were floating down the St. Lawrence, but how would you ever know if they had been cut on private land, on Crown land, or in trespass on Crown Land. Basically the entire system was based on self-reporting, and it was said that most companies would not hire a scaler who would scruple at making a false measurement.

With the CLEC Land, it became somewhat of an inside joke or even contest to see who could pull off the best heist. The company was basically operated out of England, though they had land surveyor Alexander Niven as their agent in Haliburton. At least one company had an employee keeping tabs on his location so they would not be caught red handed.

In one instance, a company applied to purchase timber rights in a certain township, the company refused saying that they wanted to conserve the forest, so the company went in, cut the timber, and got away with it.

One celebrated heist was much more complicated. The CLEC hired a jobber (someone with a contract to cut logs for the use of the company) to cut a valuable limit to cut for the CLEC’s own use at their Haliburton mill. The robber baron arranged with the jobber to cut poor quality logs of his own berth, swap them for the fine timber belonging to the CLEC, then scale the CLEC logs at triple the size of the ones for the robber. Then, in truth the CLEC paid for getting out both sets of logs, and ended up with junk. But by the time the logs were arriving at their mill, the robber baron had paid everyone else off, and the jobber had disappeared. How would they ever know where their logs actually went, as they were floating down the river with only a hammered stamp on the end to indicate the owner?

Looking back, it is impossible to even approximate how much timber was stolen, but there is no doubt that theft was rampant. Regardless of the owner, standing timber could just disappear. If a company bought a berth, they had a strong incentive to cut it before someone else did. In remote districts, conservation was practically impossible. So, the rush was on to get out everything that was potentially profitable.

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