Lumber Kings of the Kawarthas
April 24, 2023
By Guy Scott
In the late 1800s, no company dominated the lumber trade in our area as much as the Boyd Lumber Company from Bobcaygeon. The Boyds dominated the industry in our area and were by far the largest outfit on the Burnt River Watershed. More local residents worked for the Boyd family than any other single company. Mossom Boyd Sr. (there were 2 Mossom Boyds), arrived at Bobcaygeon in 1834 at the tender age of 19. Hailing from an Irish military family, he reasoned his chances were better farming in Upper Canada than finding a position in the British Army. He was virtually penniless, but possessed ambition and drive in abundance. He purchased 100 acres in Verulam Township, the ‘frontier’ of settlement in the 1830s, just south of the present village of Bobcaygeon. The original founder of Bobcaygeon was Thomas Need, who built a sawmill on the rapids between Sturgeon and Pigeon Lakes a few years earlier. Need was a well educated Englishman who soon realized the life of a lumberman was not his cup of tea. Need left Bobcaygeon in 1837, hiring young Mossom Boyd to run his operations in his absence. Boyd quickly realized that farming was not the way to fame and fortune and began to cultivate the world of lumbering instead. Even when Need returned to Bobcaygeon, Boyd continued to operate the sawmill business while Need concentrated on building the village.
The village slowly grew into a prosperous town. A dam, lock and bridges were constructed, making the village an important transportation hub. Even today, Bobcaygeon bills itself as the ‘Hub of the Kawarthas.’ Boyd’s little sawmill was located next to the locks causing confusion and congestion in the river. Sawdust from the mill began to fill the channel below the lock and hinder navigation. It got so bad, in 1879, Boyd was taken to court for blocking navigation at the locks. He was acquitted, but he got the message and built a new, much larger mill at the other end of Bobcaygeon Island. The large new mill reflected the growing prosperity of Boyd’s Company and signalled his arrival as a big player on the local scene.
Originally, Mossom Boyd acquired his lumber supply from the local area: Primarily Verulam, Somerville and Harvey Townships. Massive white pines were readily available with easy access to the local lakes. With the construction of the Bobcaygeon Road (circa 1960), Boyd was able to push his operations north into Haliburton County: a vast reservoir of untapped pine. Boyd’s operations concentrated in Lutterworth, Snowdon and Glamorgan townships and the Burnt River was the highway for his log drives. The Boyd Company operated 5-10 shanties each winter in our area, and floated 20,000-50,000 logs per spring down the Burnt River, over the dam at Kinmount and on to the mill at Bobcaygeon. All access to these shanties came up the Bobcaygeon Road through Kinmount. Every fall, hundreds of wagon loads of supplies were cadged up the road and over the bridge at Kinmount. A good days cadging ended up at Kinmount and the Boyd Company actually had a depot in town where their cadgers and their teams rested for the night. Likewise, all the shanty boys were funnelled through the village. The depot house has not been identified yet, but it consisted of stables and a ‘bed and breakfast’ home for the travelling shantymen. These lumbermen could take a stage coach, hitch a ride on a cadge team or simply walk! They went north in the fall and back south in the spring. In 1869, the ever-ambitious Mossom Boyd purchased the timber limits for 9 townships in Haliburton County from the Canada Land and Emigration Company. These 10 townships contained some of the best pine in Ontario and most of the land was drained by the Burnt River system. The new limits kept the Boyd Company busy for several decades.
Mossom Boyd Sr. also was involved in the square timber trade. This branch of the lumber industry sold uncut timber ‘sticks’ to the British market. These sticks could be used as spars and masts for sailing ships, hardwood squared logs or just big beams of pine. The Royal Navy was a primary consumer of these sticks of prime Canadian timber and the port of Quebec City was the depot for trans-Atlantic trade. To get these sticks to market, it was necessary to float them in huge rafts down the Kawartha Lakes/Trent River system to Trenton, across Lake Ontario and down the St. Lawrence to Quebec City. It was a long and arduous journey and usually involved a whole season (April-October). Since these sticks of timber were the choice products of Ontario forests, the payout had to cover the cots. Only perfect pine 90 feet long or more with less than 3 knots were acceptable as masts. By the 1850s, these behemoths were becoming harder to find, and Boyd began to fill the demands from his limits. The largest white pine from Boyd’s limits was harvested on Concession 5 of Verulam Township. Its final length (after the top was removed) was 120 feet! It took 10 teams of oxen to edge this mast to be down to Sturgeon Lake for the trip to England. Due to the quality of Boyd’s pine (he was a perfectionist), Kawartha Lakes timber acquired a reputation for a premium quality and commanded top price in the Quebec market. Local pine sailed around the world on Royal Navy ships for decades!
Mossom Boyd Sr. loved to travel by timber raft to Quebec. He personally commanded the Bobcaygeon raft every year between 1848 and 1882. He enjoyed the life of a ‘timber sailor’ and loved to haggle with the buyers at Quebec. If they did not meet his price, he often stored his timbers over winter for the next year. One year, a merchant asked about the availability of hardwood and another market opened up. Elm was the most popular hardwood in demand, and the pioneer forests in the Kawartha Lakes were dotted with some massive elms. Hardwoods did not float, but Boyd transported them by attaching them to his pine rafts as cargo.
The costs associated with the timber raft trade were enormous and the returns uncertain and Boyd always seemed to be operating close to the break-even line. But financial gain aside, Mossom Boyd Sr. must have loved the life of a raftsman more for adventure than profit. After his death in 1883, the company gladly discontinued the annual timber drives to Quebec.
The biggest, and most profitable, part of the Boyd Lumber Company was sawn lumber from the ‘Big Mill’ at Bobcaygeon. The largest market for Haliburton pine was the cities of the eastern USA such as Boston and New York. These urban centres experienced explosive growth starting in the 1840s and the demand for building lumber was huge. The Boyd Company opened a warehouse in Albany (NY) and shipped most of its sawn lumber to this clearing house. Legend has it whole sections of New York were built with Haliburton pine in the 1880s. Mossom Sr., ever the perfectionist, quickly acquired a reputation for top quality lumber: only the best was sold south of the border. This meant the lesser grades were sold locally. A local person could buy second rate (but still very good) lumber at the Boyd mill for $1 a wagon load. If you overloaded your wagon and required a tow from the Boyd teams, it was $2 a load. Just a little penalty for being too greedy!
Transporting the Bobcaygeon boards to outside markets presented a thorny problem. The easiest way to ship the lumber was by water barge (or scows as they were called locally) to another port on the Kawartha Lakes where they could be further teamed by wagon or met a railway. Port Parry was the earliest port, but when the railway reached Lindsay in the 1850s, it became the preferred port. The obvious next step was to extend the railway to Bobcaygeon, and the Boyds lobbied mightily for such a project. But, oddly, enough, it never happened until 1904, after the Bobcaygeon Mill was closed! Mossom Boyd’s anger and frustration knew no bounds when the highly anticipated Victoria Railway chose Fenelon Falls over Bobcaygeon as its route north. No amount of cajoling or bribing could persuade the township council of Verulam to grant a bonus to the new railway. In short, Fenelon Falls and its neighbours (including Somerville) outbid Bobcaygeon for the railway.
It was a financial disaster for the Boyds and Bobcaygeon. The population of Bobcaygeon, heavily dependent on the lumber industry, gradually declined from 2,000 to less than half that number. Fenelon Falls with its new rail link, boomed and became the hub of local activity. Haliburton and Kinmount now accessed the outside world via Fenelon Falls. The Bobcaygeon Road ceased to be the lifeline of Haliburton County and history was changed by a railway line.