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Smith & Fell’s Sawmill and the Origins of Sawdust Bottom

May 8, 2022

Smith and Fell's Sawmill with the same location photographed in 2022

In the nineteenth century, environmental standards were nothing like they are today. At that time, it was socially acceptable to dump all sorts of waste in your backyard, the back 40 or the nearest waterbody. People took the liberty of depositing everything from garbage, to human waste, to industrial waste into the waterway. And yes, the same (untreated) water was used for drinking water.

The largest local industry was the production of lumber and timber. For much of the nineteenth century, it was common practice to dispose sawdust, edgings, and mill slabs in water—which was convenient because many of the mills were water-powered. Where there was a lot of lumbering activity, the surface of lakes and rivers could become densely covered with sawdust. In some regions, notably the Ottawa River, the sawdust was so thick that it altered the maritime ecosystem, locally killing off many species.

Though contemporaries hoped that all the sawdust that would rot, once a thick layer formed it decomposed anaerobically, which produced pockets of methane gas, which then periodically exploded. In 1897 one such explosion caused a boat to capsize, killing a well-known Montebello, Ontario farmer, leading the government to introduce legislation requiring mills to burn their refuse. After that, many sawmills stopped dumping their waste into the lake.

Locally, many mills placed a lot of mill waste into local waterbodies. In Bobcaygeon, Mossom Boyd’s sawmill was originally on the canal, and the irritant of having all of refuse in the path of navigation was one reason that he was encouraged to move his operations to Little Bob Channel—further from the centre of town, where the waste would not be so noticeable. To this day, there is a lot of Boyd mill waste in Little Bob Channel—for many years you could walk from one side to the other without touching the ‘natural bottom.’

In Fenelon Falls, the legacies of the village’s sawmilling past became a memorable part of local culture. John Fell Sr. opened a small sawmill at Bury’s Green, sometime prior to the 1871 Census and Assessment, which enumerated his operation as producing 631,000 feet of lumber (a moderate size for the day). David G. Smith ran a shingle mill at Fenelon Falls that burned the same year. The two businessmen then partnered, only to have their new mill at the falls burn in 1876. Then they rebuilt on Cameron Lake, between Bond and Louisa Streets—a very convenient location for a steam-powered mill, being located on the newly constructed railway, close to town, and with water access to float in sawlogs.

Smith and Fell’s luck did not improve in their new location, though they did their best to make their new mill safe. It included a 65-foot-tall smokestack to keep any sparks away from the mill yard or sawdust, but it blew over in 1882. The mill survived a chimney fire in 1884, only to have an arsonist burn it one last time in 1886, shortly after John Fell Jr. bought out Smith’s share. Many other local saw millers had to cope with multiple fires.

It was not in any way unusual that a lot of mill waste from Smith and Fell’s mill ended up in Cameron Lake. Though it was a far from the largest mill, and was relatively short-lived, they were located immediately beside what has since become the village’s beach park. For whatever reasons, it took a long time for the mill waste to dissipate. For much of the twentieth century, Fenelon Falls’ beach park was located at the end of Bond Street, and was affectionately called Sawdust Bottom. As families swam in Cameron Lake they stirred up the old sawdust and many swimmers recalled that even their bathing suits ended up full of sawdust.

In the decades that have passed since the days of swimming at Sawdust Bottom, people have higher expectations. Largely through the efforts of the local Rotary Club, Fenelon Falls’ beach park has expanded to the south, as a new swimming area, with imported sand has been created under the willows that reach out over Cameron Lake. Though younger generations have grown up making sandcastles on the beach, Sawdust Bottom remains a cherished childhood memory for many seniors who spent their summers swimming at Fenelon Falls.

John Fell Sr. opened a small sawmill at Bury’s Green, which was in operation at the time of the 1871 assessment, manufacturing 631,000 feet of lumber that year. David G. Smith operated a single mill at Fenelon Falls, which burned the same year. He rebuilt, and partnered with Fell to operate a saw and shingle mill. When it burned in 1876, they rebuilt on the shore of Cameron Lake, between Bond and Louisa Streets. It was a very convenient location for a steam sawmill, being right on the railway, close to town, and with water access to float in sawlogs.

Having already experienced two fires, they took fire safety seriously, and built a 65 foot tall smokestack to keep any sparks away from the mill yard or sawdust. Unfortunately, the smokestack blew down in 1882, but was re-erected. Then the mill survived a chimney fire in 1884. In 1886, after John Fell Jr. bought out Smith’s share, an arsonist destroyed the mill and it was not rebuilt. They were not the only local sawmill to be plagued by multiple fires.

In the nineteenth century it was socially acceptable to dispose of just about anything by dumping it in the water. Back then there were not plastics, and practically everything was either stone, metal or biodegradable. So sawmills typically dumped enormous quantities of waste in adjacent lakes and rivers.

In some regions the mill waste problem was so bad that that there was a continuous layer of sawdust on the surface. This substantially altered the maritime ecosystem, killing off many species. On the Ottawa River the sawdust was thick enough that it decomposed anaerobically, burying pockets of methane that periodically exploded. In 1897 one such explosion caused a boat to capsize, killing a well-known Montebello farmer, leading the government to introduce legislation requiring refuse burners. After that, most sawmills stopped deliberately dumping their waste in the lake.

Smith and Fell’s sawmill was in no way unusual that a lot of sawdust ended up in the lake. But for whatever reason, it took a long time to dissipate. Through much of the twentieth century, Fenelon Falls’ beach park was located at the end of Bond Street, and was fondly known as Sawdust Bottom. As families swam in Cameron Lake they would be stirring up the old sawdust and many swimmers recalled that even their bathing suits ended up full of sawdust. But for many of the kids who grew up enjoying summer there, it just became a cherished childhood memory.

Since then, most people have come to expect a cleaner swimming experience, and the beach park has been substantially expanded and modified. Today, most people swim further south than the original swimming location.

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