The Gilmour Tramway: An Engineering Marvel
May 10, 2023
The Gilmour Tramway
By Guy Scott
One of the most fascinating legends of the Dorset area is the story of the Gilmour Tramway. The tramway was designed to lift pine logs from Lake of Bays on the Muskoka River Watershed over 2 heights of land to Lake St. Nora on the Gull River watershed. The Algonquin Park pine were lifted over 100 feet and then floated 8 miles to the Gull River watershed. From this point it was still over 230 miles to the Gilmour sawmill on the Bay of Quinte! It was an engineering marvel of its era (1890s), even if it only operated for 3 years. And therein lies a story.
The Gilmour Lumber Company was one of Canada’s largest lumber companies. It operated in Quebec and Ontario for decades. Eventually the company established its headquarters at Trenton at the mouth of the Trent River. For several decades, the Gilmour Company drew logs from the Kawartha Lakes watershed; easily floating the timber down the Trent River to its mills. But by 1890, the good white pine was gone in the Kawarthas, and the lumber barons began to travel further away, up the tributary streams for new limits. In 1883, David Gilmour, young, brash, ambitious, assumed control of the company. The huge mill at Trenton was running out of timber, and the only source as yet untapped was Algonquin Park. In 1890, the Government of Ontario put Algonquin pine up for auction. David Gilmour went overboard at the auction, bidding $700,000 for 225 square kilometres of forest along the Oxtongue River Watershed in the western end of the park. Gilmour’s timber scout reported the area was ‘blue with pine,’ a lumberman’s term for ‘lots.’ He estimated he had enough for 30 years!
But one small problem: the Oxtongue River was in the Muskoka Watershed, Trenton was on the Trent Watershed, hundreds of miles away. How to get Algonquin Pine to Trenton was the problem. Gilmour first tried to rent a sawmill at Huntsville on the Muskoka River. That plan was tried for a year, but ruled unsuitable. The next plan was to haul the pine logs from Lake of Bays at Dorset overland to Lake St. Nora and then float them down the Gull River to Balsam Lake and on to Trenton. The total distance was over 350 miles, a problem in itself, but not as big of a headache as how to get the logs over the height of land at Dorset.
Gilmour’s creative solution was a ‘tramway.’ By a series of jackladders and flumes (aqueducts), he would haul the logs 100 feet up the side of a hill. Then the logs were floated 8 miles through lakes, canals, timber slides, etcetera to St. Nora Lake on the Gull River System. Then the logs would be floated the conventional way all the way to Trenton. The whole project required 8 dams, a 3,000’ aqueduct or water flume, a 3,500’ jackladder to lift the logs uphill and then a series of canals and slides to carry the logs to Lake St. Nora. The new dams flooded out the Bobcaygeon Road, and Gilmour had to rebuild a 6-mile stretch on higher ground! The whole system took only 18 months and cost $400,000. By the spring of 1894 it was ready for its test run. Would it actually work?
In the winter of 1893-4, Gilmour shanties cut 150,000 logs in Algonquin Park. By May 1894, the first logs were at Dorset, ready for their journey south. Gilmour estimated he had to put 450 logs an hour over the tramway. Running 24 hours, this meant 10,000 logs per day! Allowing for breakdowns, Gilmour estimated four weeks was the maximum time allowed for the entire run to cross the tramway. Delay could be fatal: the spring floods would be gone and low water was bad for the lumber drives. Breakdowns and jams meant long delays. Low water also hurt.
The 450 logs an hour was not realistic. Instead of 4 weeks, it took 12 weeks to put 140,000 logs through the system. The delays meant the 1894 drive was hung up by low water downstream and didn’t reach Trenton until May 1895. More bad news was discovered. Many logs were lost, stolen or strayed along the way. The quality of the pine logs also deteriorated from sitting in water for 14 months and produced lower quality lumber. The costs were astronomical. It took 500 men just to work the tramway!
David Gilmour became depressed. It was too late to halt the 1895 drive: he even ordered it increased to 250,000 logs! So despite the problems, the Gilmour drive operated in 1895 with the same issues. In fact, so many logs were left over, the tramway operated in 1896 to catch up.
Gilmours did not cut logs during the next winter. After the 1896 season, the tramway was abandoned: nevermore to operate. Within 10 years it had totally collapsed and was soon almost invisible. But Gilmour was not about to give up! He still had limits ‘blue with pine’ in the Park. He decided instead of moving the logs to the mill to move the mill to the timber. Gilmour built a huge mill (and town) at Canoe Lake right in the Park. The town of Mowat was built on the new Ottawa-Arnprior & Parry Sound Railway that now traversed the Park. The lumber was sawn at Mowat and transported by train to the markets. Mowat was another huge investment, but it hummed along for years until the pine was exhausted, the mill closed and the village became a ghost town.