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The Gilmour Tramway

October 22, 2022

An Ingenious Way to Float Logs from One Watershed to Another

Gilmour & Company, of Trenton, Ontario, was one of Canada’s most prominent lumber companies. By 1888, this third generation business had recently completed a massive expansion, cutting 78 million feet of lumber.The Canada Lumberman reported that it was the highest capacity sawmill on earth, but had never actually run full tilt, and half the plant was sitting idle. Apparently “it would have taken nearly all the logs harvested on the Trent River to have furnished food for its capacious maw of saws.”

The company had expanded at an unfortunate time. In the 1880s and 1890s, fresh timber limits in southern Ontario were becoming scarce and quite valuable. In 1892, the Government of Ontario auctioned off 225 square kilometers of forest at the headwaters of the Oxtongue River—what is now Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park for the astounding sum of $703,875 (the equivalent of tens of millions of dollars today). It was enough money that the family could have lived extravagantly for generations. As the highest bidder, the company hoped that they had secured enough logs to keep the Trenton mill running for 30 years.

At the time, a lot of lumber companies were facing a difficult decision, whether to invest the huge sums needed to continue, or shutter their mills. Bobcaygeon’s Mossom M. Boyd took the opposite approach, allowing his company’s annual cut to decline after 1892, which happened to coincide with the death of his brother-in-law who handled American sales at Albany, New York. Instead of investing a fortune in acquiring ever more distant logs, the Boyd family wound down their mill and later moved to Cowichan, on Vancouver Island, where there was plenty of local lumber.

The great engineering challenge that David Gilmour faced, was how to float logs all the way from Canoe Lake (in the Muskoka Watershed) to Trenton (at the foot of the Trent Watershed). It was a very long way to drive timber, but the Gilmour Company was expert at engineering the flow of rivers and creeks to float huge bundles of logs. The sheer distance meant that this drive would be lengthy and costly, but the greatest challenge was floating logs from Lake of Bays over the height of land to St. Nora Lake, which was 108 feet higher!

First Gilmour had to float the logs from his limits around Canoe, Joe and Bear (Tom Thomson) Lakes to Lake of Bays. This part was fairly straightforward, though it involved many expensive improvements to the watercourse. Raven Lake was on the other side of the height of land, and he raised its level to flood a valley that ran west towards Lake of Bays, and became known as the Tramway Pond.

To transport the logs from Lake of Bays to the Tramway Pond, his solution was to build a huge jackladder (which lumber companies typically used to lift logs up into their mills) to pull the logs up to the top of the hill above Lake of Bays, then an equally massive log slide that wound its way through the hills down towards the Tramway Pond. To fill the water slide, two 450 horsepower steam engines in the stone powerhouse pumped 20,000 gallons of water per minute up to a reservoir (80 feet long, 7 feet wide and equally deep) at the top of the slide. The slide was supported by trestles, and required a 13 foot deep rock cut at one point.

However, by the time that logs would be approaching the Tramway Pond, they would be below its water level, so another massive jackladder, 762 metres long, lifted the logs to the Tramway Dam—typically jackladders were less than 20 metres long. It was powered by a 400 horsepower water turbine, fed out of the Tramway Pond. To keep the jackladder running, men had to be stationed along it to ensure that the logs did not jam up or bind where chain sections met. It even had telephones, so the employees guiding the logs could call and have the conveyor stopped if it was jamming up. To keep everything running, Gilmour needed not only many men to operate it, but also skilled trades to constantly fix it.

Raven Lake and its newly created Tramway Pond were in the Severn Watershed, and naturally drained down the Black River via Lake Couchiching to Georgian Bay. To force the water into the Trent Watershed, Gilmour dammed the Black River to reverse its flow, then ran the logs through a shallow canal to St. Nora’s Lake (near the Leslie Frost Centre), which was actually in the Trent Watershed. But as Gilmour’s crew was drawing water to feed the turbine at the Tramway Pond, they needed to keep enough water in Raven Lake that logs would float over this second height of land into the Trent Watershed. The cost of all of these improvements was over $200,000, which was more than enough to build a large modern sawmill. To keep it running, the steam engines needed massive quantities of cordwood.

To the amazement of many, the tramway actually worked, and 140,000 logs floated overland in the spring of 1894. At Lake of Bays, Gilmour’s drivers would use their pike poles to shove a log onto the jackladder every few seconds. Complete with electric spot lights, it ran 24 hours a day, and was an engineering marvel. But, when Gilmour’s men were backing up enough water to reverse the drainage of Raven Lake, they also flooded the Bobcaygeon Road (a similar route to modern Highway 35) to a depth that would allow canoes or saw logs to pass—in those days, timber barons could get away with that for a time, but then he had to reroute the road, and his replacement was a little longer than the original.

Though they used alligator tugs equipped with electric searchlights, and two crews working round the clock, the tramway only carried about 2,400 logs per day, about a quarter of its intended capacity. To make matters worse, water levels were below average. The water turbine that powered the second jackladder needed 30,400 gallons per minute to feed the jackladder’s turbine from Tramway Pond and Raven Lake. As much water was needed downstream to float the logs over the height of land to St. Nora Lake. Aside from the spring freshet, this was many times the amount of water flowing out of Raven Lake. So the tramway worked best during the annual runoff, and it was not fast enough to get all the logs through before water levels subsided. At normal rates of flow, it could only be operated part time.

Even the logs that did make it through typically took two years to reach Trenton. The drives hit the Kawarthas around late August or September, and generally hung up somewhere on the Otonabee or Trent until the next spring. For 1895, Gilmour kept his faith in the tramway, cutting even more logs, 250,000. The water flows that spring were below average, his drive fell behind schedule, even on the way to Lake of Bays, then the tramway couldn’t operate at full capacity due to a lack of water. The final logs sent over the Tramway reached St. Nora Lake in mid-August. Only 35,000 of the 250,000 logs run in 1895 reached Trenton that year. About one fifth of the logs were lost along their way.

By then, Gilmour had realized his mistake. In February 1895 laid off his entire lumbering crew. In May the first logs from the winter of 1893-4 arrived, and he learned that the Algonquin pine, that he had paid so dearly for the right to cut, was not first rate material and it deteriorated from being immersed for so long. The following spring, he hired David Gage, Boyd’s long-time millwright, to build him a new mill on the northwest corner of Canoe Lake. By then, J.R. Booth’s Ottawa, Arnprior and Parry Sound Railway was under construction, which would allow lumber exports. With the help of James Junkin and Thomas Purdy, Gage had the mill operational by July and it produced 60,000,000 feet in 1899. Much of the machinery of from the Tramway was recycled to create the new mill. The Trenton mill continued cutting on a reduced scale. But the following year, banks took control of Gilmour’s operation and the mill closed in 1901. Four years later the Trenton mill was also shuttered and sold. David Gilmour and his family, facing the embarrassment of their insolvency, left for the United States.

Once the Tramway was abandoned, the Bobcaygeon Road reverted to its former route. Having been stripped of everything that could still be used, the remnants of the tramway remained a striking local landmark. Then one day, it suddenly collapsed, rolling down “like a pack of cards,” producing “a sound like a great roll of thunder.” The stone powerhouse at Lake of Bays is now a private cottage, and the stone remains of the turbine near the Tramway Pond still stand in the woods. But the great wooden tramway itself is now just a distant memory, gone like the days when the Gilmours stood prominently among Canada’s wealthiest families.

For more information, check out: Gary Long’s Gilmour Tramway: A Lumber Baron’s Desperate Scheme.

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