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The Life of a Lumberman

November 27, 2022

Song and Dance at an Unidentified Shanty

By Guy Scott

Of all the products of pioneer Kinmount, wood products were the most important. The entire Ottawa-Huron Tract was blessed with some of the best timber resources in Ontario. North Americans were fixated with wood for everything from building materials to fuel sources. Lumber was easy to handle and export. Timber from Eastern Ontario & Quebec was shipped across the Atlantic to Europe. Timber from the Kinmount area went to the cities of Southern Ontario, but mostly to the growing urban centres in the USA. It is said Boston and New York were built with Haliburton pine in the 1800s.

The lumbermen were well aware of the timber potential of this area for decades. By the 1850s, the forests of Southern Ontario were running out of easily marketable wood, and the demand was stronger than ever as the economy of North America boomed. The biggest problem to harvesting the forests north of the Kawartha Lakes was access. Yes, the logs could be floated down the numerous waterways, and yes men and horses could walk to their work stations, but to supply the shanties required wagon loads of supplies and thus a road. In lumber parlance, these supply roads were called ‘cadge roads.’ The timber resources of the Kinmount area were untapped before the building of the Bobcaygeon Road: after the Colonization Roads opened up the area, game on!

In the zenith of the large lumbermen, white pine was king. These behemoths of the forest could grow 80 feet tall and scale 6,000 feet of lumber each. Pine lumber was preferred by builders for its beauty and versatility (and abundance!). Only softwoods like pine and spruce could be floated to market: hardwoods sank due to their density and smaller stuff like cedar & hemlock wasn’t ‘worth’ driving to market. When the railways arrived in Kinmount, hardwood and the ‘lesser trees’ acquired value because the mills were now closer. Countless hardwood trees were burnt by the early pioneers because there was no use for them.

In the beginning, the land was all Crown Land, belonging to the provincial government. The lumbermen must first secure a timber limit or licence to cut in a certain geographical area such as a township. Once surveyed, the townships of the Ottawa-Huron Tract were offered to the lumbermen for a ‘stumpage’ fee or a cost per tree. Limits were supposed to be bid upon at open auction, but due to ‘local circumstances’ the bidding was often fixed. Advanced scouting was done to gauge the timber resources in these limits by a person called a ‘timber cruiser.’ Once a limit was secured, these cruisers scouted out camp sites, water routes and road accesses.

Lumber camps were called shanties. The shanty site had to be selected very carefully. It had to be within a reasonable distance of a major road and be suitable to be reached by a cadge road. It had to be close to the timber to be cut and have access to the stream down which the logs would be driven. It also had to have a source of fresh water: no time for well digging! Once the spot was selected, a small crew of builders cut a cadge road into the site & constructed the actual buildings; all before the cutting season started in the fall.

The complex consisted of a large shanty building to act as a dormitory, stables and a cookhouse. The shanty itself was just a huge, one-room structure capable of accommodating 20-30 men. Bunks lined the walls and the centre of the shanty was usually open with tables & chairs. The whole was heated by a wood stove. Comforts were few as it was basically just a dormitory and would be abandoned within 3 years anyways. For decades, the woods in the area were dotted with decaying shanties. Many can still be discerned today, with a little sleuthing! The ‘executive members’ of the crew were the foreman, the clerk, the cook and his devil.

The cookhouse or kitchen was a separate building and was the private domain of the cook under shanty rules. Lumber camps were graded on the abilities of the cook; and a good cook greatly enhanced the reputation of the camp. The cook didn’t attend a school to get his diploma; he just seemed to have a knack for cooking and learned on the job. The cook usually had at least one assistant, called the ‘cook’s devil’ because he was often pitied as a ‘poor devil’ because of his hard, unattractive job. The work in the cookhouse was gruelling: they worked hard for over 14 hours each day, feeding the crew 3 meals per day. There were no microwaves, refrigerators or ‘instant’ food at the 19th century lumber shanty. Everything was made from scratch. The main meals consisted of beef or pork, beans, root vegetables (potatoes, carrots, turnips), cabbage and other vegetables that could be easily stored over long periods of time. The cook was usually a master-baker; producing prodigious quantities of bread and sweets such as pies, cakes & cookies. High calorie diets, which would be shunned as ‘unhealthy’ today, were necessary for the gruelling nature of a hard day’s work in the bush. The food stuffs were cadged into the camp in the fall, and that was it until the spring breakup, so storage was a huge factor: no weekly shopping for fresh goods here! But the meals were hearty to keep the lumberjacks going and it was a source of pride that no man left the table hungry! Oh, yes, the cleanup was a prodigious task as well.

The crew started arriving at the camp after Thanksgiving. The logs were cut in the late fall & early winter, before the snow made bush travel too difficult. Skidways were brushed out and dump stations for the logs prepared. A camp cruiser usually marked the logs to be cut and a 2-4 man cutting crew did the actual cutting. In the era before that wonderful device: the chainsaw, cross-cut saws and axes were the only means of felling the behmouths of the forest. It was estimated a cutting crew could only fell 5 trees per day. Once down, the crew cut the logs into ‘log-length,’ usually 12-16 foot saw logs.

The next operation was skidding the logs to a dump, usually beside the waterway down which they would be floated in the spring. For long distances, sleighs were piled high with logs and hauled by one or as many as four teams of horses. The skidways were kept ploughed and iced to enable the slide; but not too iced that the loads got away. On hills, heated sand was used to give the horses and sleighs traction. For shorter hauls, the team might only draw a few logs to a central loading depot. A roads crew was constantly ploughing, icing or sanding the skidway; depending on the weather conditions.

By spring time, the log depots along the waterway were full of the winter’s work. Most of the winter crew was laid off, but a group were retained as river drivers. Their job was to ‘push or drive’ the logs to their destination, often a hundred miles away! This was by far the most hazardous job in the lumber business. The river drivers tailed the log drive, pushing wayward logs back into the stream and breaking up jams. Jam breaking or ‘cracking’ was often deadly. The logs would catch on an obstacle, usually at a rapids or waterfall and pile up in huge jams. The crackers had to go into the jam and pry out the key logs and release a jam. Sometimes when solving this Rubik’s Cube was impossible, dynamite was employed to loosen the jam.

Once the logs started to go… they often had mere seconds to get out of the way. Being swept up into the breaking jam was fatal. Most of the local rapids and falls had their sad little cemeteries where the unlucky jam breakers rested. It was impossible to bring their bodies back to their homes for burial: they were buried where they fell. The danger zones included the Hawk River Chute (13+ deaths), Devil’s Chute near Irondale (7 graves) and the High Falls south of Kinmount. River drivers were highly respected for their courage and the danger they faced daily.

The spring thaw was the only time of year the loggers could be sure of enough run-off to float the logs to the mills. It was very important to hit the spring freshets correctly: low water could strand the entire log drive, especially in the smaller streams. To keep the water levels high, the lumber companies would build special dams at key places. This maintained a ‘pond’ above the dam and, when released, created a spillway effect on the desired section of the stream below the dam. Once the drive was past, the dam was abandoned until next year. The remains of these dams still litter the smaller streams in the area. Mossom Boyd dammed Bow Creek near Furnace Falls. Another dam is found on Nogies Creek below Crystal Lake.

Once the log drive had entered a major watercourse like the Burnt River, it was much easier to keep it moving. Dams were still necessary in some places, like Kinmount to maintain the higher water levels necessary for the big drives to pass. Many of these dams had timber slides; literally a slide around the dam for logs. Some sites also had sorting jacks: a pier in the river where lumber jacks sorted their logs, for often the various company drives got jumbled together. Kinmount’s sorting jack was exposed during the dam repairs: it lies below the river surface on the west side of the dam. Each log was stamped with a company logo, so it was possible to identify the owner. It was estimated 500,000 logs passed through Kinmount every spring on their way to the southern mills! The river was often filled with saw logs for months on end as several lumber companies used the Burnt River system each spring.

Most of the Burnt River watershed logs were bound for Bobcaygeon (Mossom Boyd), Fenelon Falls or Peterborough. The longest, and most impressive, drives were those of the Gilmour Lumber Company who drove logs all the way to their mills at Trenton! The drives often lasted 2-3 years due to the fact the water levels fell long before they got to Trenton. The GIlmours used the Gull River system, and despite the fact their engineering marvel [linking Lake of Bays in the Muskoka Watershed to the Trent Watershed] actually worked, they went bankrupt from the cost. The Burnt River system was preferred over the Gull route, because it was a faster river with few ‘quiet’ lakes. The more placid Gull System had a lot of lakes where the log drives had to be ‘towed or warped’ across the lake; which took a lot more time and effort. The Burnt was mostly full speed ahead!

It was an expensive proposition to run a large lumber company. Besides the cost of shanties and sawmills, the lumbermen had to maintain dams and timber slides. Lots of logs were lost, stolen or strayed before they reached the mill. And the timber market suffered from massive price fluctuations and demand. Sometimes several years’ harvest would be sitting in the yards awaiting market demand. Market depressions led to price drops and ruinous losses. Most lumber companies eventually went bankrupt. Timber fortunes were fleeting things indeed!

The great river drives eventually came to an end for many reasons. The good pine, once thought to be inexhaustible, quickly disappeared before the voracious demand. Railways pushed into the prime areas, bringing the mills to the logs, rather than vice versa. By 1900, many logs on the Burnt went no further than Kinmount where as many as 7 mills did the processing and shipped the lumber products out on the Victoria Railway. Competition from other sources in Northern Ontario and BC cut into the market share. And finally, the advent of the motor truck meant logs could be easily hauled anywhere. Soon Kinmount village contained only the Austin Sawmill, but other mills were active in the area. In the 1900s, the mills went to the logs. Thanks to motor trucks, skidders and steam and diesel power, the portable mill went ‘on-site.’ Often these mills were large operations and sawed whatever was available, not just the pine.

Today the mills, both in town and outside, are all gone. There is still lumbering in the area, but the loggers of long ago would ridicule the ‘puny’ second or third growth now harvested. Huge skidders have replaced the noble horse team and massive trucks haul the logs to far-off mills. No more is the Burnt River jammed with logs during the spring drive. No more hob-nailed boots or pike poles or jam crackers. Those times are gone… gone with the great white pines who started it all.

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