View all Tours
At a Logging Camp
The log driver’s journey began on a river near a logging camp. These camps were often named for their boss (i.e. “Tiers Lumber Camp”), and though the men who worked there knew where they were, they did not typically have a geographic name that resonated with the outside world. Usually their precise location is lost to history. The men would spend the winter in the woods felling trees and teaming them to a stream that connected to the watershed. They were often piled directly on the ice or on a bank above the river (a skidway), so they were ready to drive as soon as spring came.
The River Drive
Once the ice broke up in spring, the drive typically began right away. Though the waters were frigid and the river drivers typically could not swim, many of the little creeks that they used only had enough water to float logs if the crew took advantage of the spring freshet. On any watercourse, the rush of meltwater in the spring made it a lot easier to float logs downstream. The early drives were often quite short, as trees were available only a few miles from the sawmill. But as the nineteenth century wore on, the drives became ever longer and more elaborate, while the largest contained hundreds of thousands of logs. This journey follows a log drive from headwaters of the Trent Watershed.
The Gilmour Tramway
As the nineteenth century wore on, river drivers imagined ever cleverer ways to float logs downstream. For many years, using just wind and muscle power they went all the way from the Upper Trent Watershed to Quebec City, where timbers could be loaded on sailing ships for transatlantic export. As steam engines became available, first-rate logs that were conveniently located for export were becoming scarce. David Gilmour’s company owned the largest sawmill in the world at Trenton, that by the 1890s no longer had adequate supply in the Trent Watershed. Gilmour bought limits near present-day Canoe Lake, Algonquin Park and devised an ingenious contraption to move his saw logs over the height of land from the Muskoka Watershed to Raven Lake, which is naturally in the Severn Watershed, but could be made to drain down the Trent through the use of dams. The Gilmour Tramway started at Lake of Bays with an enormous jackladder that hauled the logs up hill, driven by a stone powerhouse. David Gilmour is on the left in the original picture.
Note: Today, the former route of the tramway is private property.
… Once Gilmour’s jackladder had pulled the logs to the top of the hill, they were deposited in a reservoir that was filled with water pumped from Lake of Bays. It fed an aqueduct that floated logs downhill towards a flooded marsh called the Tramway Pond, which was tributary to Raven Lake. Though the tramway operated for just two seasons, 1894 and 1895, for many years it was one of the most spectacular artifacts of the forest industries in Ontario. Today, the old wooden slide has rotted away, and a forest stands in its place.
… Once the logs had floated down the aqueduct, they were well below the level of Raven Lake. To raise the logs back up, Gilmour constructed a half mile long, water powered jackladder that conveyed them to the Tramway Pond. Typically, jackladders were just long enough to lift logs from a river into an adjacent sawmill. To keep this inordinately long series of chains operating smoothly, a crew was stationed along it and had telephones so they could have it shut down if it was jamming and backing up, to minimize damage. Though Gilmour’s Tramway was a marvel to see in operation, it proved impractical and its stupendous cost ultimately contributed to the company’s ruin a few years after it was built.
Alligator Muskoka in the Tramway Pond
… Once the logs reached open water—which was typically accomplished by floating downstream, not uphill as in the Gilmour Tramway—they needed to be towed across lakes and ponds. In early days, this was accomplished with a capstan crib—essentially a horse-powered winch on a raft. Just as rush to extract the virgin pine from the Trent Watershed was ending, Alligator Tug boats appeared. They were a flat-bottomed boat with a steam engine and a great winch. Called an alligator because they amphibious—when attached to a tree, the winch could pull the boat over land or across a lake. By dropping anchor or being chained to a tree, the same winch could also pull booms of logs across the lake.
Hawk Lake Log Chute 1948 and 2005
The Upper Reaches of the Trent Watershed had two major tributaries—the Burnt and Gull Rivers. While the Burnt River system consisted largely of creeks and rivers, there were many more lakes that drained through the Gull River. Having towed their logs across open water, river drivers had to carefully feed them through the cataracts between the lakes. Working on top of masses of logs, floating on what was often frigid water, it was dangerous work as the river drivers tried to poke the logs down the rapids with a pike pole. The Rapids on the Hawk River proved to be the deadliest in Haliburton County, claiming the lives of 13 drivers. Since 1861 there has been a log chute on the site, and it was reconstructed many times before the Hodgson-Jones Lumber Company took their logs to Hall’s Lake in 1947. After it decayed for many years, volunteers restored the site and opened as a local attraction in 2005. Log chutes were often battered by the elements and logs, so it is authentic if it is not in pristine condition.
Leading from the giant crater of Hall’s Lake down into Boshkung Lake below, Buttermilk Falls was another long cascade that was difficult to navigate with logs. While the wooden timber slides were rebuilt time and again over the years, Buttermilk Falls is home to one of the few concrete chutes in the Trent Watershed. With the end of the logging industry, Buttermilk Falls was soon promoted as a beautiful site for tourists to visit.
The Gull River has many tributary watercourses, and practically all of them floated logs at one time or another. Running parallel to Hall’s Lake and Buttermilk Falls, Kushog Lake also empties into Boshkung a little further down. At the foot of Kushog Lake, Daniel Buck owned a lumber mill, that had a log slide, commonly called “Buck’s Slide,” which gave its name to the site. This shallow, stony rapid is about 175 feet long, and with a drop of 30 feet between the lakes, once powered Buck’s operation. The original photograph captured one of the later drives to pass this site.
Alligator at Base of Horseshoe Lake
Whenever a log drive reached the cataract at the bottom of a lake, they were often concentrated into great log booms. As the drivers guided the logs into a timber slide or over a rapid, the watercourse above was often practically full, both above and below the cataract. For an alligator tug, travelling through masses of logs was part of the job as is shown in this picture. But where waterways were navigable to steamships, such obstructions were often a serious bone of contention. This alligator was equipped with an electric search light, positioned at the top of its mast.
Making a Horse Capstan Crib on the Gull River at Minden
As River Drivers were preparing to run across open water, they would assemble their timbers into cribs, which facilitated running many pieces as a single unit. While these cribs might be used to sail a block of timbers, they also frequently served as log drivers’ boats—at least on open water. The horse-powered capstan crib, with a team of horses and a winch mounted on the deck, could tow many logs across the lake.
On a Cookery Crib
Cribs often served as river drivers’ homes as they travelled. Tents were erected on the deck to provide shelter, and they often prepared and ate their meals on board too. Their caulk (pronounced ‘cork’) boots had cleats that facilitated walking on logs. The wide brimmed hats, collared shirts, pants held up with suspenders and grey woollen socks were the typical outfits of the river drivers.
Working at Moore’s Falls
In the longer drives that became common in the second half of the nineteenth century, by the time the logs reached the villages of the Kawartha Lakes it was often summer or even autumn. In some places, like the shallows above Moore’s Falls on the Gull River, the workers might even wade out into the current to guide the logs downstream.
Camp Above Elliott’s Falls
At sites like Elliott Falls when a major drive was going through, the logs might fill the river as far as the eye could see. As they worked, guiding each log into the slide, they had to be careful that the whole mass would not pile up into one enormous log jam. As they regulated the flow of water and directed the logs into the chute, they might labour for several days, even weeks to shepherd a large drive through the slide.
Log Jam Below Elliott’s Falls
Sometimes, despite the river drivers’ best efforts, the logs piled up into a jam—the worst were typically above a cataract and might be miles long. Then the river drivers had to figure out how to pry the logs apart so they could once again float freely downstream. Though these drivers are working from the timber walls on shore, often it was necessary to walk out on the shuddering mass of accumulated logs, to pry the key log free. This was often a treacherous job, and was typically done by a volunteer, who then had to scamper like a squirrel over the bobbing logs once the whole mass began to move. Their peers stood on shore hoping the volunteer would make it back, and ready to do everything they could to rescue them if something went wrong. Many of the casualties on the rivers came from breaking jams, and somewhere near most of the cataracts on the Trent Watershed is an unmarked river drivers’ graveyard.
Elliott’s Falls Log Slide
Around 1860, a wooden timber slide was built on the west side of the Gull River at Elliott’s Falls, later replaced with a concrete slide. Once the logs were clear, a ‘natural dam’ stood between the falls and Norland, which again required care to ensure that log drives did not back up. In 1902-3, the Raven Lake Cement Company blasted it out, lowering the water below Elliott’s Falls by three feet, and leaving just a rapid at the former site of the ‘natural dam.’
Once the drives reached the villages of the Kawartha Lakes, just about every cataract was home to at least mill. The village of Norland was originally named McLauchlin’s Mills, after Alexander A. McLauchlin who opened a sawmill there in 1861. The original mill was built entirely over the water on the west side the island, above the present day bridge, at the higher of Norland’s two falls (since drowned by the dam). Its location made the drive more difficult for other companies, as it blocked the natural and direct course of the river, other companies complained, resulting in the mill being rebuilt further over land a few years later. It passed to several other operators, before being dismantled in 1892. Sam Bryant built a sawmill in 1912, which burned and was rebuilt repeatedly—1918, 1920, 1922 and 1930. He operated the final mill until 1945, then sold it to J.L. Nevison & Sons of Windsor and Toronto, who operated it four more years. The original photograph shows Sam Bryant’s mill in the 1920s.
Norland Log Slide
Wooden timber slides of had to be rebuilt time and again to keep them in service. In 1857-8, A.A. McLauchlin built the first one at Norland, located on the east side of island, in conjunction with his planned sawmill that would block that west channel. Presumably as a result of complaints from other lumber companies, he was forced to move his mill over, to accommodate a huge slide that was 35 feet wide and 230 feet long, carrying logs and cribs from the west side of the island, over the lower falls. In 1872-3, the province took over management of the timber slides, then began work on rebuilding Elliott’s Falls in 1874-6, then at Norland in 1876-7. A typical design incorporated two or more sluice ways, where stop logs could be raised or lowered to manipulate the water level. One of the sluice ways would lead to a timber slide. With all the water, ice and logs running through the slide, it took a constant pounding, and it would need repairs at least once a year. Every few years, they typically had to be rebuilt. Yet, despite all the money that the government invested to keep the system operational, they had a hard time collecting dues from some of the lumber companies, who tried to excuse themselves from bearing these costs of the drive. In 1925, as the log drives were petering out, the Dominion of Canada built the permanent concrete dam, which did not include a slide for the passage of logs and cribs.
Though alligator tugs were named to reflect their amphibious nature, the Hamilton H. was one of the few craft ever to be photographed while travelling over land, shown here at Norland. They were not as graceful over land as they were in water, as crews had to place logs for them to roll on, but nonetheless their cable could be attached to a stout tree so the steam engine could winch the vessel to the next water body. Introduced in 1889, they quickly made capstan cribs obsolete, and served for a few years, until the large log drives petered out.
Gull River Lumber Company
As at Norland, the Gull River flowed around either side of an island at Coboconk, though in this case it had just a single cataract on the east side, with a spillway on the west. In Coboconk, the grist mill and an early saw mill used the water power on the main (eastern) channel, but the subsequent sawmills operated on steam power. The Shields family arrived in 1889, and operated a steam mill until 1912 on the mill pond (west channel), roughly where the library is today. It had a barn just to the west (where the Medical Centre later stood) to keep the horses. After the Shields’ mill closed, the Gull River Lumber Company built the village’s largest sawmill in 1913, on the opposite side of Cameron Road (Highway 35), where the Buck and Up is now located. Founded by Lindsay lawyers McLaughlin and Peel, it was operated by son Fred Peel, who also had been an artist. From the beginning, it had bandsaws to cut veneers, which allowed it to make baskets for fruit or vegetables. In later years, plywood was manufactured on site. This mill, shown in the original photograph, lasted until the 1950s. Further downstream, about where Shedden Street meets the east channel, the Phillips family operated a mill making butter chips for worldwide distribution (oblong wooden dishes that merchants used to package a pound of butter for their customers) and the Wilkinson Mill operated on the opposite bank of the river.
Drive Arrives in Coboconk
This original image of a log drive arriving in Coboconk may be the final drive on the Gull River in the 1920s.
Cameron Lake Sorting Jack
As river drivers made their way downstream, different companies’ drives often ran together. They distinguished their logs by stamping the ends with their own unique timber mark. At the north end of Cameron Lake, the two main tributaries of the upper Trent Watershed, the Burnt and Gull River systems united, so it made a lot of sense to sort out the logs by owner at this point.
The Cameron Lake sorting jack was located at Fell’s Bay, where the shore of Cameron Lake makes what is essentially a right angle. Having this angle on the shore made it easier to harness the logs, and islands beyond the bay provided some protection from the storms blowing across Cameron Lake. Many of the logs were destined for mills of the upper Kawartha Lakes, and would be towed in booms across the lake from the sorting jack. The distinctive boats in the original photograph are pointers, which were the shantyman’s common transport. Inspired by fishing dories, they were more stable than a canoe and more maneuverable than the scows that were then common in the settled districts.
Working at the Sorting Jack
This view from the other end of the sorting jack, looks down the length of Cameron Lake. At the sorting jack, the river drivers would walk on the logs with their cleated ‘caulk’ boots, as they used pike poles to organize them into booms (a group of logs, held together a perimeter of logs chained together) by owner. Once they were arranged, if they were from a local company, a steamer (or in earlier days a horse-powered capstan) would tow them across the lakes to their owner’s mill. But some drives like the Gilmour Company, still had to float all the way to Trenton.
Raft on the South Shore of Cameron Lake
This raft served as the cookery and living quarters for the river drivers as they made their way down the waterway. Note the boom of logs in the background and pointer in the foreground.
Mickle & Dyment Sawmill
Many of the largest firms operating in the Trent Watershed closed around the turn of the century, as supplies of prime virgin pine that could be floated down the Trent were exhausted. Afterwards, many of the mills were smaller, and cut a greater variety of woods. Based in Barrie, Mickle & Dyment was one of Ontario’s largest lumber firms in the early twentieth century. Also operating mills at Port Severn and Gravenhurst, they built a large mill at Fenelon Falls in 1912-13, that would saw logs taken from the cutover forests. After the last drives had made their way down through the Trent Watershed, Mickle and Dyment in turn closed their mill. George Allen purchased the property and transformed it into the Standard Pattern and Handle Company (later Allen Wood Products) in 1928.
The Red Mill
The largest sawmill on the Upper Trent Watershed belonged to R.C. Smith, but unfortunately, he was plagued by financial troubles—bigger was not always better. Bobcaygeon’s Mossom Boyd, who had the most profitable operation in the area, considered buying the larger mill—which, unlike Bobcaygeon, also had a rail connection that would make it much easier to export the produce, but ultimately decided against it. After Smith died, prominent Michigan lumber company J.W. Howry and Sons purchased the property, and expanded to have a capacity of 35,000,000 feet per year in 1895 (a board foot is one square foot of lumber, one inch thick). Unfortunately, both the mill and its produce burned in separate fires the next year, bankrupting the entire firm. J.W. Howry, embarrassed at his financial circumstances, committed suicide in Kansas City. In the original picture, the bottle-like structure is a refuse kiln.
Lindsay Power Station
After the Howry fires, the Light, Heat and Power Company of Lindsay bought the property from the Ontario Bank, to install a hydro-electric generating station, which became operational in 1904. For many years, Fenelon Falls had power plants on both sides of the falls—the other served the home village. But even as these power plants displaced lumber mills, the booms and log slide remained in place for another generation, though timber drives were becoming ever rarer.
Looking Down the Log Slide
A view looking down the slide as logs pass the power station into the Fenelon Gorge.
Fenelon's Log Slide
For many years, the old log slide, standing beside the Lindsay power plant, was part of the Fenelon Falls landscape. As visitors streamed to the village it became one of the most memorable and photographed vistas in the district.
Once the Fenelon Falls lock was completed in 1887 (not operational for steamers until 1894 because of the fixed railway bridge blocking the river) booms of logs could pass through the locks, rather than breaking them up and to feed each stick singly through the log slide. At the time, Fenelon Falls’ stone lock was two stage, and operated using hand cranks, which still stand beside the canal. Since then, the lock has been reconstructed as a single stage, further upstream and the new fixed concrete bridge has replaced the former swing. Note the booms of logs floating in the Fenelon Gorge right in front of Fenelon Falls’ lower wharf—they were a source of frustration to many steamboat operators.
Driving Below the Fenelon Locks
Once these logs had passed through the lock, the river drivers once again had to sort them out, so they could be towed on to their final destination. As they made their way down the Trent Watershed, the same block of timbers would be arranged and re-arranged into booms many times.
Big John's Big Jam
Big John Thompson was a memorable character, miller and expert millwright. But even with the best crews, sometimes things went wrong. This sketch shows a large jam in 1886, just below Fenelon Falls, that would have been tricky to resolve, given the currents below the cataract. The biggest jams could be miles long.
Log Boom on the Fenelon River
Downstream from the Fenelon Gorge, the river was lined with booms, preparing logs to be towed the length of Sturgeon Lake, or to one of the mills on the River.
Sorting on the Fenelon River
Just around the corner as the river is about to open up into Sturgeon Lake, this crew is busy sorting logs, perhaps to feed Henry Greene & John A. Ellis’s mill (located at Green & Ellice Street, both named in their memory.)
Capstan in the Bobcaygeon Canal
By the time photography was common in the Kawarthas, steamboats were also becoming a norm, supplanting capstan cribs—which had been the primary means of towing logs across lakes before the advent of steam power. This is one of the few photographs that were taken of a capstan crib. The horses walked endlessly in a circle, turning a great winch that would haul in a cable to pull the crib (or, if anchored, a block of logs) across the lake. Note the piles of cordwood in the background, that would allow a steamer to ‘wood up’ as it passed through the locks.
Original Bobcaygeon Mills
Bobcaygeon’s original grist and saw mills were founded by Thomas Need, in operation by 1834. Need, like many of his genteel peers, had many diverse interests, and soon moved on from actively managing the site. One of his employees, Mossom Boyd, was the orphaned son of a Captain who had died serving in the British military in India. Boyd was an extremely industrious and hard-driving man, who for many years worked alongside his men, as he rose to become the lumber king of the Trent Valley, and one of the wealthiest men in Canada. As steamship travel and milling were both growing industries, having a sawmill right beside the lock had its downsides, as mill waste inevitably found its way into the watercourse. To make matters worse, Boyd sought to establish the public wharf was for his own use, and piled so much lumber on it that no one else could use it. By then Boyd had become a timber baron, and defied the government to do anything about it. The Crown tried to resolve the situation by encouraging him to move his mill. Eventually a compromise was worked out where Boyd surrendered the right to have a sawmill (retaining the right to operate the grist mill) in exchange for the right to operate on Little Bob Channel instead.
Mossom Boyd Company's Little Bob Mill
Mossom Boyd cut his first logs at his Little Bob Mill in 1870, and gradually expanded in the years that followed. At its peak, it could cut 12,000,000 feet per year (20,000,000 if it ran round the clock), but it seldom operated at capacity. Much of the east end of the island became his piling ground (Port 32 today), being arranged into streets reflecting the produce cut: Pine Street, Elm Street, Slab Street, Lime Street, and Rock Street. Boyd also operated a lime kiln on the north shore. His big mill operated on giant circular saw blades, usually 57 or 66 inch.
Boyd’s Little Bob Mill became one of the best known sawmills in Canada. But after Mossom passed, his sons wisely decided not to purchase new limits, as the price of standing timber increased exponentially. Instead, they bought a much larger mill out of bankruptcy at Cowichan on Vancouver Island, and started transferring their equipment west. The Little Bob Mill seldom ran at capacity again after John MacDonald (Mossom’s son-in-law) died in 1892, who sold much of the produce at Albany, New York. The Boyd Company’s last drive took place in the spring of 1903, when the Bark Lake Shanty had found “No good pine left here, cleaning out everything that will float.” Their last order was a custom milling job for W.C. Moore’s Waggon Shop—a sign of the times. The days of floating the best, old-growth pine trees down the Trent Watershed were over, and so the Little Bob Mill passed into history—subsequently replaced with a hydro-electric generating station.
By the time that Boyd’s mill closed, the era of the great log drives was ending. Within a few years, the largest mills disappeared, and though log drives would carry on into the 1920s, they would never be as large again. With the advent of automobiles, better roads were built throughout the region and at the same time some mills were set up near the forests that were harvested, then moved to another location. Trucks were much faster and less labourious than the adventure of running the rivers, so once they were widely available, the log drivers would never again float down the Trent Watershed each spring.