The Gatineau Park Chronicles
The following story originally appeared in the Fall 2007 National Capital Commission's The Gatineau Park Chronicle.
Gatineau Hills Forest Industry
1800 to 1938 | Myth or Reality?
by Denis Messier
The Axe Before the Plow
It is a well-known fact that, for more than 150 years, economic development in Canada's Capital Region was based primarily on the harvesting of trees. Local place names are a constant reminder of this industry's importance to the region's history. Names such as Wright (Philemon, Alonzo, Tiberius and others), Maclaren, Bronson, Sparks, Eddy, Booth, Edwards, Leamy, McMillan, Egan, Low, Hamilton, Hurdman, Cross and Papineau remind us of the entrepreneurs who profited the most from this activity. Other names, much fewer in number - such as draveurs, portageurs, Joe-Montferrand and allumettières, Martineau and Ryan - recall the tens of thousands of anonymous workers and small manufacturers from far and wide who worked in the logging camps, on the timber rafts, in the sawmills or the various manufacturing plants established on both sides of the Ottawa River.
From the beginning of the colony in 1800, the wood from the surrounding forests was used first to build houses and other infrastructure required for the pioneers' settlement. Wood was also essential for making tools and furniture, heating and cooking. However, the amounts harvested for these uses barely made a dent in the region's abundant forest resources. Entrepreneurs soon considered exporting lumber to reap additional profits.
It was in 1806 that Philemon Wright, the leader of the first group of Ottawa Valley settlers, began efforts to find markets for the wood harvested in the region.This was the year that the first timber raft floated down the approximately 500 kilometres of rivers from Wright's settlement to the export port of Québec. It was the beginning of an adventure that would produce colossal fortunes - but also unimaginable misery - and, somewhere between these two extremes, it also provided a livelihood for an entire population.
A Market for Wood
The great abundance of this natural resource does not adequately explain the fervour with which this industry was pursued and the important role it would have in the country's development. In addition to the shortage of productive farmland, which forced settlers to diversify their activities, factors beyond the colony's borders drove this push for lumber. American independence and, above all, the Napoleonic wars that raged across Europe in the early 19th century - as well as the blockade imposed against Great Britain, which cut it off from its Baltic markets - prompted England to draw on the resources of its North American colonies. The oaks, red pines, eastern white pines and great spruces of the Ottawa Valley were cut, squared and shipped to the British Isles to build the ships of the Royal Navy, the very navy that would help to defeat Napoleon and establish the power of the British Empire for more than a century.
From the mid-19th century onward, and particularly after 1854, the year that the Reciprocity Treaty between Great Britain and the United States was signed, our neighbours to the south represented an increasingly important market for Canadian timber. This period also marked the start of the decline in exports of squared timber - squaring timber was an extremely wasteful process that left an enormous quantity of unused wood debris in the forest. The era of sawn timber began when the government of the united Province of Canada made efforts to regulate and earn some revenue from this industry. Rapid urbanization in the United States fed voraciously on Canada's forests. The population of Chicago, for example, increased from 400 inhabitants in 1833 to nearly 300,000 in 1870 - a mushroom city, built entirely of wood! When some 18,000 buildings burned in Chicago's great fire of 1871, it is most likely that wood from tens of thousands of Ottawa Valley trees went up in smoke. New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Detroit also grew at a similarly fast pace.
The Forests and the Trees
It is well established where the trees were going, but where did they come from? According to a number of historians who have studied the history of the region and the Ottawa Valley lumber industry, while the two sides of the river were exploited equally, the Wrights and other entrepreneurs had, at first, concentrated on the forests on the shores of the Rideau River and the banks of the Ottawa River on the Upper Canada (Ontario) side, before turning to the north shore.
It appears that, except in Hull, it was not until the late 1820s, when construction began on the Rideau Canal,that the forest industry really began on the north side of the Ottawa River. This activity had started a little earlier, further east, in the Petite Nation and Hawkesbury regions. Beginning around 1830, the Gatineau Valley became the scene of intense logging activity. The Wright family benefited from its ideal location in Wright's Town to take control of the valley's immense wealth. For more than 10 years, the Wrights, allied with George Hamilton of Hawkesbury, exercised a near monopoly over the entire Gatineau Valley. In less than five years,logging activities extended as far as Maniwaki, which also illustrates that the 19th century processes for cutting and transporting wood kept the industry confined to the areas along major waterways. The further the operations were away from these rivers, the less profitable the business became.
Harvesting the Hills?
Asa Meech was the first colonist to settle in the area now known as Gatineau Park. Like many of his contemporaries, he came from the United States. In 1821, when he began clearing his lot, it was mainly for farming. Around him, in the hills, the population grew very slowly. Only a few dozen farmers settled around Meech, Kingsmere and Mousseau (Harrington) lakes, attempting to scratch enough from the rocky soil to feed their families. The names of these settlers were Dunlop, Murphy, Mulvihill, Daly, Healey, Carroll, Lacharité, Sheehan, Jeff, Mousseau, Harrington, Lauriault and Barnes. Among them were Americans,a number of Irish immigrants fleeing the impoverished conditions of their country and a few French Canadians, driven from the St. Lawrence Valley by overpopulation of the land.
But what about the lumber industry in the hills that today form Gatineau Park? Were trees from these hills on the timber raft of 1806? Had this area ever seen any logging? It appears that the very nature of the industry, the geomorphology of the region, and the wood-cutting and transportation methods of the era provide as many possible answers as the very few official documents themselves.
Because the limits of timber concessions were ill defined, and often practically ignored by developers, it is difficult to verify whether or not the Gatineau Hills were part of the lumber industry. However, the cutting and transportation methods used in the 19th century kept logging teams within a relatively narrow strip of land which, under ideal circumstances, never exceeded 10 kilometres and generally remained less than five kilometres from a waterway. It should be remembered that cutting took place during the winter and that the felled, trimmed and squared trees were often nearly eight metres long and almost a metre in diameter. These logs were then mounted on sleds and hauled closer to the waterways by teams of horses over roads that had previously been watered and frozen to facilitate the movement of sleds. The steep slope of the hills presented challenges and certain dangers for the workers. Since forest resources were in abundant supply along the Gatineau River and its tributaries, entrepreneurs preferred to avoid venturing into the higher hills, and concentrated the work of the loggers on the more productive adjoining lands. In what is now Gatineau Park, because of proximity to the water, only the areas around the Meech Creek Valley and the shores of La Pêche Lake and the La Pêche River were exploited, according to this model.
While the great logging industry appeared to come to a halt at the foot of the hills, this does not mean that the forests covering the hills were free from cutting. Many pioneers and small entrepreneurs also profited from these nearby resources, but on a cottage industry scale and substantially later in the process. To understand the difficulty of this activity, one needs only to imagine the settlers at work, alone or accompanied by their sons when they were old enough, equipped with a basic axe or two-handed saw, struggling through the deep snow. They had to reach the trees they had selected, cut them down, trim them and hoist them onto a sled, or attach a chain to them and pull them to the closest waterway or directly to the sawmill. It is not surprising to hear the saying that, on the farms, before the invention of the chainsaw in 1933 and its widespread use after the Second World War, the forests grew more quickly than the time it took to cut them down. However, despite the amount of hard work involved, most of the great evergreen trees that were accessible had been harvested by the end of the century.
A few decades later, according to the interim report of a 1935 study ordered by the Federal District Commission (predecessor of the National Capital Commission), and conducted by the in service, to the great displeasure of the club's members.
At that time, it was the deciduous forests - maple, oak, birch, beech and ash - that were selected for sale on the market in Hull and Ottawa as firewood. The Great Depression, which lasted for more than six years, increased the demand for this fuel - much less costly than coal and oil, which those who were unemployed could no longer afford.
And yet, in 1935, even considering the felling of trees for firewood, as well as the clearing that took place to develop roads, establish farms, and build houses and other infrastructure, and including the area occupied by lakes, still nearly 80 percent of the Gatineau Hills territory was covered with trees. Although the report pointed out that logging activity was intensifying in the hills - as was dramatically witnessed by the cottagers established around the lakes since the end of the 19th century - it was evident that forests still covered the greater part of the area studied. It seems that the alarm - raised very early on, very loudly and in very high places by the most influential cottagers - signalled the fast-approaching end of this industry in the hills and hastened the decision in 1938 to create Gatineau Park.
Of Mills and Men
Apart from the landscape itself,the lumber industry left few visible traces in Gatineau Park.Nor is there much evidence of the sawmills that were erected on the periphery of what is now Gatineau Park. Most were constructed without a plan and there were few photographs of these structures.
The first known sawmill was built by the Brigham-Chamberlain family, close relatives of the Wrights, on Chelsea Creek, in the late 1820s. Like the flour mill beside it, the sawmill was driven by water power from the creek.The mill had one,or perhaps two, saws and remained in operation until the 1870s. The sawmill, which supplied the local market, procured its wood from the first settlers who made their home at the foot of the hills between the lakes and the river. It probably served to produce the lumber used to build the first houses in the villages of Chelsea and Old Chelsea. Today, only the barn remains on the original site. The farmhouse,thought to be the oldest building in Chelsea, has been moved and currently stands close to what was once one of the region's first farms, which is now the location of the Gatineau Park Visitor Centre.
Twenty-five kilometres further north, the Maclaren sawmill of Wakefield is also a well-known example of the use of water power to process rough timber into lumber. This sawmill also supplied a local market and employed only a few workers on a seasonal basis.
It appears that the first sawmills in the Gatineau Valley were built to saw the huge logs harvested during the early period of logging in the valley. Once the supply of these trees dwindled, the sawmills rapidly became unprofitable, unable to withstand competition from the gigantic modern facilities run by entrepreneurs such as Gilmour, Booth or Leamy, which operated hundreds of saws and annually produced thousands of kilometres of boards or planks.
A few other sawmills were built in the early 20th century. Once again, there is very little written evidence of these facilities. A sawmill was built at Mousseau Lake by William Cameron Edwards, an important industrialist who started his career in Thurso, before making his fortune in Ottawa in the lumber and finance business. The sawmill was in operation until a massive forest fire around 1915 destroyed a large part of the Edwards property. His nephew, Lieutenant Colonel Cameron Macpherson Edwards, who inherited his uncle's properties in 1921, had the sawmill torn down and built a summer residence which, in 1950, became the official summer residence of Canada's prime minister.
In Volume 27 of Up the Gatineau!, the historical journal of the Gatineau Valley Historical Society, Chelsea resident Ed Ryan recalls that, in the 1930s, his father used a sawmill powered by a steam engine to cut logs into lumber on his Kingsmere property. Another sawmill also operated at Mousseau Lake. Ryan recalls that sawn timber was floated to Meech Lake, some as far as what is now O'Brien Beach. The wood was retrieved from there in the springtime and loaded onto wagons for transport to the Chelsea station, where it was then shipped by train.
The journal also mentions a mill owned by Freeman Cross. A member of a large family that had been established in the Gatineau Valley since the 19th century, Freeman Cross was a pioneer in the use of electrical energy in Canada. In the early years of the 20th century, Cross built a dam on Meech Creek to feed a power station that ran a sawmill and a toy factory at Farm Point in the Meech Creek Valley. Cross also used the creek to float logs harvested around Meech Lake down to his Farm Point sawmill.
Further to the northwest, near the village of Sainte-Cécile-de-Masham, at the edge of what is now the Philippe Lake sector of Gatineau Park, the Dufour family operated a sawmill and a grain mill on the La Pêche River which, in the early 20th century, provided work for dozens of members of this family and other villagers. This sawmill, like that of the Legros family established further downriver, was supplied by timber cut in the Philippe Lake sector, and its product were sold on the local market.
These sawmills are just a few examples among those that existed during this period.A number of other sawmills were in operation in the territory or on the periphery of the current park. Like those mentioned here, most operated on water power, but some used oil, steam, coal or even electrical power.
A Charcoal-Making Machine
In 1939, at the same time that Gatineau Park was starting to take shape, and as the approach of the Second World War began to alleviate the effects of the Depression, logging operations increased, and new industrial facilities were established in the Gatineau Hills.
It was during this era that a charcoal kiln was built on a forest road that ran along Mousseau Lake toward Philippe Lake, by Thomas Gosselin, an entrepreneur from Masham, and owner of the land. The kiln, which was manufactured in the city of Québec, measured approximately four metres high by two metres in diameter and weighed some 1,100 kilograms. It was made of cast iron and the interior was composed of an oven and a short chimney. The kiln used scrap wood from a steam-powered sawmill, located nearby. The Federal District Commission acquired this land in 1948 and included it as part of Gatineau Park. The sawmill was demolished in 1949. The kiln, which still stands on trail 50 in Gatineau Park, is now one of the very few remnantsof the logging industry from the park's past.
From Cutting Trees to Preserving Forest
The creation of Gatineau Park in 1938 did not put an abrupt end to wood cut- ting in the area. A number of farmers continued to harvest wood until the end of the Second World War. The actual creation of the park was truly an industry in itself. In addition, the first budgets committed to establish the park were allocated as part of a job creation program and measures intended to alleviate the situation caused by the Depression. The construction of the parkway network, parking lots, picnic areas and campgrounds also required the cutting of thousands of trees and provided work for many of the region's loggers. More recently, the construction of the access road to the Mackenzie King Estate and the opening of Boulevard des Allumettières in the park have also meant the felling of thousands of trees. However, in contrast with past events, this tree cutting has been offset by the planting of at least twice the number of trees that were felled.
Gatineau Park was created from several hundred parcels of land acquired by the Federal District Commission and the National Capital Commission over a period of more than 70 years. Before becoming the Capital's conservation park, the area experienced close to 150 years of more or less intensive use, exploitation and human occupation. Although big industry ignored the area to a certain extent,the former landowners put forth enormous effort and considerable ingenuity to draw a profit from the forest resources that surrounded them and to compensate for the poor agricultural potential of the Gatineau Hills. Perhaps this article will help to preserve the memory of their contribution to the region's development.