Up the Gatineau! Article

This article was first published in Up the Gatineau! Volume 24.

Outaouais Phosphorus Production: From Matches to Fireworks and Detergents

Archie M. Pennie

It is not very often that several valuable natural resources in close proximity to each other can be readily combined (o produce new industries. However, one such case was the extensive match industries in Hull and Pembroke whose development was based on the merging of the great hydroeleciric potential of the Liévre River with the rich and readily accessible deposits of phosphate in the Buckingham region and the timber resources of the hinterland.

Match Manufacturing Machine
Match Manufacturing Machine (circa 1915). Photo: Eddy Company, Hull

William Taylor Gibbs was an electrochemist from England who came to the Buckingham area in 1890 to work for a British firm that operated phosphale deposits on the Liévre River. Here he entered into partnership with Stanislas Pascal Franchot II and Alexander MacLaren. They saw the great potential of hydroelectric power and in 1893 set up a small factory in Masson to manufacture phosphorus and potassium chlorate. The transformation of apatite or natural phosphate from rough mineral to finished product required an original process that used large quantities of electrical energy. Gibbs improved the conventional process for the manufacture of chlorates and was awarded a patent for this new process under US Patent 665-426, dated 1901. Prior to this time, around 1870 a match industry had become established, using the vast timber resources of the area. However, it was importing large quantities of phosphorus and potassium chlorate, which were needed in their business. It was really Gibbs' genius and business acumen that saw the great opportunities that literally speaking lay at his feet.

In the days of candles, oil lamps, gas stoves and open fires, matches were indispensable. For match manufacturing, pine was the preferred wood, straight-grained and knot-free. The wood was reduced in size from planks into splints which we would recognize as maich sticks. The machines performing these operations turned out over one million sticks an hour. The splints were then fed into a machine that dipped the heads into the match composition. Each company had its own favourite recipe. The exact compositions were local secrets but the basic active ingredients were phosphorus sesquisulphide, potassium chlorate, pulverized earth, quartz, ground glass, gums, dyes and zinc oxide. All were carefully blended to the desired mix. The dipping machine coated the “eye” or end of the match sticks with the active ingredients. Once dry, the same machine again dipped them to coat the active end with an inert material to prevent ignition by [riction during packing and handling. E. B. Eddy started making matches in his home in Hull in 1851 and set the stage for the large match manufacturing industry in Canada.

Little wonder that Gibbs and his partner could see a great future for the production of the pyrotechnic materials required to satisfy such a huge demand. The original plant at Masson burned down in 1894 while Gibbs was in England seeking financing lo expand and diversify his operations. Undaunted, in 1896 he and his partners carried on and built a new factory in Buckingham at Upper Falls, taking advantage of the hydroelectric potential of the Liévre River. At this time one of the partners, Stanislas Franchot II, returned to the United States, and with the help of Buffalo investors and capitalists and the hydroelectric potential of Niagara Falls, formed the National Electrolytic Company. He still maintained a close association with Gibbs, who was named a director of the American company. Potassium chlorate was the new firm's principal product, manufactured using the process developed earlier by Gibbs. Although allied with Franchot, Gibbs stayed in Buckingham and was successful in attracting more capital and considerably expanding the operations. Their products were sold world-wide in addition to satisfying the needs of Canadian match manufacturers. In 1897 the Buckingham operation was incorporated as the Electric Reduction Company, or ERCO.

Mining of the Buckingham apatite, the phosphate ore, tapered off in the 1890s. There were difficulties in the mining operations and the transportation of the ore, which was not of the best quality. Improved results and yields were obtained from imported phosphales, some from the West Indies and the most acceptable from Florida. The Florida ore came by steamer to Montreal and then by rail to Buckingham. In 1902, Albright and Wilson, an English phosphorus company, after an unsuccessful court battle to sue Gibbs and the ERCO company for a breach of patent, purchased a controlling interest in ERCO. The change in ownership did not change the company name but did result in the injection of capital necessary to expand and develop its operations.

Union Phosphate Mine
Union Phosphate Mine on the Liévre River, Photo: National Archives of Canada PA17853

At another stage the Electric Reduction Company was involved in a serious legal battle with the MacLaren Pulp and Paper Company over Liévre River hydroelectric rights. The courts found in favour of ERCO, and for some time relations with the MacLarens were strained. All was put to rest when William Gibbs' only daughter married Barnett MacLaren. Gibbs died in Buckingham in 1910 at the young age of 43 and is buried in the local churchyard not far from the scenes of his clectrochemical triumphs.

Increased production called for more hydroelectric power, and by 1911 ERCO's generators had a capacity of 10,000 horsepower. In addition to its products used by the match industry, two of the plant’s main products, phosphorus and potassium chlorate, were widely used as incendiary compositions, providing ingredients for most fireworks, toy pistol caps, railroad warning signals and smoke screen devices for naval purposes. Star shells used by the military to illuminate targets at night also used phosphorus mixtures.

Early in the twenticth century there were two match manufacturing plants in Hull, and others in Berthierville, Quebec, and Pembroke and Deseronto in Ontario. But as the use of electricity expanded, the demand for matches decreased rapidly. Smokers still relied on matches but the advent of the cigarette lighter reduced the demand even further. One by one the factories closed, and in 1928 the famous Eddy Match Company moved from Hull to Pembroke. The plant at Pembroke fell on hard times but within the past ten years, under the leadership of David Piggott, it has blossomed into a profitable operation specializing in custom-made book matches. With sales to almost every country around the world, its matches are found in hotels, clubs and resorts from Pembroke to Penang. The raw materials except for the paper or wood splints are now all imported; the phosphorus from Italy and the potassium chlorate from Sweden.

ERCO Plant
ERCO Plant, Buckingham in 1915. Photo: Albright and Wilson, Buckingham

In spite of Gibbs’ early death ERCO continued to flourish, and some indication of the size of its operations can be gauged from an order to supply 495,000 pounds of phosphorus to the United States in 1919. Over the years the company diversified its products, which included phosphoric acid, phosphorus sesquisulphide, and sodium tripolyphosphate. Phosphoric acid is a base for developing many everyday chemicals. It is used in the textile industry to fireproof garments, serves as a substitute for the more costly tartaric and citric acids used in the manufacture of food products such as jellies and essences, is a component of many pharmaceuticals, and acts as a water sofiener and fertilizer. Phosphorus sesquisulphide is still an ingredient in match manufa ture, and sodium tripolyphosphate is actively used in the manufacture of soaps and detergents.

A sad event in 1947 put Buckingham and ERCO in world headlines. It concerned one of the major chemicals produced from the Gibbs patent, sodium chlorate. In the summer of 1947, ERCO shipped a large consignment of this chemical to Australia. The vessel SS Mahia, loaded at Montreal, carried a cargo of 1,199 drums, each containing a hundredweight of the material. They were labelled “Guaranteed 99 Percent Sodium Chlorate — Electric Reduction Company, Buckingham, Quebec — Highly Inflammable.” During the 12-week voyage to Melbourne the drums were stacked on wooden pallets on deck, at the mercy of rain and sea water in stormy weather. In addition, the decks were hosed regularly with sea water, which caused some drums to rust and leak material onto the pallets and the deck.

All went well until the cargo was being unloaded at Melbourne on August 7%, Sodium chlorate is an oxygen-rich chemical which, if exposed to fire, burns violently and is very difficult to extinguish. A Court of Marine Enquiry held later in Melbourne heard that the stevedores who unloaded the steel drums banged several of them together, emitting a spark that started a fire. The fire quickly got out of hand and without warning there was an explosion that killed ten of the men working on the cargo. A sad end to a journey from the quiet town of Buckingham to the other side of the world.

In the 1950s, ERCO increased its capacity for production of sodium chlorate to meet the needs of the pulp and paper industry. The Buckingham plant still supplies this chemical Lo most of the paper-makers in Eastern Canada. In the paper manufacturing process, sodium chlorate releases chlorine dioxide, which is the ideal agent for bleaching pulp.

In 1957, however, ERCO closed the last of its phosphorus furnaces, ending manufacture of the very product that started the local match industries. Thirty years later, in 1987, the Buckingham operations of ERCO were divided. Albright and Wilson, British phosphorus makers since the nineteenth century, took over the production of all the phosphate operations, while Sterling Chemicals, an American firm, assumed production of the chlorates. These two organizations, operating separate factories, are still located in Buckingham, using the excellent hydroelectric power available there.


The author thanks the following for their generous help with this article: Allan Todd, Buckingham; Jacqui LaSalle, Albright and Wilson, Buckingham; Natalie Auclair; Eddy Company, Hull; David Pigott, Eddy Match Company, Pembroke.

This article mentions Stanislas P. Franchot (II) and some of his business activities. S. P., as he was known, was a founding member (in 1874) of the Gatineau Fish and Game Club, along with the MacLarens of Buckingham and others. He was the grandfather of Franchot Tone, the celebrated actor of stage and screen, who continued the family association with the Club as a regular summer visitor to Lake Pemichangan. William Taylor Gibbs, who started the Canadian electrochemical industry, and his brother Arthur, also a distinguished chemical engineer, were also early members of the Gatineau Fish and Game Club.

Volume 24 table of content.

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