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The following article was first published in Up the Gatineau! Volume 3.

Pine to Pulp: The Timber Trade on the Gatineau River

by Helen E. Parson

Philemon Wright and the group of settlers who accompanied him to Hull Township in 1800 intended to farm. Like early colonists in many parts of North America, they believed that once the trees were removed, the land would prove to be excellent for farming. Such hopes were unduly optimistic. Crop yields, satisfactory on freshly cleared fields, soon declined as essential soil nutrients were depleted.

Wright surveyed the township into lots and came upon the edge of the Canadian Shield in the third range from the Ottawa River. With this discovery, he acknowledged the limitations of the area to which he had come with high hopes. Although farming resources were limited, timber was abundant and it was this latter resource which rapidly became the economic mainstay of the new settlement.

Throughout the eighteenth century, Britain had relied upon timber imports from New England and the Baltic countries. The American Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, however, eliminated these sources. British North America then assumed a privileged position and the Ottawa Valley became one of the principal sources of the squared timber needed to keep the Royal Navy master of the seas. The white and red pine growing in bountiful virgin stands in the Ottawa Basin was the basis of the timber trade in the first half of the nineteenth century. To be considered suitable for felling, the pine had to have a straight branchless trunk and to be three to five feet in diameter. Finished sticks, when squared, were twelve to twenty-four inches on a side and forty to fifty feet in length.

In the Gatineau Valley, the economic potential of the pineries was quickly exploited. In 1806, the Wrights took the first raft of squared timber from the mouth of the Gatineau River down the Ottawa and St. Lawrence Rivers to market in Quebec City. From this beginning, the enterprise grew rapidly and other lumber merchants were soon showing interest in the Gatineau resources. By the 1830s, lumbering had spread throughout the Gatineau Valley, although between 1832 and 1843, the "Gatineau Privilege" controlled forest operations in this area.

The "Gatineau Privilege" established definite limits and cut quotas for each of several timber merchants. The purpose of the arrangement, granted by the Crown Timber Office, was to prevent trouble among the various contenders for Gatineau resources. Ruggles Wright, Tiberius Wright, Christopher Columbus Wright, Peter Aylen and Thomas McGoey were each allowed to take 2,000 sticks of red pine per year from the Gatineau, while George Hamilton and C. A. Low, Hawkesbury sawmill partners, were allowed 12,000 saw logs a year (changed in 1835 to 14,000 saw logs and 2,000 red pine sticks) for each partner.

A pile-up of logs and a plateful of beans on the Gatineau.

Lumbering on the Gatineau was, therefore, monopolized by the "Gatineau Privilege" partners for over a decade. During these years, the partners were instrumental in opening up the area. By 1833, they had built rough roads 93 miles up the valley to approximately the present site of Maniwaki. The partners were responsible for the introduction of agriculture into the middle and upper Gatineau Valley.

After the granting of the "Gatineau Privilege" in 1832, they established depots throughout the valley. The depots were to serve as initial assembly points for crews heading into the bush and as distribution centres for supplies. Farms to produce feed and to provide summer homes for the draught animals used in the lumber camps (shanties) were usually operated in connection with the depots. The establishment of such farms reflected the transportation difficulties of the time. Lumbermen, spared the need to bring in expensive supplies from a distance, provided a ready market for all locally grown produce.

The peak of the Canadian square timber trade was reached in 1845, when Britain imported 800,000 loads (48 million board feet) of Canadian timber. In 1846, however, Britain shifted toward free trade, and by 1860, the last colonial preference had been terminated. During the 1850s, the Canadian lumber industry experienced considerable internal adjustment as the American market, seeking sawn lumber, replaced the British which had wanted square timber.

The monopoly of the "Gatineau Privilege" ended in 1843 with the passing of the Crown Timber Act. This act authorized the issuing of licenses for the cutting of timber on ungranted land. After 1843, limits in the Gatineau were sold at the Crown Timber Office in Bytown.

With the relaxation of regulations, the number of companies working the Gatineau forests multiplied manyfold during the second half of the nineteenth century. The harvesting of the Gatineau woods at this time was highly organized and the areas to be worked were selected at least a year ahead by a timber cruiser. At the end of each September, the lumbermen began the difficult journey by canoe and portage upriver to the season's locations. The men gathered first at the depots, before spreading out in groups of between 30 and 120 to the individual shanties. The shanties were located so that the men would not have more than three miles to walk to work in the bush and so that the teamsters would not have to haul logs more than four miles to a river or lake. Cutting was done during the winter months and the wood was driven or rafted to the mills starting with the spring break-up.

During the winter months, it was possible to take supplies up the valley using the rough roads along the river. The usual day's travel for loaded sleighs was about 12 miles, and hostels, often operated on franchises from the lumber companies, came into being about 12 miles apart. Today's Gatineau Valley settlements reflect this twelve-mile interval between nineteenth century stopping places. Hull, Chelsea, Wakefield, Low, Kazabazua, and Gracefield are spaced consecutively at 12 to 13 mile intervals along the river.

Insight into the internal organization of the forestry industry in the 1850s and 1860s is provided by a lumberman's diary, believed to have belonged to John Mather, woods manager for the Gilmour Company. The diary, located in the Public Archives (now Library and Archives Canada) in Ottawa, is interesting reading. A canoe trip up the Gatineau and Gens de Terre Rivers to examine northern timber limits is carefully recorded in the diary. Mather left Kirk's Ferry at 7:30 a.m. on August 11, 1859. Upriver progress was slow and it was not until August 20 that he reached the mouth of the Gens de Terre River (spelled "Jean" in his notes).

The importance of local farms in providing produce for the shanties is stressed in the diary by the fact that the author spent considerable time describing the quality and quantity of crops on the farms he passed. He mentioned Desert Farm and Joseph's Farm, both located near the present site of Maniwaki. Of the latter he observed: "The crops on Joseph's Farm look very well, a large quantity of potatoes from appearance should serve 2 shanties." Upstream, several other farms were passed and the condition of their crops was duly noted. On August 20, Mather reached the junction of the Gatineau and Gens de Terre Rivers and stated that the latter river appeared to take half of the Gatineau. The meeting of these two rivers is a sight now lost to history. With the building of the Mercier dam in 1928, the confluence of these rivers has been covered by the waters of the Baskatong reservoir. The Gens de Terre River now flows into a north-western arm of the reservoir, the Gatineau into a northern.

Mather's journey took him up the Gens de Terre River to Hamilton Farm, located 20 miles from the junction with the Gatineau. Here he noted that the hay crop looked small, the oats well. Hamilton Farm was the last farm passed. From there the journey continued to the Bark Lake vicinity, now in the heart of La Vérendrye provincial park.

In addition to recording the 1859 trip, the lumberman's diary also specified the amount of supplies consumed by the shanties over the 1858-59 winter. For example, the quantity of hay used by several shanties was as follows:

      O'Connel's Shanty - 34 tons
      Fozer's Shanty - 26 tons
      Cameron's Shanty - 24 tons
      McLeod's Shanty - 21 tons

The average amount of hay used per shanty, therefore, was 26 tons. The average amount of oats used per shanty over the same winter was 17,508 bushels.

It is interesting to note the names of the shanty foremen as reported in the lumberman's diary. An inspection of such names gives no hint of the fact that by the latter half of the nineteenth century the bulk of the labourers and river drivers working on the Gatineau were French Canadians. They seldom rose (were allowed to rise) above the rank and file. This ethnic segregation between worker and leader is preserved in the French Canadian folk song "Les Draveurs de la Gatineau," the first stanza of which is:

      Adieu, charmante rive
      Du beau Kakabongué!
      Voilà le temps qu'arrive
      Il faut donc se quitter
      Les gangs se réunissent, les rames rassemblées;
      Jack Boyd les conduira, cent hommes rassemblées,
      Cent hommes rassemblées.

The great lumber families of the time were all Scottish. Leadership positions within the organizations were invariably staffed by men of British background like Jack Boyd who, although remembered in song, is unknown in history.

As the nineteenth century progressed, more and more people followed lumbering into the Gatineau Valley to seek a living from farming. The undertaking was possible because the lumber camps provided the farmer with a ready market for surplus produce as well as with winter employment. This pattern of activity combining seasonal farming and lumbering work continued well into the twentieth century.

In the early twentieth century, a second change in the nature of the Gatineau forest industry took place with the production of pulpwood succeeding sawn lumber. The end of the sawn lumber era in eastern Canada occurred in the 1920s and 1930s, hastened by the Depression, the exhaustion of the better quality trees, and the rise of the pulp and paper industry. All independent Gatineau Valley sawn lumber operators sold their limits to the International Paper Company (CIP) between 1921 and 1925.

In spite of the changed ownership of the Gatineau Valley forest industries, the organization of forest activities continued unaltered until the 1940s. Work was seasonal, providing local farmers and their teams with winter employment. In 1941, for example, C I P had 800 horses working in its lumber camps in the vicinity of Maniwaki.

Following the Second World War, however, the traditional pattern of forest activities that had dominated the Gatineau for almost a century and a half, gave way. The seasonal, labour-intensive industry that had required unskilled workers and their horses changed into a highly mechanized year-round operation requiring the services of full-time, skilled workers.

The forest, however, remains an important Gatineau Valley resource. In spring, when the river is covered by a carpet of logs, history is easily recalled. It is fitting that this should be so, for the development of the Gatineau Valley is more intimately related to the forests than to any other single element.

This article was originally published in 1977. The last log drive on the Gatineau River took place in 1993.

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