Up the Gatineau! Articles

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

When the Axe was King

Archie M. Pennie

For the greater part of the nineteenth century, Ottawa was claimed to be the lumber capital of Ontario, and perhaps also of Canada. This distinction came about as a result of many factors, principally the abundant and apparently endless supply of massive stands of pine on all of the valleys of the rivers running into the Ottawa River: on the Quebec side the Lièvre, Gatineau, Coulonge and Black, and on the Ontario side, the Madawaska and the Mississippi. The other main ingredient for the development of the industry was, of course, the pioneer entrepreneurs and businessmen: Wright, Eddy, Perley, Bronson, Perkins, Pattee, Booth and many others. Armed with their timber rights, they travelled deep into the hinterland and organized the lumber camps and operators who cut the pine, trimmed it into logs and guided it down the many waterways to the mills and stations in Ottawa.

Squared timber, pine logs twenty to thirty feet long and from twelve to twenty-four inches square, was perhaps the most unique and valuable of the products from the forest, and in great demand in Britain and Europe where much of it can still be recognized in some of the stately houses and castles. Nearer home, the carved panelling in the Library of Parliament is the product of J. R. Booth's operations at Constance Creek.

Squaring a pine log
Squaring a pine log with broad axes. Photo: National Archives of Canada Neg. C75265.

In addition to the prized squared timber, large quantities of sawn lumber were also exported from the many sawmills that sprang up on both sides of the Ottawa River. Many of these mills produced as much as forty to fifty million board-feet of timber in a year.

So much for the riches extracted from the forests. Apart from large quantities of skilled manpower, there were the tools and equipment to get the job done. Even in the heyday of lumbering, cutting was all done by manual labour: strong backs and skilled axemen. In other words, the axe was king and controlled the pace and accuracy of the process.

With dozens of lumbering camps in operation in the winter months of the year, there was a great demand for axes and similar cutting tools. Once more, local entrepreneurs answered the call and a flourishing and productive axe manufacturing industry sprang up in Ottawa. The first to get into the field was that great pioneer, Philemon Wright, the first white settler in what we now know as the Ottawa-Hull area. Wright set up a forge, a most necessary step in a new and pioneer community, and there are records of his blacksmith, Lyman Perkins, making broad axes in 1817.

There were two different types of axes that were essential to the woods operations-the felling axe and the broad axe. The felling axe is the sort we would today recognize as an "ordinary axe." This was used by the fellers who notched the tree, and by undercutting it on both sides, could drop the tree with great accuracy onto a selected spot on the ground. These axes weighed from six to seven pounds and had a helve or handle of four feet. Felling by axe was the only method until suitable cross-cut saws appeared in about 1875.

The other essential axe was the broad axe, and the broad axe men were the most skilled of all lumbermen. Theirs was the task of finishing off the squaring of the log on all four sides. The rough squaring was carried out by general axe men who prepared all four sides of the log ready for the fine finishing with the broad axe. The broad axe resembled a medieval headsman's weapon. It weighed twelve pounds and its twelve-inch blade was bevelled like a chisel and always maintained razor-sharp. It was used only for applying the fine and even finish to the logs.

One of the masters of the broad axe, Bill Hogan, on Quebec's Black River up the Ottawa, could hew fourteen inches with each stroke of his axe and leave a smooth and perfect finish or, as it was known in the trade, a "proud edge." His skill was recorded in one of the shanty ditties:

He swung the axe so freely
He did his work so clean
If you saw the timber hewed by him
You'd swear he used a plane.

There were many axe manufacturers who helped to supply the growing needs of the lumbermen. They flourished through the busy years of the nineteenth century. As early as 1867 there were Ottawa businesses Lindsay and Company at the corner of Sussex and George Streets, Edward Proulx with a business on Duke Street, and Tongue, Brown and Company on Wellington Street. Sexton Washburn was in the business on Brewery Creek in Hull as early as 1851 and later on Chaudière Island in the Ottawa River, turning out over one hundred and twenty axes per day. Thomas Blasdell's foundry on nearby Victoria Island was one of the first in the area to introduce steam power in his foundry; it produced over one hundred axes per day. The Walters Axe Company in Hull, founded in the 1850s, was in continuous operation, passed from father to son for over one hundred and fifteen years. Morley, son of Henry Walters, inherited the business and was still running it at the age of 96 when it shut down in the early 1970s. The closing of the Walters plant signalled the end of the one-time flourishing axe industry in the Ottawa-Hull area.

It was certainly an industry geared to the local lumber trade and the great demand for axes was no doubt accelerated by the ease of losing or misplacing an axe out in the deep snow of the bush. All of us who chop wood have been guilty at some time or another of this carelessness.

Symbols of the importance of the broad axe and lumbering to the local economy are the man holding a broad axe on the coat of arms of the City of Ottawa, and the broad axe itself as the logo of the Historical Society of the Gatineau (now the Gatineau Valley Historical Society).

Volume 24 table of content.

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