Wood entered 19th-century trade in many forms. Large masts, cut for the Royal Navy from the finest trees of the mixed forest that swept through the Maritimes and the St Lawrence Valley, were the most valuable commercial product of British North American forests, which also produced shingles, barrel staves, box shooks and, later, spoolwood for textile factories. But sawn lumber and square timber were the major wood staples. Lumber, the product of SAWMILLS, was prepared mostly as "deals" (rough pieces of wood at least 12´ long, 7´ wide and 2½´ thick, or about 366 x 18 x 6 cm), planks and boards. Square timber, known in the Maritimes as "ton timber," were baulks or "sticks" of wood hewn square with axes and shipped to England, where they were often resawn. Strict specifications governed the market; a "wane" (bevel) and slight taper were allowed, but they varied according to the stick's dimensions and changed with time. Waste was quite considerable: 25-30% of each tree was discarded.
The naval mast trade, always limited by its specialized and high quality requirements, shifted from the Saint John to the St Lawrence Valley early in the 19th century when contractors sought oak, as well as pine, from the deciduous forests of the southern Great Lakes area. The square timber industry developed rapidly to meet the enormous demand from Britain, which was at war with Napoleonic France and was also undergoing industrialization. The transatlantic timber trade, fostered by economic and strategic imperatives, was quickly sheltered by TIMBER DUTIES when Napoleon's 1806 Continental Blockade of Britain's traditional supply areas in northern Europe drove domestic prices up some 300% in 2 years. On average, 9000 loads (almost 1.5 m3 each) of colonial timber entered Britain annually between 1802 and 1805; in 1807 the total was 27,000, 2 years later 90,000, over 500,000 in 1840 and 750,000 in 1846. Thereafter imports fluctuated for 20 years around 600,000 loads and then declined until WWI.
The pattern of the lumber trade is less easily summarized, since international markets were widely separated. Beginning in the 1830s, increasing quantities of lumber were shipped to Britain; there was a growing trade between the Canadas and the US, and many mixed cargoes of lumber and small wood products left the Maritimes for the West Indies. During the period of RECIPROCITY with the US and the construction of railways and canals, the importance of the American market grew; 400 million board feet of BNA lumber passed through Oswego, NY, 1864-66, and wood exports to the US from the PROVINCE OF CANADA were worth almost $7 million in 1866-67. But until the 1880s combined lumber and timber sales to Britain were more valuable than those to the US. Not until 1905, with imports of some $18 million, did the US account for more than half of Canadian forest-product exports.
Although small quantities of birch, white oak, rock elm, ash, basswood and butternut were squared, although some cedar was cut, and although spruce and hemlock lumber increased in importance after mid-century, PINE was the industry's major species. Its exploitation rapidly encompassed a wide area. By 1810 only the fringes of New Brunswick's pine forests had been cut, and the Ottawa-Gatineau confluence marked the inland limit of lumbering in BNA. By 1835 barely a tributary of the Miramichi, Saint John and Ottawa rivers remained unexploited. By 1850 much of the pine had been harvested from the more accessible reaches of these river systems, and trade from many small ports and coastal inlets had ceased. Railways broke the industry's dependence on water courses for the movement of wood to markets and opened the back-country of lakes Ontario and Erie to the trade. Exports from the Peterborough area increased fivefold when the railway arrived in 1854; between 1851 and 1861, Simcoe County rose from insignificance to pre-eminence among lumber producers in Canada West. Mills proliferated along railways pushing northward into the Canadian SHIELD.
This onslaught on the forest only slowly came under government control. Initially BNA forests were ineffectively protected by the imperial "broad arrow" system, implemented in N America early in the 18th century to reserve valuable trees for the Royal Navy. As demand rose after 1806, crown reserves were violated; surveyors appointed to protect them profited from the administrative confusion. In 1824 in New Brunswick and 1826 in Upper and Lower Canada, a coherent regulatory system was established. In BNA provinces except Nova Scotia, the sale of licences conferred a temporary right to cut trees and returned revenue to the government. Periodic amendments attempted to limit the illegal cutting and trespassing which vexed administrators intent on maximizing revenues, but the basic principles of crown ownership and leasehold tenure of the resource were upheld. In marked contrast to the American pattern, present-day Canadian (with the exception of NS) forest law - shaped by the interplay of tradition, self-interest, and the limitations of a vast and hostile environment - has preserved something of the 18th-century conservative idea of how the state should serve the common good.
Logging was essentially a winter occupation, beginning with the first snowfall. In the fall, loggers would build camps (see SHANTY) and clear rough roads for hauling hay and provisions and for moving logs or timber to the streams. The industry depended heavily on the muscles of men and beasts. Trees were normally felled with various types of TIMBER AXES (until the 1870s, when the crosscut saw became more common), and "bucked" to stick length with a crosscut saw. Timber was squared by axemen: the log was "lined" along 2 sides to mark the dimensions of the desired square; "scorers" then removed the unwanted outside wood in rough slabs, and the sides of the log were rough-hewn and then smooth-hewn with broadaxes. The log was rolled through 90° and lined, scored and hewn on the remaining 2 sides of the square. Before transportation, the ends of the stick were trimmed to a pyramid shape.
A snow road eased the hauling of logs and baulks to riverbanks by oxen, and later by horses. With the coming of the thaw, the timber drive began. Men equipped with "jam dogs" (iron hooks), canthooks or PEAVEYS, and often immersed in chilly water, engaged in the hectic and dangerous task of floating the cut out on the freshet. When more open water was reached, or where falls and rapids could be bypassed by TIMBER SLIDES, logs and timber were assembled into RAFTS to continue downstream to mills or to river-mouth booms (especially at Québec, Saint John and the mouth of the Miramichi R), where they were shipped abroad. As steampower replaced water power in sawmills, it increased mill capacity and extended the season of mill operation but did not break the pattern of winter logging. Although railways reduced the industry's dependence on rivers to transport timber to the mills, their initial importance was in carrying lumber from mill to market; by the end of the century, specialized logging railways still made only a slight impact on eastern Canadian operations.
Before 1825 most BNA timber was produced by small-scale independent operators, many of them farmers who were attracted to the work in their off-season. Good timber was readily available and little capital was required to enter the trade. By 1850, however, as lumbering moved into more remote areas, expenditure on the clearing of boulder-strewn streams became necessary, regulation of the crown domain tightened, more capital was invested and the declining trade intensified competition among operators, and entrepreneurs were seeking to make their positions secure. Large, diversifed, integrated operations emerged, although smaller enterprises persisted on the settlement frontiers. Generally the skilled, the well capitalized and the well connected dominated the trade by acquiring licences, employing lumbering gangs under contract, building large, efficient sawmills and operating their own vessels or railways. For example, in the 1840s Joseph CUNARD and 3 branch houses of the great Scottish firm of Pollok, Gilmour and Co virtually controlled the trade of northeastern New Brunswick by these means. Subsidiaries of the latter concern were also important in the St Lawrence Valley. William PRICE, "le père du Saguenay," was said to employ 1000 men in the 1830s; by 1842 he had sawmills at Chicoutimi and a steam tug to take ships up from the St Lawrence. In the Ottawa country, J.R. BOOTH's firm produced over 30 million board feet of pine lumber in the 1870s; in the next decade it built the Canada Atlantic Ry to bring out the cut from its Parry Sound licences. In Canada West the firms of Mossom Boyd and D.D. Calvin experienced similarly spectacular successes. The early diffuse and informal trade gave way to an industry dominated by relatively few well-capitalized family firms and partnerships. Thus, the chronic instability of the early trade was somewhat reduced. In the 20th century, as pulp and paper production grew, capital requirements increased further. Many firms amalgamated, and joint-stock financing began to shape the patterns of corporate dominance that mark the forest industry today.
Technological changes accompanied developments; long-persistent patterns and practices of forest exploitation yielded to mechanization after 1875, but generally innovations gained acceptance more slowly in the forests of eastern Canada than in the rugged, newly opened areas of BC. Working and living conditions improved as city industries and West Coast logging camps competed for labour. But for all these changes and even as the locus of Canadian wood production shifted westward with the opening of the Panama Canal, and the exhaustion of eastern forests, the eastern lumber industry retained much of its traditional and seasonal character into the 1930s.
Although James COOK'S men had cut logs for masts on Vancouver I in 1778, lumbering in BC did not begin seriously until the 1850s. The early industry exploited the huge trees close to the tidewater (mainly DOUGLAS FIR and red cedar) and served markets scattered around the Pacific and as distant as S Africa. With the completion of the CPR in the 1880s, this "cargo trade" was supplemented by trade to the east. Soon, BC wood was popular worldwide. Lumbering on the rugged West Coast required considerable adaptation of eastern techniques: 3 times as many oxen were required; snowroads were impossible in the milder coastal climate, so skid roads had to be built of logs; cuts were made higher on the huge trunks, and a springboard was required for each of the 2 axemen to stand on; and heavy, double-bitted axes were developed.
Manual logging techniques were used until about 1912; horses had replaced bulls by the 1890s and were used until the 1920s. By far the most important innovation was the steam-powered donkey engine, introduced about 1897 from the US, which could drag logs up to 150 m. Another innovation was the "high lead system," in which a line high over the skids pulled or lifted the log over obstacles. In 1910 BC production surpassed Québec's; in 1917 it surpassed the production of every other province; and by the late 1920s BC was producing half of Canada's annual cut of timber. As in the East, railways as well as waterways brought timber to mills or ports; now both use primarily trucks. FORESTRY is still a vital part of Canada's export base. See also FOREST ECONOMICS.
Author GRAEME WYNN
E. Gould, Logging (1976); M. Allerdale Grainger, Woodsmen of the West (1964); A.R.M. Lower, The North American Assault on the Canadian Forest (1938); D. MacKay, The Lumberjacks (1978); Graeme Wynn, Timber Colony (1981).
Links to Other Sites
An extensive collection of photographs about Canada’s natural resource industries, including forestry, energy, and mining. Part of the CN Images of Canada Gallery at the Canada Science and Technology Museum website.
The Edge of the World: BC's Early Years
Watch a series of short films about the events, people, and places that shaped British Columbia's early history. Features a wealth of archival photographs. From knowledge.ca.
Timber Slide Ottawa
An 1860 photograph and brief description of a “timber slide” in Ottawa taken by William McFarlane Notman. From the website for the Science & Society Picture Library in the UK.
A biography of lumber businessman and politician John Egan. From the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.
Lumber Kings and Shantymen: Logging and Lumbering in the Ottawa Valley
See brief extracts from a book that provides an illustrated history of logging and life in the Ottawa Valley in the 19th century. From Google Books.