Logging in Northwestern Ontario dates back to the 17th century when voyageurs established canoe routes in the area. These routes later supported the growing industry at the close of the 19th century. In 1878 John A. MacDonald proposed the National Policy, which directly affected the lumber industry. This policy stipulated that a railway be built to connect eastern and western Canada, and that settlement of farmers in the west be encouraged. These events meant that more lumber was needed for railway ties and for the creation of new homes. Increased literacy at this time also impacted the need for lumber. More people reading meant more newspapers printed, and this trend marked the beginning of the pulp and paper industry in the region.1 This was a time when the country's resources were plentiful. Businessmen and provincial officials promoted northern Ontario “as a rich treasury of resources, recently unlocked by modern technology and ready for the taking by men of spirit and audacity.”2
Throughout the first half of the 20th century Ontario logging operations were conducted primarily out of winter camps. As this was seasonal labour, it attracted transient workers, with many coming from the prairies or southern Ontario.3 The 1920 figures given by the Dominion Bureau of Statistics shows the amount of men who worked in these camps. The number of Ontario wood employees on wages peaked that February when 19,099 men worked, and this figure fell to 6,551 in July.4 Many men chose to work in the lumber camps in the winter, and on farms or in the construction field in the summer. A smaller percentage of men worked in the lumber industry year round. These men worked in sawmills in the summer and in the bush camps in the winter.5
This expanding industry drew on immigrant workers for manpower. A 1921 report suggested that the Shevlin-Clarke Logging Company that operated in the Rainy River region, categorized the labour force as being 10% Swedish, 20% English and French Canadian, and 70% Russian, Australian, Polish and Central European.6 Americans were also drawn into the Ontario lumbering industry. J.A. Mathieu, who established the J.A. Mathieu Lumbering Company explained that he, “followed the pine trees that were disappearing in Minnesota and came to Canada in 1902.”7
The isolated bush camp has become an iconic northern Canadian image. It was cheaper to house workers in “rough, temporary camps” within a walking distance to the work site than to build roads or railways into the “ever moving cutting areas.”8 The majority of the camps before the 1950s lacked modern day conveniences. Many newcomers were, “appalled by the primitiveness of the bunkhouse that was to serve as their new home.”9 They had no electricity, and instead used candles or kerosene lanterns for light. Also, plumbing was non-existent; instead the men shared a six seater outhouse. Many, understandably so, opted to remain dirty rather than bathe in freezing cold water. Laundry also proved a challenge. At the turn of the century, operators became afraid of unsanitary conditions, and offered laundry services to the men, although not all camps were given this luxury. If they were not, sometimes wives at the camp, or an Indigenous community member would volunteer to wash the men's clothing. Albert Cain, a lumberjack from Atikokan, recalled that the men's beds were usually made out of hay, and that it was so cold that you "had to keep a fire all night."10 These camps were reformed in the 1950s, and provided men with much better living conditions.11
Over the course of the century other innovations made life easier for the lumberjack. For instance, the first chainsaw used by the Ontario-Minnesota Pulp and Paper company was in 1951. What was to become a revolutionary piece of equipment was not an instant success. Many men chose to carry a swede saw instead, as the early chainsaws were heavy, and often needed two men for operation. However, as technology became better (and lighter) the chainsaw became the obvious first choice. Like the swede saw, the use of horses became obsolete with the introduction of new technologies, namely tractors and trucks. The Ontario-Minnesota Pulp and Paper company notes that the last horse used by its company was in 1965.12 Trucks transporting heavy logs on the highway is now a common site.
Trucks did not just replace horses, but also the infamous log drives. Although these drives no longer occur, the imagery they evoke is permanently ingrained into the Canadian psyche, and in turn, contributes to our sense of identity. A long, taxing and often dangerous task, these drives were essential for getting logs from the bush to the mills. In the Rainy River District, two drives were used- one on the Little Turtle River System and the other on the Seine River System.13 These drives brought logs to Fort Frances three to five months after the ice melted in the spring. They did not always make it and sometimes were frozen in until the following year. These drives continued until the completion of Highway 11 in 1972.14
Driving and floating operations required fewer men than the winter logging activities, so professional bush workers usually filled these positions.15 Often the best men on the winter camps were chosen, and this gave the log driver's position a level of prestige. There were several important jobs to be done while conducting a drive. Improvement crews removed rocks and smoothed or reinforced jagged banks that obscured the path of logs. They also built dams along the way so that an increased volume of water could be released if needed. Jam breaking was one of the most dangerous jobs. Men would “clamber out to the front of a jam and pry away at the lead logs, trying to find the kingpin which would release the jam. If the kingpin was pried loose the jam might burst apart, leaving barely enough time to jump clear.”16 Sometimes dynamite was used to break up stubborn jams, but this was a last resort effort as this may damage the logs, and it was usually a perilous task. After the majority of the logs made it down stream the “sweepers” pushed along any logs that had been left behind.
The Shevlin-Clarke Logging Company registering their timber mark. These marks are still used by logging companies when they transport their logs from privately owned land. They certify ownership and help prevent theft. The registered symbols are branded on the logs by timber mallets. Atikokan Museum Collection 2017.90.2.
Logging remains a large industry in Northwestern Ontario. This month the Atikokan Centennial Museum is hosting Centennial College Forestry students to teach them about the industry's rich history. I hope that the information and photographs presented helps ground their experiences in the field, making for a richer appreciation of the industry and the changes it has gone through.
 Ian Radforth, Bush Workers and Bosses: Logging in Northern Ontario, 1900-1980. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987), 17
 Ibid., 9.
 Ralph O'Donnell Interview, 1985, transcript at the Atikokan Centennial Museum.
 Ian Radforth, Bush Workers and Bosses: Logging in Northern Ontario, 1900-1980., 26.
 Ibid., 29.
 Ibid., 33.
 Ibid., 15.
 Ibid., 26.
 Ibid., 91.
 Albert Cain Interview, 1985, transcript at the Atikokan Centennial Museum.
 Ian Radforth, Bush Workers and Bosses: Logging in Northern Ontario, 1900-1980.,91.
 Unknown author. "The Ontario-Minnesota Pulp and Paper Company: Operations in the Atikokan Area," 1974 In Articles on Mining and Logging in the Atikokan Area. (A collection of articles put together by an unknown source in an unknown year.)
 Ian Radforth, Bush Workers and Bosses: Logging in Northern Ontario, 1900-1980., 64.
 Ibid., 64.
Help support this blog!