Along the trail in Algonquin Park

The Long Drive

[ Gilmour jackladder, with work crew ]

Gilmour jackladder, with work crew, Unknown, Algonquin Park Archives, APMA 1097, Gilmour & Company constructed a system of slides and jackladders. After floating logs through Joe and Canoe Lakes, and down the Oxtongue River to the Lake of Bays, the jackladders and slides allowed the lumber company to move logs over hills separating the Lake of Bays from Raven Lake, and Raven Lake from St. Nora Lake. From St. Nora Lake, the logs could be floated to Trenton, on Lake Ontario, where Gilmour and Co. operated mills. On the jackladder, logs would be pulled uphill on 'slide', then slid down the other side

In almost all of the stories about Algonquin Park, mention is made of the famous and unusual log drive when the Gilmore Lumber Company drove pine logs all the way from their limits in the Park to their sawmill at Trenton. The operation was a costly one, but the length of the drive, meaning the distance from standing timber to the sawmill, made it the topic of conversation for many years when the subject of logs have been taken by water to a mill. Just about that same time, an American company had cutting rights to a tract of timber in Butt Township in Nipissing District. These logs, many of them large ones, were driven all the way down the Magnetewan River to Byng Inlet, then boomed and towed to Bay City, Michigan. I saw a record where it stated that on one of the drives the logs averaged just over five hundred board feet per log. Even with the log rule used in those days, it meant for quite large logs.

What did make the Gilmore drive unusual was that logs were taken on three different waterways. Since company headquarters was at Canoe Lake and the camps were in that area, it meant that the first river used was the Oxtongue. Next would come the Black River, and finally the Gull River waters for the rest of the trip to Trenton.

My father worked in one of the camps the first winter, in fact, the first two winters. The camp he was in was built right beside where the dam is at the foot of Joe Lake. Gilmore’s had a reserve dam there when they were cutting logs, and it was still standing when I was there first in 1914. At that time, too, the foundations of the old camps were easily distinguished, as they had not all rotted away.

I should have mentioned the great numbers of pine trees in the area. When I was first there, fires had burned away the slash, and the new growth had not hidden the stumps. What a pine forest it must have been! […]

Logs were cut in the woods much later in the spring than is now done. No doubt because of the short haul to water. Many of the men stayed in camp after cutting finished, as it was a long way home, and the drive would start as soon as weather and ice permitted. A thaw did come fairly early, but cold weather returned, and it looked like the spring flood would get away before the lakes were clear of ice. So, as a matter of necessity, the ice on Potter Lake was dynamited so the logs could get started on their long journey. The date Dad gave me was April 28th, but I am not certain if this is the date of the blasting of the ice or the date logs started to move. Whichever it was, the water would still be cold, and since the creek from Potter Lake to Canoe Lake was too small for a boat, it would mean a lot of wading.

At Canoe Lake the drive merged with the logs coming down from Joe Lake, and at Tea Lake with the logs from Smoke Lake. The rest of the drive to Lake of Bays and Dorset was uneventful.

A mile south of Dorset a lumber company had built an endless chain, something in the same style as the jack ladder used on many mills to lift logs from the water into the mill. From the top of the hill the logs went in a trough for a mile, and then an endless chain put the logs into Raven Lake, then Black River, and on into the Hallow Lake. Hallow Lake was damned to raise the water higher, and a trench dug in one of the lower spots so water and logs could go through a swamp to Harvey’s Marsh, and a canal dug from there to St. Norah’s Lake. The rest of the way was, as I said, all Gull River waters. The drive only got as far as Healy Falls, near Campellford, and stopped on October 1st.

Dad also worked in the camps on the drive the second year, but while they had the experience of the first year to help, water was low and the drive stopped on October 13th at Lakefield. This was a bad year, as they had a heavy fall of snow, twenty-two inches, at Fenelon Falls, early in October, and the men often worked in frozen clothes.

One thing Dad mentioned was that there was good food, and plenty of it. For most of the way, the cook camp must have been on top of a raft or crib. The highest wages paid were $28.00 per month, which included board.

Apparently there was a third cut, and a third drive, in which my father did not take part, and this drive did make Rice Lake the same year. But in the three drives, no logs reached the mill the first year.

Just about that time, the Canada Atlantic Railroad was built by J.R. Booth, the famous lumberman, Gilmore’s built a sawmill at Canoe Lake, but this too, was costly, as it was over a mile from the railroad, and a long siding had to be built. Then it was discovered that the quality of the pine was not good. Rot had begun to show in most of the trees, and that meant low-grade lumber.

With heavy operating costs, returns did not allow for producing low-grade lumber, and operations ceased early in this century.

When I first worked in the Park in 1914 there was still a lot of talk about the wasted pine lumber, and how three-inch boards, called deal, had been used to fill in wet places in order to pile lumber.

It’s hard to understand why the pine would be of such poor quality. The Huntsville Lumber Company also used Canoe Lake as headquarters for just a few years later, and the logs they cut were driven to Huntsville. Much of the timber, instead of being poor quality, was used for square timber, and such timbers would only be accepted if they were number one pine.

About that time, the first lumbermen were cutting pine in Proudfoot Township, and I have been told that the pine those early cutters took was about the finest that was found anywhere in Ontario.

Source: Ralph Bice, "The Long Drive" in Along the Trail in Algonquin Park, (Toronto: Natural Heritage/Natural History, 2001), 32-34. Notes: Reprinted from "Along the trail with Ralph Bice in Algonquin Park" (Scarborough, Ont.:Consolidated Amethyst, 1980). ISBN: 13:978-0-920474-19-8. Reprinted with permission from The Dundurn Group

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