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History of the Lumber Industry of America
Chapter XVIII. New Brunswick—Timber History

Although the landing of DeMonts, the French pioneer, in the present harbor of St. John, New Brunswick, June 24,1604, is annually celebrated in the Canadian Province, the progressive history of New Brunswick dates from the time of the influx of loyalists from the United States in 1783. They were known as the United Empire Loyalists; and, so great was their love for their King and royal traditions, they left the United States after the successful issue of the Revolution again to find a home under British rule on the American continent.

On their arrival at St. John they found a country covered with pine, spruce, fir and hardwoods, and almost unscarred by the ax. They found the River St. John and other streams penetrating, with their tributaries, this magnificent timber. The River St. John, it is true, rises in Maine, but the greater part of its channel lies within the present Province of New Brunswick. Another portion of the stream forms the boundary between the New America to which the loyalists had come and the old new America which they had left. They recognized the importance and value of the St. John as a waterway, and even to this day it brings to the City of St. John large numbers of logs from both Maine and New Brunswick.

The Province of New Brunswick embraces 27,985 square miles. The principal timber territory is traversed by the Tobique and smaller streams which empty into the St. John, the Miramichi, the Nepisiguit and the Restigouche. These are the principal log-floating streams in New Brunswick. The Province contains 17,910,400 acres, of which about 7,500,000 acres remain in the hands of the Crown and may be considered timber lands. Of these about six million acres are under license to lumber operators and many have been denuded of the more valuable and larger timber,' though still capable of being profitably operated. The remainder of the Crown lands, about 1,500,000 acres not under license, is in the interior of the Province and is almost in its pristine condition. In addition to the timber on the public lands, there is much valuable timber on lands held by private owners. In particular the 1,647,772 acres granted to the New Brunswick railway as a bonus includes some of the finest timber land in the Province, stretching from the southwest Miramichi waters across the Tobique Valley to the head waters of the Restigouche. It is leased by the company to lumber operators and yields a large annual cut. Alexander Gibson, one of the largest operators, owns 200,000 acres of forest land and other individuals hold the fee simple of extensive tracts, so that the total area of forest land is at least ten million acres. Some authorities put the figure considerably higher;' Lieutenant Governor Jabez B. Snowball, an expert in the lumber trade, estimates the total forest area at about twelve million acres, but as this apparently includes large tracts which have been stripped of timber by fire and by the ax, the former estimate probably includes all the land at present available for lumbering operations.

Spruce is the predominant tree and, although wherever operations have been carried on the heavier spruce is pretty well cleared off, there is still an abundance of ordinary sized trees.' The merchantable pine is nearly exhausted, but in many localities a flourishing young growth is springing up which, if protected against fire, will form a valuable future source of supply. Along the north shore there is a belt of hardwood comprising oak, beech and maple. Of the total forest area 60 percent is estimated to be spruce land, 10 percent pine, 5 percent hemlock, 5 percent cedar and 20 percent hardwoods, which latter consist principally of birch, beech, ash and maple.

The original timber growth of the Province was white pine and red pine principally, but the proportion of these woods has been much reduced by cutting. Spruce is now the principal article of local manufacture and foreign export and owing to its availability and rapid growth it enjoys a favor equal to, if not greater, than that of pine. White spruce and black spruce predominate and smaller quantities of red spruce, hemlock, balsam", fir and white cedar are also present. Among the hardwoods are the red, yellow and white birches, the hard and soft maples, ash, white, red or black, beech and American elm, generally distributed, and butternut and basswood in the southern part of the Province. Red birch and yellow birch form the greatest hardwood wealth and much white birch is cut for spool stock.

'New Brunswick has from the earliest days been a great lumbering section, the industry being favored by the geographical position of the Province and its physical conformation, which presents special facilities for the shipping and marketing of its forest product. It is surrounded on the southeast and partly on the north by water, giving a seaboard of 545 miles. There are two great river systems, the St. John and the Miramichi, with another important one, the Restigouche, and numerous smaller rivers which, with lakes, intersect the Province in every direction, affording abundant facilities for floating timber from the interior to the coast. In addition to these natural highways New Brunswick claims to have a larger railway mileage in proportion to population than any other country.

As early as 1778 the magnificent timber on the St. John River attracted British enterprise and capital. In 1781 Jonathan Leavitt launched at St. John the pioneer vessel of the fleet of New Brunswick built ships which subsequently sailed from that port.

The territory was at that time a portion of the Province of Nova Scotia. It was set apart as a separate province in 1785. Up to that time it was but sparsely settled, the population being composed mainly of a few Acadians and some straggling settlers from New England attracted by the profits promised by the timber or the fish trade. But the population was being increased by an influx of United Empire Loyalists who had taken the side of Britain during the Revolutionary War and felt compelled in consequence to seek homes outside of the United States. European immigrants also came in large numbers, the principal attraction being the opportunities afforded by the growing timber industry, which was greatly increased by the demands of the British navy. The ships which left New Brunswick with cargoes of timber returned laden with immigrants, many of whom passed on to the United States. Those who remained in the Province and took up land, however, were greatly aided financially by the market afforded for their produce by the lumberman and the timber merchant.

W. O. Raymond, LL. D., writing in the St. John Telegraph on “ Early History of New Brunswick Families,” says concerning the first sawmill in New Brunswick:

“The reference to a mill, built by the brothers Louis and Mathieu d’Amours in the neighborhood of Fort Nashwaak, may serve to explain the statement of Villebon in 1696, that he had caused planks for madriers, or gun platforms, to be made near the fort. This mill at any rate antedates by the best part of a century the mill built by Simonds & White at St. John in 1767 and that built by Colonel Beamsley Glasier’s millwrights at the Nashwaak in 1768. Doubtless it was a very primitive affair, but it sawed lumber, and was in its modest way the pioneer of the greatest manufacturing industry of New Brunswick at the present day.”

In 1790 there were two sawmills of a primitive design in St. John. In 1822 a steam engine and boiler were imported from Birmingham and the first steam sawmill was started, the first output being shipped the same year to Cork, Ireland. Thereafter the number of sawmills increased rapidly and the item of sawn lumber began to assume a prominent position in the table of exports.

The noted Miramichi forest fire occurred in 1825. It had been a summer almost without rain and, when autumn came, the woods were as dry as tinder. Fires from numerous causes originated in many places in the forest and columns of smoke enshrouded the earth in the darkness of twilight. The danger did not become great, however, so long as the air was still. On the night of October 7, 1825, a strong wind arose and fanned the flames into fury. A local historian has thus described it:

At eight o’clock the wind increased to a swift hurricane from the west and soon afterwards a loud and appalling roar was heard, with explosions and a crackling like that of discharges of musketry. The air was filled with pieces of burning wood and cinders, which were driven along by the gale, igniting everything upon which they fell. The roaring grew louder and sheets of flame seemed to pierce the sky. The people ran hither and thither, some gave up in despair, some took refuge in the river, domestic and wild animals mingled in the general rush for safety. In the space of a single hour the fire swept over the district north of the river, destroying everything in its path. The sweep of the fire in northern New Brunswick extended for one hundred miles and covered an area of 6,000 square miles.

The crowning catastrophe came when the conflagration swept away within an hour Newcastle, Douglastown and other villages on the northern side of the Miramichi River. Of five hundred buildings only twenty-five remained, and the ships in the harbor were burned.

The fire was not confined to this district. It devastated the whole country from the Bartibogue to the Nashwaak, a distance of more than one hundred miles, and crossed the upper Tobique Mountains one hundred miles distant in another direction. The total area laid waste was about six thousand square miles and the loss of timber at the low estimate then placed upon it was reckoned at £500,000. The effects of this disastrous fire were seriously felt by the trade for many years afterward.


The following description of the methods of lumber manufacture employed at an early period, taken from the “ Account of the Province of New Brunswick by Thomas Baillie, Esq.,” in 1832, will be of interest. Mr. Baillie was surveyor general. The work was written mainly for the benefit of future immigrants.

Mills for sawing lumber are our principal and largest branches of industry. The proper dimensions of the building are sixty feet long, forty feet broad and about twenty feet in height to the roof. The usual expense of the whole undertaking, including the dam, is seldom less than £1,000, provided the river be large. In this country, wood and water being so abundant, steam and iron are not likely to prove profitable when the former materials can be used.

Labor is so exceedingly high that mills are constructed in a very simple manner, substituting great power for complicated machinery, and no fault could possibly be found with such an economical arrangement, provided the power remained at its usual maximum. But during the summer months and in the depth of winter the water, which is generally so abundant, becomes so much reduced in quantity and the machinery is then in want of sufficient power to continue in operation. The simplicity of the machinery and its being made of wood admit, in the scarcity of millwrights, of the repairs being at any time effected by the millers themselves, at which they are exceedingly expert. The difficulty attending iron machinery in the event of accidents would be irreparable, for, considering the remote situations of mills, an engineer could not possibly be obtained in sufficient time to prevent delay.

Sawmills are worked with undershot water wheels, carrying a crank to which is applied a connecting rod giving motion to the saw. One saw in a frame is universally considered more advantageous than gangs, owing to the acceleration of the motion. The part of the machinery which causes the log to advance to the saw and to carry it back is equally simple and prodigal of water. . . .

The sawmills manufacture boards one inch thick from the white pine, the spruce and the hemlock for the consumption of the Province, and the former article also for the West Indies. Heretofore they have been principally employed in the sawing of deals from the white and red pine and a few from spruce for the British market, but the latter trade has sustained so severe a shock from the low state of the home market that the mills would have gone to decay had not the West Indies at one period held out some inducement to manufacture boards. The raw material is obtained from the Crown lands under a license for which a duty of two shillings and six pence for every thousand superficial feet of one inch in thickness is paid to the Crown.

The writer proceeds to show how the sawmills have always been the pioneers of settlement and gives the rate of wages prevailing at that period as follows: For first-class millmen, £6 per month; second class, £4 10s; laborers, £3 to £4 10s. Men in the woods received £4 per month with board. “With charges so heavy as these,” concludes Thomas Baillie, Esq., “it is perfectly impossible for our mill owners to compete with the Americans.” Nevertheless, as the figures previously quoted show, the trade continued to flourish as the depression in the British market passed away and the demand from that quarter again became active.

Shipbuilding formed at this time an important industry. In the earlier days many of the vessels built in the Province were defective, being built by contract for from £4 to £7 per ton. In 1840 an effort was made with some success to improve the standard by a rigid system of inspection. For many years the abundance and good quality of timber gave New Brunswick a notable advantage in shipbuilding.

In the early days of the Nineteenth Century many people were disposed to regard the lumbering industry somewhat unfavorably, as an obstacle to the agricultural development of the country and as a frequent cause of demoralization to the men engaged in it. Complaints of this sort are frequently met with in the descriptive works of the writers of the period. Joseph Bouchette, surveyor general of Lower Canada, in a work dealing with the British American colonies, published in 1832, in speaking of the northern region of the Province, says:

“The quantities of timber that have been felled, squared and taken from this part of the country are enormous and yet no one industry presents so few symptoms of improvement. The pursuit of lumbering (perhaps a necessary evil in colonizing a wilderness) seems indeed of a demoralizing tendency, sometimes depriving its followers of the inclination and even capability for consistent and steady industry.”

Another writer, J. McGregor, in his “Historical and Descriptive Sketches of the Maritime Colonies of British America,” published in 1828, gives a very vivid description of the hardships and discomforts of a lumberer’s life and the primitive camp arrangements then in vogue:

They commence by clearing away a few of the surrounding trees and building a camp of round logs, the walls of which are seldom more than four or five feet high, the roof covered with birch bark or boards. A pit is dug under the camp to preserve anything liable to injury from the frost. The fire is either at the middle or at one end, the smoke goes out through the roof, hay, straw or fir branches are spread across the whole breadth of the habitation, on which they all lie down together at night to sleep with their feet next the fire. When the fire gets low he who first awakes or feels himself cold, springs up and throws on five or six billets and in this way they manage to have a large fire all night. One person is hired as cook, whose duty it is to have breakfast ready before daylight, at which all the party arise, when each man takes his “ morning,” or the indispensable dram of raw rum, before breakfast. The meal consists of bread, or occasionally potatoes, with boiled beef, pork or fish and tea sweetened with molasses. Dinner is usually the same, with pea soup instead of tea, and the supper resembles the breakfast. These men are enormous eaters and they also drink great quantities of rum, which they scarcely ever dilute.

After describing the rafting of timber down stream in the spring, and its attendant hardships, the writer goes on to say:

No course of life can undermine the constitution more than that of a lumberer or raftsman. The winter snow and frost, although severe, are nothing to endure in comparison with the extreme cold of the snow water of the freshets in which the lumberer is day after day wet up to the middle and often immersed from head to foot. To stimulate the organs in order to sustain the cold these men swallow immoderate quantities of ardent spirits and habits of drunkenness are the usual consequence. Their moral character with few exceptions, is dishonest and worthless. Premature old age and shortness of days form the inevitable fate of a lumberer. After settling and delivering up their rafts, they pass some weeks in indulgence, drinking, smoking and dashing off in a long coat, flashy waistcoat and trousers, Wellington or Hessian boots, a handkerchief of many colors round the neck, a watch with a long chain and numberless brass seals and an umbrella.

The picture is a strong one, and that there were exceptions to the rule of profligacy and that the sad fate of the lumberer was not inevitable, the author a little further on admits in giving instances of young men who, by saving their earnings in lumbering on the Miramichi, were enabled to purchase farms, or became principals in the lumber business.

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