Sawmills

Beach's Sawmill at Upper Canada Village

Beach’s Sawmill at Upper Canada Village, Morrisburg, Ontario.

The sawn lumber industry strengthened as the market for squared timbers waned; when the blockades of the Scandinavian and American squared timber production were lifted. New settlers in the mid and late 1800s were using framed buildings and demand was steadily growing as large-scale development of the country occurred. It was the era of the Lumber Kings.

Employment in the mills, or the supplying of logs to the early sawmills, fed the families of many Westmeath Township residents. This work was dangerous and hard; but to many who had only known hard grafting, they were happy to accept. One such early sawmill is on exhibit at Upper Canada Village. Two types of mills evolved: those located on a mill stream to be driven by a paddle wheel or water turbines or  driven by steam engines and powered by the waste produced from the sawmill itself.

From Charlotte Whitten's book for the Gillies Brothers "One Hundred Years A-Fellin'", 1842-1942.

From Charlotte Whitton’s book for the Gillies Brothers “One Hundred Years A-Fellin'”, 1842-1942.

John Dunfield in his “Illustrations and Lumbering Photographs of the Ottawa Valley writes:

lumber_from_log_lg“Saw-milling techniques evolved slowly in the Ottawa Valley until steam power and the circular saw were adopted by the industry in the 19th Century. The invention of the double-edged bandsaw about the turn of the 20th Century further advanced the saw-milling industry and the creation of the gasoline chainsaw during World War II greatly improved the woodlands operations.

“In many cases the sawmills and pulp and paper mills were the nucleus of a village or town, which in due course attracted other industries and facilities. Many wood-using plants were able to supply employment year-round, such as the sash and door plants, match-making plants and the wooden cooper plants, etc. With railway tracks within a lumber yard, a mill could ship its products to world markets twelve months of the year.”

Westmeath’s Lumber Kings JB Fraser and WHA Fraser built in 1903, a new steam-powered sawmill upstream from the Chaudière Falls at  Deschênes at Aylmer, Quebec, west of Hull.  The McLachlin Brothers built their sawmill at Arnprior at the mouth of the Madawaska River and the Gillies Sawmill was built at Braeside, Ontario.

Early pit saws. From John Dunfield's " Artifacts and Remnant's of 200 Years of Lumbering in the Ottawa Valley. Vol. I.

Early pit saws. From John Dunfield’s ” Artifacts and Remnant’s of 200 Years of Lumbering in the Ottawa Valley. Vol. I.

 From “The Evolution of the Sawmill” in Where Have All the Sawmills Gone? by John D. Dunfield:

“Axes, crosscut saws, bucksaws and pit-type saws were initially used to fell, buck and saw timber in the Ottawa Valley from the year 1800. Around 1850, the rotary circular saw and gang saw were introduced into the Valley and this assisted the industry to expand for the next 50 years. Power was secured from the Chaudière, Rideau and the various rapids and falls in the Ottawa River system. The rivers and streams also acted as the transportation link from the woods to the mills.

“Steam-driven sawmills gradually replaced water-power and mist of the sawmill waste was now used in the boilers to power the machinery while other refuse and waste was conveyed into a cone-shaped burner.

“The old sawmills in the Ottawa Valley were built with the product they manufactured, i.e. lumber, whereas the woolen and grist mills were chiefly constructed of masonry. Consequently, the sawmills were subject to periodic fires because of the combustible materials within and outside the facilities.

“In the larger sawmills, bandsaw head rigs and gang saws replaced the circular saws around the turn of the 20th century. Dry-kilns, storage sheds and railway tracks were also added to the larger sawmills with JR Booth and the MacLaren companies operating their own railways. Short-haul railways and spur lines wee also built for logs and lumber.”

SmallCircular Sawmill

Photo from Where Have All the Sawmills gone? by John D. Dunfield.

Westmeath Township Sawyers & Sawmills

Numerous sawmills were operated over the decades as Westmeath Township evolved. These were mainly  three or four men operations serving the local farmers or businesses surrounding it. Haulage  of logs and lumber was kept to short distances  when using horses.  Most of the old sawmills only operated for under 10 years – by which time much of the surrounding land had been cleared and the farmers had built their frame barns and out-buildings. Then the sawmills would be broken down and moved or sold to someone in a different community requiring the services of a sawmill.

Being able to use his own trees, to make his own lumber for building, was a large cost-saving to the farmer with only two expenditures:

  • Sweat equity of logging his own bush lot,
  • Barter with, or payment to, the sawmill operator to produce the sawn lumber.

Local Sawmills in Westmeath Township

The various Gazetteer and other Directory Listings collected on this website show the number of working mills  in the Township in the 19th Century.

1871        

Alexander Condie               Beachburg                Sawmill

George Tucker                     Westmeath               Sawmill Owner

Tucker Creek running through Front Westmeath had two ponds. the lower one was used by the George Tucker sawmill and the upper was used by the later John Gervais sawmill.

Tucker Creek running through Front Westmeath had two ponds. The lower one south of the Main Street was used by the George Tucker sawmill and the upper was used by the later John Gervais sawmill.

Thomas Fraser                   Lookout Road             Farmer & Sawmill Owner

1880

Alexander Condie               Beachburg                  Farmer, Mill Owner

James  Davidson,               Beachburg                   Saw, Shingle & Planing Mill

Little & Weedmark            Beachburg                    Saw, Shingle, Sash & Door Factory. The Beachburg mill pond is still a feature of the village and the creek runs under the main street bridge when entering the village from the west.

1888  

James Davidson            Lot S 1/2 8, Conc. 5 EML         Sawyer

Thomas Little                Lot W 1/2 6, Conc. 6 EML        Sawmill

Alex McLaren                 Lot 11, Conc. 2 MWL                Mill owner

McLaren Brothers          Snake River – Osceola              Millers

1900s

HELP fill in the gaps: In the 20th century, sawmills serviced the two villages of Westmeath & Beachburg. If you know any details please submit your information to make a better description of these sawmills.

Buchanan Sawmill                  Westmeath Village at the Ottawa Shoreline at west end of Gore Line.

Jackson Sawmill                      Beachburg Village at south end on little lake.

Archy Weedmark Sawmill     Beachburg Village, next to the cemetery.

John Bromley, one of the last of the Westmeath farmer-sawmill operators, has  written about local sawmills of the twentieth century, including his own, and John  has generously submitted his articles and photos to this website. John also went one step further and turned lumber into shingles; which he also writes about.

The Joe Lacroix Sawmill

by John Bromley

The  sawmill was built in Lacroix’s Bay on the Ottawa River on Lot 16 EFC Westmeath Township in 1942. It operated until 1958. The mill was placed in the creek over the spring which fed the creek so the water could be bailed out for the steam engine. Joe Lacroix’s grandson, Nelson Gervais’s house is built close to where the mill was.

Custom sawing was  done for local area farmers. In the winter months people from the Quebec side would bring  sleigh loads of logs across the Ottawa River on the ice.

The mill was usually run by 4 or 5 members of the family, both boys and girls. The mill was driven by a steam engine and two of the sons, Vilmere and Leas operated the steam engine and did the actual sawing.

The mill was able to produce 3 to 4 thousand board feet of lumber per day. There was no edger so the edging had to be done on the carriage with the main saw. This mill apparently was the only  sawmills ever built in the LaPasse area.

In 1958 the mill was moved over to Fort Coulonge and the moving of the steam engine on Arnold Laporte’s ferry was quite a sight. They had to back the steam engine down the hill from LaPasse Road to the ferry as a portable steam engine, not a traction engine, it had no brakes. It was moved from place to place by a team of horses. Bit by bit the horses backed the engine down the hill with men blocking the wheels from time to time to give the horses a rest. On reaching the bottom of the hill the engine was turned around and pulled onto the ferry. This mill operated in Fort Coulonge for eight more years until Joe Lacroix passed away.

The John Gervais Sawmill

by John Bromley.

This mill was bought through James Forgie M.P. from the military at Base Petawawa and set up beside Tucker Creek which runs through the Village of Westmeath. A damn was built on the creek to form a mill pond to put the logs to be sawn in. This was a complete mill with a “Jackladder” to bring the logs from the pond up into the mill. This also included the main saw carriage, edger, trimmers, sorting table and slab saw. Live rollers brought the slabs along to a “Cut off” saw and then the slabs fell into an elevator to go up and fall into a dump truck to be delivered for the sum of $3.00 a load. Another dump truck was place to take the sawdust from another elevator.

The Westmeath Recreation Centre was built on this former sawmill site. This mill was powered by a large diesel engine. The mill was built in 1956 and operated for about 8-10 years in the summer months only.

Custom sawing provided for about one-half of the business and John bought logs from local farmers. With good logs the mills could produce roughly 6 – 7 thousand feet per day. The sawn lumber was piled and eventually sold to lumber dealers. A big percentage of it went to the Scheels in Arnprior. Good white pine logs at the time were going for about $50.00 per thousand board feet. Custom sawing cost between $15.00 and $18.00 per thousand board feet. Diesel fuel cost $0.18 per gallon and replacement saw teeth were $0.15 per tooth.

It took at least 7 men to operate the mill and wages were $4. to $7. a day per man. Most of the workers were local people. Walter Quast was the sawyer. Ned Poole fed the edger. Bill Buckwald worked the trimmers. Vaneese Either looked after the sorting table and Gerald Spotswood handled the slab cut-off saw. John’s father, Eulysce Gervais fed the jackladder working with a pike pole from a boat in the pond to direct the logs to the end of the endless chain of the jackladder chute.

When the logs were dumped into the mill pond, each customer’s logs were boomed separately. Edgar White and John Gervais himself drove the log truck with the side loader to bring the logs to the mill. When the lumber left the the sorting table it was drawn on wagons pulled by a Massey Harris tractor. It was piled by Stuart Wright, Jimmy Deschamps and others to dry until sold.

This was a good mill and it produced a good product. In about 1965 John shut down the mill. He took a job as one of the carpenters building the Pulp Mill at Portage du Fort in the province of Quebec.

The John Bromley Sawmill

by John Bromley

This sawmill was built in 1969. The first board came off of it on April 7th, 1969. There were logs arriving in the yard ahead of time as no mill had been  operating in the area for some time. It was situated on Bromley Line. It was a booming business for the next number of years until the little band mill came in. After that, the sawing was mainly private logs cut from my own bush lots to fill orders.

Pine, spruce poplar, balsam and cedar were the main species cut. The longest timbers I could cut were twenty-six feet. The average feet cut per day was about twenty-five hundred board feet. This was a very small mill with a forty-eight inch main saw. The edging was done on the saw carriage as the boards to be edged were sent back on rollers. The slabs were placed on wagons and given away. The mill usually operated by two men and operated until 2014.

In 1965, I got an old sawmill from Percy Elliott from Starks Corners and parts of a mill from Albert Michel of Petawawa. I bought two truck frames and Billy Kelly welded them end to end to provide a track for the saw carriage. I rewooded the carriage taking parts from the two old mills. I gathered up the remaining parts and then on March 12th, 1969, I hired Gordon Zoschke to help me set it up and show me how to saw. We sawed a few logs. When the weather turned bad we put a roof over the mill. The first lumber I ever  sawed was the roof boards for the mill.

The mill was always driven from the power take-off. We drove the first mill with a WG International tractor, which was a gasoline model. Then we used a diesel Fordson Major. For years we used a W9 International diesel which was about 60 horsepower. After that we used different farm tractors.

There have been many sawmills operating in the area but I believe this mill has operated for the most consecutive years from 1969-2014 -about 45 years.

In the series of photographs  below, supplied by John Bromley, his small sawmill is shown at work, with the many steps from a raw log to a piece of lumber.

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The John Bromley Shingle Mill

by John Bromley

The mill was obtained from Henry Krose of Ladysmith, Quebec, in 1972. It was a “Walter Green” machine built in Peterborough, Ontario.

Layers of cedar shingles on a roof

Layers of cedar shingles on a roof

We placed it on a three ton truck frame and with a jack shaft. It could be driven by a belt pulley on a steam engine or a farm tractor. We took it to steam shows, fairs and plowing matches as an exhibit. It made a neat little example of taking a raw material to a finished product.

The edger was run by a belt from the main mill. There were two packers with large levers to compress the shingle for the strapping to make bundles. Each bundle or pack covered an area of about twenty-five square feet. Four packs would cover one hundred square feet or a square of roofing.

We later changed the drive to the mill to power take-off from a farm tractor and used an electric motor to drive the edger to square the raw shingles. It takes approximately sixteen board feet of cedar logs to make one pack of shingles. Butt logs with few knots naturally made the best shingles.

Bromley-ShingleMaking

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John Bromley, seen at right and then at centre of top two photos, brought his shingle mill to Westmeath Weekend in the 1970s to demonstrate that craft. Assisting him is Blair Bromley, middle, who is edging the shingles and John Anderson, left, who is packing them and tying them in bundles.

Upper Ottawa Logs destined for the Chaudière Sawmills

Thousands of logs, cut, hauled out and assembled by local men, were sent downstream every year. Where were they destined?

Towards the end of the 19th Century most of the logs sent down the Upper Ottawa River were destined for the massive industrial complex called by author John Dunfield the “Chaudière Industrial Site“. In his book Illustrations and Lumbering Photographs of the Ottawa Valley, Dunfield described this  Ottawa-Hull complex which grew up around the powerful Chaudiere Falls where the water turbines powered the saws.

Chaudiere Industrial site

Dunfield also sourced a series of “before” pictures, exhibited below, from both the E.B.Eddy Co. Archives and Archives Canada,  showing the build-up of sawmill infrastructure at the Chaudière Falls Site prior to the destruction.

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The Great Fire of 1900 Ottawa Hull

The massive stocks of sawn timber and even the buildings themselves were no match for the ravages of fire on Thursday, April 26th, 1900. Hundreds were homeless and thousands were unemployed as a result. Upriver the men who worked in the shanties, or supplied the shanties, suddenly had to guarantee of winter work the following year. Would  the downstream mill owners be able to rebuild?  In one April day the Upper Ottawa’s lumber-based economy was mortally wounded and the repercussions unknown.

Map showing extent of 1900 fire

Map of Plan showing extent of Ottawa-Hull conflagration, Thursday, April 26th, 1900. Publisher: Chas. E. Goad. Fire insurance plan (F.P. No. 38) of Ottawa, Ontario and Hull (Gatineau), Quebec which shows the limits of a fire on April 26, 1900. It also includes information on the location of the fire throughout the day and the wind direction and velocity.  Map from Wikipedia entry.

“The Hull-Ottawa fire of 1900 was a devastating fire that destroyed much of Hull, Quebec and large portions of Ottawa, Ontario. On April 26 a defective chimney on a house in Hull caught fire, which quickly spread between the wooden houses due to windy conditions. Along the river were the large lumber companies, and huge amounts of stacked lumber that quickly ignited.
Two thirds of Hull was destroyed, including 40 per cent of its residential buildings and most of its largest employers along the waterfront. The fire also spread across the Ottawa River, carried by wind borne embers and destroyed a large swath of western Ottawa from the Lebreton Flats south to Dow’s Lake. About one fifth of Ottawa was destroyed with almost everything in the land between Booth Street and the rail line leveled.”  From Wikipedia.

Taken from Ottawa-Hull Fire of 1900 by G.W. Shorter, NRC., in which the author describes the scene as the fire engulfed the area. The article also includes some good “after” pictures.

“Driven by a strong wind, the fire bore down on the Eddy mills and the wood piles of the Hull Lumber Company. “If one could imagine a snow storm of particles of fire instead of snow, it would give some idea of the intensity.”  Thus Mr. E. B. Eddy, one of Canada’s early industrialists, described the fire which only a few days before had destroyed his paper mills. Mr. Eddy stated further that, as he stood in the attic of one of his mills, the fire appeared to blow right under the shingled roof while gathering speed in its headlong flight from Hull across the islands of the Ottawa to the City itself. Mr. Eddy’s graphic expressions were most appropriate. The air was filled with thousands of flying brands and billowing clouds of black smoke carried along by a strong north wind. This “fire storm” grew in intensity kindled by the many wood-shingled roofs that released burning shingles as flying brands. As the fire progressed, huge piles of lumber stored on the banks and the islands of the river added fuel to the maelstrom.

“Mr. Frank Gadsby of the Parliamentary Press Gallery in Ottawa, writing in the July 1900 issue of the Canadian Magazine, furnishes this picturesque description of the fire from his vantage point on Parliament Hill. “The most vivid picture of the fire, that lingers with me, is one seen at half-past seven in the evening from Parliament Hill. The shades of night are falling, and a glorious sunset flames behind the purple Laurentians. But Nature’s splendour is eclipsed by the red hell that flares and flickers in the valley of the Ottawa. . . . . I note one roof after another twinkle, glow and burst out in garish effulgence. The millions of feet of lumber all along the river banks are alight.. . . . There is nothing to divert the attention from the menacing grandeur of the conflagration. The River flows along black and sullen save where it is traversed by broad red shafts of light from burning deals or mill flumes.. . .

For more photos go to 1900 Hull-Ottawa Fire.

In the Fraser Family Collection, one  album contained photographs, presumably taken by JD “Jack” Fraser, known as Captain Fraser to Westmeath locals, of the conflagration’s aftermath. Here they are shown for the first time in no particular order.

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Dunfield Where Have All, Pg.207

Taken from Dunfield’s “Where Have All the Sawmills Gone?”

Photo from John Dunfield's Where have all the Sawmills Gone?, page 138.

Photo from John Dunfield’s Where have all the Sawmills Gone?, page 138.

View from Parliament Hill

John Dunfield summarizes the importance of the Chaudiere Industrial Site to the Lumbering Industry of  the young Canada. The figures for 1870 show the impressive value of wood products of that era. Dunfield's Where have the sawmills.. pg.171Dunfield's Where have the sawmills.. pg.172