• hwtproject.k0j@gmail.com
  • Ontario, Canada

The ICO Booms & Culbute Ship Canal

Upper Ottawa Improvement Company (ICO)

The Upper Ottawa Improvement Company (1868- 1999) ran the log-driving operations on the Ottawa. Without it, there could easily have been a “wild-west” element to the drive. Yet many present day residents are not familiar with this historic organization and its mandate.

The log drive was featured on our Canadian one dollar bill, now replaced by a coin; establishing the work done on the Ottawa River as an iconic piece of Canadian imagery.

The ICO was an industry self-regulatory body, tasked with “driving” the logs down the Ottawa River to market and to sawmills; where the member companies paid their share for this management of the log drive. Under its auspices the logs were moved down river – using ICO built and managed chutes to bypass rough water and towed in large congregates by ICO tugs in calmer water. ICO workers would comb the Ottawa’s shoreline for stranded or escapee logs every year. Ottawa River Timber.

Westmeath’s Timber Baron Alex Fraser, and then his son JB Fraser, were ICO board members. With Westmeath Township being surrounded on three side by the river, the activities of the ICO, its tugs, pointer boats, bag booms and drivers were a common sight to the residents. The ICO steamboat Alex Fraser was named for him and plied the waters of Lower Allumette Lake on the township’s western shore. It would transport people and supplies back and forth across Lower Allumette Lake and then tow log booms from the top to the bottom of Lower Allumette Lake. Other boats in other sections of the river likewise did the two jobs.

Photo from History of the Corporation of Westmeath Township by EM Price, 1984.

In John D. Dunfield’s “200 Years of Lumbering in the Ottawa Valley“, he writes:

“Because of the large volume of wood being driven on the Ottawa River by the mid 1800’s and the numerous companies involved, an Association was created by the leading firms and chartered which became the Upper Ottawa Improvement Company generally referred to as “ICO”.  This association charged a nominal fee to each company for the transportation of their wood products on the Ottawa River from the head of Lake Temiskaming to the Chaudiere area. Smaller associations were formed to drive the wood on the tributaries of the Ottawa River. The associations also were responsible for constructing and maintaining most of the control dams and log chutes on the rivers and the creation of depots at the various booming ground.

“The logs drives were a colourful and often hazardous occupation because of the lack of safety features initially, poor accessibility and the fact that the majority of the workers could not swim.”

John Dunfield knew that very little had been written about the ICO and the role this historic organization had played in the lumbering industry, so he set about changing that. In his 2007 “Forest Management” book, John Dunfield concludes with:

Before the formation of the ICO, after getting the logs down the Ottawa’s tributary with the high water of springtime, the logging company then had to “drive” them down the Ottawa to the saw mills.  This was a massive undertaking to drive, sweep, sort, boom and tow the logs. At each set of rapids between Lake Temisgaming down to Chaudiere Falls at Bytown (Ottawa), each boom would be opened and the logs would go down the fast water. At the calm water, below the rapids, the “bag” booms – consisting of a long line of logs chained together end-to-end would have the logs gathered into them and be boom would be towed further downstream.

The Upper Ottawa Improvement Company (ICO) was established in 1868 by the Hon. John Hamilton, A.H. Baldwin, Levi Young, H.F. Bronson, William G. Perley and E.B. Eddy to act as a common carrier for all lumber companies transporting wood down the Ottawa River. Prior to that date, lumber companies competed to drive their logs down the river, resulting in confusion and costly delays. When the ICO received its federal charter in 1870, the company assumed responsibility for the slides and booms previously constructed by the Department of Public Works. The ICO was also granted the right to construct new works and acquire any property and equipment deemed necessary to facilitate the transmission of logs. In 1888, a special Act of Parliament extended the company’s jurisdiction on the Ottawa River from the head of Lake Temiscaming to the Chaudiere Falls.

The development of the ICO was guided by its Board of Directors. Among the lumber barons who served on the board were J. R. Booth, A. Gilmour, E. B. Eddy, H. F. Bronson, J. A. Gillies, A. Fraser and F. L. Blackburn. Under the management of Secretary-Treasurer G.B. Greene, the ICO became a powerful influence along the River.

ICO log booms physically dominated the river, their boats provided transportation to communities along the river and they employed hundreds of workers from small towns and villages in both Ontario and Quebec. This influence extended beyond the Ottawa River when the ICO began to manage the Coulonge and Crow River Boom Co. (established 1895) and the Quinze Rapids Improvement Company (established 1898). Although technically separate companies, both were owned by many of the same men who controlled the ICO.
At the time of the ICO’s establishment, sawn lumber shipped to the United States was the mainstay of the lumber economy in the Ottawa Valley. Until 1910, the ICO moved only sawlogs down the Ottawa River. After that date, ICO operations expanded to accommodate both sawlogs and pulpwood deliveries to local mills.
ICO operations remained remarkably unchanged until after the Second World War. The retirement of E. C. Woolsey (Greene’s successor as ICO Secretary) in 1946 ended an era of nineteenth century management practices. Operations also changed dramatically with the construction of water flow controls and six hydro-electric dams on the Ottawa River. The company could no longer drive logs down the river and relied instead on new equipment and techniques to tow and raft them.

In 1982, the company changed its name to ICO Inc., and shortly thereafter moved its head office from Ottawa to Portage du Fort, Québec. By this time the lumber industry in the Ottawa Valley was already in decline. After 1986, the ICO transported only pulpwood, and volumes of wood shipped continued to decrease. The last booms were floated down the river in 1991, and the ICO began to wind up its operations in 1999.

The Pointer Boat:   A style of boat, purpose-built and wonderfully suited to working in the logs, was developed and built at Pembroke by the John Cockburn Company. It had a high pointy bow – thus the name became Pointer Boat. It required very little draft, only 4 or 5 inches. It was wide and sturdy and could ride up onto the logs without damage. Watch short video on Cockburn Pointer Boat.

Pembroke Observer & Upper Ottawa Advertiser, January 22, 1886

At one time the Cockburn family advertised their famous pointer design with the slogan: “It’s a boat that will float on a heavy dew.” The design was never patented.

The ICO also had unhappy users as shown in this 1937 clipping from the Montreal Gazette: Tales of Log Drive Enlivens evidence in Appeals Court.

In today’s world, decorating choices that include recycled materials are  in demand and usually sell at a premium. Such is the case with beautiful wide plank flooring made of salvaged logs. The amount of loss by sinking of timbers from the 1800’s is incalculable. Logs End Inc. at Bryson, Quebec, has undertaken to raise some of these from the depths and allow the consumer to walk on a historic flooring.  Mellon’s Boom, located on the Quebec shore just east of Waltham, at the top of Coulonge Lake, was an important staging ground where the logs would be re-assembled into booms. This is an area well know by boaters who stop each summer to swim on a large sand pit in mid-stream opposite Mellon’s Boom.

Listing of ICO Depots from John Dunfield’s “Artifacts & Remnants of 200 Years of Lumbering in the Ottawa Valley”, Vol.1.
This series of maps of the Ottawa River system from John Dunfield’s “Artifacts and Remnants of 200 Years of Lumbering in the Ottawa Valley.”

In his 1999 “Where have all the Sawmills Gone?“, Volume II of his Overview of the 200 Years of Lumbering in the Ottawa Valley, John Dunfield devotes a whole chapter to the ICO. This book is no longer in print and his son Tommy Dunfield has generously allowed his father’s material to be used on this website. John Dunfield was also a committed collector of lumbering photos which reveal much about the log drives, including its dangers to men working without safety equipment.

Fortunately the Historic Park at Fort Coulonge, Quebec – Chutes Coulonge Park – allows visitors to see the majesty of the Coulonge River gorge and falls and try to imagine the logs being moved through this area. A visit to this park is a must for anyone interested in the logging industry.

Charlotte Whitton’s book for the Gillies Brothers “A Hundred Years A-Fellin’, 1842-1942”, contains her 1943 description of the ICO and its work.

An Ottawa River Ship Canal – The Culbute Locks

In 1878 the largest wooden lock in Eastern Ontario was  built on the north channel of the Ottawa River which flowed around Allumette Island. This is called the Culbute Locks and was  west of the village of Chapeau, Quebec. The two locks were 200 feet in length and 48 feet in width.  It was closed 10 years later in 1888 because of the arrival of the railway to Pembroke. This is a story of bad-timing and of too little-too late.

Meant to ease the hardship of the Culbute Channel’s portage, a new ship canal would allow safe passage between Upper Allumette Lake-Fort William waters and the Lake Coulonge-Fort Coulonge waters on the Ottawa system.  This northern route would bypass Pembroke and the rapids at the top and the bottom of Lower Allumette Lake and shorten the route considerably. The river traffic of steamboats was thought vital for the economic expansion of the Upper Ottawa.

It was dealt with in a sessional paper from the Canadian House of Commons of 1881 where funds, through the Department of Public Works, were allocated for its construction.

In 1882  the Supervising Engineer Mr. John Sippell  reported on the progress made on the Culbute Ship Canal to Parliament; as recorded in that year’s sessional papers:

By 1892 – ten years later –  the report to Parliament was not hopeful. The wood of the structure was “much decayed” and the boat traffic was of “insignificant extent”.

From Ancestry.ca with thanks to the contributor.

An Order in Council was passed in 1889 to allow the river “to resume its natural level”. The idea of a well used ship canal and a busy shipping economy on the Upper Ottawa was dead.

Then in the 1870s, the federal government took on another venture; constructing a bypass around Calumet Rapids. The project, named the Culbute Canal, consisted of two locks and an impounding dam. The work was completed at a cost of only $235,000 (over four million in today’s dollars) because the entire structure was built of timber taken from nearby forests. The Culbute Canal opened up a long stretch of the Ottawa River (from Chats Falls to des Joachims rapids) to steamboat navigation, but shortly after it was completed, the Canadian Pacific Railway line was extended to Pembroke and Mattawa. The upper Ottawa, now served by all-season rail, had less need for steamboats, and the canal was abandoned in 1889 after only 13 years of operations. From Lumber Kings and Shantymen: Logging and Lumbering in the Ottawa Valley” by historian David Lee.

“Lumber interests persuaded the government to build a canal on the Culbute channel at the Calumet Rapids, known as the Rock Portage. Construction of the locks took place from 1873‐1876, involving two combined locks and opening up 124 kilometers of interior river navigation (Canadian Public Works Association 124). The Culbute Locks were outmoded before they were even completed. They were abandoned soon after their construction.”  (Legget 1975: 174).  From Revisiting the Culbute Locks.

For more on the steamships of the Ottawa River read: Steamboats and Canals on the Ottawa River.

From Lost Steamboats and Locks on the Ottawa  C.O. Kelly approaching the Culbute Locks on the Chanel de la Culbute. These wooden locks were used as winter dry docks for the C.O. Kelly and the John Regan. The locks have been derelict since 1889.  Archives Canada.
The Culbute Channel Locks: Beginning in 1873, the project was located 8 km northwest of the village of Chapeau. From History of the Ottawa Valley.

In Renfrew County historian Clyde C. Kennedy’s “The Upper Ottawa Valley, A Glimpse of History“, the canal story is very comprehensively presented as follows:

John Dunfield also wrote of the ship canal in his book “Where Have All the Sawmills Gone?” Vol. II, as follows.