Following the Timber

“Following the timber” isn’t a phrase you hear nowadays. But in the 19th century, this was a way of life for many people who worked in the logging industry. As lumber companies aggressively cut timber, whole forestry regions were depleted, triggering the company to move westward in search of new forests. Those dependent on the companies for their livelihood had to “follow the timber” and set up life in a new region.

Today, if you head north on Highway 41 past Highway 7, you’ll come to the area where many French Canadians settled. They had followed the timber from Quebec. In the mid- to late-1800s, the Mazinaw region was the new timber frontier. Some of the lumber companies ran their operations on a fairly small scale, but others were massive, having built up their wealth as they expanded from New Brunswick to Quebec and then to Ontario. Most notably, the Gilmour Lumber Company ran operations in the Mazinaw region and floated its logs to Trenton.

The Cloyne and District Historical Society  https://www.flickr.com/photos/cdhs/

In 1888, the Gilmour sawmill in Trenton was said to have the largest cutting capacity in the world. This meant that its demand for logs was huge, but even with its extensive timber rights in the Mazinaw and the Algonquin areas, the mill never ran at full capacity. The intense pressure to keep feeding the mill triggered massive investments in a new transportation technology: a tramway that could lift logs out of one lake and transport them to a different watershed so they could be floated to Trenton.

The Cloyne and District Historical Society  https://www.flickr.com/photos/cdhs/

The Gilmour Lumber Company built two tramways to supply its Trenton mill: one in the Mazinaw region and one much further west at Dorset, Ontario. The fates of these investments were vastly different. The Mazinaw tramway, a major engineering triumph in the 1850s, moved logs from Mazinaw Lake to Pringle Lake by means of a lift system and a railway of sorts. It consisted of a jack ladder, powered by steam, to lift logs up a steep embankment from the lake (100 metres long, 35 metres vertically) and horse-drawn carriages to pull the logs along wooden rails until they reached Pringle Lake.

By itself, that sounds like a huge investment, but consider also that the terrain was swampy. This meant that the area had to be built up by hand using earth and stone to elevate the rails above the swamps. The Mazinaw tramway was used as early as the 1850s and continued for about 40 years, a remarkably long run. Its Dorset cousin, built in the 1890s, was not so fortunate, lasting only two years, in part due to a lack of sufficient water supply to operate it. 

The Cloyne and District Historical Society  https://www.flickr.com/photos/cdhs/

In the second half of the 19th century, the population in the Mazinaw area swelled with loggers and their families. Life was not easy for the women whose husbands were away logging during the winter, but they had the basics – a good community, a school for their children and access to a wide variety of goods from the local general store.

To get a better appreciation of this fascinating era in Ontario’s history, you can visit the Cloyne Pioneer Museum and Archives. There you’ll see a diorama of the Mazinaw tramway and a large model of the old log schoolhouse, which was constructed using two walls of the original schoolhouse. You’ll also enjoy looking at the old photographs covering everything from logging to community life to tourism associated with Bon Echo Provincial Park, less than a 10-minute drive north of the museum.

The Cloyne and District Historical Society  https://www.flickr.com/photos/cdhs/

Normally the museum opens in mid-June, but this year the timing is less certain owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. You’ll have to wait to hear about the province’s schedule for re-opening tourist sites. In the meantime, you can browse the on-line collection of old photographs to inspire your future travels.

Helen Cutts, KAM Visitor in Residence, Writer

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