Northwest Forest History
The Past | The Present | The Future |
A Symbiotic History
|For as long as Northwestern Ontarios forest has existed, its
relationship with mankind has been inextricable. What is arguably Canadas most
historically important forest product the birchbark canoe was central to
human evolution in this region and, in turn, profoundly influenced the development of our
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The first humans to live in Northwestern Ontario, the
caribou-hunting Paleo-Indians, pre-dated the forest. But as the massive glaciers of the
last Ice Age receded northward, the tundra-like terrain disappeared. As the climate grew
warmer and drier, a new group of people established themselves about 5000 B.C. They
belonged to the Shield Archaic culture. They adapted their lifestyle to the new plant
ecology. They pursued small game, fished, and made copper tools.
Before 1000 BC the Woodland Amerindians appeared. These
people of the Laurel culture likely moved into the area from the south and east, following
the spread of wild rice into the Upper Great Lakes. The Laurel people engaged in
long-distance commerce, exchanging Lake Superior copper for things like Atlantic coast
seashells. They discovered and used the network of waterways that would prove
indispensable to the fur trade three thousand years later.
In the late Woodland period, about 900 AD., two cultures
emerged from the Laurel culture: around Lake Superior was the Blackduck culture, possibly
related to the Ojibwa, and the Selkirk culture, believed to be prehistoric Cree. In each,
the people banded together in large villages for autumns wild rice harvest. Families
wintered together in small groups, in the spring reuniting with other groups for the
sturgeon spawning runs. They lived in wood and bark oval lodges, forerunners of wigwams.
European exploration of the region began in the
17th Century. In 1660, adventurers Pierre Esprit Radisson and Medard Chouart, Sieur des
Groseilliers, were the first to reach the western end of Lake Superior. They left with a
rich haul of furs and knowledge of "the Great Bay of the North." Rebuffed by New
France, they eventually took their plans and discoveries to London. In 1670 they saw their
brainchild become reality when Charles II granted a far-reaching charter to "the
Company of English adventurers trading into Hudsons Bay."
For the next two hundred years, the history of Northwestern
Ontario was written by fur traders and missionaries.
In 1667, Jesuit priest Father Claude Allouez, established a
mission in Lake Nipigon country. The first settlements trading posts were
built by Daniel Greysolon, Sieur de Du Lhut, on Lake Nipigon and the Kaministiquia River
(now Thunder Bay) in 1679. Exploration pushed westward through the region, with Jacques de
Noyon the first European to see Rainy Lake. By 1731, other trading posts, including Fort
St. Pierre (now Fort Frances) and Fort St. Charles (near todays Kenora), were
At the beginning of the 19th Century the largest trading
post on the continent was established by the Montreal-based North West Company. On the
bank of the Kam River at Thunder Bay, the sprawling stockade of Fort William was the focal point of Central
Canadas fur trade for 20 years.
By the 1860s the fur trade was already giving way to mining
and logging as the major economic activities. Induced by mineral exploration and spurred
by ship access to Lake Superior, European settlers began to arrive and with them a need
for lumber. Wood was hewn for buildings and corduroy roads, especially the Dawson Road to
the Red River Valley. Early mines, such as that at Silver Islet on the Sibley Peninsula,
required large amounts of timber for shoring up shafts and keeping at bay the
waters of Lake Superior.
The first important vein of gold discovered in Northwestern
Ontario was found at the Huronian Mine near Lake Shebandowan. Further gold discoveries
were made at Rainy Lake in 1877 and Lake-of-the-Woods in 1878. Exploration for silver and
other precious metals, and also for iron, continued over the next 30 years to open the
area to settlement and development.
But local lumber requirements and the millennia-old
dominance of the canoe were dwarfed by the arrival of Canadas
transcontinental railway. The road of steel was also made of wood. Given urgence by the
Riel Rebellion, the construction of the C.P.R. from the Lakehead to the Red River Valley
during 1876-1882 required millions of ties and bridge timbers to span miles of bedrock and
swamp. A few years later tie-supply contracts of the same scale went into the eastward
expansion of the railway around the North Shore of Lake Superior.
trade and activity opened up by the railway, Northwestern Ontarios logging industry
did not put down permanent roots or add significant value until the turn of the century.
For a couple of decades, lumbering in much of the region was dominated by white and red
pine and by American interests which drove the logs down rivers and across lakes
south to sawmills in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Typical of the time were operations in the Pigeon River
watershed south of the Lakehead where Minnesotas Alger, Smith and Co. built two
camps, log slides and a huge booming ground in Pigeon Bay. In July 1899 alone, 10 million
board-feet of pine was towed to the companys sawmill in Duluth. Yet this vast raft
of Ontario sawlogs represented only one-quarter of the companys cut.
the Alger, Smith operation was an anachronism. In 1897, the Ontario Legislature amended
the Crown Timber Act to ban the export of raw sawlogs. Two years, later it imposed the
same "manufacturing condition" on pulpwood. Sawmilling within Northwestern
Ontario expanded exponentially.
The export-ban laws immediately benefitted the Lakehead
communities of Fort William and Port Arthur. An associate in the Pigeon River operation,
Wisconsin lumberman Daniel Arpin, switched production by buying the Graham, Horne and Co.
sawmill in Fort William. A second, giant sawmill with a sash, door and blind factory was
built on the Port Arthur waterfront in 1902. It was the towns only large industry
until the shipyard was constructed a decade later.
The same era heralded the start of the Northwests
pulp and paper industry. With the white and red pine stands of the rural Lakehead and
Rainy River areas diminished due to logging and clearing for agriculture, attention
switched to the plentiful supply of spruce, a species ideal for pulp and paper.
A pulp mill was established in Fort Frances in 1914 and a paper mill in
Fort William in 1918 by E. W. Backus. The regions pulpwood industry, fuelled by the
United States insatiable import needs, rose in lockstep with a four-fold population
explosion in the Lakehead from 7,000 in 1901 to 28,000 by 1911. The industry also prompted
the rapid development of other Northwest communities.
To the west, Dryden began as a farming settlement in the 1880s and, by the early 1900s, there were 600 farms
in the area. Town expansion began in earnest along with the first sawmill, that of
Alexander Skene, in 1897. Two more were built soon after. By 1911, the town was officially
incorporated and the Dryden Timber and Power Company started production of its kraft pulp
mill, one of the first in Canada.
Mining and pulpwood remained the regions engines of
growth throughout the First World War and the Roaring Twenties. Additional mills
were built in Fort William in 1924 and in Port Arthur in 1926. Major companies like
Abitibi Ltd. expanded west to acquire an interest in the Fort William Paper Company and
Thunder Bay Paper Company. By 1929, the best part of a million cords of pulpwood a year
were required to fuel Northwestern Ontarios mills.
The Great Depression hit the industry hard. Major companies
like Abitibi went into receivership for 14 years, although some production continued. The
Fort Frances pulp mill closed. Employment and mill production slumped to a fraction of the
levels of the previous decade. Turbulence rocked the logging workforce, with abortive
strikes in 1933 in the Lakehead area and in 1935 in Nipigon. Logging continued, much of it
in camps established to provide work for thousands of destitute men.
The second World War was the catalyst for the regional
forest products industrys longest expansion and transformation into the modern era.
In the 1940s, bankrupt plants restarted and new ones were built. Fort Frances pulp
mill was reopened by the Minnesota and Ontario Paper Company. J.A. Mathieu Company started
a permanent sawmill at Sapawe Lake, near Atikokan.
In 1943, Abitibis Provincial Paper mill in Port Arthur introduced "on the
machine" coated paper for magazines, the first in Canada.
The war and post-war boom and new technology that enabled
pulp and paper to use jack pine drove further expansion. New mills were built at Red Rock in 1944,
Marathon in 1945 and Terrace Bay in 1948. This last, the Kimberly-Clark mill, was built
along with something new for Northwestern Ontario the planned company town. Terrace
Bays townsite was carefully plotted to include self-contained residential areas and
an internal park system.
Until recently this network of Northwestern Ontario
pulp, paper and sawmills has remained basically unchanged. But production, modernization
and diversification have increased tremendously. Ownership has also experienced startling
change. The biggest companies in the region are Weyerhauser Canada Ltd., Abitibi-Consolidated
and Bowater Inc., latter the product of Thunder Bay-based Great Lakes Paper which, for a time, was owned by Avenor Inc..
Buchanan Forest Group, Ontarios biggest sawmiller and
the largest timber harvester east of B.C., is another significant corporate evolution. As
major pulp and paper firms pulled out of sawmilling in the 1970s and 1980s, Buchanan moved
in, acquiring six mills, building a seventh and assembling a huge workforce of contract
loggers. Buchanan is now the largest company headquartered in Northwestern Ontario.
lean years that started with the 1982 recession have produced a few casualties, however,
including the closure of Abitibi-Prices Thunder Bay newsprint mill (since reopened
by St. Laurent Paper as a packaging plant) and job cuts and retrenchment by other
In the Northwestern Ontario forest, the lumberjacks
work and lifestyle have been revolutionized over the years. Dangerous log drives down
watercourses were the main means of timber delivery for 80 years. Bucksaws and horses
constituted the tools of the trade into the Second World War. Mechanization began its
transformation of this rough, tough, most physical of occupations starting with donkey
engines, Shay locomotives and the chainsaw in the 1950s. The 1960s saw the introduction of
skidders, fowarders and log-haul trucks. In the 1970s and 1980s, productivity per worker
increased up to 12 times as feller-forwarders, slashers and whole-tree chipping machines
in turn replaced cut and skid crews.
before but especially since the completion of the Trans-Canada Highway in the late 1950s,
river drives and rafts have been displaced by log-haul trucks using a network, greatly
expanded in the last 20 years, of all-weather bush roads. Live-in logging camps have been
replaced by commuter operations or, in some cases, the nomadic lifestyle of contract