Though finally complete, the
Rideau Canal was not to play a large part in the economic development of the Bytown for
the next two decades. The new community instead began to thrive as the supply entrepot of
the timber trade which passed by the river. In addition, the Ottawa Valley`s rich red and
white pine forests were well known, especially to the British, who tariff concessions
fostered the growth of the Canadian timber trade.
A large number of masts and
spars were exported; however, squared timber became the main export. In the latter form
wood could be economically shipped overseas by the way of special vessels which had doors
in the bows. Squared timber also lent itself readily to rafting because it held together
well in the pegged cribs. In spite of these merits, squaring was nevertheless wasteful. It
used only the best trees, and left much debris in the forest, causing a fire danger.
"River men" eat dinner on
one of J.R Booth's rafts in Ottawa in 1880. Some of these men stand under the roof of the
"caboose" (or more properly "cambuse"), a protected area constructed
on one crib where food was prepared (over a fire built on a sand floor). The men lived on
the rafts, sleeping in the small cabins in beds made of half-cylinders of bark about eight
feet long. The tools of their trade, the broadaxe, a grinding wheel, and the 30-foot oars
called sweeps, are also visible on the raft.
In addition to square-timber
operations, lumbering was important to the Ottawa economy and provided valuable seasonal
employment from autumn to early spring. Cramped sleeping quarters caused not only
discomfort but the spread of disease. The arrival n the summer of 1847 of over 3,000 Irish
immigrants brought a typhus epidemic to Bytown. Canal traffic was curtailed in August, and
a separate Emigrants Hospital was built in Ottawa, and both Catholic and Protestant
doctors fought the typhus. Of the 619 victims treated, 167 died.
there followed four years of unprecedented and
unusual violence in Bytown. Irish labourers, recently released from the canal work, now
vied for position among the raftsmen and the timber cutters. They also began to organize
for political power. Called "Shiners", these workers attempted to shut
French-Canadian and other rivals out of forest and river employment.
In combat with those Irishmen,
French-Canadians developed their own folk hero: Joseph (Jos) Montferrand has become as
important as Davy Crockett is to the Americans. Lanark poet Charles Mair describes this
giant: Montferrand worked as rafting foreman for Gilmour and Company on the Ottawa River;
in the this role and as a citizen of Bytown, he had many an encounter with the Shiners.
The shanty fire burned day and
night for cooking and heating in a 12 foot-square area surrounded by timber and filled in
by sand. The camp dinner was cooked suspended over the fire from the cramier or
crémaillere. Only later in the century did stoves come into use, closing the square hole
in the shanty roof which formerly had remained opened all year to let in light and let out
smoke. The men sit around the fire and on the low bench running alongside the lower tier
of bunks against the walls.
The men of the lumber trade led hard lives.
Despite, their many hardships, the lumbermen found time to relax and make the best of
In the evenings and on Sundays,
the men had time to relax and entertain themselves. After dinner the men would sharpen
their axes on grindstones, and hang their clothes from the cook's cranes to dry them.
Sometimes they would sit around the fire on their benches, called "Deacon
Seats", to smoke, chew tobacco, eat, play cards or checkers, and read books or write
Occasionally on Sundays, a
traveling priest would arrive at the lumber camp and conduct religious services for the
men. Some of the men might go out on brief hunting or fishing trips to augment their meals
with fresh meat.
In his book, Up To Date or The
Life Of A Lumberman, written in 1895, George S. Thompson wrote, "Sunday is
cleaning up day, the men doing their washing and mending on that day, that is the few who
would go to that trouble. Quite a number would never change their underclothes or shirts
until the clothes wore out, and as to washing their feet, such a thing never entered their
Saturday nights were spent dancing,
singing and telling stories, as the men were able to sleep in on Sunday. The dancing was
known as "buck-dancing" because there were no women with whom to dance. Some of
the men wore kerchiefs on their heads or around their waists to play the part of the women
in the dances. Fiddle playing and singing were popular entertainment at the camp. A lively
mix of musical and storytelling styles were created due to the wide variety of backgrounds
of the men. The shanty songs are known collectively as "Come all ye's", because
so many of them started with those words. There were many such songs, sung both in English
and French, mentioning the names of real people, places and dates.
When the men arrived back in
Ottawa, they often became quite rowdy, and brawls and damage to public property were all
too common. Merchants, barkeepers and others soon relieved the loggers of a large portion
of their winter's earnings. The citizens of Ottawa viewed their behaviour as a disgrace,
but because lumbering was the lifeblood of the economy, they often turned a blind eye to
the loggers' behaviour.