The Timber Days

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 their situation.

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 letters.

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 minds."

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.  

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