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The Timber Industry - VENI, VIDI, VICI! (I came, I sawed, I conquered!)

Updated: Apr 22

(... with apologies to Julius Caesar)

(Updated article originally published Nov. 14 2021)

Timber Raft on the Ottawa - GH Andrews 1860 - London Illustrated News

A foundation made of timber

THE NATIONAL CAPITAL'S HISTORY as a settlement begins with the birth of the Timber Industry, of course, but there's a lot of that story that has never really been fleshed out.

We're told that the Ottawa Valley timber industry began on June 11, 1806 with the launching of Philemon Wright's Columbo, the first square-timber raft on the Ottawa River ... and basically, that's true. Philemon Wright was the man who made it happen. But when pondering how that came to be, the first questions that historians might have asked were, how the heck does a farmer become a timber baron? How exactly did he have the wherewithal to get that done? And, he couldn't have done that alone, could he?

At least one historian who obviously knew so much about farming! (sarcasm...) explained it this way: When Philemon first saw the Ottawa Valley from the top of a pine tree he said "Golly gee willikers, lookit' all the trees! That's just gotta mean this land is going to be great for growing crops! But then Philemon cleared the land, sadly, he found the soil to be too thin & rocky for farming." So ... he started the timber industry instead! Makes sense, right?

That version of things sure doesn't make Philemon look terribly bright, does it? Once you put the real story together, though, it's actually the historian who was one pine tree short of a forest.

That story ignored the historical fertility of the Ottawa Valley, borne out by the reports to the Crown from Joseph Bouchette, the Surveyor General of Lower Canada in Philemon's day, that gave glowing descriptions of Philemon's farm community as one of the most successful and bountiful in North America.

From the plough to the axe

WITH a little digging (pardon the pun) into farming practices of the 19th century, some of those questions can now be answered.

Everyone who grew up on a farm back then in the 19th century, had to be a jack of all trades and the master of many (turning the aphorism around). In Philemon Wright's day, every farmer was an experienced axe man and an expert at clearing stumps. Every farmer knew how to process wood into potash, make lye for soap, lime for whitewash, and mortar - all necessities in a pioneer settlement.

Every farmer also had to work hand-in-hand with millers, blacksmiths and tanners. Knowing today how Philemon set up his settlement, there is little doubt that he came here with tons of experience, knowledge and preparation, in all those things.

So, Philemon had everything he needed except, perhaps, for an inexhaustible supply of money. His plan was to have a cash crop as soon as possible that he could sell in Montreal, in order to resupply the coffers before his money ran out - and he almost succeeded.

In the first year here, he had 100 acres of wheat and flax ready for market. By 1804, he had the largest harvest of hemp in Lower Canada. The problem he always faced, though, was getting his crops to market. So, while trying to build the village, and having so much difficulty getting crops to market, his money inevitably ran low.

Shipbuilding in the XIXth century

A new Wright wrinkle

THE oft-repeated claim from historians is that Philemon Wright's launch of his first raft was the result of the Continental Blockade of Baltic timber imposed by Napoleon in Nov. 1806, but new research shows that was just not the case.

In a contract dated Jan. 1805 – almost 2 years before the blockade - Philemon gathers some of the men in his township to cut timber for the 1st raft and prepare the thousands of staves that will be sold in Quebec City. Then, in a letter dated Nov. 1805 – again, a full year before the blockade - Philemon urges his wife Abigail and son Philemon Jr. to get the associates moving on the contract so that it can be ready to go in Spring. Here is an extract:

I have every encouragement to expect meeting with good success in all my business or I shall write to you to the contrary. I must have patience and so must you, but it must be mixed with the greatest degree of perseverance, you must use your every exertion in the first phase to get in those logs to the sawmill or getting them piled at least: the people that are owing me payments if they won’t help you, tell them that your intentions is to send me their names to Montreal so that I may have an opportunity to govern myself accordingly when I arrive in the Township. I wish to engage as many in the stave business as is possible under our existing circumstances … I wish you to show this letter to Mr. Gideon Olmsted and consult him on all my business until my arrival as to provision you considerably better than I can. If Mr. Gideon Olmsted has not sold those fat oxen that he and I talked about, you had better get them. If you and he can agree I wish you to call on Mr. Daniel Wyman, L. (London) Oxford, Martin Ebert and John Turner.

So, from this it is apparent that although the blockade accelerated the trade in timber by raising the tariffs, the blockade itself was not what started the flow of rafts to Quebec City. Philemon was simply taking advantage of the best cash crop he had: the abundant timber on the land he owned in the valley.

Timber Duties were first imposed by Britain in the 18th century to provide revenue and Britain's tariffs on imported wood would become an integral component of the 19th-century British North American timber trade.

Later, the tariffs fluctuated wildly and, as a result, the timber industry would become a fairly unstable industry, making both the fortune and ruin of many a lumber baron.

As the Canadian Encyclopedia puts it: "Duties increased from 1803 to 1811 in order to replenish depleted treasury coffers and in response to Napoleon's Continental Blockade as Britain established a protected market for colonial producers." [1]

So in 1805, Philemon was already aware of the hefty market for both rough-milled lumber (staves) and square timber before Napoleon's Baltic blockade of timber. He had obviously decided that timber could be his cash crop, and he concocted an audacious plan to float tons of it down the Ottawa River - a plan that would bring crops, flour, potash, and lumber to market on a giant square-timber raft.

The plan may have been brilliant, but the habitants downriver who knew the river best, said "C'est impossible, Philémon! Les chutes are too dangereux. You gonna go glou-glou under water, if you try dat."

Undaunted, Philemon signed a contract in 1805 to deliver 6000 oak staves and square pine the next year to Quebec City and then enlisted several men to help him get it done. The actual shipment would eventually contain 700 pieces of oak, 9000 boards & planks, and several thousand staves.

The men he chose were among the most trusted men in the settlement. They were:

  • London Oxford: London was with Philemon & his brother Thomas Wright when they decided to come to the Ottawa Valley in 1800. He was a close associate and a free black man.

  • John Love: Thomas Wright died soon after arriving, in 1801 and John Love married Thomas's widow, Mary, in 1805.

  • Elisha Sheffield: he built Philemon's mills in 1804, and he would later marry Thomas Wright's daughter Polly.

  • Daniel Wyman: Philemon's wife Abigail's 1st cousin.

  • Gideon Olmstead: millwright and father of Philemon Junior's wife, Sally.

  • Harvey Parker: likely one of the axemen who arrived in 1800.

The detective who solved the mystery of - Columbo

DID Philemon Wright design the square timber raft that he apparently named Columbo?[2] Philemon left no drawings or description of Columbo, so how do we know what it looked like? In 1943, Charlotte Whitton - who was Ottawa's plucky, little, powerhouse Mayor in the 1950s and 60s - wrote a book titled A Hundred Years A-Fellin', in which she gave the first written description of the construction of an Ottawa Valley square timber raft. (Description in footnotes)[3]

A square timber crib - Charlotte Whitton 1943

At first blush, it may have appeared a pretty far-fetched tale that any farmer could be ingenious enough to build such a craft. However, a closer look again at history, gives us a clue as to how that could have been possible.

The Wright family farm back in Woburn, Massachusetts, was just two miles away from the Mystic River, one of the the main waterways in Massachusetts, leading to Boston. In the 19th century, farmers would transport their goods to market in Boston, sailing flatboats into the Mystic - ♫ And I wanna rock your gypsy soul, Just like way back in the days of old, And together we will float, Into the Mystic . (Musical interlude brought to you by the great Van Morrison)

The American Flatboat - unknown artist

It only stands to reason that Philemon would have been familiar with flatboats and he may have even built some. By its construction, Columbo appears to simply be a modified flatboat with no sides.

That being said, we can't know for sure that Philemon designed Columbo but we do know how it was built. Philemon hired many workers for his farms and settlement - many of whom were skilled axe men and builders from Woburn and who eventually settled in the Township of Hull - not the least would be Elisha Sheffield and Gideon Olmstead.

The Columbo was launched at the mouth of the Gatineau River from the bay called the Rafting Place right by the shore of London Oxford's property.

It drifted with the current and sailed with the wind, the men steering the unwieldy craft with long sweeps cut from oak in the woods ... until all hell broke loose at the rapids along the way, where the cribs would often break apart.

It took two months for the first journey, a time that was eventually whittled down (ahem) to one, as they gained more experience navigating the rapids.

Who were the first Ottawa Valley Raftsmen?

WHEN the Columbo was duly christened and sent on its way down the treacherous Ottawa River, it was manned by just five intrepid men.

The Log Raft - Cornelius Kreighoff 1860

Philemon, himself, was the fearless captain - at a spry 45 years of age - and he brought along his 17-year-old son, Tiberius, who would go on to spend more of his life on the river than any other of his four brothers.

On board as well, was the much trusted London Oxford, and two other men, Martin Ebert and John Turner, that Philemon mentions in a letter to his wife Abigail: "The two last‐named persons you don’t know, but you may depend on them being two good men from personal knowledge I have of them."

The First Raft on the Ottawa, CW Jefferys 1945

So even though the fanciful Jefferys painting shows Philemon on a heavily manned raft, wearing a gentleman's hat and attired in his Sunday-go-to-meeting duds, the scene was actually quite different. There were no oarsmen wearing the habitant toque and sash and it is most certain that one of the faces of the first raftsmen was black.

It would be a while before the rafts would be manned by anyone other than Philemon's family and his trusted associates from Massachusetts, but eventually, many others would become raftsmen; some were Canadiens from Montreal, and some were Irishmen, some who were looking for work after the Rideau Canal was completed. A small few of those Irishmen would later be known as Bytown's famous Shiners (from the French word chêneurs, meaning hewers of oak), who probably did more to tarnish Bytown's early reputation than any other group of citizens. (For more about the Shiners click here, and here). Many Irish citizens were unjustly tarnished by this Shiners era.

The rafts that were sent down the river brought money and workers into Wright's Town and Bytown, and the new settlers who came to participate in the "timber rush" ushered in Canada's Industrial Era. That new industry is what transformed a wilderness into the Capital of the country.


[1] For more on timber duties, click here.

[2] Although most histories report that Philemon named his first square timber raft Columbo, I have never come across a source that supports the claim.

[3] Excerpt from A Hundred Years A-Fellin', Charlotte Whitton, printed from Gillies Brothers Ltd., Braeside ON; The Runge Press, Ottawa ON; Hunter-Rose Co. Toronto ON; 1942; pgs. 124-126:

Rafting was an achievement in design and workmanship. The unit of the raft was the crib. For this two long, fair square timbers, usually of red pine and of exactly the same length, were selected. They would be the length of the average timbers of the crib, forty to fifty feet each.

About a foot from the end of each side stick, three-inch auger holes were bored, and into these pins-strong wooden stakes or pickers, usually of ironwood or oak, about three feet high-were tightly wedged.

About a foot from the end of each side stick, three-inch auger holes were bored, and into these pins-strong wooden stakes or pickers, usually of ironwood or oak, about three feet high-were tightly wedged.

Then two timbers of about 25 feet 6 inches each were selected (the slides were 26 feet wide),-of red pine or white spruce or white pine or tamarac. These were hewn flat on two sides to· a thickness of about eight inches and also bored with auger holes, at each end, at such distance in as to bring them flush with the outside edge of the side timbers, on top of which they were wedged down tightly on the same bolt pins. These were the cross pieces or traverses which, with these side timbers, formed the frame of the crib. Then, parallel to the side timbers, one timber after another was .fitted in, lengthwise under the "travarses," to the number of twenty to twenty-four, varying with the size of the timbers, the last timber being shoved in, to fit so tightly that it had to be wedged. Then two more travarses - on a heavy crib perhaps three - were spiked down to the side frames to contain the buoyancy o the timbers themselves.

The four or five travarses, all in place, and the timbers wedged tightly in the frame, the heavy "loading sticks" were then pulled on to the crib. These were large "waney" timbers (the bevelled edges were apt to be easier on a driver's shins, even through the river men's boots!) They were placed on top of the travarses, one at each side, over the side frame timbers, and one or two towards the centre. To save the timber, they were not bored through, but were held securely in place by wooden "calumet" pins driven tightly in to the travarse on either side of each. In the centre of the outside loading sticks heavy rowlocks were securely fastened to hold the oars by which the crib was ordinarily propelled. At each comer of the side loading sticks, iron thole pins were driven (on a heavy crib, on the end of the central loading sticks as well). These pins were wide enough to take the huge oars-twenty-two to twenty-five feet long-when manoeuvring of the crib required a quick shift for its direction from either end.

The cribs were built to run through the slides and fairly heavy "white' water" but before the slides were built, and where they were not available, cribs were dispersed and the timbers driven through loose. Consequently, each piece in the crib,- travarses, timbers and loading sticks,-was marked with the number of the crib and its place in the frame so that it could be quickly reassembled, in the banding waters.

The cribs made, they were then assembled into rafts, each raft containing from ninety to one hundred or even up to two hundred cribs, strung out eight to ten cribs wide on a corresponding depth. The cribs were "coupled" together, end to end, by "cap pieces,"- usually red pine, (8 inches or 10 inches by 3 inches thick), and long enough to stretch from the bolt stake or picket on one crib to the one on the next, and permit three feet of open water between cribs to allow for play and flexibility, as the great blanket of timbers rode the waters. Cribs were laced together, side by side, by banding chains. On the St. Lawrence rafts were always bound together by "wythes"-the birch saplings, twisted into long sinewy thongs-which were then used as "ropes." On the Ottawa these cap sticks and chains were used for the main "couplings" of the cribs, the wythes being used largely to lash travarses and timbers, and travarses, side timbers and loading sticks together, for cribs going through rough water. The "band" was a unit of the raft; into which it might be broken for running through main stream rapids of moderate drop like the Chats or Long Sault. The band would be three to five cribs wide, by three to seven long, varying with the width of channel of the rapid and the volume of water in the stream.

One crib was fitted out as the "cookery crib," complete with central open fireplace, twelve feet square, built up on it, and "sand ovens" raised eighteen inches for the bake kettles in which the bread was baked. The fire was built in the centre on a deep bed of sand and a stick slung between two crotches, six feet high. From this pole hung the pots for cooking. On the cookery crib, bake troughs, cupboards or supplies and benches for the cook and cookee were built. Square timbers were mounted for Deacon seats for the men. The roof on the cook's 'galley' was of boards and had to be laid in sections, to be taken down and replaced in passing under low bridges.

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