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Ulf T. Runesson

Faculty of Natural
Resources Management,
Lakehead University

955 Oliver Road,
Thunder Bay, Ontario,
Canada P7B 5E1

     (807) 343-8784

     (807) 346-7769


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For as long as Northwestern Ontario's forest has existed, its relationship with mankind has been inextricable. What is arguably Canada's 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 entire nation.

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 autumn's 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 Hudson's 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 today's Kenora), were established.

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 Canada's 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 Canada's 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.

Despite trade and activity opened up by the railway, Northwestern Ontario's 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 Minnesota's 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 company's sawmill in Duluth. Yet this vast raft of Ontario sawlogs represented only one-quarter of the company's cut.

But 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 town's only large industry until the shipyard was constructed a decade later.

The same era heralded the start of the Northwest's 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 region's 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 region's 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 Ontario's 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 industry's 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, Abitibi's 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 Bay's 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, Ontario's 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.

Recent lean years that started with the 1982 recession have produced a few casualties, however, including the closure of Abitibi-Price's Thunder Bay newsprint mill (since reopened by St. Laurent Paper as a packaging plant) and job cuts and retrenchment by other companies.

In the Northwestern Ontario forest, the lumberjack's 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.

Starting 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 lumberjacks.

Last Modified: January 20, 2014 20:01:06. 
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