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New Brunswick's forests of old


The abundance of New Brunswick's forest resources has been showcased for more than 200 years. The 19th century was a high point for development of timber exports to England and of the province's shipyards. Then in the early 20th century, the provincial economy was marked by the opening of many pulp and paper mills around the province.

Forest territory

Knowing that New Brunswick is 85% forest land in this early 21st century, we can readily imagine how immense the forest cover was 200 or 250 years ago. Farming had not yet been developed, and the small population meant very limited need for wood.

The province was set in the North American forest region dominated by white pine. There were also Eastern hemlock, spruce, birch, ash, maple, Eastern white cedar, and other species. Those huge forests were "the King's forests" and later became Crown lands when England transferred responsibility for them to the province in the 19th century.

England laid claim to the white pine for the booming shipbuilding business. The trees sought after were 30.5 metres tall or more and 1.5 metres or more around the base. They were used especially for making masts, bowsprits, and yards for British ships and for buildings and houses. New Brunswick became one of England's main suppliers of timber (pine, spruce, and other species) as the 19th century rolled on.

Southern and southeastern New Brunswick supplied large numbers of trees for British shipbuilding. Charlotte County led the logging sector at the very beginning. Canadian white pine was also harvested along the banks of the Saint John River at Oromocto and above Fredericton going towards the Tobique River, and in Westmorland County and the Miramichi region.

By the mid-19th century, the forest had changed somewhat owing to 50 years of harvesting. Given the strong sustained demand for pine and spruce, the most majestic of those trees had practically disappeared from areas flanking rivers and streams. However, the vast forest region of Madawaska had not been tapped; nor had the sections of deep forest.

Lumber and everyday needs

Nineteenth-century New Brunswickers felled trees to build bridges and make railway ties, but the primary purpose was to build their houses and clear tracts of land for cultivation. Trees were used to make house frames, walls, and doors. Farmers used trees to make harrows, tool grips and handles, and toys for their children. Fishermen used wood to build boats and make oars and shipping containers (toubes).

In the home, fir and spruce were used for making pails, basins, salt boxes, and butter churns, while cedar was often used for containers that did not come in contact with food. There was also firewood to be supplied: the wood was cut to stove-length, split, and then usually stacked in cords to dry. In the home, the family shared in those chores in one way or another; at college, the oldest students helped with that work.

The forests were also an important source of added annual income. It was commonplace and indeed expected that males would go work in the lumber camps starting in October and come back only the next spring.

Early in the 19th century, loggers built fairly simple winter camps of shanties made of roughly assembled pine or spruce logs, with a roof often of shingles and a chimney cut in the centre. Sometimes, the front of the shanty was 1.5 metres high and the rear set lower. The camp was surrounded by stumps. In front were stacks of firewood, wooden sleds, snowshoes, and sometimes saws, axes, and whetstones. The loggers also built a shelter for the oxen, hay, and oats. The provisions for human consumption were stored in a trench dug near the camp.

The lumber camp was preferably located near a body of water and in the centre of the area to be harvested. Other signs indicating the presence of a camp included a small path leading to the felled trees, as well as tree stumps and pine or spruce debris.

Lumber camps in the woods were part of the 19th and 20th centuries and varied with needs and the weather. For example, the large companies put up large camps and required the services of a cook and a blacksmith on site. Comfort and hygiene were debatable, however.

Bygone logging methods

Logging took place in winter and was plodding work since manual saws and axes were the main tools back then. The loggers felled large pine trees with a godendard, a two-man crosscut saw also known as a misery whip. A brace of oxen dragged the large logs out of the forest to a spot near the water where they were stacked.

Come spring, the disappearance of ice from the rivers and streams in April heralded the end of the tree felling season and the beginning of the log drive. The logs were thrown into the water and, if possible, assembled into timber rafts 121 to 153 metres long to be taken to a port - St. Andrews, Saint John, Richibucto, or Shippagan, for example - or to a shipyard or sawmill.

Standing on the logs, the drivers steered the timber rafts down-current. That was known as the spring drive. In the mid-19th century, the Saint John River and the Tatagouche, Tracadie, Tabousintac, Bartibog, Renous, Miramichi and many other rivers were used every spring, at high water, to transport timber felled during the winter.

In summer or fall, the streams had to be prepared for the log drive: debris was removed to open the way; sometimes the streams were even dug deeper or small dams were built to raise the water level and then dynamited once the logs had passed. All of the logs from different logging groups were driven down the same rivers and streams at the same time, making it necessary to mark them beforehand so that the owners could easily identify their own logs at the destination point.

Driving logs downriver was hard, hazardous work, and the days were long and tiring. Dynamiting when necessary and breaking up log jams in the river were jobs fraught with risk. Just standing upright on the floating logs for an entire day was a challenge in itself. The drivers were equipped with a pike pole and a long hook, called a peavey after the American inventor, and wore jack boots to gain purchase on the rafts. Driving usually lasted until June.

Sawmills soon played a major role throughout the province and grew in number. In 1831, Charlotte County, the leader in lumber production, apparently had about 60 of them. Ten years later, Westmorland County had 180 or so. Activity reached a high in 1845 when New Brunswick had 640 sawmills up and running.

The first sawmills were small facilities run on hydroelectric power, which is why they needed to be located near water. They consisted of a vertical blade set in a wooden frame connected by belts to a slow-turning, water-driven impeller. Sawing a log into plank lumber, boards, and laths was time-consuming using that technology. The addition of multiple blades later on speeded up the process.

A small sawmill might be 18.3 metres long, 12.2 metres wide, and 7.6 metres high. Only one or two operators were necessary. In the mid-19th century, steam-powered sawmills could handle considerably more lumber. Whereas water-powered mills operated in spring and early summer, those driven by steam were not dependent on the season or the amount of water in a stream and could operate non-stop all year long. The owners of these mills often ran large companies with several sites and hired easily a dozen workers at each mill.

Here are a few of the main names associated with the sawmills established in New Brunswick. There were James Allenshaw of St. Andrews and the Todd family of St. Stephen. In Chatham, Joseph Cunard and J.T. Williston had high profiles. Arthur Ritchie of Restigouche owned several sawmills. Starting in 1885, in Madawaska, Robert Connors' sawmills in Connors and then those owned by Thaddée Michaud and James Burgess of Grand Falls were lumber production hubs. In Edmundston, the James Murchie family owned a sawmill that gave rise to the Fraser pulp mill.

Timber trade

Although a tiny British colony, 19th-century New Brunswick gained notice in the timber trade by supplying England's naval yards.

The priority need was initially for squared white pine timber without knots and measuring at least one square foot at the base. When giant pines became scarcer during the 19th century, the timber trade turned to smaller trees. Spruce was also a major export product. The timber trade gave rise to a major economic sector in New Brunswick and helped establish international ties.

Thanks to that trade, New Brunswick's timber exporters developed shipbuilding in Saint John, Miramichi, and along the entire Acadian coast, including Kouchibougouac, Shippagan, Bathurst, and other places.

Shipbuilding in the province began as an adjunct to the timber trade. The cargos were loaded onto ships built in local shipyards, then both cargo and ship were very often sold on the first voyage to England.


The shipbuilding business flourished, for New Brunswickers were master craftsmen. Many wooden boats were made for local fishing purposes and general transportation. The most popular of the small vessels was the rowing boat. In the south of the province, the catamaran, or cat as it was also known, sailed the Saint John River. It was made from three to five large logs cut lengthwise, then solidly assembled and fitted with a small mast. It was a very safe vessel steered by a long pole or a sculling oar.

In the mid-19th century, shipbuilding was going full steam in New Brunswick. Each ship was built to its own specifications, depending on its intended use: hauling large cargos over the seas, speeding across the Atlantic, or carrying passengers.

Building a ship began with a mock-up. Then an expert searched the forest for the tree species and shapes of trunk and branches that fit that model. It was important to find trees with curvatures like those of the template. Those trees were marked, felled and cut up, after which the logs were transformed into timber and boards. Specialized craftsmen made wooden bolts to hold all the parts together since there were no nails at the time. Pine, maple, spruce, larch, and ash each had its own particular uses in shipbuilding.

Building a ship was also precision work requiring a basic understanding of physics and mathematics. In the 19th century, that knowledge was gained through experience and handed down from generation to generation.

New Brunswick's shipyards turned out a great many vessels. The schooner Betsy was one of the first ships built in Portland Point (Saint John). There were also the Flying Cloud, the Guiding Star, and others. Not all ships built in the province were registered or earned renown. Some of them did become famous, however.

The Marco Polo

The Marco Polo, a three-masted clipper ship that circumnavigated the world's seas, was built in 1851 at James Smith's shipyard in Saint John. It measured 56.4 metres in length with a beam of 11.6 metres and a draught of 9.1 metres. The Marco Polo had three decks and required about 60 sailors to run it well. The ship's interior is said to have included maple panelling, red velvet upholstery, and stained glass windows. Seagoing speed was the main asset of the Marco Polo and indeed earned it the title of "the fastest ship in the world."

After 15 years of numerous voyages between Liverpool and Melbourne, Australia, the Marco Polo had a second career as a merchant ship. Ultimately, that old, wave-worn king of the seas ran aground at Cavendish, Prince Edward Island. A poem by Lucy Maud Montgomery immortalized the Marco Polo, which earned glory for New Brunswick.

The Swordfish

The Swordfish was a famous ship made at J. Cunard's Miramichi shipyard in 1844. It was a 341-ton transport ship known mostly for the unequalled beauty of its lines and its style so skilfully rendered by craftsman builders. Known also for its sea going speed, it could make its regular run from Brazil to Liverpool, England, in about 25 days. The Swordfish had to be abandoned in 1852 during a shipwreck at sea on the way to Liverpool.

Pulp and paper in the early 20th century

The timber trade, shipbuilding, and sawmill activity continued into the 20th century. Although timber production recorded a high in 1915, logging on the whole could not sustain the vitality of the previous century.

In the early 20th century, the pulp and paper industry began attracting attention and investors. It was also the time when the hydroelectric potential of the province's rivers captured the imagination.

The first pulp and paper mills opened at the turn of the century in St. George on the little Magaguadavic River, in Mispec at the mouth of the Saint John River, and in Millerton, where glazed paper, a new product at the time, was manufactured. In no time at all, the Edmundston and Bathurst mills doubled their output, the Grand Falls mill was expanded, and other mills were under construction, including the larger, more modern Dalhousie newsprint mill built in 1929. As a rule, those communities experienced rapid population growth.

Pulp and paper mills created large numbers of jobs: first for building the mill and then actual production work, as well as all the logging and transportation jobs. The raw materials sought after were small softwood trees such as balsam fir and spruce. Those mills also used wood waste to make paper rolls, plywood, and composite panel and made particle board from the sawdust. Paper mills had a major role in the 20th-century economy of New Brunswick.


Logging has been a key defining characteristic of New Brunswick for two centuries. The timber trade was an economic boon from the time the province was founded. History has shown over all that time that the resource is not limitless and requires changes in harvesting habits for sustainable development.


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