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Timber Trade to 1850

Wood was the great staple of early-19th-century British North America. From the hemlock-white pine-northern hardwood forest that covered much of the land east of Lake Superior a bewildering variety of products – masts, spars, square (or ton) timber, deals, planks, boards, shingles, clapboards, laths, barrel staves, pot and pearl ashes, and firewood – went to markets as distant as Britain and the West Indies, and as different as shipyards, sugar plantations, steamboats, and speculative builders.

Farmers who worked for a time in the woods; ‘shantyboys’ who spent months in remote forest camps cutting trees through the winter; raftsmen, longshoremen, and sailors who carried forest products to market; and merchants who organized the trade – all played parts in the industry.

By mid-century the main characteristics of the trade are clear. Most exports came down the St Lawrence: white pine dominated square-timber shipments, but red pine was especially important in the Ottawa valley, and oak was the most significant product of the area upstream from the Welland Canal. In the Maritimes, where ton-timber output peaked in 1825, the bulk of exports came from the Saint John valley large, modern sawmills contributed an increasing proportion to shipments from the Saint John and Miramichi valleys; small quantities of wood left Pictou and a handful of ports with limited hinterlands in Prince Edward Island and on the Atlantic coast of Nova Scotia. Estimates of the numbers engaged in the trade are notoriously unreliable, but in 1845-6 no more than 8,000 full-time lumbermen/raftsmen would have been required to cut and bring the entire production of the Ottawa valley to Québec.

The onslaught on the forest was only slowly controlled. Neither New Brunswick nor Upper Canada established coherent systems of regulation until the mid-1820s, when the sale of licences gave lumbermen temporary (and generally short-term) rights to cut specified quantities of wood from designated tracts or ‘berths.’ Dependent upon rivers to bring their cut to market, and interested first in the best trees of the forest, lumberers moved rapidly up the colony’s major streams. Once the large accessible pines had been cut, they worked along shallower, more difficult tributaries, and cut smaller trees from areas earlier culled or ignored. By the 1830s they were blasting rocks from narrow brooks and building dams to flush their cut through troublesome passages. By the 1840s ton-timber production was down and new species (especially spruce) were being cut for sawmills.


This interactive map series contains three maps detailing aspects of the Eastern forestry. The first illustrates growth of the New Brunswick forestry industry. Data from 1891 to 1931 is mapped when users click and slide the year indicator below the legend. The second illustrates the value of sawn lumber for different localities in 1870 across four provinces as selected in the legend. The third depicts the value of various forestry product exports for 1850. Clicking on the legend brings up a pie chart showing detailed values in a given regions. The user can explore portions of each map by clicking to zoom in and out, and dragging to pan around it.


On the next page:

Eastern Forestry, 1850-1931

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