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LUMBER CAMPS OF THE GATINEAU AND PONTIAC

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(Sketch by Gunda Lambton)The life of settlers in the Gatineau and Pontiac cannot be imagined without the special dimension it gained from the life and lore of the shanties. At the height of the lumber industry – between 1870 and 1900 – there were dozens of camps run by large companies in both the Pontiac and upper Gatineau. “There were ten thousand men working on the Black and Coulonge rivers alone. It was nothing to see five hundred teams on the road. They were as thick as crows.”(1)

These teams were plodding up the rough roads in the fall, towards camps which by that time were so far north that it took many days to reach them.For a century, the lore of the lumbercamps travelled from the Atlantic to the Mid-West, from north to south. Best known were the Paul Bunyan stories, wildly exaggerated feats of a gigantic lumberjack. In the Ottawa valley, such feats were attributed to Joe Montferrand (1802-1864), who was said to have thrown numerous Irish opponents into the Ottawa River.(2)

Like the Paul Bunyan stories, those about “Joe Mufferaw” were commercialized: stories invented by various writers were added to the original repertoire. Perhaps because they are sung and told by Irish singers, stories and songs of the Gatineau and Pontiac seldom include these giants. Songs still sung here are about the dangers of breaking a log jam during the spring drive, as in “The Jam on Gerry’s Rock,” “Jim Whelan,” and “Lost Jimmy Whelan,” laments known in shanties throughout Canada.Then there are songs describing specific camps: “McCool’s Camp,” “Conroy’s Camp,” “Haeffy’s Camp.” They were composed for the initiated, often with humorous asides about personalities and activities well-known to their audience.

Timber Slide and Bridge on the Ottawa. Engraving by W. H. Bartlett, 1842. (Source - Private collection)

All through the 19th century, logging companies cut timber along the tributaries of the Ottawa. The first raft of squared timbers went down to Quebec in 1806. In the 1840s, the camps began to provide logs for sawn lumber. Sawmills sprang up wherever water power was available. Hurling Down the Pine gives the history of the logging companies from the Wrights and Gilmours of the Gatineau to J. R. Booth and Gillies, two of the latest and largest companies logging in the north-west area of Pontiac County. When the original stands of pine had been depleted, logging was done for pulp, using younger trees and advanced procedures that put an end to shanty-life. However, logs floated down the Gatineau to the Canadian International paper Company until the early 1990s.

End Notes:
1. Venetia Crawford, Pontiac Treasures in Song and Story, Shawville, 1979, 38.
2. Benjamin Sulte, Histoire de Montferrand (1802-1864), Montreal, 1884.