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Death of a Salesman – But Not A Forest

For the week of Monday December 5, 2005

December 8, 1925, marked the passing of one of Ontario’s finest sales and lumbermen – John Rudolphus “J.R.” Booth.

The forest looking north from Kaminiskeg Lake and the Madawaska River
© Parks Canada / Joshua Blank / 2005

Having supplied the timber for the construction of the Parliament Buildings and considered by many to be “the biggest lumberman ever known,” his family inherited the $23 million estate, his mansion on Metcalfe St. in Ottawa, as well as numerous logging, pulp and paper and commercial ventures.

In the early 1800s, as a result of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, the Ottawa Valley supplied pine and oak to the British navy for shipbuilding. The trend of exporting lumber continued after the war. Although Philemon Wright first started logging the Ottawa Valley by establishing a mill at Chaudière Falls in 1806, it was J.R. Booth who dominated the logging industry in the valley from the mid-1800s onward.

Having obtained the logging rights to 250 square miles of virgin pine in the Madawaska River/Algonquin Park region, Booth’s mills produced 140 million board feet of lumber by 1892. He further expanded his industry by setting up the largest personally owned railway in the world to transport lumber from the camps to his empire at Chaudière. At 600 km in length, the Ottawa, Arnprior and Parry Sound Railway was completed in 1896. In 1904 it was sold to the Grand Trunk Railway.

A Booth lumber camp at Aylen Lake (1895)
© Library and Archives Canada / C-075266
Many lumbermen and early settlers were employed in logging industries run by magnates such as Booth, Daniel McLachlin, and M.J. O’Brien. During the winter, when frozen ground and ice made timber transportation easier, thousands of lumbermen would set off to the winter camps for seasonal income. They felled and squared thousands of virgin pine before teams of horses dragged the timber out of the bush. The men were housed in crowded “camboose shanties” during the winter months before returning home during the spring when the ice break up allowed for river transport of the logs on the Madawaska and Petawawa rivers.

Although only a few stands of virgin trees - such as Gillies Grove and House National Historic Site - still exist, the lumber industry remains the primary industry for most in the Ottawa Valley. Large businesses such as Murray Brothers Lumber Company Ltd. – which was formed in the era of Booth - continue the long-standing tradition of harvesting timber. . A National Historic Persons plaque honouring Philemon Wright was unveiled in Gatineau, Quebec in 2000 and the Forest Industry in the Ottawa Valley was designated as a National Historic Event in 1943. The Queen Anne Style John R. Booth Residence was also designated in 1990.

For more information on Philemon Wright, please see the story about the founding of Hull.

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