Project Canterbury

Pioneer Work in Algoma

By Eda Green

London: Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, 1915.

Chapter II. The Coming of the White Man.

THE Hudson Bay Company was the pioneer in opening up Canada in early days. The low square forts flying the English flag, and with the mystic trading letters 'H.B.C.,' were planted farther and farther west, and the factors (who were independent rulers in these posts) dealt with the Indians who each season encamped around them.

Over the snow, and beneath the giant fir-trees, the Red men had spent the long winter in trapping the wild animals; the furs of wolf and bear, of mink, ermine, and fox which they had collected were valuable, and the business of exchanging them in barter with the factor was a process not to be hurried over; so the wigwams were set up for the summer, and the squaws and papooses gathered wild berries, while the men parted with their booty for beads or knives, for blankets or fire-arms.

Sault Ste. Marie was for many years the most important post; and in the centre of a group of modern 'works,' the block-house--the small quaint building which was formerly the Hudson Bay powder-magazine--has been preserved. On the edge of civilisation some of these posts remain to this day. No longer a fort, the building appears outside to be an ordinary store, serving the village needs, and inside the shelves are filled with all the wares of a general shop; but if the factor admits you to the upper floor, you find it covered with hundreds of skins--lynx, sable, marten, with many others--and piled up on one side are the special Hudson Bay blankets, made for the Company in England, and sold to the Indians, the white ones for six or eight dollars (twenty-four to thirty-three shillings) a pair, the striped ones for more, and here still the Indians come and camp as they did two hundred years ago.

Besides the Hudson Bay officers a few settlers made their way up the rivers which, for so many centuries, had been the unchallenged fishing-ground of the Indian; but the 'coming' of the Englishman to Algoma was not till far on in the nineteenth century. Then some sons of Canadians from the east, and others from the old land, made new homes in the beautiful Muskoka district on the shores of the Georgian Bay, and along the endless chain of lovely lakes and rivers. The richer settlers went farther west, but those without much capital stayed here by the way: the land was covered with forest and it was a hard matter to clear it and to make farming-land, even where any depth of soil covered the rock. The scant resources of the newcomer were often exhausted in putting up his log-house and farm buildings, and he could make only a bare living, without any surplus by which to improve his land; after some years this got worked out, and so, unsuccessful farmers, if they could, moved on west. Now, as you watch the banks from the small steamers which so wonderfully thread the winding rivers and skirt the borders of the lakes, you pass many deserted homesteads where enterprising men, with a knowledge how to manage a farm, might buy land with buildings on it very cheaply, and run a fair chance of success in mixed farming or sheep raising. The story of one valley, settled some five-and-twenty years ago, is typical of what may be done.

The woods north of Lake Huron were almost unexplored, save by the trapper. One summer, a man from the home-land found his way some twenty miles 'way back' and discovered an upland valley where, beneath the forest growth, he thought the land seemed good. There he cut down a few trees and put together a rude shack. The forest has no guide-posts; so to lead him to the spot again he cut blazes (i.e. marks on the trees) as he made his way out to the shore village where he had left his wife. There was no other way by which the valley could be reached: no road existed, and if it had, they had no horse. Everything--stove, bedding, food, clothes, chickens--must be carried on their backs; so they packed up as much as they could manage, and the husband, wife and children, and the man's brother started out. On they plodded through the woods, the children often stumbling and lagging behind. At the top of the steeper hills the men would fasten a cord to a tree and carry it down to one at the bottom for the wife and bairns to steady themselves by. At last, carefully following the blazes, they reached the shack, windowless and chimneyless, hidden in the forest. Many years later the good woman told the story to a visitor, to whose question 'Didn't you sit down and cry?' her answer came, 'Aye, that I did.' But that would do no good; so, weary and worn out, she bestirred herself to make things as fit as she could. The men cleared some ground; and when winter came, the husband and eldest boy went away to work in one of the saw-mills--with the money they earned they bought fifteen bushels of potatoes to plant. There was a pathetic story of the home-bringing of these. A river had to be crossed; the only available scow--a flat-bottomed boat--leaked a bit, and to keep the potatoes dry they were piled up on the thwarts; the top-hamper was too great--the scow upset and man, boy, and potatoes were all in the water. The humans got themselves out and rescued what they could of the freight, but either the man had been 'done' and given bad seed, or the wetting was fatal; for not one of the potatoes planted came up. Picture the hard winter's work, the careful investment of the earnings, the bringing home, the planting, then the watching and the disappointment! So the struggle went on, more outside work, and clearing the land by bits. Next year some lumber camps were opened within reach where the men could work, and for which the woman could do the washing. There were no shops at which to spend, not even a sweet-shop or a picture-palace for which the children could beg cents; and had there been, life was so real, so earnest, I think she would have treasured just as jealously what she earned, till the bag held enough to buy their second cow. 'Your cow?' 'Nay, it was our cow, we had all together.' So by degrees they got on, the sons grew up and could help, and now the old man has 320 acres well farmed, his brother and two married sons have 160 acres each, and a daughter is the wife of another prosperous farmer. It was hard work, but 'it's dogged as does it,' and there are other valleys close by waiting for settlers as persevering.

An agricultural settler's life is much the same all over the world. An account written some years since by a visitor from England will give an idea of the way in which one part of Algoma struck a new-comer then, and what one part was in those days many others are still. Bishop Sullivan, with the writer and one or two others, went in the Bishop's yacht Evangeline from Sault Ste. Marie to Thessalon, about fifty-five miles, and there Sunday was spent. A Cornish settler, who had come out in his youth and lived in the neighbourhood, had asked if the Bishop would go out to his farm and hold a Church of England service in the Methodist chapel which he had built. This man had prospered so well that now he owned 200 acres of land, and, besides the little chapel and his own comfortable house, he had built lumber, grist, and shingle mills. The family was one typical of the kind which does best in colonising. There were five sons and five daughters, all finding plenty to do about the paternal homestead until in time they marry and start households of their own. Such families work hard, have plenty to eat, and are generally healthy because they have no time to be idle.

The homestead was said to be seventeen miles from Thessalon, the road good; the distance proved to be twenty-three miles at least, and as to the condition of the road--well, opinions differed. On the Tuesday two buggies started, each holding two persons; the Bishop driving the missionary's wife, followed by the visitor driven by the missionary. The second couple had a good view of the first rig, climbing the hills in front with each wheel in a rut two feet deep, and had time to contemplate that they too must follow. 'You told me this road was a good one,' the visitor remarked to the driver as the buggy went splashing down to its axles in a mud-hole the shape of a tea-cup, and recovered itself with a fearful jerk. 'So it is--a beauty!' he said cheerfully. 'It will be rather rough presently when we turn off, but on the whole it is very good all the way.' When she had been longer in Algoma, the Englishwoman quite agreed with the verdict; for, after all, none of the boulders were more than two and a half feet broad, and the wheels were not pulled off as they scraped over large stones sticking up edgeways. But if rough and narrow and apparently dangerous, the road was both beautiful and very varied. At one time it led through open country; then would come a region where the trees had been burnt long ago, and dead trunks, many of them hollow, stood up like tall pinkish-grey columns, out of a wealth of undergrowth. Elder-bushes covered with berries which shone like Christmas holly, dense thickets of raspberry-bushes and of the beautiful willow-herb called fireweed, which always springs up after a forest fire, and great beds of oak and beech-fern in the black wet soil of the very wet ditches--all these were there, besides all sorts of unfamiliar plants. Here and there they came upon a clearing where oats or wheat or peas had been sown among the ghostly tree-stems and the big stones and the stumps; but these make ploughing so difficult that a man who has only his own labour to depend on cannot do much of such farming. He must be ready to do whatever needs doing, from building his house, putting up a snake-fence, and milking the cows, to washing his clothes and baking his bread, and this does not leave much time for ploughing amongst impediments. Of these, the stumps are not the least; they are the short trunks of trees, two to four feet high, which stand up thickly in so many fields. When the settler first cleared his land he cut down the wood, and left the roots to be hauled out when there was time. Readers of Ralph Connor's book 'The Man from Glengarry,' will remember the vivid description given there of a stump-hauling bee: it needs good teams of horses, and often the convenient season is long in coming.

To the new-comer, whose drive we are following, the people seemed to be at once curiously rich and poor. Well off for provisions, for cattle do well; but there is little money. Such wealth as there is consists in kind rather than in cash, and this is one of the difficulties in Church work.

At last the two buggies reached their journey's end, and their occupants found a warm welcome, and a really beautiful house at the top of a hill with a splendid view from the verandah--a feature as necessary to an Algoma house as are the wire blinds for doors and windows to keep out the summer flies. Like so many houses in the forest, it had been burnt to the ground not long before, but the furniture had been saved; and with wood then plentiful and, in this case, capital and labour forthcoming, it was soon well rebuilt.

The service for which they had come was to be held at seven o'clock, and everybody adjourned to the chapel where a good congregation of the workmen and their families were assembled. Of course there was no chancel nor altar, and the Bishop and the clergyman read the shortened evensong from a platform on which stood a reading-desk, an American organ, and two benches for the choir. There were not enough Prayer Books to go round, but the service was very hearty and every one could join in such well-known hymns as 'Jesu, Lover of my Soul.'

But there were other things to be done besides that one service before the party returned. The missionary had come to marry a young couple some distance farther on, and the bridegroom and his father came over to make arrangements. There proved to be no decent road to the place. The weather was too stormy to allow of taking a shorter way across the lake, and the missionary's horse was not fit to go on. 'Well,' said the farmer, 'suppose we send my son home on my horse, which is pretty fresh? He can rest there an hour or two and start off at three in the morning to ride on to the bride's home,' where the wedding was to have been at three in the afternoon. 'She must come over to my house and have the ceremony there'; for the bridegroom's father lived only eight miles away, and the clergyman's horse could manage that, though not the fifty miles he would otherwise have had to do. This visit to a prosperous settler's house has been told in detail, not because it is unusual, but because it gives a good idea of how the well-to-do live in Canada, and of the difficulties to be overcome in supplying the services and teaching of the Church to the settlers, however much they may wish for them.

New settlements of isolated, or little groups of, farms are springing up all over Algoma. One was visited last year near Nepigon, one of the chief Indian Reserves. A group of farmers, some from the 'north countree,' had taken up new land at Dorion. It was, for our host, the first year--the year of potatoes and a cow. Land was being cleared and oats sown. These are the best crop to begin with as they clean the land; the question of the choice of seed is important, and one specially successful farmer, who had been a jeweller in Birmingham, sent to England for various kinds of seed to sow in separate patches till he saw which suited the soil and situation best. His fields of clean strong wheat were the recompense of this care, and his thrift had enabled him to tide over the destruction of ail his buildings by fire and replace them by better ones within the year.

We stayed in a log-house, the ends of the logs being beautifully dovetailed together, and the rooms of good size and height, on two floors. Stone houses are extremely rare; the general feeling is that they are much colder than wooden ones, so the earlier houses were of unsquared logs, and now that there are more sawmills, frame-houses are put up; in these the square frame-posts have boards nailed on to them to form the walls, and the roof is covered with wooden shingles, long narrow pieces of wood, overlapping like slates. Brick veneer--an outer coating of brick over the wood--may be added as a further advance; The rooms often lead through one to another, sometimes without doors, and the house is of course heated from a stove or from a furnace by hot-water or hot-air pipes. These are carried into each room through holes high up in the walls; if the heat is from a stove the sharp angles need cleaning, and the pipes are taken down in the summer, and the vacant hole in the wall waits for its winter occupant. There may be open fire-places, for appearance, with a small cosy blaze; but these are never relied on for heat, and would be very ineffectual. We have known a case where the central heating in a parsonage was badly done, and in illness it proved impossible, even by incessant piling on wood, to get the room above 40°. White River in Algoma is one of the coldest spots in Canada, and it is not uncommon there, or elsewhere, for the thermometer to register 40° or 50° below zero. The verandah often goes round two or three sides of the house and adds very appreciably to the floor space; in summer, one side may be curtained off and used for sleeping, and all down the residential streets in towns, the verandah, approached by three or four wooden steps, is the place where the family gathers, to rest in rocking-chairs or in hammocks, and exchange remarks with passers by.

In 1881 the stupendous conception was arrived at of building a railway right across the entire continent, to cover the 5,000 miles from Halifax to Vancouver, and to link the Atlantic and Pacific shores, and four years later the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed. This meant very much to Algoma: the line ran through it for 600 miles, all along which the country would be opened up. On the east, North Bay was the first point. This soon became an important station and is now a town of 11,000 people. Thence the line trended north through very beautiful but quite new districts, and then it bent westwards towards the northern arch of Lake Superior. The difficulties here almost foiled the engineers: huge bluffs of rock came down sheer into the lake and had to be tunnelled through, while in other parts it seemed as if the sandy slopes could never be rendered stable enough to bear the weight of the trains; but the task was accomplished, and now the line sweeps grandly round the bays of the inland sea, piercing through the rock high up, or descending almost to the water's brink. Near the western end of the lake, this iron way forging out into the unknown, founded the towns of Port Arthur and Fort William. At this point traffic water-borne and land-borne could meet, and as years went on these twin cities have become one of the most important centres of the Dominion. It is here that the produce of the West--the fruit and salmon of British Columbia, the wheat of the prairies--is transhipped from the railway cars into the great boats waiting to carry it down the lakes.

The transhipping is done by means of elevators--huge ungainly buildings, each capable of storing millions of bushels of grain. The railway cars shoot this wheat down funnels into the basement; here it is scooped up by an endless succession of iron pockets on an ever-revolving belt, which carries the pockets to the top of the building and empties them out. The wheat is often mixed with other seed and has to be cleared. To do this it is passed down, being distributed over frames something like a loom; on this there will be several screens covered with wire nettings of different-shaped mesh. By a very clever arrangement this sifts the grain--flax-seeds passing through one mesh, other seeds through others--till the clean wheat reaches the bottom: then again it is carried up to the top to be stored till the boats come, when a big movable tin tube is placed at the mouth of the bin and turned round till it opens on to the shoot below which the vessel waits. The banks of the river at Fort William and of the shore at Port Arthur are lined with these elevators belonging to various companies, and the total capacity which can be stored in them in the two cities is 42,000,000 bushels. Grain elevators, not corn--for in Canada corn means only maize or Indian corn, and is never used in speaking of wheat, oats, or barley.

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