Project Canterbury

Pioneer Work in Algoma

By Eda Green

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

Chapter III. The Yield of Forest and Rock.

THE last chapter dealt with the development of farming. Until lately the most widespread industry in Algoma has been that of lumbering. The lakes on which so much travelling is done--in summer by steamers, gasolene launches, or canoes; in winter by sleighing--are bordered everywhere by thickly wooded hills. Each year the pine and soft-wood trees on these are cut down farther and farther back. Speculators, generally from the States, take up a limit--that is to say, they pay so much for the sole right to cut the timber on a certain area. The wood may prove sound and good and a great pile be made out of it, or a spark may set a fire raging and only bare and whitened trunks may be left with leafless arms outstretched towards heaven, like sentinels along the sky-line, till at last the charred stems rot and fall.

But the speculator hopes for better luck. He engages lumber-men, who go up to the limit in September. Arrived there they pitch a tent to live in until they have cut wood enough to build log-houses: first for the horses, then for the dining-camp, and then for the sleeping-place, in which pole-bunks in tiers form the beds. In this camp the men stay till the winter is over. Morning by morning they go out in gangs of two or three men, and all day long the sound of the axe rings out on the frosty air, and the thud of the falling trees tells what the axe has done. Each gang is expected to cut down from eighty to a hundred trees a day. When it is too dark to work, the men come back to camp; they are too far away to have communication with any other workers, and night after night they have nothing to do but to sit round the fire and listen to the stories of their mates.

Provisioning these camps is a serious business. There maybe 140 horses (averaging a cost of £60 each), for which hay enough to last the whole winter must be secured. Some five hundred barrels of flour must be got; and that with a corresponding amount of butter, figs, prunes, tea, pork, beef, and beans must all be conveyed out to the camp--to say nothing of tobacco, on which the outlay is often larger than on flour. The men earn from £5 to £6 a month and their board, and when they are on the dangerous work of the 'drive,' their wages will reach £8 to £10. The food is good--bread such as only Canada with its granary of splendid flour can produce--and the camp equipment of carefully cleaned tin plates is well kept; but there is a monotony about the same food for six months, and there is a deadening monotony for the soul in the isolation and the absence of all elevating influences.

Before the winter sets in, a wood track is cleared down to the nearest river or lake and rendered smooth enough for it to freeze into a fairly even slope. There is great skill in decking the logs into the loads, tapering towards the top, which are to be hauled down this track to be piled up on the ice and there await its break up. The logs are branded with the owner's name and then floated down. At a bend in the river or a rocky passage, they get into a jam, and very dangerous is the work of breaking up a jam. With spikes in their shoes the men walk over the wet and slippery logs in mid-stream, dislodging them with a pike-pole from behind any obstacle and setting them free to be carried down again till they reach the lumber-mill.

A Canadian would be supremely contemptuous, and with good reason, at the old-fashioned methods employed in some of our saw-mills. In some country towns in England you may see the bark being hacked off the logs with a hatchet used by hand. A lumber-mill in Canada is a triumph of machinery, worked by the fewest possible men. The logs floated down are stopped by a 'boom' or chain of logs fastened together to bar further passage. From the upper floor of the mill an endless chain goes down to the water; on it at intervals are pairs of huge iron teeth; on to these a log is hitched, and as if by invisible hands trunk after trunk is drawn up. They fall on to a moving platform, 'the carriage,' which rushes to and fro against the teeth of a big saw; each time the plank falls off and the log is moved just the thickness of the plank further forward by the 'nigger,' a big clamp which is worked from a distance by a lever, but which seems to come up from beneath the floor at its own will, stealthily and uncannily, and, having done its work, disappears.

Then the planks are moved on their way by rollers and endless chains till they reach the measuring-place. Here a man sits aloft, watching the planks keenly as they come up the inclined plane: his trained eye knows just which lever to press to cut off the longest length of sound wood, or to cut a plank in two so as to leave out a bit of knotted wood in the middle. So, finally, the planks reach the stack-yard. Here again the workman's skill is shown in keeping the great blocks of alternately laid boards perfectly perpendicular so that as you walk down the avenues no stack overhangs. The furnaces which run the machinery in these mills are fed in great measure by the saw-dust and useless bits of bark. Only the soft woods--such as pine, spruce, tamarack (larch) and balsam--are cut in the camps, because these only will float. The hard woods--maple, birch, and sycamore--would sink and become, as 'deadheads,' a danger in the river; so the forests of the lighter foliage remain, with the 'soft woods' thinned out.

Most of the paper of the world is now made from wood from the forests of Canada and of Sweden. Spruce-fir, and especially that grown in Canada, is particularly good for making white writing-paper; this is said to be due to the hard frost which renders the tree completely dormant through the winter, and during the vigorous growth in the short warm summer the wood acquires a peculiar fibrous texture unknown elsewhere.

At Sault Ste. Marie there are two pulp-mills where the wood is boiled down or treated with sulphur, torn and combed and mashed, much as flax is prepared for linen, until it comes out in a continuous white roll, ready to be exported or made into fine paper in another mill. Here were established also an iron foundry, chemical reduction, caustic soda, chloride of lime and other works, and last, but by no means least, buildings for the manufacture of steel rails. The Canadian railways had imported all their rails from England; but the iron found round Lake Superior was so good that it was determined to make them on the spot. No place was so suitable as the 'Sault,' where an enormous power is developed from the force of the water rushing down.

As in so many Algoma industries, the capital came from across the border. Americans are very ready to exploit fresh openings, and the lumber limits and mills, mines, and works, are in great measure run by companies of which the shares are held in the States and which are represented only by a manager, whose duty it is to make the most he can for his employers. In many cases the companies deal fairly generously; but there is too often lacking any personal interest, the local residence of any except workers, and the use to the country of the money earned by these industries, for this goes away in interest to those whose capital finances the concerns.

The 'Sault' works suffered the fate which so often attaches to industrial organisations--a sudden boom (when the town increased by thousands), a time of failure and closing down, reconstruction and apparent success, to suffer again by the dislocation of trade on the outbreak of war. Still, as in the old days of Indian gatherings, so now, in the ever-developing resources of the Dominion, Sault Ste. Marie must always be important as a highway of commerce. Each nation has its own locks; on the Canadian side alone three are in operation, and a fourth, 1,300 feet long by 100 feet wide and 51 feet deep, is in course of construction. Through these comes all the grain traffic from Fort William, and it is estimated that the tonnage passing down in the course of the year exceeds from six to eight times that passing through the Suez Canal. Day and night continuously do the boats give their hoot calling for the opening of the lock gates, and special precautions were taken, directly war was declared in August 1914, to guard these locks from any German attempt to stop the grain getting through.

Farming and lumbering deal with the wealth on the earth's surface, but a richer store has been found in Algoma hidden in the rocks, which for so long seemed to render much of the land unprofitable. The Indians knew there was copper in their land; but they dared not use it, believing it to be under the special guardianship of the Great Spirit. This belief arose from the following legend. Three Indians had been fishing in the lake and had prepared their evening meal in the usual way. They piled up a heap of stones and made them red-hot, and then plunged the red-hot stones, which in this instance were lumps of copper ore, into the cauldron where they had already put the fish. Before the meal was ended one man was seized with sudden illness and died. The other two fled in terror to their canoe and set off for home, but before they reached it another was also dead. The third crawled to the camp of his tribe, dying, and had only just time to tell his story--a tragedy sufficiently terrible to make the Indians leave copper alone in future.

In the early days of copper-mining it seemed almost as though the Indian belief were true. The village of Coppercliff looked in very truth as if it were under a curse. The copper was piled up into long rows, covered with earth, and then set on fire, so that by long roasting the sulphur might be driven off. The air became filled with sulphur fumes, trees and all vegetation were killed, and the rocks and earth looked blanched and withered. Lately, means have been devised to prevent in some degree the destruction of life, both human and vegetable.

The nickel-mines at Coppercliff should be very valuable. There is only one other known supply of nickel in the world--that in New Caledonia, on French territory. The Mond Nickel Company get their supply at Coppercliff and have lately moved their smelter from Victoria Mines to Coniston, thus creating a new settlement. Besides these minerals some gold, and iron in considerable quantities, had been discovered; but all this became as nothing when a new railway running north from North Bay up the west shore of Lake Temiscaming cut into one of the richest silver-mining regions of the world. Cobalt soon became a boom. In less than a year, 274 separate mining companies were registered--some, of course, worth nothing, but others bringing out most valuable ore; almost all of them, however, financed by syndicates outside Canada. The chief mine is the Coniagas, this name being made up from the chemical symbols of four different minerals Co (Cobalt), Ni (Nickel), Ag (Argentum), As (Arsenicum). There is a superstition in some of the mines that if a man begins to sing, or if a woman or a parson goes down, bad luck will come, and the men generally quit their work; fortunately this was not the case at the Coniagas, and by the kindness of the manager, who was churchwarden of the English Church, the priest-in-charge and some Englishwomen were allowed to descend the mine. By the light of the small lamp each one carried, the veins of silver could be clearly seen in the walls of the narrow passages which stretched far away underground.

The ore from four different mines is carried across the lake in buckets, running on overhead cables, to the reduction works on the other side. Each mine has special hours for sending its ore, which is put into separate bins. The reduction is a complicated process. The ore is crushed into small pellets, then washed, treated with cyanide in big tanks divided by corrugated iron sheets, then refined in the furnace and run out into ingots.

All round this region, mines are being prospected for. Many places (as Gowganda, Swastika, Elk Lake City) have had booms. Some fail, some will last; but thousands of miners, prospectors, and storekeepers have been rushing into the district, and many of those who give up the risk of mining are settling as farmers along the jiew wheat belt which the two new transatlantic railways being built north of the Canadian Pacific are opening up.

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