Origins of the Canadian Lumber Trade

When Columbus stepped ashore in North America he was no doubt disappointed.  Vast sums of money had been spent underwriting his belief that by sailing west across the Atlantic, merchants could tap the riches of China.

He had convinced his backers that it would be safer, and more profitable, than journeying east over formidable mountain passes, paying tribute for safe passage, trekking across hot dry deserts, and sharing the profits with middle men.

Columbus found North America by accident ... instead of China and the easy riches he envisaged.

To be sure, there were riches to be had in North America, but not so easily obtained.

Accidents role in discovery, is a theme which runs consistently through North American history. Events in Europe were frequent progenitors of discovery and change in the New World. In fact discovery of abundant natural resources fuelled by European demand hundreds of years ago had consequences which still reverberate today; certainly consequences for Ottawa and the entire Ottawa Valley watershed. Without the accident of circumstances, perhaps the lumber trade in the Ottawa Valley would not have developed.

In 1806 war broke out between France and England.  The English over the centuries had cut down most of the trees suitable for masts and spars in their homeland. By the late 18th Century England bought most of its lumber from suppliers in countries bordering the Baltic Sea. In November 1806 Napoleon ordered the Baltic blockaded. The American Revolution had disrupted supplies from New England. The French had their own forests. In order to fight the French the Royal Navy turned to what remained of their colonies in North America. Canada.

It is almost impossible today to imagine the quantities of masts and spars the British Navy needed to keep its ships at sea. Two hundred years ago, decades before the age of steam, ships plying the oceans of the world were powered by the wind. Ships carried acres of sails, suspended on a forest of masts and spars. Without sufficient sails a ship was dead in the water. Without sufficient masts and spars, sails puddled uselessly on the deck.

Sailing the oceans wore ships out quickly. The endless pressure of howling winds tearing ceaselessly in the rigging is unimaginable. Sailing barnacled hulls against the wearing resistance of waves and currents required endless supplies of masts and spars.

During the Napoleonic War the size of the British Navy was greater than all the other seafaring nations put together. The British Navy had 160 ships of the line each carrying over a hundred guns. They had 400 cruisers, and 183 frigates. By comparison the U.S. Navy at the outset of the War of 1812 had only 16 ships; nine of them frigates. As well as supplying the British Navy, domestic requirements in England were almost infinite. Most of the construction lumber used in England to build homes, furniture, and ships, came from the countries bordering the Baltic Sea.

Entrepreneurs knowing of the vast stands of White Pine in the Ottawa Valley soon began to exploit the enormous requirements of the Royal Navy. A mast for a first ship of the line was tall, between 75 and 100 feet! They were two feet around at the base and octagonal.

There was money to be made. William Davidson, cutting tapered trees out of the forests on the St John River in New Brunswick sold them to the British Navy for as much as 130 pounds sterling ... each!

The war between England and France gave a huge kick-start to the development of the lumber trade in the Ottawa Valley. With the Baltic blockaded, not only masts and spars were being cut in the Ottawa Valley.

Soon square timber exceeded the demand for masts and spars.  Merchants in England were clamouring for a dependable supply to replace the loss of Baltic timber. In the Ottawa Valley, Philemon Wright, after hearing that there was money to be made selling logs in Quebec City, became the father of the Ottawa Valley logging industry by being the first to float a raft of timber to the port below the Citadel at Quebec.

Without the vast demands of the Royal Navy and the accidental circumstances of history Ottawa would no doubt have not been made Canada's Capital. Ottawa's history would be very different. From this early demand by the Royal Navy, there began an enterprise which dwarfed any other in North America at the time.