Square Timber Rafting on the Ottawa River in the 1800's

Painting by Ruth McMillan in 1976
Shows the Head of the Rideau Canal Locks in Ottawa, Canada in 1893

New April 8, 2010:

Thanks to Taylor Kennedy for sending along the following article from the Ottawa Citizen of May 28, 1938 ... Al



Assembling of Cribs in Rafting Bay Below Parliament Hill Attracted Wide Attention. Hewing Of Timbers For Rafts 
Was A Real Art. Great Rivalry Between Crews in Early Days.

Undoubtedly the most interesting and romantic part of the history of timber operations in the Ottawa district 
was the square timber trade which was inaugurated in 1807 by Philemon Wright and lasted until 1905. It was 
revived again in 1925 when the late R.J. Booth filled an order for 120,000 cubic feet for the British market, 
but this timber was   not floated down the river as in the old days but was taken by rail from the old Madawaska limit 
to Quebec.(This area was in Algonquin Park, at Booth Lake ... Al)

Old Time Ottawans - those who resided here in the seventies, eighties and nineties - will recall the great rafts 
of timber that were assembled in Rafting Bay, below Parliament Hill, and was floated down the Ottawa River to Quebec. 
It will be recalled what a spectacle that was, as the Ottawa River Improvement Company's steam tugs pulled the massive 
rafts out from under the shadows of Parliament Hill into the center of the stream. Then, with their sails spread and the 
long steering oars flashing in the sunlight, they disappeared from view down the majestic Ottawa. 
To supply the timber for these rafts great skill was required by axmen by squaring the logs in the woods and the old-time lumberjacks 
will tell you that it is difficult to find among the present generation of loggers, men who have the real art of hewing these 
timbers. The object of squaring was to save space in the ships and also to show up the quality of the wood. Only the largest 
and best logs were used for this purpose. In the early days the average stick 20 inches (and over) square and run 70, 80 and
even 100 cubic feet per piece, which meant that the logs from which they were cut averaged 28 inches and over in diameter. 
Later the average size fell to 40 cubic feet and even that took a good size log.

Timber Raft on the Ottawa River
The timbers were made up into cribs and tied together with withes made of birch and alder saplings, 12 to 24 feet long. The cribs were then assembled in large rafts for floating on the quieter stretches of water, but at rapids and falls the cribs had to be run through separately. Running the chute at the Chaudiere Falls used to be one of the principal forms of entertainment given to distinguished visitors and it was thrilling an experience as a ride in an airplane today. In his "Life of a Lumberman" compiled in 1895, Captain George S. Thompson had the following to say about square timber rafting: "The timber is rafted up into what is termed cribs - about 20 pieces in a crib - and when running a rapid two to four men can handle a crib with long sweeps as easily as handling a boat, and when over a rapid the cribs are easily and quickly coupled or banded together into one raft or block which often covers acres in extent. A tug hitched to the raft and pulls them to the next rapid where they are again singled out and run over and the same process repeated at each rapid until they reach Montreal when they banded together for the last time. Very often storms wreck them and they frequently come to grief in Lake St. Peter or Ste. Croix Bay before reaching Quebec".

The men in charge of the rafts lived in bunk houses and cook houses which were built on the cribs. To be on the raft crew was an honour for there was great competition, in spite of the hard and dangerous work it entailed. In the early days when the surveys of limits were none too accurate and the machinery of justice not so efficiently organized as at present, the strength in individuals and numbers was an important factor in settling disputes. Fights between rival camps which were frequently distinct in nationality (Irish, Scotch and French) were of frequent occurrence, especially on the drives, where precedence in getting the advantage of high water was important. This phase of the lumbering industry is preserved for history in Ralph Connor's "The Man from Glengarry".

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