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History of Logging and Lumber Railways in Ontario

Brian Westhouse

Not a lot has been recorded about Ontario’s Logging Railways, these were non common-carrier roads owned by lumber companies, and their sole purpose was to transport logs or lumber. Unlike British Columbia and our neighbours to the south, Ontario had little more than 2 dozen bona fide logging railroads.

The North American introduction of the logging railroad in 1852 is credited to A.J. Fox, Abijah Weston and William C. Bronson, who built a logging railway to the Tioga River, near the town of Lindley, Steuben County, New York. It was constructed of wooden rails, with platform cars and a steam locomotive named “Bull of the Woods.” This railroad was not used as a substitute for log driving, but for hauling logs to the bank of the Tioga River, whence they were driven to the large gang mills, at Painted Post.

In Ontario, during the mid 1860’s Henry F. Bronson, along with the same Abijah Weston, were logging along the York River near Bancroft, to supply logs to their mills at Ottawa. Such a logging railway would have been a practical way for their timber to avoid the tempestuous waters of the lower Madawaska River, between the York River and Ottawa. This feat was accomplished 30 years later by Ottawa lumberman J. R. Booth. The construction of the Ottawa, Arnprior & Parry Sound Railway, gave Booth rail access to his timber along the upper Madawaska River. While it did carry logs, as did many other common-carrier railways in Ontario, at one time or another, the Ottawa, Arnprior & Parry Sound Railway handled grain, mixed freight, passengers and mail, as well as timber, so it could hardly qualify as a logging railway.

The introduction of what we know as the logging railway, is credited to Michigan lumberman Winfield Scott Gerrish for his 1877 Lake George & Muskegon River RR, the first successful logging railroad in Michigan. Some references claim a logging road at Pinconning was first, however, it was only successful after its takeover by Gerrish. For his original idea, it is claimed that Gerrish’s resourcefulness followed his visit to the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, where he saw a narrow gauge H.K. Porter locomotive on display. The locomotives of his Lake George line were standard gauge Porters. How much of this idea, was that of this native of Maine, I find questionable. His partner in this project was E. H. Hazleton, formerly of Philadelphia, where Gerrish had seen the locomotive display, in his partner’s home town. Following this partnership Hazleton had moved to Arizona for health reasons, but remained active in Michigan logging. Mr. Hazleton also acquired timber in the Georgian Bay region of Ontario, however, it is unknown if he was involved with a logging railroad on this side of the border.

Many of the names of Michigan lumbermen that pioneered the development of logging railways, can be traced back to the Tioga Valley of New York State. As the importance as a lumbering district shifted from there to the American mid-west, the forests of Ontario attracted lumbermen from that region as well. Henry Williams Sage, owner of an 1854 mill on the Ontario, Simcoe & Huron Rail Road, at Bell Ewart, had formerly been involved with the operation of a mill at Tioga, Pennsylvania.

In that era, it was not only logs that moved by water, the sawn lumber loaded mostly aboard ships and barges, was transported on the lakes and canals. The marine forwarding trade was the foundation of H. W. Sage’s enterprise, but not in Simcoe County, where the lakes were yet, land locked. Captain Charles Spaulding, a lumber retailer at Elmira, N. Y. in the 1860’s, was a former pilot on the Chemung Canal, connecting the Tioga Valley to the Erie Canal. Capt. Spaulding most likely personally saw Fox, Weston & Bronson’s logging railroad at Lindley. In 1868 Captain Spaulding and Tenyke DePuy acquired interest in a sawmill at Poda Mills, in Simcoe County, ten miles from the nearest railroad.

Tramways and pole roads usually preceded the introduction of logging railways in many places. Toronto lumberman John B. Smith, had mills at Angus, where the Northern Railway to Collingwood passed through the Pine Planes of Essa, the site of an ancient Boreal Forest. In the 1870’s the J. B. Smith company put up a mill about four miles south of the railway, where a horse drawn tramway with wooden rails had previously been constructed to transport lumber to Angus. Further south, in Tossorontio, American lumbermen had put up a water powered sawmill on the Pine River, at Poda Mills, the original destination of this tramway. That portion of the tramway had lost its importance by 1879 when the Hamilton North-Western Railway was built through Tossorontio Township, north-west of Alliston, the name of Poda Mills was changed to Tioga, evidence of the American influence of this industry.

At other locations in Simcoe County, steel rail tramways were built, Flos Tramway near Elmvale, in 1879 and Medonte Tramway at Coldwater, in 1881, were considered to be freight only branches of the railways they were connected to. In South-Western Ontario, a 14 mile Pole Road constructed for a lumberman at Essex, in 1881, was outfitted with cars and a steam locomotive, manufactured by St. Thomas machinist, Mr. C. Noseworthy. Instead of rails this equipment ran on logs laid flat on the ground and strapped together at the ends. The wheels of the Pole Road were contoured to fit over and roll along on top of the logs, instead of rails.

Until the introduction of railways, most logging was done in winter, logs were delivered to frozen lakes, by horses hauling over ice roads, the timber was then driven to the mills on the spring freshet. While at first, the logging railways did not replace this practice, they did, however, enable the lumbermen to penetrate deeper into the forests in all seasons.

The vast timber lands of Northern Ontario are covered by numerous rivers and lakes. The requirements of the industry led to the development of a unique logging tug boat in 1889, built to a lumberman’s specifications and manufactured at Simcoe, Ontario. Over two hundred of these amphibious flat bottom steam-powered craft called Alligators, were used for towing logs. They could winch themselves on and off rail cars and likewise portage from one lake to another, eliminating the need for improvements such as a logging railway. The invention of this boat is likely why Ontario had so few logging railways.

The railway equipment that was used in Ontario logging included many of the various rail mounted apparatus known in any other North American logging railroad regions. In this study I have included sawmill locomotives, steam and combustion. Many of these operations had little or nothing published about them and photographs are hard to come by. This is a rare look at a long-gone pioneer era of Ontario’s early logging railways and lumber operations before trucks and changing markets.

The location of Ontario’s first logging railway is yet to be determined. The Dawn Tramway at Dresden was established about 1884, though I am not aware of what motive power was used at that time, at a later date this road acquired a second hand Shay locomotive from Michigan. In the summer of 1884, a logging railway was built over one of Ontario’s oldest transportation routes, the Voyageur’s Portage, between Lake Nipissing and the headwaters of the River Mattawa. Without influence of American lumbermen, the Nosbonsing & Nipissing Railway was an authentically Canadian logging railway, it was constructed by Ottawa lumberman J. R. Booth.

Brian Westhouse,

March 1, 2006.


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