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Life in a Cascapedia Bay Lumber Camp

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When the first settlers arrived on the Gaspésie forests covered the entire Coast and, although trees were a necessity, they were sometimes viewed as a nuisance by men trying to clear enough land for crops and animals. It was very easy to obtain all the wood they needed by going a very short distance to the dense forest that surrounded them with their axes, saws and a horse and sleigh. However, as sawmills were built and demand for the shingles, laths, planks and hoops they produced increased, the source of supply moved farther away from the settlements and further into the interior of the Coast.

The earliest sawmill in New Richmond was erected by William Cuthbert on his property 1833. The following year Cuthbert signed a contract with George Stewart Harris, a mill builder from New Richmond, to construct a sawmill on McCormick’s Brook, in the district known as Ste. Hélène’s, in Maria. When operations of these sawmills began the stands of trees were relatively close to the mills and easy for the owners to have cut and transported for processing. As demand increased, both locally and internationally, more logs and more men to process and deliver the raw wood to the mills were required. With this increased harvesting of the trees, it did not take many decades of cutting to deplete the forests close to the settlements, and the lumberman had to go farther and farther into the heart of the peninsula for their wood.

Montgomery lumberjacks at work. (Photo - Courtesy)By the 1880's, when the Montgomery family owned and operated a large mill in New Richmond, some of their lumbering operations were 60 miles or more from civilization. The distances were so great the men were not able to come home until the drive was over in the spring of the year. It also caused great hardship in the case of accident or serious illness, as it was impossible to transport the patient to a doctor quickly. They had to be pulled out on a hand sleigh by men travelling on snowshoes and this would take 5 or 6 days breaking trail as they went. The patient usually did not survive such a trip.

During the years 1875 to 1925, Montgomery's was the only company to operate in the lower section of the Grand Cascapedia. They had permits for 3,000,000 feet per year, and operated from three camps; The Lake Camp (at Loon Lake) and The Forks (Lazy Bogan). The camp at The Forks was the main camp and served as a keep-over for men travelling to the other camps. These camps were well established and served the men until the mill was closed in 1925.

Preparations for the cutting season involved the assembling of sufficient food, tools, utensils, hay and equipment to sustain fifty to seventy-five men and twenty-five or more horses for a 4-5 month period. The winter crews included any number of lumber-jacks, at least two carpenters, blacksmith, scalers, clerk, a groom for the horses, a chore-boy and, perhaps most importantly, the cook and his helpers. During the winter of 1895 Montgomery’s Lazy Bogan camp had 8 gangs of men, with 5 men in each gang, the cook, cookee, chore-boy and the boss, for a total of 44 men. There were 8 horses; one for each “gang” but no blacksmith, indicating that the number of men and their duties varied with each cutting season.

Prior to the construction of the “Mine Road”, all the supplies and equipment had to be transported to the camps by large, flat river boats known as “scows”. The horses also had to be poled up the river on scows where there were no navigable trails along the shore. If trails did exist the horses would be used to pull the scows. Supplies were loaded at the brook by McCormick’s in Cascapedia and the journey to the camps would begin there, going as far as “Joe Martin” the first day. The second leg of the trip would usually only take them to “Murdoch” where they spent the second night, indicating this was a more difficult section of the river to navigate. The third night was to Berry Mountain and the final stage into Lazy Bogan. The camp at Loon Lake (now called Lac Huard) was many miles further inland from the main river than Lazy Bogan, so the trip to that camp would probably have taken 5 or 6 days.

In the spring after the cutting season was finished, the horses would be brought down the river by scow, with the exception of one winter when Mr. Benny Willett, a well-known trapper who spent most of his life in the forests of Grand Cascapedia, guided Montgomery’s horses down river on the ice.

Prior to the establishment of permanent camps it was the job of the lumberjacks to construct the buildings for the winter when they moved to a new cutting area. These buildings were made of round logs and the men lived in tents until the buildings were completed. The bunkhouse was a very simple building, with bunks built of rough lumber and bedding made of branches in the early days, and later on straw. "Muzzle loaders" were a type of bunk in use in this area for a few years, but gradually gave way to single bunks. They were bunks built the full length of the side of the camp, with only one way to enter the bunk, which was at the end of it, thus the name “muzzle loader”

Montgomery lumberjacks at bunkhouse. (Photo - Courtesy)During the winter of 1895 the Montgomery bunkhouse at Lazy Bogan did not have a stove but was heated by a fire built in a hole in the centre of the camp, with an opening in the ceiling to allow the smoke escape through the roof. This was called a "smoke-hole" and did not provide much heat or comfort to the men who were forced to sleep in a circle around the fire with their feet closest to the fire. One morning one of the new men, Allan Willett, woke to find his hair frozen to the ground. The next winter they were more fortunate as a stove had been installed in the bunkhouse.

The earliest permanent camps consisted of several buildings of very basic construction. The logs were insulated with ground and moss eventually grew in the cracks between the logs. The cookhouse was the most important building of the camp, being the domain of the cook and his helpers. Meals were often eaten in shifts if the cookhouse was too small to seat more than 25 or 30 people at once.

In the very early days the number of workers at each camp was usually between 40 and 60 men, making an average of 150 meals per day, plus very large lunches for the lumberjacks. The food consisted of the basic necessities in the early days, supplemented by any wild venison they were able to kill, and there were no restrictions on the amount of food a man was allowed. Some had very healthy appetites as the days were long and the work was hard. To feed the men it usually required the baking of 50 pies and 80 loaves of bread daily. When transportation was by scow the main diet of the men consisted of food that could be easily moved up river in the fall and that would last the winter, such as molasses, beans, salt pork, and smoked meat often supplemented by wild game. However, as roads were built into the interior and trucks became more common, it was much easier to bring in supplies on a regular basis. During the early 1960's it was realized by the Company that it was less expensive to buy bread in bulk than to have it made in the camps. This was no doubt a tremendous relief to the camp cooks and their assistants.

The bunkhouse was usually joined to the cookhouse by a roof to protect the men from the rain when moving between buildings. This passageway was called a "cross-haul" and there were usually seats for the men and often a puncheon of water. Generally the only other items in the bunkhouse, with the exception of the stove in the centre of the floor, was a grindstone in one corner and a simple wash basin in the other.

Early stoves were constructed from heavy metal barrels, called "sows" and provided heat for the bunkhouses until the advent of the "Star" stove. An example of a bunkhouse stove is shown in the above picture.

Bathroom facilities were also primitive, consisting of an outside "john" built some distance from the bunkhouse, which had to be reached by travelling through deep snow.

Another important building in the campsite was the blacksmith's forge equipped with tools required to care not only for the horses so necessary to the operation, but also the tools and equipment of the lumberjacks. Hovels for the horses were usually very simple three-sided shelters serving to protect the horses from the snow and wind when they were not working. Other small shelters were also required for storage of food, hay and equipment.

Life was hard in a lumber camp with long hours spent labouring in the woods six days of work a week, so it did not take much to entertain the men during their short rest periods in the evenings. They would gather around the stove to talk and tell “tales”. Sometimes they played cards. In some camps there would be a lumberjack who would provide music with his fiddle but the main sources of entertainment were the story telling and cards.

After construction was completed on the “Mine Road” linking Grand Cascapedia and Sainte-Anne-des-Monts, life in the lumber camps changed greatly. They were able to deliver fresh food supplies to the camps on a regular basis, improving the working conditions for the kitchen staff and adding variety to the food served to the workers. The opening of the road also enabled the men to make visits home during the cutting season as they had not been able to do before. Sources of entertainment also improved with radio.

In the early 1960’s Consolidated-Bathurst stopped the river drives and had the logs transported to the mill by truck. Thus ended nearly a century and a half of lumbering traditions in the Cascapedia Bay area of the Gaspé Coast.