International Timber Thieves of Northwestern Ontario

Log jam at a river bend ca. 1935.(Courtesy of the Fort Frances Museum & Cultural Centre, Fort Frances, Ontario)

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Everyone knows about rum runners between Canada and the United States during the time of prohibition, but who knew about the days of pine pilfering?

I spent the last year in Northwestern Ontario working as an intern at the Fort Frances Museum & Cultural Centre. While there, I curated the summer exhibit “Rainy River Roots: Settlement of the District,” which explored why someone chose the life of a pioneer and how Fort Frances and the Rainy River District were developed. For most, it meant relying on the land for their livelihood. When I was researching and developing this exhibit I found one story very interesting, the story of bootlegged lumber.

Lumber was not the first resource harvested from Rainy River District. The fur trade was what first brought settlers to the area as trading posts were established. By the 1860s, the fur trade was declining and other natural resources became the focus of economic pursuit. Wood was required for buildings and to lay foundation for corduroy roads. But it wasn’t until closer to the turn of the century that the logging industry put down permanent roots in the Rainy River District.

Loggers in the Rainy River District. Photo taken in the 1890s. (Courtesy of the Fort Frances Museum & Cultural Centre, Fort Frances, Ontario)
Loggers in the Rainy River District. Photo taken in the 1890s. (Courtesy of the Fort Frances Museum & Cultural Centre, Fort Frances, Ontario)

The Northern Ontario forests were opened up to harvest in the 1880s mainly because of the huge tracts of white and red pine, which often reached a height of 200 feet and five feet in diameter. The logging of these trees was what fed the timber and lumber industries.

Most of the timber harvested in the 1800s was restricted to white pine. It was abundant and very useful. It was strong enough for ship masts, adaptable to almost any building purpose and valuable enough to be transported hundreds of miles and still make a profit.

Early transportation was restricted to movement by water. The floatability of the logs was an important factor and determined how much and what kind of lumber could be cut from the forests. This pushed all the hardwoods and other heavier woods out of the competition.

Between 1880 and 1905 Canadians freely entered Minnesota to harvest the best white and red pine stands in the area. Loggers operating independently would enter their choice timber stands near waterways, and cut what appealed to them without regard for the rightful owner…the United States government in most cases. Sometimes complete lumber camps were illegally established for that very purpose.

Map showing waterways connecting Northwestern Ontario to Minnesota. (Courtesy of the Fort Frances Museum & Cultural Centre, Fort Frances, Ontario)
Map showing waterways connecting Northwestern Ontario to Minnesota. (Courtesy of the Fort Frances Museum & Cultural Centre, Fort Frances, Ontario)

In these cases, timber wasn’t marked; American law enforcement officials, finding banked timber or a floating boom, could not prove who harvested it. Once the timber made it to international waters, it was then marked by the proper bootlegger. Knowing there was a market for their goods, bootlegging operators harvested wood on the US side of the border. This left the Canadian companies free to harvest the choice stands that were north of the border.

Apparently, these illegal international timber deals didn’t concern local citizens of either country too much. From their point of view, the timber supply was without end, thus illegal cutting and hauling were taken very lightly.

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Bethany Waite

I am the Cultural & Tourism Coordinator at the Dryden & District Museum with a B.Sc Environmental & Resource Science from Trent University and a Museum Management & Curatorship Post-Graduate Diploma from Fleming College.

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