North West Lumber Company
By Edo Nyland, Forester Alberta Forest Service, Edmonton
Timber Berth Number 1192 was advertised for sale on October 28th, 1904, well before the first settlers came to the area which later became known as Connor Creek. The timber limit was bought on December 7th, 1904, by Mr. Theo A. Burroughs, Member of Parliament for Winnipeg. Although this gentleman was urged from time to time by the federal government to start operations, no logging appeared to have been done by him. In 1921, the Northwest Lumber Company acquired the timber rights and within a year action started. The owner of the company was Mr. J. D. McArthur.
‘J.D.’, as he was commonly called, despite his lack of formal education, was one of a group of famous empire builders who came from Glengarry County, Ontario. He, along with the McMarties, MacDonnels, etc., made enviable reputations as men who could get things done. They contributed in no small way to the Canada of today. “J.D.” was a big man, well over six feet tall and as his name implies, of highland ancestry. He had unlimited energy, a natural capacity for leadership and was anxious to see Alberta settled with land being brought into production.
McArthur was a railroad contractor, who finished a large section of the Trans-Continental Railway east of Winnipeg in 1907. He moved to Edmonton with a large crew of experienced railway workers to start construction in 1912, on the Edmonton-Dunvegan and British Columbia Railways, commonly called the E.D. & B.C. In 1913, McArthur acquired control of the Alberta and Great Waterways Railway. Construction had started earlier but suspended. Starting work from Carbondale in 1914, Lac La Biche was reached during July, 1916, and Draper in 1922.
In the meantime, McArthur started the North West Lumber Company and acquired timber licences by purchase from their owners. He built a railroad to one of these, starting at the village of Green Court, in 1922, plunging through a large swamp in a northeasterly direction straight for the timber stands. The going was rough and considering the remnants of their labours, it must have been a titanic task. To build this railway the first three miles had to be laid through floating muskeg. Where there was no footing, balsam trees were laid side by side, rip-rap fashion, better known as corduroy. When this sank into the swamp under the weight of the train, more layers of trees were added. The one-mile stretch past the lake, where the steam engine took on water, was to be constant work for the next ten years. When one or more cars derailed, three toots of the steam whistle would tell the railway gang back at camp that there was trouble in the swamp. Help would soon be on the way.
When the timber was reached, Camp One was built with Mr. Jack McNish as the camp foreman. The camp had only a few buildings, a repair shop for the engine and railroad cars plus bunkhouses for the men. After Camp One was finished in 1922, Camp Two was constructed. Logging started that same winter. The man in charge of all operations was Archie McGregor and he was known as the walking boss.
On rare occasions McArthur would arrive in his private railway car. This was a very elaborately built unit, finished in rosewood. The car at one time belonged to U.S. President McKinley.
Few of the workers were ever allowed in it and the car is talked about as a legend. Its appearance in the Green Court or the logging area was long after discussed as a news item. Because of the age of the car and its inability to keep up with the needs of modern railroading, the car was destroyed several years ago.
Trees were felled with crosscut saw and double bitted axe, cut into 12-16 foot lengths and loaded on sleighs drawn by four horses to be hauled to the rails. An A-frame called a “jammer” was used to load the logs onto the flatcars.
The Shay steam locomotive was something special to see and hear. The wheels were driven by worm gears which geared down the steam engine’s speed to give the wheels great power but only little forward motion. Hearing the engine, one would say that it was doing 80 miles per hour when actually it travelled only eight to ten miles per hour.
The rail bed was rough and steep in places, often slanting to one side or the other and when going through the large Green Court swamp, frequently under water. It was a constant battle to keep the steel in operating condition.
Over the next nine years, a total of 17 1/2 miles of main line were built through the timber berth and many miles of side spurs were laid. These served only for a short time until the trees were removed.
Several small contractors were logging for the company; Keeley, Krause and Craig being some of them. They all had their own camps. The brothers, Frank and Julius Krause, worked together and built the first contractor’s camp in 1923. (The son of Julius Krause is the present Superintendent of the Whitecourt Forest.) Living conditions were primitive. The buildings were made of chinked logs. Bunks were made of rough lumber or thin poles and covered with straw which served as a mattress but the food was wholesome and good. A large wood stove would stand in the middle of the cabin which the “bull cook” was supposed to light in the morning.
“Bull Cook” is a term left over from earlier logging days when bulls were used instead of horses to skid trees out of the bush. The man who looked after the feeding of the bulls was the bull cook. With the disappearance of the bulls from the logging show, the bull cook was kept on to chop firewood, sweep the floors, supply the cabins with water for the workers and have the stoves burning when they came home after a day’s work.
Wages were low compared to today’s pay. A labourer would earn $26.00 per month while a four-horse teamster picked up $45.00. Meals were “expensive”, the average cost to the company was 13 cents per person.
Entertainment was free. There always appeared to be a number of talented people located in the camps. Many sing-songs were held to the accompaniment of banjos and guitars. Home-made shows featured stepdancers and vocalists. Even dances were held, especially in Camp Two where there were at least a few women. These women were not enough so more ladies were “created” by tying hankies to the sleeves of some slighter built men, identifying them as females. This was all endured in good fun.
As the years went by, the camps became larger until in the winter of 1928-29 when a total of 700 men worked in the camps. Some only stayed a few days but most finished off the winter. The steady workers were usually the homesteaders from nearby communities of Connor Creek, Peavine, Moose Wallow, Green Court, Mayerthorpe and Blue Ridge.
Several of the men are still alive and active. Mr. George Millburn, the jammer operator, is now 82 and still swings an axe and runs his farm just north of Green Court (Ed – this was as of publication date 1980).
The spring of 1928 was extremely dry and windy. Sparks thrown by the Shay locomotive had already started several small fires in May along the mainline. Luckily the fires had been quickly extinguished. Then one fire started near Camp Three which strong winds blew out of control into a full scale forest fire. All available men of the other camps joined Bill Gorman’s crew in the fight, but they could not keep the fire from the one mile of track near the camp. Considerable equipment and nearly five and one-half million board feet of decked spruce logs were destroyed.
This fire, however, was not the only one to do damage. To the north, close to the Athabasca River, the Chisholm Logging Company had a large fire in their timber berth. It is reported that this company was reluctant to fight this fire because the best and easiest accessible timber had already been taken and what was now burning had been expensive to haul to the river. Therefore, little action was taken and valuable timber stands of white spruce went up in smoke.
After this bad fire, only one more camp was started, that of D. Gooley’s.
Logging went on at a fast pace. The locomotive was kept busy ferrying the loaded flatcars to Green Court, usually no more than six cars at a time. Every day a train of 23 or 24 loaded cars would leave Green Court for Edmonton, taking the logs to the large mill at the Dunvegan yard of the E.D. and B.C. Railroad near St. Albert. This earlier location is where the Nelson Lumber Company is now located. Two or three loads of logs would be rolled into the pond behind the mill to be eased onto the jack ladder, an endless chain with hooks, which would take the logs to the head saw. It not only handled logs from the Green Court areas but also from many other berths in the Athabasca, Pembina and Canyon Creek areas. Logs cut along the Athabasca were floated to Chisholm where a large boom strung across the river would force the lots into a backwater. Then the logs were loaded onto railway cars for shipment to the North West Mill. The lumber produced at this mill went mainly into building construction in Edmonton between 1922 and 1933.
Back in the timber, the last valuable stands were attacked. McArthur purchased a crawler tractor in 1929 to try to improve the skidding and hauling of logs. This may have been the first time in Alberta that a crawler tractor was used for logging. The operation of this machine apparently was a problem. On one of the first days that it was used, George Ade got his foot caught in the clevis and skinned his toes to the bone. Problems with running in winter conditions plus the difficulty of repairs put an end to this worthwhile effort.
Doctor Wolochow of Mayerthorpe was kept busy treating the loggers, especially the men handling horses. It was a long, rough ride for an injured worker; but if necessary, the trip could be made on the rails in an hour and a half. Most injuries resulted from horse kicks and axe cuts; occasionally a foot was broken when a log skidded over it. As far as is known, no one was killed.
After the 1931-32 winter, the timber berth was abandoned. Not all timber had been removed; in fact, several million board feet in smaller diameter trees were still standing together with the unlogged portions of the berth. In total, close to 335 million board feet had been removed to Edmonton in eleven years of operation. The rails were taken up during the summer of 1932 and all equipment removed.
The subsequent years saw enormous fires destroy what was left of the timber and camps. What had once been beautiful forested land was now reduced to charcoal. The topsoil burned off and repeated burns destroyed the fertility of the soil. The area became one large barren plain dotted with charred stumps.
Homesteaders came in to farm the land which could not produce agricultural crops. Rocky soil prevented farm machinery from operating properly. Back-breaking labor was put to clearing the land of stumps and stacking the debris. In the long run, most left and the majority of the land reverted back to the Crown due to non-payment of taxes. Today only one bachelor is left. He lives in an old shack on the site of Camp Two. When the old camp burnt, only metal debris was left. Ray Smith found the large kitchen range and fixed it up so it could be used again. Since it was too big to put in a shack, he built a hut around it and lived cosily for several years until the stove was beyond repair.
The large mill on the St. Albert Trail also burned in a spectacular fire, probably in 1932. What was left after the fire was burned machine parts and junk. This was all pushed into the log pond and filled up with dirt. Only last year, the Nelson Lumber Company accidentally found the old pond again when the footings for a new warehouse were being put in. The workers found flywheels, scrap metal, concrete slabs and blocks embedded in the mud.
This was the end of the once-great North West Lumber Company. Their still active timber berths were finished by other companies. Apparently, J. D. McArthur died by this time and “the spark” left the company. In fact, this whole history is McArthur’s because without his drive and knowledge of railroad construction, this unusual operation would never have been.