19th Century Lumberjacks Were Kinda Crazy

Late-19th century Canadian lumberjacks.
Source: Library and Archives Canada / PA-011632

At some point, I would like to trace my paternal family lineage back to the point of arrival in Canada. What I know is very murky. An ancestor left France for Quebec sometime in the 18th century. By the time the mid-19th century rolled around, my ancestors left Joliette, Quebec for the Penetanguishene/Port Severn area in Ontario. While there they got involved in logging—hence my interest in the 19th century lumber industry in Ontario. What was life like for those workers and their families?

To put it plainly, wood was a really big deal for not just Ontario, but Canada on the whole throughout the 19th century. Fuelled by American expansionism and European demand, lumber was a staple of Canadian trade and was instrumental the development of eastern Canada. The lumber industry brought immigration, labour, and investments; ultimately triggering the urbanization of the region. Despite some ups and downs due to price inflation, the lumber industry survived the many changes that occurred throughout the industrialization of the 19th century. For example, despite the fact that in the 1840s iron and steel replaced the use of wood in shipbuilding, according to J.M. Bumstead, after 1840 the rapidly growing United States took all the lumber Upper Canada had to offer. I’m surprised southern Ontario still has trees if that’s the case!

Fun Fact! While logging in North America began in the early 1600s, Napoleon helped spark the rapid expansion of the industry. In his attempt to stifle Britain’s economy by closing all European ports to British ships in 1806, (known as the Continental Blockade), Britain turned to British North America to meet their lumber demands since the Baltics were now closed off to them.

Spring log drive. [Source]

What was life like for a 19th century lumberjack?
Hard, dangerous, and seasonal. Lumberjacks were typically farmers, attracted to earning income during the cold months when they were not busy with the agricultural activities of spring and summer. Living conditions in lumber camps were rudimentary, especially in the first half of the century. During the winter months that trees were felled and collected. (Cold trees are easier to chop down because their sap isn’t flowing). Pine trees were the main casualty of the industry; trees such as birch, oak, elm, and cedar were chopped down in far smaller numbers. In early spring was log drive; the mass collection of lumber was shipped via rivers to sawmills. The rest of the spring and all of summer was spent back on the farm as it was the off season for logging. Following the autumn harvest, loggers were back on the job, building camps and clearing roads to get ready once again for the winter.

Logging Camp.
Source: Library and Archives Canada/PA-011593

Lumberjacks worked from sunrise to sunset, six days a week, and resided in tightly packed shacks. Given the amount of energy it takes to cut down and transport trees all day, lumberjacks were well-fed and well-paid for their work. Logging was and still is one of the most deadly occupations. Aside from having to contend with falling trees, falling out of trees, rolling logs, and axe accidents, the real threat came with the spring drive. Why? When loggers weren’t working on thawing ice, logs often jammed forcing them to jump from log to log with a pole to locate and fix the source of the jam. At times the river could be too strong and in removing the jam they risked getting swept away with the current.

Loggers trying to die young aka fixing a log jam.
Source: Library and Archives Canada/C-79019

Life wasn’t all work and no play though, loggers spent their Saturday nights dancing, singing, playing musical instruments (particularly fiddles), and telling stories, as Sundays were their day off and they could afford to sleep in.

British female loggers during World War II.

Even though logging was by and large a male-centric industry, there were women present on campsites. These women were typically wives/daughters/relatives of the foremen and they worked as either cooks or cleaners. Most of the loggers’ wives would have been too busy taking care of the farm to join their husbands. I could not find any source that stated whether or not women assisted with the hard labour, but given that the term “lumberjill” did not emerge until WW2, it seems unlikely, though not impossible.

Searching for 19th century female loggers led me to this unfortunate soul, but I believe she is carrying firework through a city street. Regardless, I seriously hope that using people as pack mules was not that common…

As forests were depleted in southern Upper Canada, loggers were forced to move north, further and further away from key waterways. However, technological advances allowed the industry to moving full-steam ahead. Railways ended the dependence on water transportation and opened the back-country of Lake Ontario and Erie. Simcoe County (where Penetanguishene is located) really grew during this time. According to the Penetanguishene Centennial Museum & Archives, French Canadians populated the region in pursuit of cheap, available land. Post 1840, a “group of settlers arrived from County Joliette, Quebec via bateau (a shallow-draft, flat-bottomed boat) to Coteau Landing near Montreal, then through Peterborough and Barrie by foot or cart, along Old Military Road to Penetanguishene.” The 1840s does line up with what I know about my family tree.

As the 19th century wore on, the lumber industry moved from small operations to large corporations. The above is an example of the latter. It is an advertisement for E.B. Eddy’s Manufacturing & Lumbering Establishment, Hull, Quebec, ca. 1884.
Source: Library and Archives Canada, No. 2834406.

End of an Era
Before the influx of technological change, timber axes and manpower drove the industry. The latter half of the century saw the introduction of technology such as the crosscut saw, railway, tractor, steam-powered donkey engine, which transformed how loggers worked and shifted the industry from small to large scale. These technological changes matched what was going on at large in Eastern Canada. Ontario was now an official political entity and was moving towards urbanization. The use of steel was expanding like wood had a century prior and there was a major decrease in demand from both the UK and US. The industry began to shift towards the west. British Columbia took over and was producing half of Canada’s annual cut of timber by 1920. Today, Canada is the fourth largest producer of pulp, paper, and paperboard products in the world and in Ontario the local forest industry generates ~$573 million every year.

British Columbian loggers and new technology. Two of them are standing on springboards with their double-edged axes. The one in the tree is behind a long saw. When you have trees THAT big it is easy to see why BC took over the industry. [Source]

To answer my original question, life was laborious for 19th century families involved in Ontario lumber’s industry. Male loggers worked from dawn to dusk in an occupation where their lives were always at risk. Their families worked an equal amount of long hours; however their time was spent not in forest, but on their farms. The lumber industry was booming throughout the 1800s and served as not only as a major source of extra income for families, but helped shape the future province of Ontario.


J. M. Bumsted, A History of the Canadian Peoples, 4th ed., Oxford University Press (2011).

New Brunswick Museum, “All in a Day’s Work: Lumbering in New Brunswick,” for the McCord Museum. Accessed from: http://www.mccord-museum.qc.ca/en/keys/webtours/VQ_P2_8_EN

Penetanguishene Centennial Museum & Archives, “A Short History of Penetanguishene,” Accessed from: http://www.pencenmuseum.com/general-information/history/

Ottawa River Heritage Designation Committee, “2.7 Logging in the Ottawa Valley – The Ottawa River and the Lumber Industry,” from A Background Study for Nomination of the Ottawa River Under the Canadian Heritage Rivers System – 2005. Accessed from: http://www.ottawariver.org/pdf/09-ch2-7.pdf

The Canadian Encyclopedia, “Timber Trade History,” Accessed from: http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/timber-trade-history/


2 thoughts on “19th Century Lumberjacks Were Kinda Crazy

  1. franbrz says:

    I can trace one section of my family tree back to an ancestor from France, however he was apparently born on the voyage over (we don’t know what his parents’ names were) and the family settled in Ontario where their name was anglicized (we also don’t know what the original French was). However it’s interesting because in census records his descendants still list their ancestry as French, even though they couldn’t speak it and were just poor Ontario backwoods farmers. Anyway, interesting post!


    • cadeauca says:

      Hey, another descendant of farmers from the Ontario backwoods! *High fives*

      That’s so neat that one of your ancestors was born en-route to Canada! Mine kept their French last name, but apparently they readily ditched speaking French for English lol.

      Thanks for reading!


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