RUN­NING THE TIM­BER SLIDES

Guid­ing logs down­river to mar­ket was risky work re­quir­ing fast foot­work and nerves of steel.

Canada's History - - TRADING POST - by David Lee

It started out like any other sum­mer day at Chaudière Falls on the Ottawa River. It was Au­gust 1854, and the river was busy with rafts­men steer­ing tim­ber rafts — known as cribs — to­wards a slide that would run them safely around the fright­en­ing cataract. It was haz­ardous work but the men were fa­mous for their skills on the wa­ter and were usu­ally able to avoid dan­ger. This day would be dif­fer­ent, how­ever.

A crib of heavy tim­bers car­ry­ing sev­eral rafts­men who were in­tend­ing to run the slide missed the en­trance. They were on their way to be­ing swept over the falls — and to cer­tain death — but mirac­u­lously the crib got stuck on a rock at the brink of the falls. Still, they were left help­less with the rag­ing wa­ter fall­ing more than fif­teen me­tres be­low them and a wide abyss sep­a­rat­ing them from safety.

A crowd of towns­peo­ple soon gath­ered on the shore and car­ried out an in­ge­nious res­cue. First, the on­look­ers threw a light cord across the gap, to which was at­tached a strong rope and, lastly, a thick ca­ble. The rafts­men fas­tened their end of the ca­ble to the crib, while the towns­peo­ple built a tri­pod on the shore to se­cure the other end. The men tied them­selves to a ring on the ca­ble and were pulled to safety. The dra­matic res­cue caused a great sen­sa­tion in the towns on either side of the falls — By­town (re­named Ottawa in 1855) and Hull, Que­bec (now Gatineau).

Tim­ber cribs were a com­mon sight on the Ottawa River through­out the nine­teenth cen­tury. The river was the cen­tre of the square tim­ber trade in Canada, and it was rafts­men and tim­ber slides that kept the in­dus­try mov­ing smoothly. The tim­bers were usu­ally white pine or red pine logs that had been hewn square in the bush.

They were hauled out of the bush and dumped into the river, where fif­teen to twenty were lashed to­gether into small cribs mea­sur­ing less than five me­tres in width. The cribs were banded to­gether into an ex­tended raft and floated down the Ottawa and St. Lawrence rivers to Que­bec City, where the tim­ber would be sold and shipped to Great Bri­tain.

Some years as many as two hun­dred rafts would de­scend the Ottawa River. One raft could con­tain as many as two hun­dred cribs, cover an area the size of an acre, and be worth as much as a mil­lion dol­lars in to­day’s money.

The men who took the raft down­river lived on board for the en­tire jour­ney, which could take as long as sev­eral months. Guid­ing th­ese cum­ber­some con­trivances down the river was no easy task, how­ever, for nu­mer­ous wa­ter­falls blocked their pas­sage. Al­low­ing the tim­ber to run through th­ese cataracts would cause se­ri­ous dam­age to the tim­ber; so, in the early years, both rafts and cribs were taken apart, ev­ery stick carted by wagon around each cataract, and ev­ery­thing re­assem­bled in the calm waters be­low. It was a la­bo­ri­ous, ex­pen­sive, and time-con­sum­ing process. Some­times it took two or three weeks to get a large raft of tim­ber past Chaudière Falls.

The prob­lem was ul­ti­mately re­solved by the in­ven­tion of the crib-sized tim­ber slide. This was the work of Rug­gles Wright, son

of a pi­o­neer­ing fam­ily liv­ing at Wright­stown (now part of Gatineau). His fa­ther, Phile­mon, was one of the first men in cen­tral Canada to pro­duce squared tim­ber for ex­port.

The ju­nior Wright came upon the idea of a tim­ber slide while vis­it­ing Europe. There he saw lum­ber­men us­ing nar­row wooden flumes filled with rush­ing wa­ter to bring logs down steeply slop­ing streams one stick at a time. Back home in 1829, he blasted a rough chan­nel through rock close to the Hull side of Chaudière Falls; inside the cut, he built a wide, wooden ramp to carry a sheet of wa­ter from the rush­ing river above the cataract to the still wa­ter be­low. With this ramp, he was able to slide a full tim­ber crib down the slope and safely around the falls.

Af­ter 1829 rafts still had to be taken apart and re­assem­bled, but Wright’s in­no­va­tion al­lowed com­plete cribs to by­pass wa­ter­falls with speed and with­out dam­age. Tim­ber­men could get a large raft of tim­ber cribs past the falls in two or three days.

Wright’s cre­ation was a suc­cess from the out­set. Soon ev­ery tim­ber baron on the Ottawa River was us­ing the slide, pay­ing Wright a toll for each crib that de­scended the new fa­cil­ity. Be­fore long, other in­vestors fol­lowed his lead, build­ing ad­di­tional slides on the river, one on the By­town side of Chaudière Falls and sev­eral more at wa­ter­falls far­ther up­stream. In the 1840s the govern­ment pur­chased the ex­ist­ing slides and went on to con­struct fur­ther by­passes on the Ottawa, fol­low­ing Wright’s ba­sic de­sign. The slides were heav­ily used, so, in most years, the tolls the govern­ment col­lected more than paid the costs of op­er­a­tions.

The later fa­cil­i­ties were de­signed with gen­tler slopes. Wright’s model had a steep pitch that caused tim­ber cribs to de­scend with con­sid­er­able speed and, some­times, to fall apart. One re­built fa­cil­ity at By­town fea­tured four slides sep­a­rated by short stretches of level wa­ter and was de­signed to ac­count for sea­sonal wa­ter­level changes. Th­ese changes made things a lit­tle safer for the men rid­ing the cribs.

Gen­er­ally, two or more rafts­men rode on each crib, us­ing poles or oars to nav­i­gate it safely to­wards the en­trance of the slide. Con­trary winds could en­cum­ber their steer­ing, and the closer the crib got to the falls the faster the river cur­rent ran. If the men missed the en­trance they could be flung over the water­fall, as al­most hap­pened in 1854; an un­known num­ber of rafts­men per­ished in this man­ner over the years.

Once in the slide the men had to keep the crib straight so that it would not catch on the sides of the ramp. In 1889, for ex­am­ple, a crib run­ning the Chaudière slide got stuck part­way down, pos­si­bly be­cause there was too lit­tle wa­ter flow­ing through it. The men on board crawled out and scram­bled back to the top of the slide just as an­other crib was about to en­ter. The men on the sec­ond crib aborted their de­scent, avoid­ing a likely fa­tal col­li­sion.

While renowned for their skills and brav­ery, rafts­men were also no­to­ri­ous for their some­times rowdy and reck­less be­hav­iour. Un­scrupu­lous tav­ern keep­ers made things worse, set­ting up shop close to the slides and pes­ter­ing the men to drink cheap grog while car­ry­ing out their dan­ger­ous work. Ac­ci­dents inevitably re­sulted; vi­o­lence too.

In Au­gust 1876 two crews of rafts­men were both run­ning the Chaudière slide on the same day. Each crew was try­ing to run as many cribs as pos­si­ble down the slide be­fore dark­ness closed the fa­cil­ity for the day. Ten­sions rose as each tried to get ahead of the other, and fight­ing broke out. Po­lice were called in, and four rafts­men were ar­rested. The lo­cal news­pa­per blamed the vi­o­lence on drink­ing on the job.

The sense of dan­ger in­volved in rid­ing a tim­ber crib brought a ca­chet of ad­ven­ture to the slides of the Ottawa Val­ley. As early as 1837 the Lieu­tenant-Gover­nor of Up­per Canada, Sir Fran­cis Bond Head, rode a crib down the Chaudière slide. There­after it be­came a tra­di­tion to in­vite dig­ni­taries to take a cer­e­mo­nial run, usu­ally down the slide on the On­tario side of the falls. The Prince of Wales (Queen Vic­to­ria’s son, later King Ed­ward VII) ea­gerly ac­cepted the chal­lenge dur­ing his 1860 visit to Canada. In 1883, his sis­ter, Princess Louise, ran the slide with her hus­band, the Mar­quess of Lorne, Gover­nor Gen­eral of Canada, ac­com­pa­nied by their guest Mark Twain. And, in 1901, the Duke of York and Princess Mary (later King Ge­orge V and Queen Mary) took the plunge, es­corted by Prime Min­is­ter Sir Wil­frid Lau­rier and Lady Lau­rier.

No doubt, tim­ber­men and govern­ment of­fi­cials took care to en­sure the dig­ni­taries a safe pas­sage, se­cur­ing the cribs more tightly than usual and en­list­ing the best rafts­men to pi­lot them. Nev­er­the­less, the cribs could reach im­pres­sive speeds in the de­scent. The Ottawa River drops more than thir­teen me­tres at Chaudière Falls, and tim­ber cribs could weigh one or more tonnes.

In com­par­i­son to mod­ern-day white­wa­ter raft­ing, the ride would have been smoother and shorter but car­ried out with less pro­tec­tive equip­ment. For peo­ple in the nine­teenth cen­tury, the fastest speed any­one could ex­pe­ri­ence would prob­a­bly be on a rail­way coach, and the speeds reached on the slides may have come close to those on the fastest trains. More sig­nif­i­cant, though, the gra­di­ents of a rail­way line, even those in the Rocky Moun­tains, were gen­tler than the more abrupt drops of a tim­ber slide. Be­sides, trav­el­ling in an en­closed rail­way coach would have been more re­as­sur­ing than rid­ing in the open air, where dan­ger was more eas­ily felt. All in all, run­ning a tim­ber slide was an ex­hil­a­rat­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for most peo­ple.

In all, eleven crib-sized tim­ber slides were built in the Ottawa Val­ley. The only other river where Rug­gles Wright’s in­no­va­tion was taken up was the Trent River of On­tario, where the govern­ment con­structed five tim­ber slides in the nine­teenth cen­tury. Raft­ing on the Ottawa River ended in 1908, and the slides were re­moved or sim­ply left to rot away. When the last raft ar­rived at Chaudière Falls, a large crowd of peo­ple gath­ered to watch the cribs run the slide — so many that po­lice had to be called to pre­vent the spec­ta­tors from try­ing to jump on board.

Rafts­men ride logs down a tim­ber slide at By­town, Canada West (Ottawa, On­tario), circa 1851.

An il­lus­tra­tion by Wil­liam Hunter de­picts log­gers be­ing res­cued from a raft stuck at the edge of Chaudière Falls on the Ottawa River, Au­gust 1854.

Log­gers re­lax at a cook­house on a tim­ber raft.

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