Lumbermen clashed for river rights
Splinters of bark and wood flew with each thunk of the timber axe. Clearing thick forests near Lanark inthe 1840s, muscles rippled and grunts emanated with vigorous swings of the axe. Trees crashed to the ground and then were delimbed, prepared to be sent to the mills. One teenager delighted in lumbering and later in commerce. Peter McLaren found his calling.
Wilderness inall directions, settlers to Upper Canada cleared bush land for homes, towns and businesses, and for constructing wagons, ships, railways and more. Mills sprung up to produce sawed lumber and squared timbers, for local use and to sell to growing regions. Winter was the best season to harvest as trees were dormant, the sap was not running, and snowand ice made transporting logs to waterways much easier.
The Gil lies Company hired 14-year-old McLaren (born Sept. 22, 1831), teaching him the precise skills of a lumberjack and log driver. Shanties became the boy’s home, large log bunkhouses in the woods, with room for 25 to 50 men per temporary structure.
“To heat the shanty, an open fireplace, called a ‘camboose’, stood near the centre of the roomona base of sand ,” said Perth and District Historical Society in “Mississippi Lumber Baron: Peter McLaren (18311919).” Hot sand “was scooped out and place dat the corner of the ‘camboose’ to form a pit inwhich meals of pork and beans with molasses were cooked, and where huge loaves of bread were baked .” Kettleshung over the fireplace as well, for cooking and hot water.
About eight years later, John Gillies selected McLaren as his business partner. The Gillies and McLaren Company flourished and in 1862 purchased nearly 777 square kilometres of logging limits on the upper Mississippi River, past Mazinaw Lake.
The Mississippi presented challenges for log drives, with “sharp turns, narrow channels, long shallow rapids and substantial water falls ,” the historical society said.
Workers made necessary adjustments for log driving by dredging “channels, dams to control water levels, timber slides around rapids and falls, sluice ways and boo ms to corral the logs after they had passed through.” In1869, thecompany also purchased andre built Gil mo ur Mills at Carleton Place. Twoyears later, Gillies sold his share of the firm to McLaren for the tidy sum of $330,000, well over $6 million in today’ s dollars.
A bachelor until 36, McLaren married Sophia Elizabeth Lees (born 1845) on Nov. 22, 1867. Settling down after years in bush camp shanties and at his mother’s house, McLaren purchased a large stone home in Perth named Nevis Cottage, alongwith 600 acres.
As their family grew, the McLarens made alterations to thehouse, including a two-storey addition with servant squarters, and a spacious carriage house with turret.
The family with five children had a comfortable lifestyle, enjoying fine quality furniture and paintings by renowned artists. (Built in 1842, the graceful Nevis Cottage is now a bed andbreakfast inn.)
For years, logs moved smoothly downriver, with competitors paying tolls touse McLaren’s improved Mississippi River section when the way was clear. Abrupt change to the co-operative spirit burst out in1875.
Without the landowner’s consent, work men of the Buck & Stewart Company rushed their spring log drive through the Mississippi to the Ottawa River “after cutting a passage through a McLaren boom at the Ragged Chute in Palmerston, and a 20-foot gap through a closed McLaren dam at High Falls in North S her brooke ,” noted Howard Morton Brown in “Mississippi ,” Carleton Place Local History.
McLaren immediately sued, but co-operation soon reigned again… for awhile.
The flickering se ar of flames nearly brought McLaren’s operations to its knees in 1879. Industrious mill workers pumped out thousands upon thousands of feet of lumber in Carleton Place, the board spiled in yards until needed. The CPR’s tiesand rails were stacked nearby, close to the rail lines. Theblaze feasted on more than 13 million feet of lumber.
Men and fire engines came from far and wide, and local residents raced into help putout the insatiable fire. When it was allover, insurance covered$50,000 of losses. Another $100,000 was paid by the CPR— after a five-year litigation ended with England’s Privy Council decision that sparks from a passing locomotive probably ignited the blaze.
Aggravations resurfaced when Boyd Caldwell and the Caldwell Lumber Company purchased limits along the Mississippi River. Pushing log drives throughthe river in early 1880, Caldwell’ s men cut McLaren booms and dams.
McLaren pursued an in junction. He considered the improved section of the Mississippi exclusively under his control.
Court decisions ricocheted back and forth. Cald well “won the approval of the Ontario government three times to use the Mississippi water way for his log sand square timber ,” Alan Ray burn said in “Naming Canada: Stories about Canadian Place Names ”( University of Toronto Press, 2001).
Early into the court challenges, Premier Oliver Mo wat legislated An Act for Protecting the Public Interest in Rivers, Streams and Creeks in 1881. The act ensured that “during the spring, summerand autumn freshets, the right to float and transmit sawlogs and other timber, rafts and crafts, downall such rivers, creeks or streams, and through and over such constructions and improvements…”
The permission to use the water way was “subject to the payment to the person who has made such construction sand improvements, of reasonable tolls.”
However, time after time, the federal government disagreed with the provincial rulings, overturning them with decisions for McLaren and property owners.
The dispute came to endwhen the Judicial Committee of England’s Privy Council agreed with Caldwell. The Rivers and Streams Act came into full, unobstructed force in 1884. Not only ensuring water way protection against private interests, the lumbermen’s casewas far-reaching, playing “a crucial role in establishing fundamental principles in federal provincial relations ,” said then- Culture Minister Aileen Carroll in Cision, on the unveiling of an Ontario Heritage Trust plaque at Centennial Beach, Carleton Place.
Three years later, retiring lumber mag nate “McLaren sold his interests in the area. Boyd Caldwell’ s death followed in 1888, marking the end of one of the most influential disagreements in Canadian legal history,” according to Cision.
McLaren wasn’t slowing in business by any means. His thoughts were already concentrated on the west, in Alberta.
Purchasing the failed Mountain Mill operation near Pin cher Creek in 1881, the industrialist installed his brother-in-law as manager. Thecompany soon turned profits, leading to another mill purchase at Fort Mac leod.Mc La r en was just intime to happily sell railway ties to the CPR for construction of the Crowsnest Pass, with his firm regarded as first industry inthe area.
Building a saw mill at Blair more was also a propitious decision. Coal seams were discovered nearby and the new mines opened a market for lumber.
Taking a turn at politics, McLaren was appointed to the Senate representing Perth on Feb. 21,1890, by Prime Minister John A. Macdonald. McLaren was a member of the Upper Chamber for close to three decades.
In1902, Mountain Mill closed due to flooding. Eight years later, forest fires engulfed the western Alberta region. “The loss of timber was also extensive and the McLaren Lumber Company saw most its reserves destroyed,” described Perth and District Historical Society. In1911, McLaren sold his Alberta holdings.
An interest in mining sparked McLaren to purchase an enormous parcel of land in Virginia. Featuring timber and brown he ma ti te iron ore, the sale included leases of mining operations. The new mining operator also purchased holdings near Per thin North Burgess Township. Originally mined for phosphate, mi ca mining took over. (McLarengave the property to his son William and his bride as a wedding gift in 1910.)
At age 87, Peter McLaren died at his Perth home on May 23, 1919. From lumber camp teen, birling logs down river, to respected industrialist and Senator, the businessman was honoured in 1962with the designation of Mount McLaren in the Crowsnest Pass.
Peter McLaren of Perth, Ont., by permission of David McLaren, Find a Grave Memorial