Selective Cuttings

Canadian forest sector history (Article 2): The steam age (1830–1880)

February 20, 2014

This article is the second in a series of five which delve into the history of the forest sector in Canada from the 17th century until the 20th century (see also 1, 3, 4 and 5).

The increasingly widespread adoption of steam power had two important impacts in the forest sector. First, steam power replaced water power in sawmills, making sawmills more efficient. Second, steam powered railways freed transportation from their restriction to established waterways, allowing development of previously inaccessible forest areas.

Lumber: As steam power replaced water power in sawmills, it increased mill capacity, extended the season of mill operation and reduced the industry’s dependence on rivers to transport timber. But it did not break the pattern of winter logging. Another major development was the proliferation of mills along railways pushing northward into the Canadian Shield. The locus of Canadian wood production started shifting westward.

Beginning in the early 1800’s, lumber exports to first Britain, and then the US, increased dramatically. There was also an increasing domestic trade between the Canadas. The US trade grew even more during the period of Reciprocity (1846–1897, Treaty in 1854), aided by new railways and canals. By the 1850s the timber trade with Britain was in decline. Lumber is a striking illustration of the rapidity with which the market destination shifted away from Britain in favour of the US: after beginning in the late 1840’s, the US trade had passed Britain as the primary destination of lumber shipments by 1860 (see graph below). However it was not until 1905, with imports of some $18 million, that the US accounted for more than half of all types of Canadian forest product exports.

Canadian lumber exports (thousand board feet)

This line graph shows how lumber exports to Britain peaked mid-1900’s before gradually declining  while lumber exports to the US shot out mid-century to become the single largest export destination of Canadian lumber.

Paper industries: For many centuries the traditional source of cellulose fibre for paper manufacture had been cotton and linen rags. The full potential of a Canadian pulp and paper industry based on a vast forest resource began to be realized only after the discovery of how to make paper from wood (in 1843, thanks to the German Friedrich Keller) and the first groundwood pulp mills appeared in Canada in 1869. North America’s first chemical wood-pulp mill was constructed in Windsor Mills, Quebec in 1864. Wood pulp then gradually displaced rag pulp for most uses, and the era of modern papermaking began.

The end of the 1830–1880 period was marked by economic struggle for Canada with the world-wide depression in the 1870’s. This was followed by another depression in the early 1890’s marked by a long term slowdown in Britain (Canada’s main export market) and steeply protectionist moves in the US (Canada’s second market).