Logging and lumbering has been, and continues to be, an important part
of the northern way of life.
||October 27, 2000
A closer look at lumber baron J.R. Booth
Over the next few months, I will look at some of this history throughout
our area. Today I want to start with a profile of J.R. Booth, the greatest
lumberman Canada ever produced.
He had operations throughout our area, including Mattawa, Temiskaming,
Calvin and Chisholm Townships, and numerous locations in and around Lake
J.R. Booth was a remarkable man for many reasons, including his
longevity, his wealth, his independence and his bold and innovative approach
to business. Booth had the largest business in the British Commonwealth
run by one man when he finally incorporated in 1921 at the age of ninety-four.
He died in 1925 in his ninety-ninth year.
There is no definitive biography on Booth, partly because he did not
leave much of a paper trail, and many of his records were burned on his
death at his request.
J.R. Booth was a relatively uneducated carpenter who built bridges and
a sawmill for someone else prior to setting up a shingle business which
burned shortly thereafter. He then took a lease on a small sawmill.
His first big break came when he got the contract to provide the timber
for the parliament buildings in Ottawa. His second break came when he acquired,
at a very reasonable price, 250 square miles of prime pine in Algonquin
Park from what was the estate of the early square timber baron John Egan
but which had gone back to the crown.
Booth harvested his Egan property for fifty years, often going there
in his private rail car, and working with his men during the day and on
business most of the night. He seldom slept for more than a few hours.
He travelled there on his Ottawa Arnprior and Parry Sound Railway, which
he built through the south end of the park in one of the most remarkable
engineering feats imaginable. He had a small spur line (the 20-mile McCauley
Central Railway) built into his Egan property.
Booth's vision and boldness were qualities that made him a success.
He built Canada's largest sawmill in Ottawa, and very early on established
a planning mill and offices in the United States. He established the Canada
Atlantic Railway to carry his lumber to the States, and at one point built
a railway bridge across the St. Lawrence River to move his lumber faster
than crossing the river on barges. He later joined this first railway with
his Ottawa Parry Sound Railway to form one 400 mile Canada Atlantic Railway.
To access Western grain and other goods, he established a ship line
and elevators, all of which had an incredible amount of traffic. The rail
line carried goods back from New England, and supplies to his logging operations
on the return trip.
Booth believed in concrete as a construction material, used it extensively
and became a director of the Canada Cement Company. He saw the possibilities
of the pulp and paper industry and started a mill at his Ottawa site.
His third railway, the Nipissing and Nosbonsing, was another remarkable
engineering feat, even though it was only five miles long. To access the
pine logs on Lake Nipissing and its rivers, and get them over the escarpment
into the Mattawa-Ottawa River route to his mills, he built a jackladder
to lift the logs, and a railway to transport them to lake Nosbonsing. From
there he had a tug draw them to the Kabuskong River at Bonfield, and down
the Mattawa-Ottawa route to his mills.
Booth was a short, well-built, unpretentious man, who always wore his
clothes until they were worn out. Although what he said went, or else,
there are numerous examples of his generosity. He was quite progressive
and, among other things, introduced horses into logging to replace oxen.
He eventually owned 4, 000 of them on his 7,000 square miles of limits.
He shortened the work week and provided better diets for his men before
anyone else. He shied away from public events, like his daughter's wedding,
which was the largest ever held in Ottawa. He refused to run for public
office, but used his influence behind the scenes and was a leader in forming
and supporting several big business organizations.
When Booth died, only three of his eight children remained and they
carried on the business. Two of his senior men were a cousin, Robert Booth,
and his son-in-law Andrew Fleck, both of whom came to the Wasi operation
Sidney Staniforth, who came to Chisholm Township in 1922 to establish
Fossmill and later the Staniforth Lumber Company in Kiosk, had an excellent
relationship with the Booth family. He got very favourable deals when he
acquired the dormant Booth limits at Fossmill and Kiosk.
In the 1960s, Staniforth's three sons played a major role in Booth's
operations at Tee Lake, Quebec and at Lachute, and helped keep the Booth
company afloat until the assets were eventually sold.
By the time Booth died, he had given much of his money to his family
and he still had a 23 million dollar estate.
Booth suffered many problems along the way, including devastating fires,
but his dogged determination kept him going and made him the success he
For more on J.R. Booth, look for The J.R. Booth Story (1978) by C.F.
Coons, available at the Friends of Algonquin Park bookstore at the Visitor's
Centre in Algonquin Park. J.R. Booth: The Life and Times of an Ottawa Lumber
King (1998) by John Trinnell is now out of print. An excellent two-part
article on Booth in Chatelaine magazine in 1964 is available in the reference
section of the North Bay Public Library.
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