Big Tugs and Big Rafts: A Story of Georgian Bay Lumbering – January 1947

The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.

By W.R. Williams

Logging in Canada – 1887

Southeast Georgian Bay harbor towns, including Collingwood, Midland, Victoria Harbour, Waubaushene and Penetanguishene engaged in lumbering successively and successfully over a period that began in 1855 and ended in 1940.

The Northern Railway was finally extended northward from Toronto to Collingwood in 1855 and operated a passenger and freight service during that year. Freight cars brought engines, boilers and sawmill machinery to Collingwood, and the manufacture of lumber commenced immediately for local use. Pine, both white and red, along with cedar, hemlock, oak, elm, maple and birch trees offered a wide choice. White pine was five times more plentiful than red pine.

The S. C. Kennedy Company built a large sawmill at Collingwood, and rafted for many years down the Nottawasaga River on both sides of which they owned extensive timber limits. Hotchkiss and Company also built a mill at Collingwood with a capacity of 150,000 board feet per day. Log-rafts were brought to it from the eastern and western shores of Nottawasaga Bay. Schooners carried lumber cargoes from Collingwood to the waiting markets at Saginaw and Bay City. Even at that early period there was demand for lumber in quantity at Toronto, only seventy miles to the south, and rail shipments were frequently made.

There was another angle to the industry. In those frontier days the lumbermen went hand in hand with the early settlers as they cut down the forest trees on the farms-to-be. The settlers were otherwise not only under the necessity of laboriously felling the forest but also of burning the resultant log-heaps before they could cultivate their fields.

Midland Bay is only thirty-six miles by air from Collingwood; yet it was not until 1872 that a lumberman named H. H. Cook erected a sawmill in that ideal location. There was then no railway. He used schooners to ship his lumber to Saginaw, Bay City and other Michigan markets.

The Midland Railway was extended north to Midland in 1879 and during that year John and Robert Dollar built a sawmill just east of the present town site. Robert Dollar later founded the Dollar Steamship Line. George and Thomas Chew next started the Chew Brothers Mill, now known as the Letherby Mill. The Turner Lumber Company built a mill in 1899 and were the means by which two other lumber mills were erected, the Cameron and Playfair Mill and the Manley Chew Mill. The latter operated twenty-four hours a day, was the first to start production in the spring, and continued until the freeze-up in December. With its double-edge band saws, gate saws and gang saws it had an annual production of fifty million board feet.

In her earlier waterfront activities Midland had several miles of docks, nearly all of which were in use so large was the shipping trade by water.

Thirty-two miles east of Collingwood by air and four miles west of Midland lay the town of Penetanguishene at the southern end of its seven-mile land-locked bay. The Northern Railway began running trains to the town in 1879 and in 1882 its population had increased to over two thousand and it was incorporated. By that year the C. Beck Co., Limited had a large capacity sawmill in operation. The Brentwood Lumber Company went into production the same year. It had three hundred employees and erected a number of frame dwellings to house them.

By 1907 Penetanguishene had six sawmills, two box factories, planing mills, sash and door factories, a pail and tub factory, and other woodworking mills. There was a corresponding increase in the number of sawmills at Midland. Large capacity sawmills had also gone into production at Victoria Harbour and Waubaushene.

Waubaushene Mill, ca. 1920

The situation may be summed up by stating that Penetanguishene, Midland, Victoria Harbour and Waubaushene had by 1907 all engaged in the mass production of lumber and some of its products. The timber limits were cut down in a wasteful manner without any thought of reforestation. The result was that each succeeding year it was necessary to go farther north along the shore of Georgian Bay in order to secure enough logs to keep the mills in full operation.

During the 1912 navigation season the two powerful tugs Charlton and Reginald were used together to tow to Victoria Harbour a series of very large rafts of logs that had been assembled in the North Channel west of Little Current. Each raft contained over 170,000 logs and when cut up produced about four million board feet of lumber.

Each raft was several acres in area, and was provided with double booms. Owing to their great size these rafts could not be towed through the narrow protected Inside Passage, but after rounding Manitoulin Island were towed across the wide expanse of Georgian Bay to Hope Island. From there the two tugs towed their raft along the charted steamer course of the Brebeuf Range, then past Brebeuf Island and Gin Rock following the Port McNicoll range until it was necessary to deviate to Victoria Harbour. Twelve days were required for the trip from Little Current and two round trips were made each month. This particular instance has been cited as evidence that even as early as 1912 the limits for big pine and hemlock trees had receded to the North Channel or, as it is sometimes designated, the North Shore.

The towing of large log-rafts by powerful tugs from Little Current across eighty miles of Georgian Bay was attended by risk, especially during the spring months and in September. On June 13, 1918, the Penetanguishene Herald published the following:


The McGibbon Lumber Company had the misfortune to lose a fine raft of logs a few days ago. The tug Wahnapitae had the raft in tow when she got caught in a big blow. The tug hung on to the raft until she found she was being drawn into a dangerous zone and then let go.

On June 20 the following paragraph appeared in the same newspaper:

The raft of logs lost by the Wahnapitae was picked up and brought to the mill on Friday, June 14. Only a small percentage of logs had been washed over the booms.

Under the date of September 12, 1918, the following was published:

The C. Beck Co. met with a heavy loss on Tuesday, Sept. 10, when their tug Wahnapitae was forced to let go of a boom of logs out near the Western Islands. With an east wind blowing, the logs will be scattered all over the Georgian Bay.

All Georgian Bay lumber companies, and associated companies, owned tugs, and sometimes steamers as well. At Penetanguishene the C. Beck Co., Limited, owned the wooden steamship Chamberlain and the big tug Wahnapitae. The Firstbrook Box Company owned the tug Penetang. and Gropp Brothers the Topsy. The McGibbon Lumber Company owned a gasoline-powered tug for harbor use, and hired the tugs of other lumber companies to bring their rafts down from the timber limits. The Breithaupt Leather Company used their tug Geraldine to tow barges loaded with hemlock tanbark from the Moon River area.

In Midland the Manley Chew Company owned not only the tug Beaver but the wooden steamship Schoolcraft as well. Like the Chamberlain the Schoolcraft was used to transport lumber to various lake ports, and on the homebound trip often towed a raft of logs from the North Channel.

On June 15, 1915, the Penetanguishene Herald published the following news item:

Capt. Joseph Ouellette with the steamer Schoolcraft came into Midland on Friday with a tow of 70,000 logs for the Manley Chew Company.


This raft was from the timber limits of the Manley Chew Company at French River. During the period 1914-1918 this company, in addition to their large capacity sawmill at Midland, operated a smaller one on Thunder Bay. After delivering the raft at Midland the Schoolcraft proceeded to Thunder Bay and loaded lumber for Tonawanda, near Buffalo. From there the Schoolcraft returned to French River for another raft. The rafts ranged in size from 70,000 to 110,000 logs. The steamer was unfortunately burned to the water’s edge in 1920 almost within sight of Midland.

The big powerful two-masted Wahnapitae was by far the best known of all the tugs that towed log-rafts to the sawmills at Penetanguishene. This was all the more true because the tug itself, along with its nine­man crew, was a Penetanguishene product. On board with Captain Paul Dusome and his mate Bill Tuton were two wheelsmen, two engineers, two firemen and a cook. The tug was built by the C. Beck Co., Limited on their bay front during the winter of 1904-1905, the oak timbers for the keel and frames having been sawn by Gropp Brothers at their new Penetanguishene mill. The tug’s original length was ninety feet. Its breadth was eighteen and its draft ten feet, giving it one hundred and ninety-one gross tons. The engine was of three hundred horsepower.

From 1905 to 1929 the Wahnapitae was used to tow very large log­ rafts from Little Current, Thessalon and French River across the eighty-mile unprotected stretch of Georgian Bay. About the year 1921 it was rebuilt by adding twenty feet, making its length one hundred and ten feet. A steam steering gear and a wireless outfit were added. Some of the rafts towed into the mouth of Penetanguishene Bay were of such large area that it was found necessary to halve them in order to pass the bottle-neck and right-angled turn at Reformatory Point. These large rafts on occasion included more than 180,000 logs, enough to keep the two Beck Co. mills in full operation for a month. At the stern of every tug was a steam deck-winch, on whose drum the steel towing cable was wound. No raft was ever towed at a closer distance than six or seven hundred feet, otherwise it would have been retarded by the backwash from the tug’s propeller.

Log Raft with Tug Boat

Coupling the end of the towing cable to any raft was given special attention as there was severe and continuous strain at that particular point. A boom-log was selected. One end was reinforced by bolting two oak blocks through it. A hole was bored through the blocks and log, a heavy steel chain passed through the hole and then through the loop on the end of the cable. The ends of the chain were united by a special steel device. The contrivance never gave out, even in a storm. Moreover the tug could, in a dangerous situation, separate from the raft by letting the steel towing cable run off the winch, and then steer for shelter. When the storm had abated, the tug returned to the scene, and after locating the raft or broken boom, as the case might be, always found the raft end of the towing cable, recovered the entire cable and towed the raft to the mill if it was intact.

In 1929 the C. Beck Co., owing to exhaustion of timber limits. disposed of the Wahnapitae to the Keenan Towing Company at Owen Sound, a subsidiary of Keenan Woodenware, Limited, of that city. From 1929 to 1937 it was used to tow the barge Dan Proctor and transported logs and pulpwood from various locations to the woodenware factory. In 1937 the tug was again sold, this time to the J. J. McFadden Lumber Co., Limited, of Blind River, Ontario. Once more it was used to tow rafts of white and red pine logs, this time to the company’s mill at Blind River. In 1940 it was practically rebuilt and sold for the third time, the purchaser being Sorel Harbour Tugs, Limited, of Sorel, Quebec. The tug was put in service the same year, towing barges loaded with pulpwood from Levis to Three Rivers, Quebec. The following year the name was changed to Dick T. but unfortunately this big tug met with accident and became a total loss at the entrance of De la Chaudiere Basin. *

At this point it is pertinent to mention the “log-pickers” who played a role in Georgian Bay lumbering that became more important and lucrative as logs became scarcer. All logs were piled on the skidway after being cut in the winter, and the end of each one was hammer­ stamped or branded with the owner’s recognized mark. The rafts, while en route to the sawmills, invariably had dozens of logs washed or bumped over the booms, even when double booms were used. But the runaway logs were not irretrievably lost. All of them were eventually washed up on the rocks of the 30,000 islands, or on those of the mainland. The ownership of the castaway logs was clearly evident to the “log-pickers” who went with tug and booms to round them up and sort them into separate rafts that were then towed to the owner’s mill, either at Penetanguishene, Midland or Victoria Harbour.

One of the best-known “log-pickers” in the Georgian Bay area was Captain Charles Martin of Penetanguishene, who carried on his operations as far north as French River, a distance of one hundred miles. Another citizen of Penetanguishene occupied himself in recovering water-logged sunken logs from the bottom of Penetanguishene Bay. Standing on a small raft, pike-pole in hand, he patiently and systematically prodded the bay bottom. After contacting a sunken log, he next proceeded to bring it to shore after seizing it with an ice tong mechanism. These water-soaked red and white pine and hemlock logs were generally sawed into box shooks.

The mills at Penetanguishene, Midland and Collingwood, as well as those at Victoria Harbour and Waubaushene, were, on an average, supplied for about half a century by hundreds of thousands of acres of timber limits with dense stands of choice white and red pine, spruce, cedar and hemlock. In Simcoe County itself, there was a long-lasting supply of oak, elm, maple, birch and beech. In addition to lumber, lath and shingles, the mills were able to maintain a stock pile of hemlock tanbark which they shipped by rail to various tanneries as required. There was a large tannery of the Breithaupt Leather Company at Penetanguishene.

The emphasis, however, was on production of lumber and shingles for the market at Toronto and other southern Ontario communities, which after 1850 had entered the era of frame construction that followed the pioneer log buildings. Frame construction was the new fashion for stores, offices, houses and factories. By 1871 Toronto had a population of 59,000 which in 1881 had grown to 96,196, and in 1891 to 181,215. Toronto’s population was almost doubling every ten years, and by rail from Penetanguishene it was a hundred miles.

Rail connection southward was vital to Penetanguishene’s commercial prosperity, but water transportation continued to serve as an important subsidiary for the export of lumber from Penetanguishene and Midland until at least 1920. A photograph taken June 28, 1890, showed a fleet of four schooners, the Groton, C. A. King, Nassau and Chatget being towed up the seven-mile Penetanguishene Bay by the tug John Martin to be loaded with lumber at one of the mills. There was never a scarcity of tugs. At least three companies owned and operated them. The Firstbrook Box Company operated the Penetang, Gropp Brothers the Topsy. The Breithaupt Leather Company originally owned the Geraldine. They were even more useful for towing out loaded schooners.

* The Midland, Ontario Free Press Herald printed an article on December 11, 1946 by Mr. Williams stating that the “Wahnapitae now lies beached and abandoned at Windsor Cove. a short distance above Levis, on the south shore of the St. Lawrence.”

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This article first appeared in Inland Seas in January 1947.

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