Below is an excerpt from The Fossmill Story: Life in a Railway lumbering village on the edge of Algonquin Park.
Prologue: Day Of RestSunday, August 26, 1934, started out as an ordinary day of work in the lumber mill at Fossmill, Ontario. The mill workers and their families pursued their leisure time in various ways. After going to church, sport was a favourite pastime for many. The mosquito and blackfly season was finally over, and some of the workers played a game of baseball in a field west of the village.
In the 1920s, the company had cleared an area and built the ball diamond for its workers. “I played centre field,” remembers Donat Huneault. “My brother Lawrence was on first base. Old man Staniforth bought us all uniforms. They were white with a black stripe. We played Chiswick, Alderdale, and Wasing—we had a pretty good team!”
“The Wasing boys and girls played the Fossmill gang,” recalls Doreen Smith, who played on the team from the nearby community of Wasing. “Could Alderic Bergeron ever pitch! By the time you got the bat up, the ball was long gone.”
Because of the Depression there was little money for uniforms now, but some players still wore their old uniforms with Fassett Lumber Corporation embroidered across the chest.
The people of Fossmill were thankful the men were still working, because the Depression had crippled the lumber industry. Many mills had closed down permanently. Their company, the Fassett Lumber Corporation, had laid off workers temporarily when the mill was closed for short periods. Fassett’s timber limits were primarily in Algonquin Provincial Park, and the previous year Fassett was the only company to set up camps and cut logs in the Park. There was apprehension about the future as unsold lumber piled up in the yard.
So far, 1934 had been an eventful year: a motion picture company from England came to Fossmill to make a movie about the company; the pulp cutters in South River went on strike; a CNR train, carrying dynamite, derailed in the centre of Fossmill, killing a transient rider and almost forcing the evacuation of the village; it snowed in July, and Elzire Dionne from nearby Corbeil gave birth to quintuplets.
August was a slow month in the lumber industry. By early July the company had cut and stored its prized hardwood for drying, and the winter cutting season would not begin until September. On this Sunday, Woods Manager Jack McGibbon and his family were on vacation in Quebec, and Mill Manager Tom Howard was visiting North Bay.
Around five o’clock someone at the ball game saw black smoke rising
from the direction of Fossmill. The players heard the shrill sound of the
mill’s steam whistle over the
Thirteen-year-old Margaret Gleason was watching the game that day. “Somebody happened to look up and saw all this big smoke and they said, ‘Oh my God, something is burning at Fossmill.’ Then they said, ‘The Mill!’—we all beat it home.”
They scooped up the bats, balls and gloves, and abandoned the close game. Alderic Bergeron senior’s car sped past on the gravel road, a day of fishing quickly forgotten. When the villagers rounded the bend to the CNR crossing, they saw in the valley—beyond the row of houses, the school, and the church—the mill engulfed in flames. One hundred jobs in the mill, two to four hundred jobs in the bush and a decade of work building a new life and community in that isolated river valley were threatened that day.
Among the stunned crowd were people who, ten years earlier, came from Fassett, Quebec to Fossmill. The Fassett Lumber Corporation moved to Fossmill after clearcutting its entire timber limits in the mountains behind Fassett. The workers who wanted to keep their jobs were forced to move with the company.
Nora Gleason recalls the day she arrived with her family on the train from Quebec. “When we got to Fossmill we thought it was a God-Almighty place. Fassett was a good sized town. We had running water and stuff like that—things to do. There was none of that at Fossmill. There was nothing, absolutely nothing—except mosquitoes and blackflies. None of us were happy to move, but in those days a job was a job.”