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October 27, 2000

A closer look at lumber baron J.R. Booth 

Logging and lumbering has been, and continues to be, an important part of the northern way of life. 

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 Nipissing.

 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 regularly. 

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 finally became.

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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