Reviews of The Fossmill Story

Friends of Algonquin ParkTimberTimes | Ontario Historical Society Bulletin | Branchline | North Bay Nuggett | Daily Observer | Huntsville Forester | Almaguin News

Friends of Algonquin Park
from the What's new section of the 2000 park visitors guide

This is one of the best researched, best written, and best illustrated Algonquin Park books it has been our pleasure to review.

Published late last summer, it tells the story of a little village on the now defunct Canadian National Railway line that used to run across the northern part of Algonquin.  Fossmill was actually outside the Park but the Fassett Lumber Company, which established the village, also constructed its own logging railroad south from the village into the Park and right to the shores of Manitou and North Tea lakes up in the north west corner of Algonquin.  The village and its railroad into the Park prospered from 1924 to 1930 but, with the Great Depression and a disastrous fire in the company’s mill, it gradually declined and was finally abandoned in the 1940s.  The father and son team of Doug and Paul Mackey have done a masterful job of conveying the details of how the men and their families worked and lived in the little company town and how they affected Algonquin.

During their research Doug and Paul found some amazing early movie footage of the whole operation and we are pleased to make it available to Park history buffs in video format, and to display it at the Visitor Centre during the week of July 20 to 27, concurrent with a fuller review in that week’s issue of The Raven.  Some people like the book better and other people prefer the movie. Either way it’s a great story well told, and we heartily recommend it to you.

and from The Raven the Friends of Algonquin Park weekly newsletter

A Ghost of Algonquin Past

It is very easy for Park visitors to get the wrong idea of Algonquin's human history. Most people who come to the Park live in cities or other environments quite different from the one they see here. They aren't really equipped to interpret the subtle signs of past human involvement with a place that seems so wild. Besides, they aren't really expecting any such involvement because, to most people, a 'park' means a place preserved in a completely natural state. 

Over the years we have made a few attempts to show just how great our human impact has really been on Algonquin but we will be the first to admit that we have barely scratched the surface of a truly huge subject. That is why we are always delighted when someone comes along to reveal in depth some fascinating chapter about Algonquin Park history that we, ourselves, weren't even very much aware of. 

We can hardly give a better example than a stunning new book published just last summer by Doug and Paul Mackey entitled The Fossmill Story : life in a railway lumbering village on the edge of Algonquin Park. We say stunning because Doug and Paul's book is not only meticulously researched but it is also lavishly illustrated with a treasure trove of hundreds of photos of the town and its people and it is enlivened with scores of eye-witness accounts by former Fossmill residents interviewed in their old age. We can't reprint the whole book here, of course, but we will touch on a few highlights and encourage you to get a copy and see for yourself why we are so impressed.

Now, if you look at our map to see just where Fossmill was, you will see that it wasn't actually in the Park itself. This might seem to confirm your initial suspicion that Algonquin should have been spared this kind of development. We hasten to point out, however, that Fossmill never would have existed if it hadn't been for the Park and it was inside Algonquin that its people and industry had their most significant impact. Fossmill was located just eight kilometres from the northern boundary of Algonquin, on the main east-west Canadian National Railway (CNR) line joining eastern Canada with the west. Shortly after that line was built through Algonquin Park in 1915, a man from northeast of the Park named Foster saw the promise of the railroad as a way to transport logs and he built a small sawmill at a place where the Wasi River conveniently provided water. 'Foster's Mill' soon became shortened to 'Fossmill' but it was only in 1924 that the name really got on the map. That was the year that the Fassett Lumber Corporation moved its operations and workers from Fassett, Quebec (on the north shore of the Ottawa River between Ottawa and Montreal) and built a new town and mill at Fossmill. 

What really attracted the company's management was the hardwoods in the nearby northeast corner of Algonquin Park south of Fossmill. That section of the Park had already been logged over twice for White Pine (including by the famous J.R. Booth) but the first loggers had ignored the hardwoods (like Sugar Maple and Yellow Birch) because those trees don't float and can't be transported by water the way conifers can be. The Fassett people, however, had a plan they knew would work. Just as they did in Quebec, they would use a specially geared locomotive to haul hardwood logs to their mill on a rough, up-and-down railroad that they would audaciously build into the hinterland. Indeed, by the end of their first year, the company's new line already connected their mill with Algonquin's north boundary. By 1928, they had extended it to a length of 12 miles (almost 20 km) right to the shore of Manitou Lake, well into the Park. The next year, having taken all the timber they wanted from the Manitou sector, they lifted the last mile or so of rails, and diverted south for another 4.5 miles, where they used an interesting switchback arrangement to descend right down to the water at the northern tip of North Tea Lake. 

There, the logging train could tap into a huge supply of hardwood logs brought down from the hills surrounding North Tea Lake (fourth largest in all of Algonquin Park) and then hauled across the ice to the log dump at the southern terminus of the railway. Some of this cross-ice hauling, by the way, was done by the traditional horse-drawn sleighs but the company was also a pioneer in the use of trucks and powerful tractors. The tractors could pull many loaded sleighs at once, one behind the other, eliminating the need for many teams of horses. 

Whether the logs came from the big log dump at North Tea or from smaller dumps along the rail line itself, it was the job of the trainmen to supply the logging camps out in the bush and to bring back one trainload of 500-800 logs to the mill every day. At about five a.m. each morning, six days a week, the train would head south from Fossmill into the Park. The locomotive was always in reverse, at the back of the line, and pushing the empty cars ahead of it. This method was used because there was no place to turn around and, of course, when they came back loaded it was better to have the locomotive at the front of the train. 

In 1929 alone, the train took between 150,000 and 175,000 logs out to the mill. Peak production was about 1,500,000 board feet a month of sawn lumber and the men, paid an average of $3.00 a day for a ten hour day, six days a week, were envied by the less prosperous farmers to the north and west of Fossmill. The whole operation seemed a model of efficiency and was the subject of more than one admiring article in the forestry press of the day. 

Nevertheless, big troubles were not long in coming. On September 2nd, 1929, a spark from the train ignited a fire just inside the Park boundary that, in the next 11 days, burned over 16 square kilometres of forest and in the process destroyed one railroad bridge, two old logging camps, one new camp, and over 1000 logs awaiting transportation to the mill. The next year the train had already started three more fires by the end of May, including one that destroyed another 186 hectares. The Park Superintendent, totally fed up by this time with the company's poor safety practises, ordered it to curtail its hauling operations to the night hours when the risk of fire was much reduced. 

Of course, 1929-30 was the start of the Great Depression and the Fassett Lumber Corporation was hit hard like just about everybody else. Sales fell as much as 80%, the average wage was cut to $2.00 a day, and sometimes the operation was shut down completely and the men laid off. Just to make matters worse, at the end of September 1930, a two-day fire in the backlog of unsold lumber (possibly started by someone hoping it would bring about the re-opening of the mill) burned over 12.5 million board feet. 

Actually, the Fassett Corporation and Fossmill limped along much better than most other logging companies and communities over the next few years, but 1934 was the crusher. At the end of May, a train wreck on the main CN line right in Fossmill narrowly missed blowing the village to smithereens. (The train was carrying a load of dynamite which, fortunately, did not explode, although the wreck did kill one hobo who was 'riding the rails' looking for work as so many did in the hungry thirties.) In July, a freak snow storm left so much snow on the ground that sleighs could be used, and then, in August, the final disaster struck. On the 26th, in the space of just 45 minutes, the mill, then valued at $250,000, burned to the ground, leaving nothing but twisted piles of metal and machinery, 100 men out of work, and their families with almost no hope. 

The company could not rationally decide to rebuild, most families had no resources or possibility of relocating anywhere else, and the majority had to go on relief. Only very slowly, over the next ten or fifteen years, did Fossmill finally disappear. For a while, there was a bit of work cleaning up the mess at the mill site and lifting the rails from the logging railway in the Park (completed in the early 1940s). A few young men went off to World War II and slowly the older, unemployed workers and their families drifted away, most notably to the new, nearby lumbering village of Kiosk in Algonquin Park itself. 

The Fossmill story had come to an end. Today, just a few decades later, it would be entirely unknown except for the energy, interest, and enthusiasm of Doug and Paul Mackey. All those of us with an interest in Algonquin Park history owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude for rescuing the facts, photos, and recollections that comprise their outstanding book. It goes without saying that we recommend it highly. 

And That's Not All!

During the course of their research for the new book, Doug and Paul also uncovered some amazing film footage of the Fossmill operations (including the railroad into the Park). Two years ago they produced this in the form of a special video, Logging by Rail in Algonquin Park. Like the book, this video is available at the Park's two bookstores, at the Visitor Centre and the Logging Museum. Also, all this week in conjunction with this edition of The Raven, we will have a station set up at the Visitor Centre with continuous showings of this remarkable and rare footage. 

TimberTimes #22

A US publication on logging and lumbering history, and modeling
P.O. Box 219 Hillsboro, OR 97123  1-800-821-8652

Fossmill is just one of the many stories from this region of Canada, and is representative of dozens of other operations of the time.

The Fossmill story alone covers its operation from 1924-1946. But this is more than that – the story is expanded to cover Fossmill's earlier history in Fassett, Quebec and the post history at Kiosk in Algonquin Park. The Park itself had been set up as a forest reserve for the lumber industry.

There are over 350 photos, maps and illustrations in this book. Although you get a good share of family photos and such, a good portion of them are of logging, lumbering and the associated railroad operations. One of the illustrations is the floor plan of the mill. Another illustration shows the layout of a logging camp. And many of the maps detail the railroad lines.

You also get interview with some of the folks who lived this story along with the well researched text. This is a very comprehensive and interesting view of the area and the times.

We have seen a number of books on Western Canadian logging, here's your chance to learn about the logging above the Great Lakes region of Canada. SRG

(Se a review of Logging By Rail in Algonquin Park from same issue)

Ontario Historical Society Bulletin January 2000

From the Bookshelf

By Pat and Chris Raible, Editors

Logging Along

The Fossmill Story: Life in a Railway Lumbering Village on the Edge of Algonquin Park.  By Doug Mackey and Paul Mackey.  Past Forward Heritage. 224 pages. Illustrations. $29.95 softbound. Companion video: Logging by Rail in Algonquin Park. $29.95.

The focus of this fine book is Fossmill, a lumbering town: created in 1920s, survived through the depression of the 1930s, died In the, 1940s, An extraordinary amount of research effort, organizational ability, writing competence, and designing skill have all been combined to relate the history of a small place over a relatively short period of time, The result is quite wonderful. The authors have also produced a fascinating video using archival (early 1930s) film and still photographs to describe the logging, mill and railway operations of the Fassett Lumber Company.

Branchline: Canada's Rail Newsmagzine

December 1999 By Paul Bown

The Fossmill Story - Life in a Railway Lumbering Village on the Edge of Algonquin Park by Doug and Paul Mackey. 

If you are interested in logging, logging railways or life in a logging town this is definitely the book to have.  The authors are from the area and had an interest in local history.  From this interest this book emerged.  Over 50 individuals were interviewed in gathering together an accurate historical picture.  The history starts with the Fassett Lumber Company in Fassett, Quebec, on the Ottawa River just east of Montebello.  The logging operation there was serviced by the Salmon River and Northern Railway.  When this area had been logged out the operation and much of the railway equipment was moved to Fossmill, at the west side of Algonquin Park.

This book covers all the aspects the logging industry.  Much of the book focuses on the life in a logging town but this ties in well to the history aspect of the work.  The book is loaded with photos covering lumbering, the mill operation, the railways and family life.  A number of maps and diagrams are included so that one can put description items into a location context.  A number of photos in the book are stills from the film that the company had made during the depression to try to market its lumber in England. (The film is available as the excellent video Logging by Rail in Algonquin Park). 

Life in a lumber town could be harsh, especially during the depression, and this is well portrayed in the volume.  The operation was not without its share of disasters as fire was an ever present hazard.  The final mill fire in Fossmill was in 1934 and the operation there was wound down as the stored lumber was shipped out.  The lumber workers moved to a new operation and mill in Kiosk within the Park boundaries.  This mill was destroyed by fire in 1973 and this terminated any mill operation within the park. 

There are good descriptions of the railway equipment owned by the operation, Shays and Barnhart log loaders, plus some sidebars on other rail operations. 

I found this a most enjoyable read and an excellent window into one of Canada's important resource industries during the boom years in the first half of the century.  The book is 224 pages, 8.5" x 11" landscape format, soft bound with over 325 photos plus maps and diagrams.

(See Branchline review of Logging By Rail in Algonquin Park)

North Bay Nugget

Monday December 6th 1999

Book brings bustling mill town back to life


Once a thriving mill town on the northwestern edge of Algonquin Park, now all that remains of Fossmill are imprints of one-time buildings and the memories of those who lived there.

“I started out fascinated with steam trains, but now it's the whole personal aspect,” said Paul Mackey. “That's more interesting than rickety old railroads and romantic lumber operations.”

In The Fossmill Story, Mackey and his father Doug have brought the legacy of the vanished Chisholm Township logging community back to life.

The recently published book describes the birth of a town and the rough conditions and dangers faced by lumberjacks and their families.  It follows the town through tragedies, the Great Depression, fire and demise.

“You talk to these people and they wouldn't have it any other way,” said Doug, at a book signing Saturday at the North Bay Mall, The former Chisholm reeve says it may come across as sad, but The Fossmill Story is a happy one.

Many of the villagers interviewed recalled how they used to swim In the Wasi River, fish in the surrounding lakes and streams, or how they would attend card parties and dances.

“Many of them have made trips back at least once or twice in their life.” Doug said.

Based on more than 50 interviews with former residents, newspaper articles, archival material, and more than 350 photographs, maps and illustrations, the book looks at life in the 1920s and '30s in a logging community through the eyes of the children who grew up there and the men and women who built homes there.

“Some of these people are 70 to 80 years old but at the time they were 13 or 14,” Paul said.  “You're  hearing the story from a child's point of view and as old people looking back.”

Fossmill was a company town of Fassett Lumber Corp. of Hull, Que.  By 1924, the company had clearcut its limits In the mountains behind Fassett. It relocated to Fossmill and workers who wanted to keep their jobs were forced to move.

The mill operated for 10 years until it was destroyed by fire.  Most of the residents resettled in Kiosk in Algonquin Park.

Now consumed by nature Fossmill has faded into legend and folklore.

Doug, who has visited the site on occasion, said the only residents now are beavers and Canada geese who have settled in the hot pond (a heated water source in the winter to soak and soften logs for cutting).

General interest has turned into a full-time passion for the father-and-son team, Both avid historians, they worked nearly four years on the book and earlier released a video with vintage turn-of-the-century footage.

Pembroke Daily Observer

Thursday October 14, 1999

The Fossmill Story:

From birth to death, the life of a company town

By Andrew Wagner-Chazalon, Staff Writer

 The Fossmill Story is a compelling tale of the birth, life and death of a town.

For 10 years the Fassett Lumber Corporation ran Fossmill, a mill town on the northern edge of Algonquin Park. Fassett created the town in 1924, and when the company moved away in 1934, the town began to die as well.

The Fossmill Story relives, that decade. Using newspaper clippings, archival documents, and interviews with more than 50 former residents or their descendants, Doug and Paul Mackey have created a vivid depiction of a community that is now all but forgotten.

The tale begins in the 1880s, with a white pine lumber operation near Montebello, Quebec. That company grew into the Fassett Lumber Corporation and by the 1920s it had cut nearly all the timber on its land.

With the advice of a talented woods superintendent, jack McGibbon, the company decided to relocate to Fossmill, near Powassan, Ontario. There it planned to cut hardwood on the Algonquin Park lands, which J.R. Booth had stripped of white pine a generation earlier.

In 1924, the company closed its mill in Fassett, Quebec and built a new operation in Fossmill.

Most of its workers moved with the company, giving up their homes in a well-established Quebec town to live in a rugged bush town.

Carpenters were hired to build the mill, a boarding house, the stables, and other company buildings including houses for McGibbon and mill manager Tom Howard.

Most of the workers built their own homes, simple board structures, which they built as quickly as possible in their off-work hours. Those homes were owned by the company – built on company land using company materials – and the residents paid the company rent.

Just about everyone who lived in the town worked for the Fassett Company, cutting lumber in the mill, which operated, nearly year-round. The logging was done each winter by jobbers, independent contractors who brought in their own crews, set up their own camps, and were paid according to the volume of wood they cut and hauled.

The Mackeys describe the business in detail. They describe the work, the pay scale, and the realities of camp life, which was often harsh and often dangerous “Jumpers would protest poor camp conditions by leaving for another camp, while at least one camp of Finnish workers overcame the problems of dirt and insect infestations by building a sauna, which they used nightly. 

After the foreman, the most valued workers in the camp were the blacksmith and the cook, who earned $100 a month and $90 a month respectively. 

The base rate of pay for workers was $40 a month, while the woods superintendent McGibbon earned $150 a month and a company house for his family.

The Fossmill Story describes every inch of the logs’ progress as they were felled, bucked into lengths, and hauled to the mill using horses, tractors, and trains. The book follows the logs through the mill, from a wash in the “hot pond”, through to the lumberyard where pilers stacked the wood to dry.

The book also follows the fortunes of the Fassett company, assessing its ability to make a profit by marketing everything from high grade lumber to hemlock bark for tanning and laths for house building.

The company survived forest fires in 1929 and 1930, but like most firms began to struggle during the depression.

It kept going but in 1934 the town sustained a mortal blow when the mill burned to the ground. With its timber supplies all but exhausted, the company decided not to rebuild.

But while most of the town’s workers scraped together what work they could or went on relief, others looked to rebuild nearby. Former Fassett Company executive Sidney Staniforth teamed up with McGibbon to set up a new company on another former Booth territory at Kiosk, just 23 kilometers down the track from Fossmill.

Many of the former Fassett workers began to commute and for another decade or so Fossmill lived on as the town where the women and children stayed.

By 1950, most of the families had moved to Kiosk and Fossmill was all but gone. Kiosk also eventually died down- a fire destroyed the Goodman – Staniforth mill there in 1973. The 1974 Algonquin Park master plan curtailed new mill construction and cancelled timber licenses in favour of selective cutting managed by the new Algonquin Forestry Authority.

The provincial government eventually bought and bulldozed the houses, and now Kiosk is the site of an Algonquin Park campground.

The Mackeys have not only told the story of Fossmill, they have illustrated it – during their interviews, with former residents, they were loaned hundreds of photographs of the town and its residents, and every page of the Fossmill Story is rich with illustrations.

They have also reissued a film of the Fassett Lumber Corporation’s operations, commissioned by the company in 1934 as an advertising promotion.

The Fossmill Story is published by Past Forward Heritage, and retails for $29.95. Future publishing ventures include The Kiosk Story, and The Booth Track, about the Nipissing and Nosbonsing Railway.

Paul Mackey is one of the speakers at the cultural heritage tourism conference taking place next week in Pembroke.


Wednesday, October 6, 1999

Fresh approach to logging history

by Eleanor Kidd.

Book Review: The Fossmill Story, authors Doug and Paul Mackey, published by Past Forward Heritage, reviewed by Eleanor Kidd.

Many books have been written about the volatile logging industry in the early years as Canada grew into a nation. The authors of The Fossmill Story have adopted a fresh approach which allows all readers to understand and appreciate the trials and rewards of living in an isolated area and working in such an exacting business.

It is worthwhile at the onset to examine the Mackeys’ key goal, “an in-depth study of the life cycle of the transitory existence of a company in its various reincarnations over time with an emphasis on the life and times of the people and personalities involved.”

We all understand today the horrendous effects clear cutting has had on the virgin forests and the environment. Those towns based on logging moved on to a new area one the trees were depleted and the cycle was, then, repeated.

We know how necessary railway transportation was in order to deliver the logs and the finished product. What this book offers the reader, beyond the specifics of logging and the subsequent onerous tasks such an industry entails, is the human aspect.

In this authors also excel. Their many interviews of people who lived in Fossmill and the surrounding area provide a wealth of intriguing anecdotal material that makes the story burst into life. You are there in this remote area on the edge of Algonquin Park, experiencing their day-to-day joys, problems and tragedies from 1924 – 1946.

As you peruse the large collection of superb photographs and read the fascinating narratives, you will feel that you know these people personally. You will discover the difficulties of teaching in this outpost. Most teachers left after one or two years.

The students, most particularly the boys, were tough. Think of a one-room school with an enrolment of 50 and grades ranging from one to 10. The year is 1927. In walks Ted Priest, the new teacher, fair game for the rougher boys. Immediately he is challenged by a 5’11” youngster who, after some impudence, refused to leave. The teacher marched forward, picked up the double wooden desk with the boy in it, and transported it and hi outside. Respect was won.

Dangers abounded from the icy cold winters and the moving of heavily loaded log sleds across frozen lakes, which occasionally broke open to many dreaded fires, one of which eventually doomed Fossmill. The Depression of the 1930s also contributed significantly to its demise.

The authors, whose passion for this project, is evident throughout the book are avid historians and excellent research credentials. The extensive appendix is a valuable addition, including short biographies of some inhabitants, pictures and details of those interviewed, as well as a helpful glossary. A companion to their video, Logging by Rail in Algonquin Park, this book, a bargain at $29.95, will be treasured as you find yourself again and again, looking back at ‘unforgettable moments in our history. It is available in Huntsville, Bracebridge and Algonquin Park at all fine book outlets.


Almaguin News, Wednesday, September 22, 1999

New book on Fossmill brings an era to life

By Astrid L. Taim

POWASSAN: “Sunday, August 26, 1934, started out as an ordinary day off work in the lumber mill at Fossmill (Ontario). 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.”

So begins one of the most fascinating stories ever told about a lumber town in the Highlands of Almaguin. One that doesn’t even exist anymore. And hasn’t for some time.

Written by former reeve of Chisholm Township, Doug Mackey and his son, Paul Mackey, and published by Past Forward Heritage of Powassan, it’s a book on one of the early 20th century lumbering giants in Chisholm Township, the Fassett Lumber Corporation.

What is so unique about The Fossmill Story is that it is about life in a railway lumber town as remembered by those who live it.

Fossmill was located in Chisholm Township on the edge of Algonquin Park, close to where Doug Mackey and his family of five children set up permanent residence after years as cottagers.

From the boom years of the 1920s and the bust years of the Great Depression, readers will discover over the course of 224 pages and some 350 pristine photographs, maps and illustrations, not what life “might” have been like in a lumber town like Fossmill, but what it actually was to live then.

Doug and Paul have painstakingly recreated the town as a living portrait. One that the reader feels they can actually reach out and touch.

Relying on over 50 interviews with former inhabitants of Fossmill and Kiosk, newspaper articles, and archival material, The Fossmill Story is one of the most exciting sagas to hit local bookshelves in recent memory.

Best yet, it is not just a book for history aficionados, rail buffs or industry supporters, it has appeal for anyone who likes a ‘good read.’

Although it does include plenty of technical information on the logging industry, thankfully backed up by supporting visuals, The Fossmill Story also covers the lives of the ordinary bush workers, their vegetable plots and flower gardens, social activities, right up the ladder to the company bosses.

Not restricted to just Chisholm Township the Mackey’s book include Trussler Bros. Operations in nearby Trout Creek as well as the Standard Chemical Plant in south River.

Mackey said, “What happened in Fossmill and Kiosk is generic. The same things happened in other mills and lumber operations.”

The Fossmill Story is a story not just about local history, but history in general, as what happened everywhere in the province where there was a tree still left standing after the turn of the century.

Fossmill was a company town of the Fassett Lumber Corporation of Hull, Quebec. When the company had clearcut its entire timber limits in the mountains behind Fassett by 1924, it moved its operations to Fossmill. Ten years later, it was all over when the mill here was destroyed by fire.

“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 crack of the bat and the shouts of encouragement from onlookers. Soon everyone was looking toward the village at a cloud of smoke billowing over the tops of the trees … “’Oh my God, something is burning at Fossmill.’”

Kiosk right in Algonquin Park, was a company town of the Staniforth Lumber Company and over the years after the fire at Fossmill, it was where most relocated.

On Friday the 13th, 1973, it all came to a fiery end as within 90 minutes, the blaze consumed four hectares of buildings and yards, leaving 234 employees out of work and affecting a total of 600 people when their families were included.

Twenty-five years after the fire, a Kiosk Reunion Committee still organizes an annual reunion. And ironically, a current road map, which includes all the new road names in Chisholm Township, still includes Fossmill, even though it has been gone for 50 years.