North American timber trade

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In the early nineteenth century timber became the dominant staple commodity. Timber for the domestic market had long been a small industry in the colonies, but it was changes in Europe in the early nineteenth century that created a large export market. Great Britain had exhausted its supplies of quality timber by the start of the eighteenth century. The great oaks that had built the Royal Navy were all but gone. The lack of very large trees that could supply great masts was especially problematic as they were a necessity for both its war and merchant shipping. A thriving timber importing business had thus developed between Britain and the Baltic region. This trade was very unpopular for both economic and strategic reasons.[1]

For much of the eighteenth century, Britain had encouraged the timber trade with the New England colonies. The American stands of timber were primarily located along the small, but easily navigable rivers of New York and Massachusetts. These were fairly quickly exhausted. Even without the American Revolution new sources would have been needed by the start of the nineteenth century.

Butting square timber, Quebec City, QC, 1872.

The Napoleonic Wars and the Continental blockade cut off, or at least reduced the Baltic trade so the British looked northwards to the colonies that had remained loyal and were still available. The industry became concentrated in three main regions. The first to be exploited was the Saint John River system. Trees in the still almost deserted hinterland of New Brunswick were cut and transported to Saint John, New Brunswick, where they were shipped to England. This area soon could not keep up with demand and the trade moved to the St. Lawrence River where logs were shipped to Quebec City before being sent on to Europe. This area also proved insufficient and the trade expanded westward, most notably to the Ottawa River system, which, by 1845, provided three quarters of the timber shipped from Quebec City. The timber trade became a massive business. In one summer, 1200 ships were loaded with timber at Quebec City alone, and it became by far British North America's most important commodity. it was from the money made in timber that the Bank of Montreal was founded in 1817.[2]

The cutting of the timber was done by small groups of men in isolated camps. For most of the nineteenth century, the most common product was square timber, which was a log that had been cut into a square block in the forest before being shipped. The timber was transported from the hinterlands to the major markets by assembling it into a raft and floating it downstream. Because of the narrower and more turbulent waters that one would encounter on the Ottawa River system, smaller rafts, known as "cribs," were employed. On the St. Lawrence, however, very large rafts, some up a third of a mile in length would be employed. The most common type of tree harvested was white pine, mostly because it floated well. Oak, which does not float, was in high demand but was much harder to transport and oak timbers needed to be carefully integrated into the raft if they were to be carried to market.

Timber booms on the Ottawa River, Canada, 1872.

In 1842, the British preferential tariffs were lifted; however, the transatlantic trade still remained a profitable one. Demand in Britain remained high, especially for railway ties. Improved ships and new technologies, especially the steam engine, allowed the trade to continue to prosper. After the middle of the century the trade in timber began to decline, being replaced by trade in cut lumber and the pulp and paper industry.

One of the most important side effects of the timber trade was immigration to British North America. Timber is a very bulky and not a particularly valuable cargo. For every ship full of British manufactured goods, dozens would be needed to carry the same value of timber. There was no cargo coming from the British Isles to Canada that could take up as much room on the return voyage. Exporting salt filled a few ships, and some vessels were even filled with bricks, but many timber ships made the westward voyage filled with ballast. The population of Canada was small and the lack of wealth in the area made it an unattractive market.

There was, however, one cargo that the ship-owners did not have to worry about finding a market for in the sparsely populated New World: people. Many of the timber ships turned to carrying immigrants for the return voyage from the British Isles to fill this unused capacity. Timber ships would unload their cargo and sell passage to those desiring to emigrate. During the early nineteenth century, with the preferential tariff in full effect, the timber ships were among the oldest and most dilapidated in the British merchant fleet, and travelling as a passenger upon them was extremely unpleasant and dangerous. It was, however, very cheap. Since timber exports would peak at the same time as conflicts in Europe, such as the Napoleonic Wars, a great mass of refugees sought this cheap passage across the Atlantic.

In later decades after the repeal of the tariff and the increase of competition, the quality and safety of the ships improved markedly. Since the travellers would bring along their own food and bedding the trade was an extremely easy one to operate. All that was required was a few advertisements, generally in Irish newspapers, and the installation of bunks along the side of the hold. An average timber ship could thus carry about 200 passengers. Even with only a fraction of the hundreds of timber ships carrying passengers, this created an unprecedented influx of new inhabitants. By comparison, it has been calculated that the trade between New France and Europe only included an average sixty-six immigrants per year over the lifetime of that colony.

The timber trade did not only bring immigrants to British North America, it also played a very important role in keeping them there as well. While many of those disembarking from the timber ships would head south to the United States, many others would stay in British North America. In large part, this was because of the employment that could be found in the timber trade. At the peak of the trade in the 1840s, 15,000 Irish loggers were employed in the Gatineau region alone. This when it had been only a few years before that the population of Montreal was only ten thousand. Similar situations could be found in the other centres of the timber trade.

City of Adelaide

In 1888, the City of Adelaide was sold to Belfast-based timber merchants Daniel and Thomas Stewart Dixon, and was used to carry timber in the North Atlantic trade. The City of Adelaide was home-ported in Belfast and from there frequented several British North American ports, most frequently Miramichi, New Brunswick.

Of the thousands of sailing ships involved in the timber trade between North America and the United Kingdom, the City of Adelaide is the last survivor.


  1. Tim Ball, "Timber!", Beaver, April 987, Vol. 67#2 pp 45-56
  2. Graeme Wynn, Timber Colony: A Historical Geography of Early Nineteenth Century New Brunswick (2002)