Lumber King A Friend of Workers

I was contracted by the Ottawa Citizen to write a series of profiles about prominent Ottawa business people. This article profiles Ottawa lumber baron J.R. Booth. Sections of this article were used in Trinity Western University’s official biography of Booth.

Lumber King a Friend of Workers

 He was worth millions, yet his employees felt he was one of their own. He could afford the fanciest carriage, yet for 50 years travelled to work with a mill hand in a horse and buggy.  He built a railroad through the wilderness, which he sold soon after completion. And almost in defiance of anyone who might try to determine why he was such a study in contrasts, J.R. Booth apparently ordered all his records thrown into steel drums and burned after his death.

 “Though a ruler of a forest dominion of over four thousand square miles, the late John Rudolphus Booth was always a plain man and a worker, an absolute democrat, who asked his workmen to do nothing he would not do himself.” This headline from the Dec. 9, 1925 issue of The Ottawa Citizen pays tribute to the Ottawa lumber baron, who passed away the day before at the venerable age of 99. 

Even taking into account the breathless prose of the day, the description of a local businessman in a front page newspaper article as a “king,” “emperor of the woods” and “monarch of the Upper Ottawa,” indicates Mr. Booth’s unique standing in the early days of Canada’s capital city. The rise of a humble carpenter from Quebec’s eastern townships to the man Prime Minister Mackenzie King eulogized as “one of the fathers of Canada” is a fascinating story. 

Mr. Booth was known as a lumber king, one of the entrepreneurs who saw dollar signs in the great pine forests surrounding Ottawa. From humble beginnings, the savvy businessman quickly parlayed his remarkable farsightedness into a fortune. 

Mr. Booth arrived in what was then known as Bytown in 1854 with his wife and nine dollars in his pants pocket.  After working in a local sawmill, he rented his own sawmill from Alonzo Wright, known as the “King of the Gatineau”, and began to manufacture shingles. In 1858, Mr. Booth made a decision that sent him on the path to becoming a king in his own right. 

That year, Queen Victoria decided Bytown, or Ottawa, would be the capital of Canada. Mr. Booth’s bid was accepted to supply all the lumber for the new Canadian parliament buildings.  A prestigious contract, and in order to fill it,  Mr. Booth bought 800 acres of timber near Constance Creek, west of Britannia. He decided horses could do a better job of pulling the lumber out than the traditional oxen. Not only that, he undercut local lumberjack wages and brought in unemployed longshoremen from Montreal and Quebec to work the bush for him.  “His dock rats put the old time lumberjacks to shame with their daring and skill at riding logs on the rivers and Booth wound up with a profit of $15,000 on the contract, an established name and a bank manager who believed in him,” writes John Ross Trinnell in The Life and Times of an Ottawa Lumberking.  

The bank manager’s faith allowed Mr. Booth to borrow money to buy more stands of timber throughout Ontario and Quebec to feed the hungry building markets in Canada, the U.S. and Britain. Eventually, he owned 7,000 square miles of forest and became the largest individual timber limit owner in the British Empire. 

However, now that the ambitious entrepreneur owned the lumber, he wasn’t satisfied with the speed at which it travelled to markets in the American northeast. In 1879, he launched the building of the Canadian Atlantic Railway, and by the end of the 1880’s had built 138 miles of railway east of Ottawa to connect with the New England railroads in Vermont.  He then turned west and by 1896, a new railway linked Mr. Booth’s vast timber holdings in Algonquin Park, the Upper Ottawa, the Bonnechere River and Nippissing and Parry Sound to his sawmills at the Chaudière Falls. 

The lumber baron then formed the Canadian Atlantic Transit Company to operate a fleet of vessels on the Upper Great Lakes to complete the western segment of his transportation organization. In 1904, for unknown reasons, Mr. Booth sold the whole railway and shipping system to the Grand Trunk Railway for $14 million.

 He may have had reason to regret that sale when the Grand Trunk employees went on strike in the summer of 1910. That action forced the shutdown of the  Mr. Booth’s Chaudière mill and 2,000 men out of work.  However, according to The Ottawa Citizen, when the employees opened their pay envelopes, they found they had not been docked any pay for the seven days of the strike. 

 There are other stories of Mr. Booth’s generosity to his employees – in 1895, he reduced their working day from 11 to ten hours without any corresponding drop in wages. His example was soon followed by other mill owners.

 Despite such forward-thinking labour practices, Mr. Booth was content to work in his own sphere and did not seek to influence others. He was a 68-year member of the Ottawa Board of Trade and in 1909, exhorted the organization “to do everything they possibly can to encourage manufacturers of all kinds…” He always claimed to be “too busy” for politics. However, in 1911 he did make a political stand on the issue of reciprocity, or free trade, with the Americans, which he thought would be a disaster for Canada.  “He told the crowd that if free trade were to become an accomplished fact in Canada they would simply be unable to earn a living and would have to leave the country,” according to Trinnell’s book. 

Despite great wealth, Mr. Booth apparently never changed his working habits or adopted the manners of the rich. He was known to wear his clothes until they were “green with age” and his piercing blue eyes and shock of white hair were familiar sights in his mills right up to his death in 1925. He probably would have been surprised by the outpouring of tributes at his funeral and by the hundreds who lined Ottawa’s streets to watch his funeral cortege slowly wend its way to the Beechwood Cemetery. His memory is preserved in Ottawa by the north-south artery known as Booth Street in downtown Ottawa — appropriately, a road that leads directly to the bridge called Chaudière.

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