Cutting and Transport of Timber at Devil Lake

The sawing of logs at the Bedford Mills sawmill was the final stage of a long and arduous process. Timber was cut in the forests during the winter, typically by men who lived in shanties. Some were full-time loggers, many brought from Lower Canada for the season, others were local settlers who required additional income as they developed their farms. Nineteenth century lumbering practices were very different from those in use today and, while it is beyond the scope of this article to describe these practices in detail, what follows is a description of the harvesting of timber and the movement of it down Devil Lake to the sawmill.

The Tetts and Chaffeys harvested trees only from forests which were immediately adjacent to Devil Lake, or adjacent to lakes in Bedford or Loborough Townships which themselves were connected by creeks to Devil. These included Canoe Lake, Upper Mud Lake (now Kingsford Lake), Christie Lake, and Salmon Lake. After 1848, and during the years of the Tett and Chaffey partnership, five logging shanties were in operation, employing over 60 workers. The workers would be housed either in the boarding house at Bedford Mills or nearby, in the weeks leading up to the move to the shanties. The shanties would be equipped by the Tett store at Bedford Mills with supplies and tools in October or November, and each shanty had a cook and a teamster who would manage the oxen or horses. The men in the shanties either worked as “choppers”, who felled and cleared the trees, “sawyers”, who cut the trees into lengths (usually 12 feet), and “scorers”, who removed the branches, all cut by hand using axes. If the logs were to be sold as square timber, “hewers” would square the timbers using a broadaxe. By 1870, large-toothed crosscut saws began to replace the axe, reducing the time it took to fell a tree by half. In the fall, before snow would fall, roads would be constructed, and streams and dams would be improved for the spring drive. During the winter, the logs were felled and hauled into place. The logs would be skidded and hauled by each “timbering section”, using teams of oxen (later replaced by horses) to the shores of the various lakes feeding Devil Lake. The logs were stored on the shores, ready to be assembled into booms in the spring or, where possible, the booms were assembled on the ice. In early March, preparations would begin for the spring drive. The logs were assembled into the booms, some of which were quite large. Later in the spring, after the logs were rafted to Bedford Mills, the shanties would be closed.

The process involved in moving the logs down the lakes was quite an undertaking. The booms were carefully lashed together and made secure by an outer frame of pine logs hewed to a thickness of up to 10 inches. A boom itself was 24 to 65 feet long and, when the booms were taken with other sections of booms altogether, they could measure from two to five acres in area. In the case of the feeder lakes, they were rafted down the lake to a creek which connected it to the next lake below. Within these creeks were constructed wooden chutes, or “timber slides”. The booms would be dismantled at the end of their journey down one lake, with the logs from the booms sent, one by one, down the timber slides to the next lake level. They were then reassembled into booms for rafting down the lake until they eventually reached Devil Lake. There, they would be transported in one final journey to the sawmill at Bedford Mills.

George Monro Grant, ed., Picturesque Canada; The Country As It Was And Is Vol. 1, Belden Bros, Toronto, ON, 1882

The rafting of the log booms down Devil Lake took many days. The Tett records indicate that in May 1851, over a six-day period, Alexander Buist assembled a boom of logs on Devil Lake. The raft contained 58,320 feet of logs and it took five days to raft it the 2 ½ miles down the lake. While occasionally sails were used, generally the booms were moved using a process known as “warping”. Each section of the boom was moved by a floating raft (called a “headworks”), which contained a capstan. The capstan would be wound from time to time by men using poles, but more commonly using a horse. The sections of log booms travelled the nine-mile course of Devil Lake by being “warped” along by their raft (the term warping in this context referred to the advancing of logs in a forward direction by the raft, or headworks). An anchor on a long cable was laid out from the raft, and the boom was warped up to the raft as the anchor was being tightened as it wound around the capstan. Some men would live in tents on the raft, taking care to prevent the log booms from striking shore using long-handled “peaveys”. The peavey was a lever used by the lumbermen to guide logs in the water, as well as to pry them apart and manoeuvre them into position. It consisted of a pole with a spike at one end with a hinged hooked arm. Over the ensuing years, other means of transporting logs down Devil Lake were employed. In 1841, Benjamin Tett and Alexander Buist built a sailing scow to transport the lumber, and in about 1873, J. P. Tett & Bro. built a steam barge, the Mary Bedford, to tow the logs. By March, upwards of five thousand unsawn logs were delivered to Lock Creek, close to the mill. Once the logs arrived at the mill, they were moved inside with the use of “log dogs”, also called “sawyer’s dogs”. These metal dogs were large, heavy-eyed spikes, which were driven into a raft’s outer logs and used to secure a rope or chain. There were several of these heavy dogs in each raft. At the sawmill, they were placed on and between each log to hold it in place on the carriage as it was being drawn through the saw in the mill, and then had to be removed and carried back to the mill pond after each log was cut. Later, the bull wheel replaced the dogs, eliminating the need for manual labour. The logs entered the mill where they were sawn into lumber. This completed the final journey of the logs down Devil Lake.

-John Gray


The woodcut titled Loading Logs is from the book W. H. Withrow, Our Own Country Canada, Scenic and Descriptive, published by William Briggs, Toronto, ON, 1889. The capstan crib photo is from this website: John Macfie, “Lost art of constructing a lumberman’s capstan crib on Jack’s Lake”, Parry Sound North Star, 2017. Accessed online at