Lumber baron was stumped by gravity

November 9, 2015

By: Chatham Daily News

Sometimes you just wonder why business people even bother. Making money can be so damn hard.

Back in 1890, David Gilmour was an entrepreneur and a go-getter. A git’er done kinda guy.

His lumber mill was one of the biggest in the world, supplying both American and Canadian builders.

But he had a problem.

His mill was in Trenton, Ont., but the new timber rights he had just paid almost $750,000 for, were 445 kilometres away to the north in what is now Algonquin Park, near Dorset. There were dams and canals, which helped.

What really stumped Gilmour (so to speak) was a 1.8-kilometre stretch of land that rose 35 metres between one body of water, Lake-of-Bays, and another body of water, a canal he had built into Raven Lake. That rise stood at the northern end – the beginning – of his log drive.

But Gilmour devised an ingenious way to move the logs uphill, using a combination of jack ladders and slides. Jack ladders used steam engines to drive a cleated chain, which dug into the bark and carried logs up inclines. Slides used water to push logs along when the land went downhill.

At the Lake-of-Bays, one jack ladder, about 60 metres long, carried logs 12 metres up to the first slide. The same steam engine that drove that jack ladder also drove a pump to carry water from the Lake-of-Bays up to the first slide. The water pushed logs through a wooden trough to the second jack ladder. The second jack ladder was really eight jack ladders, working in tandem to carry logs 27 metres up over a distance of 762 metres. After that, the logs would finally be in the canal that took them the rest of the way.

It took nearly 500 men months of hard work in 1893 to build the tramway and 100 men to run the machinery. The system cost Gilmour about $150,000, or $4.2 million in today’s money.

Gilmour had hoped to move 10,000 logs a day to feed his hungry mill. Historians Gary Long and Randy Whiteman (authors of several books on the tramway and the source of this account) figure the contraption was averaging just 2,700 logs a day. Part of the problem was the mechanics of long and complicated machinery.

During the first year of the tramway’s operation, not a single Algonquin log made it to the mill. Some of those logs had been cut two years earlier.

Gilmour had even more trees in the Algonquin area cut, and in the spring of 1895 he began a new log drive. That summer, maybe 3,000 logs a day made it through the tramway. Low water slowed the log flow to a trickle. By fall, only 35,000 logs had made it to the mill.

The good news was that the logs driven the year before had finally made it to Trenton. The bad news was they were pretty beat up and pretty waterlogged and the lumber market started to fall.

The tramway lasted one more year before Gilmour pulled the plug on the machinery and the water slides. He soon got out of the lumber business entirely and concentrated on making doors.

By: Chatham Daily News

Your comments.

  1. Luc says:

    “The tramway lasted one more year before Gilmour pulled the plug on the machinery and the water slides. He soon got out of the lumber business entirely and concentrated on making doors.”
    Always remember: sometimes a window of opportunity closes, a door opens…..pun intended.

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