New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

Grand Falls, New Brunswick in 1844 – A Vast Ocean of Trees

leave a comment »

From the blog at

Sir James Alexander and a party of men were travelling down the Saint John River in 1844, and came to Grand Falls where they stayed for a while. Following is an edited account of what he found there, from Alexander’s book L’Acadie or Seven Years Explorations, London, 1849.

Alexander’s mission was to head a survey party to lay out a military road, and this explains his references to surveying. This excerpt concentrates upon his observations at the Falls, however.

A Log Jam at Grand Falls, from the N.B. Museum

An estimated £30,000 worth of timber was annually destroyed going over the Falls


Grand Falls, New Brunswick in 1844 – A Vast Ocean of Trees

In 1844, at the Grand Falls there were only four or five houses, the principal one being Costigan’s Inn, well known to the lumber-men of the St. John’s. Sir John Caldwell, of Quebec, in a spirit of speculation and enterprise, had attempted formerly to dam the river at the Falls, for the purpose of erecting saw-mills, as he had so often done elsewhere, but it was too much for him—the St. John’s rose, and carried away his works over the Falls; but his labours there originated a hamlet.

We found Lieutenant Simmons waiting for us at the Grand Falls. He had recently come out of the Forest, having carried his exploration from the Riviére du Loup towards the Green River. He looked strong and well, in his grey coat and axe on his shoulder, after his hard work. He very carefully explained the nature of his operations to us, and gave us every information in his power. His talents and intelligence have now procured for him the appointment of Government Inspector of Railroads in England.

In the Upper St. John’s, where the most valuable forests were abandoned to the Americans in the settlement of the boundary—(which unfortunately was not the line of the St. John’s, but considerably nearer the St. Lawrence)— I mean those forests about the Daaquem, Esseganetsacook, and Black Rivers, the lumberers construct rafts of timber, accompany them as far as it is safe above the Falls, and then abandon them. It was interesting to watch them go over the Falls, increasing in swiftness towards the brink of the precipice, then comes the plunge, and the disappearance below among the vapour, spray, and turmoil of waters. After the reappearance of the separate logs, some hurried round and round in a great cauldron under the right bank of the river, where much valuable timber was being ground to pieces, one log against another. Some sticks thrust others to the edge of the rapids, then all would turn and circle along with the great broken raft always seen in the cauldron. Sometimes a single log would rise from the bottom of the cataract, and on end, and halfway out of the water, would walk, as it were, grandly down the rapids for a considerable distance.

It was calculated that £30,000 worth of timber were annually destroyed at the Grand Falls, for want of a canal round them. It seemed to me that it would be very desirable to have a boom placed at an angle above the Falls, to give the logs the proper direction, and cause them to avoid a great rock in the centre, against which many of them struck, and were split; which would also help to keep them out of the cauldron.

The rocks at the Grand Falls are very highly inclined blueish calcareous slates. I think no fossils have been seen in them; they are at least Silurian, probably older still.

The people we found at Costigan’s Inn were rough and sturdy-looking lumberers, waiting for employment, or who had come out of the woods to refresh, or more properly to have a drink, and a spree. They were dressed usually in red flannel shirts (there is a virtue in the dye of red), homespun trousers, and a peculiar loose jacket of grey or green, the sleeves of which are made like those of a shirt, whilst the corners of the jacket are tied round the waist with strings. On their heads they wore straw or low and coarse felt hats, and their feet were encased in brown moccasins, or heavy half boots well-greased, the moccasin or boot furnishing a ready napkin after a meal of salt pork and biscuit.

The lumberers made a considerable racket at the hostel, talked loud, sang, drank, or tried their strength by “putting” a heavy stone in front of the door.

We tarried three days at the Grand Falls, living chiefly on beef, brought from the Riviére du Loup. One day it rained constantly, and we could do no out-of-door work. We occupied ourselves in writing: when it was fair we were continually on the move. We compared our instruments, and found the variation of the compass by double altitudes of the sun with the theodolite. We got linen bags made for sugar, and flannel ones for tea, also creeping-irons, to ascend the trees and look out.

These irons are of peculiar construction; they are like the letter ‘L’, are flat, and about one inch broad; the feet rest on the lower part, two leather straps bind the irons round the mid-leg and ankles, over the lumberer’s boots. At the bottom of the long leg of the L, which rests against the inner part of the leg, is a sharp spike at an angle of 45 degrees, this is stuck into the bark of the tree, like the claw of a wild beast, and thus enables the climber, embracing the tree with his arms, to reach the branches, when there is no further occasion for the irons.

Trees growing thickly in a forest, are devoid of branches for a considerable height from the ground, sometimes forty feet; the mass of the branches is towards the top, where they seek light and air. It is not an unusual thing to lose one’s way in the woods, when ascending the highest tree near, an observation is taken from its top, and from it perhaps a known height is descried, or a stream, to guide one out of the difficulty. It is necessary for the surveyor also to ascend trees, to try and discover the best line to take for a road, he may be preparing to run through the forest. Creeping-irons are also useful to lumber-men, to enable them to discover patches of pine, or other timber, suitable for their purpose.

Lieutenant Woods having engaged his party of woodsmen, we went across the river above the Falls in canoes, towards the site of a proposed fort, and practised running a line through the forest. Setting up a circumferenter-compass, we ran a N.E. course, clearing the line of brush, then set up pickets at intervals of thirty yards to mark the line; over acclivities the pickets were closer together. We measured the line with the chain, and at one side of it explored with one of the Indians, and marked by blazes, or slices of bark cut off the trees; another wavy line (following the undulations of the ground), which might be suitable for a road. There were thus a straight line and a curved one near one another; the first being carefully measured, was intended to afford a proximate idea of the distance surveyed, and the latter was considered as the line of a future road. When a large tree came in the way it was not cut down, but a sight was taken of it by the compass, after which the instrument was carried to the other side, and the line run again, till another impediment intervened.

Looking at the vast forests of pine and maple trees round us, and which covered the whole country on every side, it would seem impossible to conduct a survey through them with any accuracy, or to reach any particular distant point. New Brunswick is a vast ocean of trees, through which the compass can alone guide us. The course requires to be well calculated, and laid down on a map or chart, at the outset, making allowance for variation, and great care must subsequently be taken in following the determined course. A great mistake had been made sometime before by a civil surveyor, who was either incompetent for the task he undertook, or very careless. His duty was to lain a line for a road through a part of the Forest of New Brunswick, towards the American lines. When he came out he found he was no less than thirty miles south of the point he had steered for, and he was so much disgusted and ashamed of himself, that, abandoning his people and his instruments, he fled, and disappeared in the States.

After our mid-day repast of pork and biscuit, we put on the creeping irons and practised climbing trees like bears or woodpeckers, and after some practice, we got into the way of it.

Our Indians showed how they climbed trees to get to the branches; they first cut a notch with their axe, not far from the ground, then drove their axe into the trunk as high as they could reach, and hauled themselves up by the handle, till their toe rested in the notch, they then cut other notches and hauled themselves higher again, till they reached the branches. Sometimes they fell a tree, and let it fall sloping against another which they wish to ascend, they then mount the inclined plane. The young men sometimes practice getting up a tree with a tomahawk in each hand, struck into the bark alternately behind, which method requires great strength and agility.

After we returned from our trial survey, there was a shout of alarm from the river, and on looking out to see what was the cause of it, a man was observed on a log, above the Falls, paddling for his life. He had got too near the centre of the stream, and was being swept to destruction. There was immediately a rush to the rescue, and two canoes put out and saved him. But heedless people do not always escape here.

There is a singular story connected with the Upper St. John’s, regarding witch-poles. Lieutenant Simmons had lately been in a canoe with an old Indian hunter, on one of the lakes of the St. Francis River, and they came to two smooth and green poles, without branch or leaf, and apparently growing out of the bottom; they stood eight feet above water. On sounding, the depth was found to be thirty feet, and on shaking one pole, the other also moved. The hunter said these poles had been there since his childhood, and always had stood there since two witches came up the lake to fish, and thrusting their poles to the bottom to make fast their canoe, they had grown there!

Lieutenant Simmons had recently lost an entire suit of clothes from the following cause; he and one of his men had slept in a deserted shanty or lumberer’s hut, and having disturbed a skunk there in the morning (the Mephitis Americana, with beautiful black and white fur and bushy tail), it conveyed such an odour over the clothes, that on reaching the rest of the party, some became sick and others fled; the entire dress was washed and buried in the ground, but nothing would remove the abominable taint; however, an Indian with a strong stomach, was glad to take the clothes as a present.

Leaving Lieutenants Simmons and Woods at the Grand Falls, to go on with their work, I mounted a waggon drawn by three horses (a unicorn), on account of the bad roads in prospect, and with my assistant-surveyor and the Indian Andre, we proceeded on our way towards Fredericton, where I was to make up my party.


Written by johnwood1946

March 29, 2017 at 8:41 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: