On a Sunday morning this past June, I stood with Garth van der Kamp, a hydrologist with Environment Canada, along the shoreline of Sandy (Halkett) Lake in Prince Albert National Park.
Garth had recently read Merle Massie’s award-winning book, Forest Prairie Edge, and had questions about logging activities in the park area, in particular the damming of water bodies to control water flow. Merle included me in her email response to Garth because I had written a history of the park, Saskatchewan’s Playground (1989), and had spent time tramping around in the bush looking for signs of past activities.
At one time, logging had been Prince Albert’s leading industry, all because of the settlement boom that swept across the Prairies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Because of the steadily growing demand for building materials, lumber companies rapidly ramped up their production.
They would sweep into the nearby boreal forest, cut the best white spruce stands, and then move on farther north – without the slightest thought about environmental consequences. In 1900, 3.6 million board feet (1″ by 1′ by 1′) were cut. Four years later, when production topped 15 million board feet, Prince Albert mills accounted for 16 per cent of western Canadian lumber production.
The major player in the Prince Albert-based lumber trade was the American-owned Prince Albert Lumber Company with more than 2,000 men in over a dozen camps.
By 1912, it had pushed the timber frontier into the future national park forest and was harvesting an estimated 50 million board feet.
Not even the creation of the Sturgeon River Forest Reserve in 1914 deterred the cutting. There were 14 federal timber berths within the new reserve (south of Waskesiu Lake), and the Prince Albert Lumber Company controlled all but one. Logging operations were a carefully orchestrated affair. Felled trees would be skidded through the bush in winter to loading areas and then hauled by huge sleds to landing stations along the Spruce River.
There, the logs would be held until spring and floated downriver to the Prince Albert mill.
To ensure that the otherwise sluggish Spruce River could move the logs, all of the trees along the riverbank were cleared. But as the volume of logs increased, steps were taken to increase spring water levels by damming local water bodies.
That is what interested Garth. He wanted to find any surviving evidence of a dam on McKenzie Creek, the water body that connects Sandy Lake to the Spruce River.
He also offered a more satisfactory explanation as to why the Prince Albert Lumber Company closed operations in October 1918.
Saskatchewan’s Playground argued that logging in the park had ceased because of the distance from the mill; the costs proved too prohibitive.
That, it turns out, was only part of the story.
The remains of the Mackenzie Creek dam were found that weekend – nothing more than a crude earth barricade where Sandy Lake entered the creek. It was probably opened only a few times, maybe only once.
As Garth noted, as we stood on the site of the former McKenzie landing on the Spruce River, once the lake level was lowered by the opening of the dam, it could take several years to rise again.
The other complicating factor was the climate. Garth had Environment Canada precipitation data for the Prince Albert region that clearly demonstrated that the summer of 1917 was very dry and the winter of 1917-18 had little snow cover. The 1918 spring run-off was consequently much lower than average at the very time the Prince Albert Lumber Company was trying to move more than 500,000 logs. The dams would not have been able to provide much flow boost.
It is little wonder, then, that the company decided to suspend its Prince Albert operations.
The timing was fortunate. The exceptionally dry conditions spawned a catastrophic fire that swept through the region in the late spring of 1919. Fed by the logging slash, it burned a large part of the forest south of Lake Waskesiu.
Aspen groves stand today as silent reminders of this past disturbance.
This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
In July 1870, Canada secured title to Rupert’s Land and the North-Western Territory (literally northwest of Rupert’s Land).
It was a phenomenal real estate transaction. Canada increased seven times in size. It was the kind of empire associated with older, more powerful countries, not a dominion just three years old.
For Canada’s future on the North American continent, the transfer kept the land out of American hands, especially after the United States had purchased Russian Alaska in 1867 (the same year as Canadian confederation).
The three-million-acre acquisition was also seen as the means to greatness. The North-West Territories (as the region was now called) would help create a powerful northern nation from sea to sea to sea and provide the basis for new provinces, including Saskatchewan. But the deal may have foundered if not for the intervention of the British government. And the HBC got much more in the end.
The sticking point was Canada’s refusal to recognize the Hudson’s Bay Company’s territorial rights. In 1670, an English royal charter gave the fledgling HBC control over Rupert’s Land – namely, all of the land within the Hudson Bay drainage basin (about 40 per cent of modern Canada).
The HBC steadfastly maintained its monopoly claim to this vast territory for the next two centuries and considered rival traders as interlopers.
But in the mid-19th century, Canadian political leaders argued that the young dominion was the rightful heir to Rupert’s Land because of past French fur trade activities in the western interior. They also insisted that the Canadian claim had not been extinguished in 1821 when the Montreal-based North West Company joined with the HBC.
As for the company charter, Canada argued that it was completely invalid and that even if the HBC had claim to any land, it was confined to the shores of Hudson Bay. Interestingly, the validity of the HBC charter was never tested in British courts.
In the winter of 1868-69, Canadian government negotiators finally sat down with the HBC directorship in London to discuss the acquisition of the region. No Indian and Metis peoples from Rupert’s Land were invited to participate, let alone even consulted.
Discussions soon reached a stalemate, largely over continued Canadian questioning of whether the company actually owned the territory in question.
At this point, British Colonial Secretary Lord Granville, acting as an intermediary, proposed a settlement that was effectively forced on the two parties.
The HBC agreed to surrender its charter rights to Rupert’s Land in exchange for £300,000 in compensation from the Canadian government. The company also kept its posts and surrounding land and was entitled to a land grant of one-twentieth of the so-called fertile belt.
Canadian takeover of the North-West did not bring an end to the fur trade. The HBC not only continued its traditional operations north of the new settlement frontier, but created a Land Department to handle its new real estate interests. And these interests proved quite substantial.
In the late 1850s, the Palliser and Hind scientific expeditions had defined the fertile belt as a band of land confined to the North Saskatchewan country.
But in the 1869 British order-in-council sanctioning the land transfer, the size of the fertile belt was miraculously enlarged.
Clause six of the formal transfer order extended the southern boundary of the Fertile Belt all the way to the 49th parallel.
It is not known how or why this expansive interpretation came about.
There is no doubt, though, that the new boundaries substantially increased the HBC’s land grant over the next few decades – one estimate has placed the windfall at close to five million acres.
The enlarged fertile belt also mirrored Canada’s great ambitions for the region.
Once dismissed as a frozen wilderness, the North-West had been transformed into an agricultural Eden that was expected to attract millions of immigrants.
And because the region was deemed so essential to Canada’s future prosperity and well-being, the land had to be settled and developed as quickly as possible – even if that process conflicted with the interests of the local aboriginal population.
As Sweetgrass, the leading chief in the Fort Pitt district, complained, “We heard our lands were sold and we did not like it.”
This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Questions or comments? Email Bill at email@example.com.