The Story of Point Wolfe
Writer Maimie Steeves has called them people of “the salt and the fir”, men of the sea and woods, dependent on lumbering and the lumber trade. Cutting logs in the winter, driving them downriver on the spring floods, sawing boards and shipping them away aboard schooners through the summer, and finally returning to the forests to begin cutting again in the fall, such was the annual cycle of life in this area. It transformed the environment, shaped the lives of the people, and determined the pattern of their villages. So deeply did it make its imprint on the area that even today, more than 30 years after the establishment of the park, you can still find the remains of mill sites, driving dams, logging camps and lumbering tools.
Some people paint this as a golden age, as a period of prosperity and enterprise. And yet, historian Gilbert Allardyce wrote: “The economy of Alma Parish was in many ways a microcosm of the economy of New Brunswick as a whole – with the worst features existing in a rather exaggerated form. It was an economy of fish and timber, singularly concentrated on the exploitation of raw materials. When steel ships replaced the wooden schooners, when railways and modern roads opened up the interior, and finally, when the big timber along the coast was exhausted, that era came to an end and the economic life of Alma Parish dwindled away.”
Water and Timber
Today, while the forest is recovering from a century of exhaustive cutting and a severe budworm outbreak, it is hard to imagine the virgin forest that lured men to this region. For in the beginning, it was lumber they came for, not the land. Shunned by early pioneers, the rock-bound Fundy shore sheltered forests of spruce, birch, maple and beech – some trees measuring more than one metre across. Protected from fire and insects by damp air off the Bay, the forest had grown uninterrupted for generations. But that was all to change.
After 1824, Point Wolfe was drawn into the age of wooden ships, sea communications and the Atlantic timber trade. Cut off from northern European supplies, Britain had turned to its North American colonies for wood. The assault began in the Ottawa Valley of Upper Canada and in the basins of New Brunswick’s largest rivers, the Saint John and the Miramichi. As the most accessible trees were removed, the lumbermen moved into more difficult terrain. Saint John merchants were quick to recognize the bayshore’s forest wealth. Along the wild and unsettled Fundy coast were rivers reaching inland to forested hills, and sheltered river mouths where schooners could load sawn lumber. It was here at the river mouths that the history of the park area began.
From wilderness to community
By the summer of 1826, lumber from Point Wolfe was reaching Saint John. Just a few years before, John Ward and Sons, Loyalists from Saint John, and John Edgett from Hillsborough, had petitioned for and been granted “the lands situated on both sides of Point Wolfe River, which is still in a wild and uncultivated state.” They moved quickly, constructing wharves in the estuary, a water-powered sawmill in the rocky gorge, and a dam to retain water and logs. Up the river, lumber slideways were cleared along the steep stream banks. By 1831, with 20 men and eight yoke of oxen in the woods, the operation was delivering 1,800 cubic metres of lumber annually to Ward’s wharf in Saint John.
With lumber interests all around the Bay of Fundy, Ward was rarely, if ever, at Point Wolfe. But then Point Wolfe was only a small piece of his lumber empire. In his absence, Ward left the running of the mill to others. The results were sometimes colourful, as an 1841 letter to Ward reports: “Munson had in the river 1500 to 2000 logs and he was not able to attend to all, now they are frozen (and) will go with the ice freshet in the spring …. I expect the logs will carry away the mill when they go.”
At Ward’s death in 1846 the Vernons of Saint John acquired the mill and lands at Point Wolfe. They improved the efficiency of the mill, built a boarding house and a school, set up a post office and constructed a suspension bridge at the head of the falls, where the bridge is today.
Fish vs. lumber
One summer, mill workers built a weir in the harbour and caught nearly 500 salmon. But the rich salmon and shad fisheries were soon to decline. Fish which used the bay and its rivers as feeding and spawning grounds could not co-exist with the lumbering operations. At Point Wolfe, GooseRiver and Salmon River (Alma) , the cutting pace was furious. Debris and sawdust littered the entire shore. A government official travelling along the bayshore lamented the blocking of rivers by mill dams, the pollution of harbours by sawdust and mill rubbish, and the destruction of salmon on the spawning beds far up the rivers.
He noted “it is greatly to be regretted that Messrs. Vernon have not set up and maintained a fishway for salmon.” Despite government regulations, this conflict between lumber and fish would plague mill owners, politicians, fishermen, and conservationists for almost a century.
Work through the seasons
Through the 19th century, as the forest gave up its big spruce and the fishery declined, the sawmill boomed and the village surged with life and energy. Subsequent owners converted the mill to steam power and increased the output to 14,000 cubic metres annually. At the peak of the summer season, the mill employed 48 men and operated round-the-clock. At the loading wharves downstream, small ships could dock at high tide. Further out in the harbour, larger vessels took on lumber hauled out to them by flat-bottomed scows.
Life at Point Wolfe followed the style of most lumbering villages. In the fall, men moved into the logging camps. They cut the tall red spruce into five metre logs, “twitched” them by horse to central yards and then piled them as log brows atop the steep riverbank. In the spring, with streams swollen by melting snow, the big drive began. In this region of swiftly falling rivers, log drivers could expect to spend as much time wading in icy water as balancing on the logs. The timed release of water from dams along the length of the streams added to the excitement. No wonder the town celebrated when all the logs were in and the men safely home.
After the drive, the sawmill started up. Men not working in the mill tended their farms or looked for jobs on the wharves or on board the vessels. However, for all of their work, the lumbermen rarely saw any pay. They and their families were given credit at the company store and debts were settled in July. Wages were tallied and compared with the account at the store. As often as not, it was the lumberman, not the company who owed at the time of the July pay.
The last stand
As the century waned, the general movement of people away from rural areas of New Brunswick and the Maritimes affected Point Wolfe. “The romance of sea and timber were no substitute for economic opportunity” wrote Dr. Allardyce, “and opportunity appeared to lie elsewhere — in the United States, in the cities of central Canada, and on the Prairies.”
The last of great lumber barons, C.T. White of Sussex, brought the 20th century to the region. Maimie Steeves says that when White was at Point Wolfe, “men laboured in silence and children stood in awe.” He installed a telephone in the store in 1896 and owned the first automobile ever seen at Point Wolfe. He built a new dam, the base of which survives to this day, incorporated into the present structure. Although the stands of big trees were almost gone, the mill continued as a prosperous enterprise. With advanced machinery and a large work crew, the operation attempted to match the output of earlier days.
In the years before World War I, White relinquished the business to his son, Garfield. “I’ll give him ten years to swamp it,” C.T. foreman was heard to remark. It did not take that long. After 1918, the lumber market collapsed. Inexperienced and headstrong, Garfield stockpiled the sawn lumber waiting for a recovery that never came. He was forced to sell to an American pulp company. The company had no cutting plans, intending to hold the area in reserve. In later years, a local company started lumbering again on a smaller scale, using a portable mill and trucking the wood to Alma for shipment. But the big trees were gone, the era of lumber barons was over, and the community slowly died.
From community to wilderness
Officials inspecting the area in 1930 for a national park found a “region of exhausted resources, shrunken population and encroaching forests. The village was now little more than a ghost town, its sawmill silent, its wharves rotting away and its two remaining families struggling to continue the life of a deserted community.”
Today, protected by the park, the forests are recovering. Selective cutting of prime red spruce had left few good seed trees. The abundance of balsam fir today probably reflects the low opinion lumbermen had of it – fast growing, but scrawny – a weed tree. What of the pine and hemlock that characterize other regions of New Brunswick? The poor soils, late springs, and cool , moist climate along the coast apparently favoured spruce and fir to the exclusion of other trees. Hardwood, such as yellow birch, sugar maple, and beech occur on the higher, warmer areas of the park, but they, too, suffer from poor growing conditions.
The area sacrificed more than its trees to the lumber industry. Now, Parks Canada is working to make the forests and rivers whole again. Atlantic salmon, barred for almost a century by the dam, will return to the river through a fishway. Coyotes, newcomers to the Maritimes, are accepted as predators, perhaps replacing the extinct eastern timber wolf. Reintroduction of the pine marten will restore a species displaced by destruction of their habitat. Point Wolfe has come almost full circle – from wilderness to community to wilderness. In Fundy National Park, the sample of forested highlands rising from the Bay of Fundy will be preserved for you and future visitors to enjoy.
What’s in a name?
Officially the name is Point Wolfe, but it is unclear whether the name refers to an early settler or sailor, the presence of wolves in the area, or an imagined rock profile of General James Wolfe at the river’s mouth. Local sources prefer the latter, and tell of a deserter from Wolfe’s army noting the cliff’s resemblance to his general.