Quebec and Canada’s forest industry began as a solution to the supply problems that started to plague Great Britain in 1802. Because of the hostilities that pitted France against England, British shipbuilding yards were short of wood to repair the ships of the British fleet. And since Britain’s power was directly related to its dominion of the seas, the British navy turned to Canada for a solution.1 In 1804, to encourage imports of Canadian timber, Great Britain introduced its first tariff on wood imported from the Scandinavian countries, from Prussia, and from Russia. This was the beginning of Colonial preference2. Three objectives were sought by the adoption of this tax, namely the increase of the price of wood imported from the countries located on the Baltic Sea; a change in the trading practices of the British merchants; and making of Canadian timber more competitive on the British market. This first tariff gave birth to Canada’s forest economy. The Continental blockade ordered by Napoleon in 1807 prohibited European countries from trading with Great Britain. The result was an accelerated growth of the timber trade, fostered by the introduction of new tariffs, and Canadian timber flooded the British market. In 1812, when the blockade fell, the Canadian timber trade was firmly established. Britain’s protectionist tariff policies remained in effect until the early 1840s, which contributed to the continued growth of the lumber trade, in Canada, in Quebec, and in the Outaouais3.
It’s in this context that Philemon Wright (image) and his men assembled the first great square timber raft that was scheduled to leave from the mouth of the Gatineau River on June 11th, 1806. Wright’s decision was motivated by financial circumstances. When he settled in the Township of Hull in 1800, he had $20 000 at his disposal. His start-up capital was almost exhausted, and he needed an export product to sustain his young farming community. The Ottawa Valley timber trade that took off at that point in time would be Wright’s financial lifeline.
Christened “Columbo” by its owner, this first Wright raft was made up of 700 pieces of squared oak and pine, 900 planks and beams, and a variety of other forest products. On this raft that Wright and four of his men start off on their long journey down to Quebec City. The trip down the Ottawa and St. Lawrence is beset with difficulties. It takes them 25 days to drive the Long-Sault Rapids, the distance that separates Hawkesbury from Carillon. Along the way, Wright sells the planks and deals that are piled aboard the raft. The “Columbo” finally docks in Quebec on August 12th, 1806. But they have to wait until the end of November to sell the timber raft.4 (image)