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Don Malcolm - Broker of Record / Owner
PORT SEVERN COTTAGE REALTY BROKERAGE
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AREA HISTORY

The Mills

The first sawmill in Severn Township was built at the mouth of the Severn River by the government of Upper Canada (now Ontario) in 1830. The village that grew up around the site was known as Severn Mills, later Port Severn. The small water-powered mill was supposed to provide an income for Natives living on a reserve at Coldwater, but it was too far from the settlement and stood idle for a few years before being put up for sale.

A Captain Hamilton, father-in-law of George Anderson, Indian Superintendent at Coldwater, leased the mill. It had a single up-right saw, with limited cutting capacity. About 1850, the Hon. William B. Robinson purchased the facility and leased the crown reserve on which it had been erected. James Sanson, Jr, of Orillia operated the mill for Robinson until 1852, when Robinson withdrew, giving Sanson a seven-year lease of the site and buildings. Sanson's mill also had a single saw, with a cutting capacity of only about 6,000 board feet every 12 hours, but the owner made a substantial profit from it. During Sanson’s years there, schooners began freighting lumber to American markets and the name of the village was changed to Port Severn.

A depression in 1857 induced Sanson to lease the site and property to Alexander R. Christie and Andrew Heron, merchants from St. Catharines, Canada West (also now Ontario). The Christie family – Alexander, son Peter, and grandson William Pringle – would play major roles in the development of Severn River lumbering during the next thirty-five years, with mills at Port Severn and Severn Bridge.

Christie and Heron (later Christie and Kerr) extended and heightened the mills cutting capacity. A control dam for regulating water levels in the Severn River was built at Six Mile Lake. By 1862, when the mill was sold to Alexander’s son Peter, it had two gang saws, one single saw and two edgers. On 7 April 1869, the facility burned; with $6,000 of insurance money, Peter Christie rebuilt it. The new mill was barely finished when American lumberman Anson Green Phelps Dodge paid Christie $118,970 for the mill, wharves, and equipment at Port Severn, eighty square kilometres of timber limits in nearby Baxter Township (now Georgian Bay Township), and 4,035 hectacres (9,966 acres) of pine lands scattered throughout Simcoe County. He also took over timber agreements on 1,402 hectacres (3,462 acres) that Christie had made with settlers. In the timber auction of 1871, Dodge bought timber limits in Draper, Morrison, Muskoka, Ryde, and Wood Townships, thus gaining control over most of the timber rights on the Severn and its tributaries. As he did elsewhere, Anson Dodge enlarged the mill and village at Port Severn.

In 1872, the Georgian Bay Lumber Co. of Ontario received incorporation by act of the provincial legislature. The firm included the sawmills at Port Severn, Sturgeon Bay, and Waubaushene that Dodge had purchased. For many years the three sites sawed Severn River pine, much of it coming out of present-day Severn Township.

Overextended financially, Anson Doge was declared bankrupt in the depression of 1872. Before that event, he managed to turn his Canadian operations over to his father, William Earl Dodge, who held the presidency of the company until his death in 1883. He was succeeded by his youngest son, Arthur Murray, and, after the latter died in 1896, by Canadian lumberer William J. Sheppard. Sheppard remained in office until his death in 1934. For over thirty five years, Georgian Bay Lumber was the major exploiter of Severn River pine lands. Many residents of Port Severn, Gloucester Pool, and Little Go Home Bay are descendants of lumber workers brought into the area by the firm.

The Port Severn mill ran exclusively with water-power. Milling equipment consisted of two gang saws, two stock trimmers, slabbing saws, and a circular saw. A lath mill was attached and, after 1887, a box factory. The capacity was enormous – 20 million board feet per season. Lumber went by barge and schooner to Waubaushene for trans-shipment on the Midland Railway or directly to American ports such as Buffalo, Cleveland and Tonawanda.

A sluggish lumber market throughout the 1870s forced Georgian Bay Lumber to limit its operations on the Severn, but after the market picked up in 1880, the company extended its logging operations and began harvesting timber limits in Draper, Morrison, Muskoka, Orillia, and Ryde Townships, virtually untouched during the depression. From these faraway locations, logs had to be driven some 60 kilometres down the Severn River drainage to Port Severn. To facilitate passage of logs, Georgian Bay Lumber built a network of dams, slides, and retaining booms.

The enterprise was the largest but not the only operator in the Severn and Black River watersheds, so a question arose as to who should build and maintain the dams and slides and what tolls, if any, users other than the builders should pay. Under authority of the Dominion Act for protecting the Public Interest in Rivers, Streams and Creeks, 1881, and the companion Timber Slides and Companies Act, 1881, Georgian Bay Lumber established the Severn River Driving and Boom Co., with share capital of $50,000. The charter allowed the firm to build slides and dams along the Severn River at Big Chute, Six Mile Lake, Lost Channel, Ragged Rapids, and McDonald Rapids. It put more slides and dams in tributary streams: on Morrison Creek into Morrison Lake, on the Kahshe River into Kahshe Lake, and on Garter Snake and Riley creeks into the centre of Ryde Township. The charter authorized construction of another series of dams and slides on the Little Black River (now Matchedash River), which drains Matchedash Lake (formerly Long Lake) in the north of Orillia Township through the centre of Matchedash Township into MacLean lake, above Port Severn. Tolls for passage of 1,000 board feet of logs from Matchedash Lake to Georgian Bay were $1.00, and from Garter Snake Creek to Georgian Bay, $1.10. In the ten years that Severn Driving and Boom operated, an estimated 230 million board feet of pine logs passed down the Severn.

During a hailstorm on the morning of 17 August 1896, the Port Severn mill-house was struck by lightning, which ignited a fire that burned the structure to the water level, taking with it a tug, the store, and a warehouse. With the firm’s timber limits on the Severn River containing only enough wood to supply the mill for another two years, there was no possibility of the mill being rebuilt.


The Village

Next to Coldwater, Port Severn is the oldest community in Severn Township. Unlike the others, it was strictly a “company town”. Its succession of owners possessed all the land, the houses, the store, the hotel and the only industry. It was also the only francophone settlement in the Township.

In the 1930s, nearly all the two hundred or more residents were French-Canadian. Fifty years earlier, however, Port Severn had been much larger and almost exclusively Anglophone and today most residents again speak mainly English. The social history of the community is in part the story of these demographic inversions. People have lived at the site since 1850, when William B. Robinson bought the dilapidated sawmill and obtained a lease from the crown for the land on which is stood. Probably no more than a dozen men were required to operate the small mill. The workers were all Anglophones, mainly settlers in Matchedash and Tay Townships.

The village increased in size markedly during the years the Christies operated the mill. In 1862 it reportedly consisted of five houses, a store, a blacksmith shop, stables, and the sawmill. Two of the houses were on the main island, then known as Sanson’s Island; the other three were on the east side of the river in Tay Township. During the dozen years the Christies owned the mill, the population could not have exceeded seventy-five. Christie and his family lived there, and a post office was established in 1868. About thirty-five men would have been required to operate the mill at peak capacity, including millwright, blacksmith, sawyers, filers, lumber pilers, and general labourers. Most were seasonal employees, many of them single men. There is no record of any French-Canadians living at Port Severn then.

The modern community dates from the takeover of the mill and the chartering of the Georgian Bay Lumber Co. by the Dodge family of New York. The place grew rapidly under the Dodges, reaching a maximum of some five hundred souls by 1895, but remaining Anglophone until the mid 1880s. After purchasing the Port Severn and Waubaushene mills, Anson Dodge undertook an ambitious expansion program, enlarging the mills, extending the docking and piling facilities, and building stores, warehouses, an office, and homes for married staff. A detailed inventory made by secretary-treasurer Theodore Buck in 1873 records eighty-four men and four horses working at the Port Severn mill. Other employees included a storekeeper, clerks, tug crews and general labourers. Buck lists three company operated boarding houses, with accommodation for up to eighty men and twenty six houses for thirty six families. The main part of the village was on the east side of the river, west of the mill, on lots 18 and 19 in concessions 12 and 13 of Tay Township. The company also operated a farm (later the Baron farm) on which was grown for the horses and oxen and on which the animals were pastured during the summer.

Mill workers received from twenty five to thirty five dollars per month. Married personnel lived rent free in the company houses, but they were required to keep the places in good order, under penalty of ejection in case of negligence. Also, married workers whose services were not required in winter were expected to work in the lumber camps as a condition of occupying a rent-free house. Because the Dodges and the managers whom they brought from Pennsylvania were all abstainers, temperance was extended over the whole of the company’s works; employees when engaged, pledged that they would not take intoxicating drink while in the firm’s service. Violators were fired.

As they did in all their mill villages in Canada and the United States, the Dodges built a Protestant church at Port Severn, shared by Anglican, Methodist, and Presbyterian congregations. A Roman Catholic place of worship, known as the lumbermen’s church, was built by the Catholic diocese and served by priests from Penetanguishene. The Dodges also built a school which later became Union School Section No. 8, Tay and Baxter.

During the first years of the Dodge dynasty, there were few, if any, francophones at Port Severn, Irish shantymen being the predominant group of bushworkers until the 1880s. There was a gradual migration of married French bushworkers from Quebec into Ontario during the heyday of lumbering, and they brought their families with them. One group of immigrants followed the lumber trail up the Ottawa valley to Mattawa and Timiskaming, then west to North Bay, Sturgeon Falls, and Sudbury. An earlier group advanced with the lumber trade through Glengarry Country, along the shores of Lake Ontario, up the Trent valley to Lake Simcoe, and eventually into Georgian Bay. The catchment area for many of the Quebecois who migrated to Georgian Bay by this route was Tiny Township. A French-Canadian community had existed there since the 1840s, when farmers from Champlain County in Quebec had settled on fertile land near Lafontaine. Some of these families ended up at Port Severn and Little Go Home Bay.

French-Canadian bushworkers began establishing homes at Port Severn in the late 1870s and early 1880s. Like many immigrants, they experienced employment barriers, at least initially in this Anglo-American community. For one thing, they spoke little English – just enough to understand the orders of “walking bosses” in the lumber camps; the women spoke no English at all. Most were illiterate and lacked the technical and literary skills that would have equipped them for employment in the mill, the office or the store. This situation would change after 1883, when Arthur Dodge began hiring mainly married men in the mill village. Many of those hired where French-Canadians with experience in operating saws and steam vessels. The population of Port Severn increased considerably and twenty new houses went up; by 1890, about twenty two French-Canadian families were living in the village’s forty eight company houses.

By and large, the French-Canadians preferred to work in the bush and on the river drives, where they could employ the skills that they and their ancestors had perfected during six or seven decades of logging in Quebec. Because of cultural and language differences, many of the French, especially the women, preferred to live apart from the English community, and so they “squatted” on vacant land northwest of the village, in Baxter Township. The southern tip of Township, bounded by Little Lake to the north, and Georgian Bay on the south, and laden with pine trees, was known as Pointe aux Pins or, in English, “the Point”. Georgian Bay Lumber owned the rights to the pine, but not to the land. Here the French-Canadian loggers, with the company’s permission, erected hewn-log houses, barns, and stables and cleared a few acres of bush for hay and oats for their livestock. In autumn and winter, the men went off to work in the bush camps, while the women and children looked after the homesteads. In 1878, twenty six families were residing in Pointe aux Pins, and by 1883, forty.

When in 1878 the provincial government had Baxter Township surveyed and laid out in lots, the process threatened the security of the French-Canadians and other squatters, on whose labour Georgian Bay Lumber depended. At the company’s request, the province passed an order-in-council adding Baxter Township to the free-grant lands set aside under the Free Grants and Homestead Act of 1868. Squatters became eligible to apply for patents to their land, provided that they met the requirements for settlement laid down by the act. Most did.

The French-Canadian minority faced a dilemma: whether to try to preserve its language and culture or to integrate into the Anglophone majority. Some tried to integrate by anglicizing their names: Moreau became Morrow, Dubois became Woods, and Roi was changed to King. Some were happy to send their children to the English-language public school, and some French girls married English-speaking workers. But by and large, the French minority, encouraged by the church and bolstered by the perseverance of unilingual mothers, clung doggedly to their language and culture.

A giant stride towards preservation of language came in 1908, when the French settlers in Baxter established their own institution, Roman Catholic Separate School No. 3, Baxter, also known as École Pointe aux Pins. The first teachers were francophone, and French-speaking priests from Penetanguishene and Midland served the religious needs of the students.

For many years the two peoples at Port Severn lived side by side with symbiotic tolerance, if not respect for each other. The French needed the English-Canadians’ political connections, economic power, and administrative know-how, and the English-speakers depended on the French-Canadians’ bush skills which were second to none on the continent. Thanks to this mutual dependence, the community prospered until the devastating hailstorm of 17 August 186, when fire burned the mill to the water level.

The mill was never rebuilt. The Anglophone managers, foremen, filers, clerks, and storekeepers were transferred to Waubaushene. Most of the francophone workers, with no place to go, stayed. Several houses were moved to Waubaushene, but most were sold to the Chew Lumber Co. and transferred to Midland. The Protestant church was moved to Fesserton. There remained only the school, the Catholic church, the office building, later converted to a store, and a few houses sold to residents who chose to remain. In weeks, the population dropped from about 500 to 110.

Economically, the French-Canadians suffered most from the loss of the mill. The young men continued to work in winter lumber camps and on spring timber drives for a time, but there was no work for them in the village in summer. The local depression lasted about 15 years. Then, starting about 1910, construction of the Big Chute power plant, the Port Severn lock, and other projects on the Trent Canal provided work for some.

The opening of the lock in 1915 saved Port Severn from economic oblivion and converted it from dependence on a dying lumber trade to reliance on tourism. Fishers and hunters had passed through since the 1880s, generally guided by Natives. Cottages were beginning to appear on the Severn River even before the mill burned down. In 1896, William T. Bush had established a boat livery service.

Completion of the lock, opening of the canal to through-traffic, and vigorous advertising by the Ontario government in the 1920s stimulated tourism on the river. A host of cottages and summer hotels were built. Many former loggers bought gasoline-motor launches and began guiding visitors to the fishing grounds on the Severn River and Georgian Bay, taking over from the Native guides, who had long since retreated to the security of their reserves. Some entrepreneurs operated supply boats, from which they sold vegetables, fresh meat, and home cooking to cottagers. The hotels employed many of the French-Canadian women and girls as kitchen hands, laundresses, waitresses, and room maids. Some young men continued to go off to lumber camps in northern Ontario, some became sailors on Great Lakes steamers, and some worked for cottagers, building docks and clearing land. One way or another, the community survived.

With only 4 or 5 English-speaking families among the 70 families served by the Port Severn Post Office in 1920, greater Port Severn was essentially francophone, though the second and third generations, which had attended the public school, were fluently bilingual. Despite the anglicizing pressure of the school, the influence of the tourist hotels, and the puff of the greater Anglophone community surrounding Port Severn, the culture of this semi-isolated village remained predominantly French-Canadian through the 1930s and 1940s and well into the 1950s.

The Second World War created the first cracks in the social structure. Unlike their fathers and uncles, most of whom escaped military service in the First World War, many of the young men joined the armed forces; young women went off to the cities to seek work in war industries. Many found spouses, often in English-speaking communities; few returned home except on holidays. In the 1940s, older first generation settlers, who formed the cultural cornerstone of the community, began to die, while second-generation francophones began to retire. Because the tourist industry could no longer support everyone in the burgeoning population, more and more young people sought employment elsewhere. In 1946, a new, enlarged English-speaking separate school was built at Honey Harbour; students were bused in from Port Severn. Both the Port Severn public school and RCSS No. 3, Baxter, were closed. A new Catholic church was built in 1957. The historic lumbermen’s church, with its stark beauty and unpainted wood exterior, was abandoned but preserved for its historic value. In 1961 it fell victim to fire.

And so little by little, the basis of the historic French-Canadian community disappeared – the francophone school, the church, the original settlers. Increasingly since the 1960s, tombstones in the Catholic cemetery in Waubaushene have carried the names of Port Severn residents who were born in the early years of the century, when the village was almost exclusively French-speaking. Most of their children and grandchildren will be buried elsewhere.

Rapid expansion in the 1960s and 1970s, especially after Highway 69 was built, brought dramatic changes. There are now motels, marinas, a gold course, restaurants, gas stations, and even a shopping mall, few of them owned by francophones. French is still spoken, but outside the home there are fewer and fewer places to speak it. Many of the present generation do not speak the language at all.

(Used with permission - Mills & Mill Villages of Severn Township,
by James T. Angus, Severn Publications Ltd.)

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DON MALCOLM - Broker of Record / Owner
Office: 705-538-0002
Cell Phone 705-739-3444
Fax: 705-538-1222
Email: don@cottages4sale.ca

Residence: Gloucester Pool (Little Go Home Bay)
Office Address: 66B Port Severn Road North Port Severn, ON L0K 1S0

Directions: Hwy #400 North towards Parry Sound, Exit 156 (Honey Harbour Road/Muskoka Road 5)
Keep veering RIGHT and you are now on Port Severn Road North

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