Not Fit-Living conditions in the Newfoundland Lumber Camps

I recall that my Grandfather would use the term “Walk to Badger”. I am not sure where that came from but recently I came across an interview with his father’s step brother who spoke about how they would walk to Badger from Winter House Cove to find work in the logging camps. Pops father died when pop was two so I am not sure if the term came from there, but a good many of the men that he grew up around would have walked to Badger, Millertown or Bishop’s Falls to work in the logging camps.

When they got there this is what they faced.

The IWA strike in 1959 was largely about camp conditions, there were issues with wages, but by and large, the men were fed up with the conditions in the camps.

millertown and badger 1000 men needed..JPG
Advertisements like this attracted hundreds of outport men to the logging camps with the promise of cash wages.

The first camps be they built by the lumber companies or the paper companies were all similar. They were primitive. They were constructed from logs in the same manner as a log cabin. The logs were laid atop of each other and the spaces between them were stogged with moss. If the camp has a floor was a matter of preference to the builder. Some had floors and some are reported to had only the space between the bunks floored over and the area below the bunch was bare ground.

Lumbermans camp badger brok
Logging Camp at Badger. Judging from the age of the the photos in the this collection this would have been a camp cutting for the Exploits Lumber Company in Botwood Circa 1890’s. The cook might even be a Frenchmen! In the very old camps bunkhouse, cookhouse and sometimes barn were all under one roof or at least connected. Camps didn’t change much once they started cutting pulpwood. (Howley Collection MUN)

Most of the old timers said that the log camps were fairly warm with the large logs acting as insulation, coupled with the moss to keep out the drafts, in most cases the camps were additionally sheathed over with paper or mill canvas.

loggers camp badger
Interior of a cookhouse in 1909. Camps changed little in the ensuing thirty years and apart from the clothes this could be a camp in 1939. If anything conditions may have worsened as time went on. In the very early years the wages earned by loggers were closer to those earned by mill workers, as time progressed the gap in wages between loggers and mill workers widened. Most of the men pictured here were AND Company executives whose homes in Badger and Grand Falls were a far cry from the camps. 

They were heated by a wood stove. I think in some of the early camps the stoves might have been legitimate wood stoves brought in. In some of the French Canadian run camps on the Exploits this might have been different with a central fire place in the middle like the “Chambeause” they had  in Quebec. For many years the camps were heated with a “homemade” oil drum stove.

logging-camp-1908
Loggers outside of a camp in Millertown division sometime in the 1920’s. Notice the tar-paper roof on the camp building. Logging camps were busy places in the winter time and required lots of fire wood to keep them warm.

The oil drum stoves consisted usually of an old oil drum with a door cut in the top and a hole for the chimney. The drum was laid on its side usually on some sort of legs or a frame. Sometimes they were kept vertical and rocks were  put in the bottoms to weigh then down and to  keep them from scorching the camp floor. These stoves were not very efficient, the thin steel of the drum didn’t radiate heat like the cast iron of a real stove.

bunkhouse-with-oil-stove_attributed-to-bill-gillespie
Interior of a AND CO bunkhouse sometime in the 1950’s. The old oil drum wood stove can be clearly seen as are the surplus military bunk beds. By this point the men were no longer sleeping on boughs, but conditions still left much to be desired.

I am not sure of when they started using these because gas or diesel wasn’t a common commodity in the woods until the 1920’s. It is likely some these early stoves were fashioned from kerosene drums.

The camps like most of the houses on the island were lit by kerosene lamps. In some of the earlier camps or in more desperate circumstances homemade lamps could be found burning rendered pork fat as fuel.

The most common folklore about Newfoundland logging camps was that the men slept in boughs. This was entirely true and was common practice until after the Second World War. The old loggers described it as sleeping on “layers.” The first thing a logger would do when they got into camps was to pick some young boughs to make up his mattress.

The beds that these boughs were laid upon looked like a large shelf with a log or “lunger” between every two men. Early legislation called for mattresses filled with straw or wood shavings. This was not often enforced or in cases where the mattresses existed they were not fit to use and the men preferred to use boughs. Boughs were more easily replaced or replenished.

Vermin was a common nuisance  in logging camps. Men had to contend with rats and lice. If one man came into the old camps with the communal bunks that was lousy the whole camp would be crawling with lice by the end of the week. The only way of coping with lice was thorough the use of a disinfectant known as Jeyes fluid or in winter it was not uncommon to see a logger freezing his clothes outside and beating them lie you would a rug to get the lice off. And with garbage being thrown into a pit near the camp rats were inevitable as well. My great uncle told me: “if the Pied piper had come to the camp he would have been carried off by the rats.”

In summer flies were also a problem. Flies can be so bad in the Newfoundland forest that camps would be closed in the summer because the flies were so bad. In the early days very little cutting was done in the summer anyway, but flies would shut down camps in July. The men used store bought fly dope like pennyroyal oil or soaked handkerchiefs in kerosene to ward off those flying pests. The summers have three fly seasons-early for the black flies, mosquito around July and stouts in August.

The Second World War bought prosperity to Newfoundland and its end bought some improvement to the logging camps of Newfoundland. The Anglo-Newfoundland Development Camps were flooded with surplus bunk-beds from the forces bases a Gander and Botwood. Despite what some may have said around the time of the IWA Strike, the practice of sleeping on boughs died out in the latter half  The beds cut down on the lice. The men also had access to surplus blankets and knapsacks.

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Table set out in a cookhouse possibly in the late 1960’s. You can see a light bulb in the picture so it is likely that this picture was taken after the IWA Strike.

The log camp was on its way out after the Second World War. It was seen less wasteful and cheaper by the company to build camps from rough lumber. In those cases they would bring in a portable sawmill and saw the lumber on site for the camps. The problem was that the wood was cut and sawed on site and it was green with little or no heed paid to drying or seasoning the wood. As a result after year or so the boards of the camps started to buckle and gaps began to appear letting in cold drafts. The single layer of board was less insulating than the round logs. I have heard accounts of the newer camps having frost on the walls and being very drafty.

camp-1950s-triton-brook
Typical logging camp from the 1950’s. Even at this point sometimes some camp building were still constructed from logs.
camps-prefab-nf-quartley-sept-1959
Leading up to and after the IWA Strike of 1958-59 the AND Company embarked on a public relations program highlighting how good loggers had it. Beyond the showcase camps and the record wages brought in with the chainsaw, much was still needed to bring wages and conditions up to par with the rest of Canada.
227072_2029025647469_1298915546_2452897_5844646_n
Loggers relaxing at a camp around the time of the IWA strike. This is a prefab camp that was likely used for publicity and the loggers may actually be fishermen who were bought in as replacements when the loggers went on strike. The bunk dividers seen here were not common in most camps at the time.(Life Magazine, 1959) 

The AND Company claimed to have introduced portable camps as early as 1941 though I am very skeptical and think they may have thought that they could move the studded camps in sections when they were done using them. By the time the IWA strike started in 1959 they had at least one “portable camp of the mainland type.”

Portable camps became the norm in the 1960’s. They were made from plywood panels that could easily be moved and quickly assembled at a camp site. A typical example of this type of camp could be found next to the Exploits River Bridge at Grand Falls until fairly recently, where one was used as the fire shack.

Woods road in the 1950’s. Road building improved conditions in camps as it made travel easier and food more accessible.

Even though the IWA was forced out of Newfoundland in the wake of the 1958-59 loggers strike the “Company” was forced to improve conditions in its logging camps. A Royal commission on conditions in the camps served as an extra catalyst. conditions in the 1960’s improved in leaps and bounds. Generators were brought in that powered electric lights, freezers, refrigerators and televisions. Oil stoves replaced most of the wood burning equipment for both heating and cooking. Separate rooms were built for the men to dry their clothes and running water was brought in and loggers no longer had to burn their clothes after months in the woods. But by that point loggers didn’t spend nearly as much time in camp as they had in the past.

After confederation the network of roads around Newfoundland improved greatly as did vehicle ownership. Back in the 1930’s it may have taken a logger two or three days to get into camp from his home, by the 1960’s he could leave his home (if he lived in Notre Dame Bay) and be in camp in a few hours. Many started to commute home on the weekends and later if the camps were close enough every day.

Gradually less and less loggers were needed and with it went the need for camps. Less and less of the loggers came from the traditional areas of Notre Dame, Trinity and Bonavista Bays. Camps were still needed for men coming from further away, like those that came from Seal Cove and other communities on the South Coast.

The last large camp that existed in the old AND Co timber limits was AF Hollett and Sons camp at Black Duck Brook in Sandy Badger. This camp was put there in the late 1990s and consisted of bunk houses that had come from the Hibernia construction site at Bull Arm. There were four or five bunkhouses I think plus a cookhouse and a trailer for the foremen. This camp also sported a very large garage that was used to repair heavy equipment.

holletts-camp-black-duck
The remains of Winston Holletts camp near Black Duck Brook, Central Newfoundland. This was the last major camp used in cutting pulpwood for the Grand Falls Mill. The forests are littered with the sites of hundreds of camps that preceded this one.

It is a great possibility that we have seen the last of the logging camps in Central Newfoundland, but the camps remain an important part of our history once experienced by a large portion of our population.

Bryan Marsh

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4 comments

  1. love your site and information and the pictures……..

    My Grand father I believe ran a woods camp Patrick Lahey original from Fortune Harbor, resettled in Bishop’s Falls.

    I myself now live on what use to be the jack ladder in Bishops Falls. Do you have any info on Patrick Lahey or any pictures of the Bishops Falls jack ladder????? of know of any place I could look??

    Enjoy your info..

    Neil O’Reilly

    ________________________________

    Like

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