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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Austin, Nicholson lumber company becomes largest supplier of railway ties in the British Empire in the 1930s from mills near Chapleau

Photo courtesy Brian Westhouse
At about the same time that Chapleau was becoming incorporated as a municipality in 1901, George Brecken Nicholson, its first reeve was embarking on a business venture with James McNiece Austin which would eventually become Northern Ontario's largest lumber firm mainly from a contract with the Canadian Pacific Railway to provide it with ties.
Brian Westhouse, in an excellent article about the community of Nicholson and the Austin and Nicholson lumber company wrote that in the 1890s James McNiece Austin, a Chapleau general merchant, took tie cutting and delivery contracts from the CPR. Mr Austin had taken over the store from his brother T.A. Austin, who had established it in 1885. 
Mr. Westhouse wrote that Mr. Nicholson who had been a locomotive engineer left the CPR in 1901, entered into a partnership with Mr. Austin and became full time manager of the tie cutting opoerations. In 1902 the railway agreed to a three year contract and Austin, Nicholson Company guaranteed to deliver 200,000 ties a year for three years. Mr. Nicholson also became reeve of Chapleau on February 15, 1901, being re-elected each year by acclamation until he retired from the position in 1913.
Photo courtesy Brian Westhouse
How Mr. Nicholson found the time to do all that he did for Chapleau, as well as pursue his business interests, continues to amaze me almost 30 years after I first wrote about him in my book, 'Sons of Thunder ... Apostles of Love'.
Their first mill was under construction on a point of land between Lake Windermere and the CPR, 22 CPR miles west of Chapleau, and the community of Nicholson developed at this site including boarding houses, cottages, warehouses and other structures necessary to support the logging operations of the company.
According to an article on the community of Nicholson,on the web site Ghost Towns of Ontario, by 1914 a town site had been laid out and the company had built a general store which included post office and grocery delivery. A bunkhouse and cookery were built which could accommodate 60 men, and  a school established which was eventually able to include 80 students. Describing Mr. Nicholson as a "fervent Anglican" he established a church in 1914 but allocated  a former schoolhouse to the larger Roman Catholic congregation who quickly refurbished it and added a steeple and bell.
Many homes were built during this time and residents paid a monthly rent of $5 for a single family dwelling or $7 for two stories.
The company's head office was in Chapleau.
Photo courtesy Brian Westhouse
The Ghost Towns of Ontario article notes that to enhance the social atmosphere Potney's pool hall was set up in the company store and there was also  Sheffields boarding house (hotel) a harness maker and blacksmith. By 1915 the community had grown to 350 residents and was fast becoming the largest lumbering settlement between Sudbury and the Lakehead, 
A piping system was installed to heat homes with the mill's boilers --- much like the CPR did in Chapleau to heat the Chapleau Memorial Community Arena, YMCA and other buildings. Nicholson also had an internal telephone system and when tied in with the CPR telegraph line, long distance calls could sometimes be achieved.
Brian Westhouse wrote that "in 1920 the company began to plan dor a second mill to satisy CPR's increasing demand for sawn ties... Dalton, 21 and a half miles west of Nicholson, had been the site of earlier axe-tie loading operations. The new plant at Dalton Mills was located on Shikwamkwa Lake, 3 miles south of the CPR and linked to it with a private railway. The lumber storage yard alongside the CPR main line had a capacity of up to 50 million feet".
As I was researching this article, I could not help but recall my own small connection to the community of Nicholson as a young boy growing up in Chapleau, but our family camp was at Healy in the late 1940s until 1957. My grandfather's connection went back many years earlier.
My grandparents Harry, Lil (Mulligan) Morris at Healy circa 1949
A great adventure in my grandfather Harry Morris's freighter canoe powered by a Johnson 5.8 outboard motor (I think) was to make the trip on Lake Windermere from Healy to Nicholson, to visit Chapleau friends with camps there and to shop at the store. To this day those journeys, perhaps prompted by my mother's love of the explorers of early Canada and how she would make them come alive for me, made our trips to Nicholson voyages of discovery. I always sat in the front of the canoe watching as the navigator, even though my grandfather knew the route like the back of his hand.
In fact, he would have preferred to paddle it in the canoe, having little use for outboard motors, but Mom, (Muriel E (Hunt) Morris, and my grandmother, Lil (Mulligan) Morris would have no part of that one.
I went on Google Earth and retraced the journey and about 60 years later, I recalled those trips like it was only yesterday.
What happened to Nicholson?
Brian Westhouse tells us that "in the early hours of Sunday September 13th, 1931, night watchman Sullivan noticed flames leaping up from the roof of the Nicholson sawmill. The Chapleau branch of the Ontario Forestry Corps who with pumps and fire fighting equipment and the CPR fire car were quickly dispatched to the scene
"Fanned by a very high wind glowing embers were hurled across the lumber piles to the station buildings, an eighth of a mile away, setting alight the wooden platform, damage to the latter being negligible owing to the prompt action of volunteer workers.
" As soon as the aroused workers were on the scene a bucket brigade was organized, the women folk courageously taking their places among the men, braving the fierce heat and dense smoke in a desperate endeavour to protect home and employment."http://www.trainweb.org/oldtimetrains/photos/logging/austin.htm LINK TO BRIAN WESTHOUSE ARTICLE
The mill at Nicholson was not rebuilt but remained an outpost to supply the logging camps that served Dalton.
Ghost Towns notes that the school closed in 1936, the company store about 1954 and the post office in 1956. By 1956 the station was closed. 
In the early 1970s most buildings were still intact and it had been recommended that Nicholson be preserved as an historic site, but a fire destroyed much of the site. There are still a few cottages there.
Austin, Nicholson had mills at other locations, and played a huge role in the economy of the Chapleau area for many years. After James McNiece Austin died in 1922, Mr. Nicholson became president, Allan McNiece Austin and Bill Austin, first and second vice presidents respectively and Reg Thrush was secretary treasurer. 
Mr. Nicholson, who served as a Member of Parliament after his service as reeve of Chapleau died on January 1, 1935.
His obituary referred to him in part  as "a true son of the north... vigorously fighting to improve the condition of the people of this country".
My most sincere thanks to Brian Westhouse for his assistance and for permitting me to refer to his article,  to Doug Greig for his articles in Chapleau Trails and to Dr. William R. Pellow, its editor and publisher as well as to Ghost Towns. Any errors are mine. My email is mj.morris@live.ca

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Michael J Morris

Michael J Morris
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