It’s difficult to gauge how Ottawa would look today had John Rudolphus (J.R.) Booth not settled in Ottawa in the early 1850s. Born in the Eastern Townships of Quebec in 1827, Booth came to Bytown by way of Vermont where he had been working as a carpenter building bridges. He was a newly married 25-year-old with, the story goes, just nine dollars in his pocket.
Wrightsville, now Gatineau, had been settled by Philemon Wright more than 50 years earlier, while Bytown/Ottawa had by then spent a quarter century cementing its reputation as among North America’s drunkest, scrappiest towns. The lumber industry, meanwhile, was thriving, with Wright floating his first timber raft down the Ottawa River and on to Quebec City in 1806.
Booth’s arrival coincided roughly with that of other like-minded lumbermen, including Henry Bronson, W.G. Perley, John Harris and E.B. Eddy. Any of these entrepreneurs might have filled whatever void Booth’s absence would have created had he not elected to also come.
But none matched Booth’s drive, determination or work ethic, and it was his initials, not theirs, branded onto each square timber used in the construction of the Mauretania and Lusitania ocean liners and the parliamentary library. By 1890, Booth was the largest lumber producer in the world, and while Eddy, Bronson and others were rightfully acknowledged as lumber barons, Booth was referred to as the Lumber King.
When he died in 1925 in his 99th year, the nine dollars in his pocket had grown to an estimated $44 million, the equivalent today of more than $600 million, ranking him among the richest men in Canada. (His estate was probated at $23 million, although it’s generally believed to have been worth far more.) The front pages of newspapers announced the death of the “Emperor of the Woods” and “monarch of the Upper Ottawa.” William Lyon Mackenzie King described him as a father of Canada for his contribution to Ottawa’s economic development.
“As the city’s most important private employer,” says Michel Prévost, archivist and historian at the University of Ottawa, “Booth contributed to the development of the lumber industry that the city was built on. He contributed to the growth of the city, for sure.
“Without Booth, Ottawa might be a smaller city.”
Dave Mullington, a local historian currently working on a book about Booth, argues that Booth’s entrepreneurial success helped keep Ottawa as the nation’s capital at a time when other cities — notably Toronto — urged that Queen Victoria’s decision be reversed.
“(Booth) helped keep Ottawa alive, as a lumber town, until about 1900. Until then, Chaudière was the largest lumber centre in North America.
“There was always the question of whether Ottawa should remain the capital, but the lumber industry sustained Ottawa until the civil service took over. And I doubt that Ottawa would still be the capital if it weren’t for the lumber industry, because there wasn’t anything else here.
“Booth,” he adds, “was Ottawa’s biggest industrialist, and its biggest employer before the civil service overtook him. And it wasn’t just hiring the people in his mills. It was all the services in town. Area farmers were selling him their cattle and their hay and so on to feed the lumber camps. No matter what business you were in, you were probably selling to Booth.”
During the late 19th century, says Prévost, Booth employed upwards of 2,000 men in his mills at Chaudière, and another 4,000 in his bush operations, more than his nearest rival, E.B. Eddy.
“Many of the lumberjacks came from outside the area, from all over. That’s why the population increased in the area. In Hull, the population doubled from 1881 to 1901, from 7,000 to 14,000, and a lot came to work for E.B. Eddy and Booth.” (Similarly, Ottawa’s population more than doubled in that same period, from about 27,000 to nearly 60,000.)
Booth, who dressed – and worked – like a labourer, made his initial fortune when in 1859 he won the bid to provide the wood needed to build the Parliament buildings, undercutting competitors by hiring cheap labour — in this case unemployed longshoremen, or “dock rats,” from Montreal — to work in his bush camps, a forested empire that stretched as far as Georgian Bay and Northern Quebec.
“It’s said that at one point his empire was larger than France,” says Mullington. “That’s impossible to verify, but he was recognized as the greatest landowner as far as timber limits were concerned.” (Timber limits were renewable, two-year permits issued by the federal government that allowed individuals or companies to cut and remove trees.)
Booth was also Ottawa’s largest private landowner, and thus property taxpayer, conferring on him considerable clout. When he allowed his great stacks of lumber to encroach on city property and it was demanded that he remove them, Booth threatened to move his business to Rockland or elsewhere.
“That was a constant thing with city hall,” says Mullington. “He was the city’s biggest taxpayer, so they had to listen to what he said.”
Booth was also often at odds with the federal government over the amount of sawdust he dumped into the river — so much so that it literally stopped boats, including those going in and out of the Rideau Canal. In 1897, gases built up from sawdust deposits exploded, overturning the boat of a local farmer and killing him, while a couple of years later, engineers of the Alexandra Bridge noted that the massive layer of sunken sawdust — 10 metres thick in some places — made the project more difficult.
Unlike Eddy and other lumbermen who entered politics or expanded to other businesses, Booth’s sole interest was lumber and, when that became less profitable, pulp and paper. True, he owned a great deal of real estate in Ottawa and invested in railways and shipping, but these were chiefly in support of his lumber business.
“He knew how to make his money count,” says Mullington. A long-time Tory supporter, Booth “was influential behind the scenes.”
Booth famously worked until just a couple of months before his death, frequently visiting his timber limits, where he would heft an axe alongside his workers. “He’d walk around and chop down trees, just for a little exercise,” says Mullington.
As an employer, he was demanding, respected and loyal. “Workers liked him,” says Prevost. “He reduced the workday from 11 hours to 10, without cutting their pay. He was a better employer than E.B. Eddy, with better working conditions. He would help his workers, giving them wood and food. When a child was sick, his wife would visit them. His image was very good.”
Two anecdotes illustrate Booth’s work ethic and single-minded business drive. On one occasion, friends encouraged him to take up fishing, but he quickly got bored and tossed away his rod to instead retrieve some logs that had drifted to shore. And when he was convinced by his daughters to take a two-week holiday in Atlantic City, he returned after one day, saying that he had been up since 5 a.m. and had seen all there was to see there.
He survived catastrophic fires, including the Great Fire of 1900, and the Long Depression of the 1870s, which wiped out other prominent lumbermen. He always adapted and bounced back.
Booth was also philanthropic, although it can be argued that, considering his vast wealth, his benevolence was far from mighty. He did, however, donate $10,000 to the founding of St. Luke’s General Hospital in 1898, the equivalent today of more than $200,000, and was a supporter of the Canadian Reading Camp Association — later renamed Frontier College — a Presbyterian group that encouraged out-of-work teachers and college graduates to work in the lumber camps by day and teach shantymen at night. Additionally, Booth donated 400 acres of land on which he pastured his horses, now nearly half of the Central Experimental Farm. He also sold the land for the Britannia Heights Methodist Church, in 1877, for one dollar, and donated a large stained-glass window, in honour of the memory of his deceased wife, Roselinda Cook, to St. Andrew’s Church.
He was otherwise known for his frugality. When a driver criticized him for a measly 10-cent tip, when Booth’s son typically gave a quarter, Booth reportedly replied, “That’s different; the boy has a rich father, but I was an orphan.”
But he mostly preferred to remain out of the spotlight, never giving interviews and rarely speaking in public. According to Sandra Gwyn’s A Private Capital, while many of Ottawa’s lumber barons were commonly seen at society events, Booth, the biggest of all, was not. “His rough language and unfortunate habits with tobacco juice,” Gwyn wrote, “put him decidedly beyond the pale.”
Considering his overwhelming influence on the development of Ottawa, Booth’s legacy here is, as he might have preferred in life, understated. The Booth, Transportation and Jackson buildings, all eventually expropriated by the federal government and the National Capital Commission, are among his family’s legacies, while a pair of Booth streets, one each in Ottawa and Gatineau, and Booth Road, at Kingsmere, are named for the clan. Additionally, a new breed of chrysanthemum, developed at the Experimental Farm, was also given J.R.’s name.
Even so, wrote Doris French in a lengthy feature that appeared in Chatelaine in 1963, “no Canadian family has left a greater impression on Ottawa than the Booths.”
WHAT THEY SAID ABOUT J.R. BOOTH:
“(Booth) created within a stone’s throw of the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill a monument to his genius in the great mills at the Chaudière, where factory chimneys wreath his name in smoke upon the skies.”
— The Ottawa Citizen, 1929.
“He wanted to be the biggest lumberman in the world. I don’t think he had great foresight or long-range plans. He just wanted to be the biggest.”
— Author and historian Dave Mullington.
“Here’s the crowning thing. If you take all the wealthy families in Canada today, the really old-school wealthy families, most of them came from the booze business, which was illegal. So they didn’t pay taxes; it was all cash. So what J.R. did was that much more impressive.”
— John R. Booth, great-grandson of J.R. Booth.
“(Booth) knew the forest as a sailor knows the sea, and his success was largely due to the fact that he never overestimated its potentialities.”
— Montreal lumber merchant and biographer George Arthur Grier.
“A pioneer in lumbering, in railroad construction, and many other activities, he has given to this Dominion services of a nation-building character and had done much towards alleviating the difficulties of human life. His vision, his unerring judgment, his quiet generosity and his sincerity made him an outstanding gentleman among his fellows.”
— Former prime minister Arthur Meighen, following Booth’s death.
“John Booth’s name is a household word wherever energy and industry are spoken of.”
— Former governor-general Earl of Aberdeen.
“When I want a thing done, I want it done the way I say it should be done.”
— J.R. Booth.
J.R. BOOTH: A TIMELINE
1827: John Rudolphus Booth is born in Waterloo, Que., near Sherbrooke.
1848: Booth moves to the U.S. to work as a carpenter for the Central Vermont Railroad.
1852-53: Booth marries Roselinda Cook (sometimes spelled Rosalinda Cooke), and the couple moves to the Ottawa Valley.
1854: Now living in Ottawa with their first child, Frances Gertrude, Booth holds his first job in a machine shop, in Hull. The couple eventually has nine children, although three, including Frances Gertrude, die in childhood, while two others die in their early 20s. Only three — Helen Gertrude, Charles Jackson and John Frederick — outlive their father.
1859: After starting his own shingle factory, Booth submits a successful bid to supply wood for the construction of the Parliament buildings. The $15,000 he earns from the projects launches his career as a lumberman.
1867: Booth purchases the timber rights of John Egan’s 650 sq. km. of white pine, along the Madawaska River in what is now Algonquin Park, for $45,000. Five years later, Booth turns down an offer of more than $1 million for these same rights.
1884: In order to carry logs across the 9-km portage from Lake Nipissing to the Mattawa River, Booth builds the Nosbonsing & Nipissing Railway.
1886: At 57, Booth’s wife dies of pneumonia.
1890: Booth completes construction of a railway line running between Parry Sound and Ottawa. By now he is the largest lumber producer in the world.
1897: Booth donates $10,000 to the founding of St. Luke’s Hospital. He also founds the Canada Atlantic Railway from three smaller railway that he either bought or formed. For a while it handled 40 per cent of the east-bound grain traffic from Lake Huron.
1900: Ottawa’s Great Fire destroys most of Booth’s holdings at Chaudière: Five lumber yards with lumber worth $1.25 million, the family house, six stables, wagon and blacksmith shops, storehouses and sheds are all destroyed. Booth’s mill is spared due to his own waterworks system.
1903: Booth builds a new wing for St. Luke’s Hospital.
1904: Booth builds his first pulp mill.
1905: Booth sells his Canada Atlantic Railway for $14 million.
1906: Booth opens his first paper mill.
1921: In order to reduce any taxes after his death, Booth incorporates his business, with a lawyer and his three surviving children as directors.
1925: Booth dies. He is buried at Beechwood Cemetery.