First Level Assessment-

Land use History of the Little River Watershed

Forestry Practices

Early settlers cleared the land to allow for agriculture, locally consuming cordwood for fuel, and lumber to build their homesteads, while generating income by selecting marketable timber to send downriver to be sold for shipbuilding or export.  The latter became a significant aspect of the local economy.  By 1803, war had broken out in Europe yet again- initially with limited implications for New Brunswick. At first British victory at sea in October 1805 at the Battle of Trafalgar kept the Napoleonic Wars remote, with the primary risk of conflict locally being with the Americans (MacNutt 1963, Mancke et al 2017). In February 1807 however, ports in the Baltic were closed to British shipping (Raymond 2010). Until this point Britain had been largely dependent upon the Baltic for its supply of naval stores (Davey 2011) Procurement of timber, hemp, iron, pitch, tar, and flax was essential to Britain not just militarily, sustaining its trade and economic power was reliant upon maintaining the capacity of its merchant fleet as well. In 1809 Edward Winslow, then the deputy surveyor of the King’s Woods in New Brunswick noted, “The interruption of the Baltic trade and other causes have occasioned a most extraordinary demand for ton timber” (Winslow 1809). The Napoleonic blockade of the Baltic pushed England to expand New Brunswick’s lumber production twentyfold, transforming what had been an “undeveloped backwater” of 25,000 people largely engaged in subsistence agriculture into a bustling colony of 190,000 with an export driven economy over a matter of just a few decades (Wynn 1981b, Gordon 2014).

Ship building and shipping were linked directly to the timber trade (Sager and Fischer 2007).  Timber was the major cargo of colonial-built vessels, with the ship itself often being sold along with its cargo upon reaching Great Britain. Even after the war, once the capacity had been established, the trade continued, stimulated until 1848 by a British tariff that favored supplies imported from North America (Bowser 1986).  Shipbuilding sprung up wherever timber could be floated down river to the coast (Craik 1917).

Timber harvest in the Petitcodiac timber district as a whole grew from 260 tons in 1818 to 3,137 tons by 1836 (Wynn 1981b), though this paled in comparison cutting in other more accessible portions of the province such as in numerous timber districts along the Saint John and Miramichi  Rivers where harvests taking place at the same time were in some cases an order of magnitude greater. 

During the early 1800s white pine was gradually culled from New Brunswick Forests to meet the demand for masts for the Royal Navy (Wynn, 1981b).  The White Pines Act of 1722 established the requirement of a royal license to fell white pines with a diameter exceeding 24 inches unless they were privately owned, and in 1729 Parliament reserved all such trees to the government except those already in private hands before 1690 (Purvis 1999). Since New Brunswick came under British control well after that time, this exception did not apply at all to its forests. During the American Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars from 80 to 90 percent of all masts supplied to the Royal Navy came from Canada, mostly New Brunswick (Williams 1992). Pines could still be found in 1850, but few of the magnificent trees the region was known for earlier in the century remained.  Spruce was more abundant, but the largest had also been cut.  Though there were not many extensive cutover tracts, by 1850 the character and composition of New Brunswick forests had been drastically modified by just 50 years of harvesting.

There were no corporate, individual, or sales taxes at this time (Goodrich 2010). Consequently, the primary source of government revenue was import and export duties.  It was only once the province began to collect duties on the timber and lumber shipped to England during and after the Napoleonic Wars- and the goods brought back from there- that in 1816 it had been finally able to get serious about building infrastructure such as the system of “Great Roads” linking principal population centres. The Westmorland Great Road from Saint John to the Nova Scotia border had been surveyed and well traveled by foot and horseback since the 1790s, locally following roughly of what is now route 106 from the Village of Petitcodiac through Moncton and on to Dorchester. By the mid 1830s this route had been fully graveled and was smooth enough to run a coach over at a full trot (when the weather was good), and regular mail and stagecoach service began. 

The effects of this early economic activity were not limited to just the forests. By 1820 importation of food into New Brunswick was the rule rather than the exception, everything hinged on the timber trade, though there were warning signs of the danger of single source economy (DeMerchant, 1983).  James Robb, professor of Natural Science at Kings College in Fredericton (now the University of New Brunswick), was appointed Secretary of the Provincial Board of Agriculture when it was established in 1858.  He warned that timber harvesting was so lucrative that it distorted development, and that when the market in Europe declined, the farmer neglecting his homestead to work in the woods would be “surprised to find his fences down, his fields grown up with bushes, and both himself and his snug little clearing generally all gone bad”.  It was not just agriculture that was falling short of its potential.  In the years that shipbuilding boomed at St. John and other towns along the coast, even the fishing industry was neglected as men were drawn to the forest to supply wood (DeMerchant, 1983). 

Unlike the Pollett River, which Elson (1962) describes as having had several large dams to power sawmills, McLeod (1973) reports that the Coverdale (Little) River had no major obstructions and that salmon were able to use the lower 40 km of the river extensively between the early 1800s to the 1970s, such that the Coverdale actually produced a majority of salmon smolts in the Petitcodiac system during that time.  It is somewhat of a challenge to reconcile this description with the 3 sawmills and 3 grist mills present on the Little River by 1898 in Table 1 (Provincial Archives of New Brunswick 2023), since presumably those were all water powered. It may be that the situation on the Little River was simply better relative to the Pollett, which after all had a major mill dam just 16 km above the mouth of the river at Forest Glen that reportedly for much of that time had no functioning fishway and so blocked passage beyond it (Elson 1962).  This situation was exacerbated in 1910 when the Sanatorium Dam was put in 6 km below Forest Glen- just 10 km above the mouth of the Pollett River.  In contrast fishways on dams on the Coverdale were described as being in good order in 1876, and though there were declines in catches of salmon that year, these were blamed upon recent increases in milling and “mill rubbish” (sawdust etc.) fouling the water (Commissioner of Fisheries 1877).  This confirms that sawmills on the river were powered by dams (as one would expect), but is consistent with McLeod’s (1973) conclusion that the dams on the Little River did not block fish passage.  Mill wastes were a problem because, other than burning, dumping into the river was the most common form of disposal of sawdust, bark, and other waste (Department of Fisheries 1890).  Such material covered river bottoms, smothering spawning sites.

By 1877 the railway branch line, The Salisbury – Albert Railway opened, connecting the lower portion of the Little River watershed to the Intercolonial Railway (Chignecto Post Thursday May 24th 1877).  Its main focus was serving points beyond the watershed however, running only a short distance up the Coverdale, (no further upstream than near to Colpitts Settlement ).  A time table notes a stop there at a point referred to as “Coverdale” located 4 miles from Salisbury Station (The Maple Leaf, Thursday February 18th 1885).  This suggests it is the modern community of Synton, which is the correct distance down the line and right on the river (hence the name Coverdale). From there the railway headed east, crossing Turtle Creek and nearly paralleling the Petitcodiac on to Hillsborough, with much of the area described as “unsettled country”.  From there it traveled south on to Albert Mines, the mouth of the Demoiselle and the Shepody River on the Bay of Fundy, ending at that time at Riverside. Ten years later, during the whole of 1887, it carried to market 2,334 cords of firewood, and 8,913 tons of timber (The Maple Leaf Thursday January 12th 1888).  Some of this material may have originated within the Little River watershed, but much of it probably just passed through going either direction.

Judging by the roads present in 1878 (Dawson 2005), the headwaters at the southern end of the watershed were more remote and less populated than the area between what is now Colpitts Settlement and Salisbury.  These upper reaches were not served by the Salisbury – Albert Railway, but did have access to the Elgin, Petitcodiac, & Havelock Railway which came up the adjacent Pollett River watershed, and ended a short distance away at Elgin.  As a consequence the road network of the time tied communities in the Coverdale headwaters more closely to Elgin than to Coverdale Station, which was quite a distance downstream (Dawson 2005), and explains why they were part of Elgin Parish instead of Coverdale parish.  The Chignecto Post in Sackville wrote of the Elgin, Petitcodiac, & Havelock Railway opening on September 14th 1876, “Within a few months over 350 cars of lumber (which could not have otherwise profitably been put in the market) have been hauled over the railway. The estimated shipments of lumber per year is about six million.  Besides this there is ship timber from the virgin forests of Elgin, bark, sleepers, cordwood, country produce, local and passenger traffic.”  It goes on, “There is said to be enough timber in her (referring to the Elgin region) hills to keep the shipyards in Saint John busy for a century.”  How “virgin” the forests may have been is an interesting question given a population at that time (Table 1) of over 250 people in Elgin, plus hundreds elsewhere in the Pollett River watershed and surrounding communities on the Little River who had been there, in some cases for much of the previous 50 years.   Such things are relative however, given that, as noted previously, other more easily accessible portions of the Province, had experienced more intensive harvesting.  Eleven months later The Daily Times of Moncton noted on August 15th 1877 that “during the year a great quantity of ship timber has been got out at Elgin for consumption in Saint John.” 

At that point the age of wooden ships was winding down however, causing a reduction in the scale of the demand for timber exports both as wood and manufactured into ships. By the end of the Crimean war in 1856, virtually all of the ships in the British Royal Navy had already been fitted with steam engines rendering masts irrelevant (Evans 2004), and the conversion to iron hulls began within a decade.

A non-timber forest product that was commercially significant at the time was maple sugar.  In the 1840s the Colpitts family was already producing marketable surpluses, gathering enough sap to produce 6,200 pounds of maple sugar (Albert County Museum 2015). By 1851 the annual output from Elgin Parish (which included all of the forested upper reaches of the Little River where sugar maple is common) was approximately 80,000 pounds (Fellows 1980).