First Level Assessment- Land use History of the Pollett River Watershed

Forestry Practices

In 1811, when the first homesteaders (the Geldarts) reached the headwaters of the Pollett near what became Elgin, the area was described as unbroken wilderness, having no roads and extremely dense forest (St John Daily Telegraph October 14th, 1870). Such 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.

A few years earlier, in 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. By 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. This transformed 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 enterprises 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.

On the Pollett six or seven dams on streams and on the river itself would be simultaneously opened during the spring freshet to cause of surge of water that could carry logs cut over the winter to mills downstream (Jones et. al 1997), a practice which reportedly continued to supply the mill at Forest Glen (the community of Pollett River) up to 1947.

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 the forests in New Brunswick had been drastically modified over the course of 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).

Elson (1962) reports that there were several dams on the Pollett during this time to provide power to sawmills. He notes that one at the community of Pollett River/Forest Glen (Table 1) 16 kilometers above the mouth of the river, functioned for at least 150 years, which if accurate would be almost the entire period from early settlement up to his time of writing. Reportedly during much of that time it had no fishway and prevented Salmon from passing upstream. Beyond that dam another sawmill dam was located near Elgin (Table 1), 28 kilometers above the mouth of the river and less than a kilometer below Gordon Falls. Arguably with regards to salmon, the presence of that dam was rendered somewhat moot by the one below it. Aside from restricting passage, mill wastes were also a problem because at the time, other than burning, dumping into the river was one of the most common forms of disposal of sawdust, bark, and other waste (Department of Fisheries 1890). Such material sometimes covered river bottoms, smothering spawning sites. Despite the Pollett draining a larger watershed and being a longer river than the Little River, it is thought that following English settlement from the early 1800s to the 1970s, the Little River contributed more salmon smolts to the Petitcodiac than the Pollett did, due to the extent of human impacts on the Pollett (McLeod 1973).

By 1876 the completion of the railway branch line, The Elgin, Petitcodiac, & Havelock Railway connected the Pollett watershed to Intercolonial Railway, eliminating transportation as a constraint on timber harvesting. According to Dawson (2005) it entered the watershed following what is today Route 905 (which already existed then as a road) heading east from Petitcodiac until arriving at the Pollett at Forest Glen (another name for the community of Pollett River), near where Sanatorium Rd now meets the 905. From there it continued upstream, alongside the precursor of the modern 905 to Elgin.
The Chignecto Post in Sackville wrote of the 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 watershed and surrounding communities 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 beginning to wind 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 were already fitted with steam engines, rendering masts irrelevant (Evans 2004), and the conversion to iron hulls began within a decade thereafter.

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 6200 pounds of maple sugar (Albert County Museum 2015). By 1851 the annual output of maple sugar from Elgin Parish (which also included all of the forested upper reaches of the Little River, immediately to the east of the Pollett) was approximately 80,000 pounds (Fellows 1980).