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200th Anniversary of Papermaking in Canada

Two hundred years ago, in September 1805, the first paper was produced in Canada....

September 1, 2005  By Pulp & Paper Canada

Two hundred years ago, in September 1805, the first paper was produced in Canada.

The paper mill which marked the birth of papermaking in this country was built in Quebec, on the Rivire du Nord, about two kilometers upstream from its junction with the Ottawa River. The land was owned by the seigneur of this area (Argenteuil), Major Patrick Murray who, although it was not common practice, lived within his seignory. The Major seems to have strongly encouraged the development of industry, such as mills, in this area in order to attract settlers to his land around the small village of St. Andrews. This settlement was well-established, with farms abundant to the south of the town. The nearest flour mill was at Rigaud across the Ottawa river. The Delorme family (of voyageur fame) had a boat building shop and a freighting business.

From Cyrus Thomas’ History of the Counties of Argenteuil, Quebec & Prescott, Ontario (1896), it is known that Major Patrick Murray needed a hydraulic engineer to help realize his dream of a mill, so he found and hired Thomas Mears to build a dam and aqueduct in order to power a sawmill. This dam extended across the river at an island providing a head of six to seven feet. A photograph from the 1920s shows the remnants of the dam so its location can be precisely fixed.


The link between Thomas Mears and what was then the papermaking centre of Newton Lower Falls, MA, is not clear, although we can surmise that Mears may have come from, or passed through, that area because word spread about the potential for a paper mill in St. Andrews.

Consequently, a young papermaker from that area, by the name of Walter Ware, decided to investigate this Canadian prospect. He knew the trade from his father John Ware who had built and operated a paper mill on the Charles River, MA, since 1790. Ware encouraged several young papermakers to come with him: Benjamin Wales and his brothers Nathaniel and Samuel, Gustavus Adolphus Hooker, Artemus Jackson and William Zearns, as well as millwright John Harrington.

In 1803, Walter Ware signed an agreement with Major Murray to occupy six acres of land and free waterpower for 30 years. However, because the land was not suitable for building, Ware bought more from the Delorme family and built the mill a year later in 1804. Ware was also busy organizing supplies of rag as raw material and a market for the finished products. Ware made arrangements with James Brown (a stationer recently arrived from Quebec where he had worked with Canadian Gazette publisher John Neilson) for Brown to buy all the production of printing and writing paper and also to collect rag from both Montral and Qubec City in order to have the mill supplied.

My grandfather’s chapter on the first paper mill opens with Brown’s handbill:

“Notice to the Public. Cash given for clean linen and cotton rags… 20 St.Franois Xavier, corner of Notre-Dame, May 1804.”

However, the first season at St. Andrews passed with no paper. Production through the winter would have been a shockingly cold trade for those now involved who were accustomed to the milder climate of Boston. The beater in a poorly heated mill building would have frozen solidly — there would have been damage due to the warping of wooden parts. Surface sizing with animal gelatin would be next to impossible with the changes in temperature. To the chagrin of my own employees in the present time, experience teaches me that paper dried slowly in a cold space is of better quality. However, in those times, anything hung in the loft would have frozen solidly. As well, shipping by bateau would have been impossible because of the frozen river.

The following year, 1805, production finally commenced. Brown received his first shipment of wrapping paper in September followed by a shipment of printing some of which he sent on to the publisher John Neilson in Qubec, with the note, “not much use for anything but blotting”, adding, as a cryptic comment, “These Yankees”.

My grandfather’s book successfully presents the history from the perspective of James Brown, who was a voluminous correspondent as well as litigious. The Montral courthouse records contain over 50 civil trials in which he was involved. James Brown is effectively depicted as being hotheaded, ambitious, impatient of delays and somewhat paranoid, and though these are perhaps good qualities for a newspaperman, they are hardly designed for getting along in business with papermakers.

During my research, I found that Walter Ware is not given his due as one of the founders of Canadian papermaking. Scant information exists about him although, unfortunately, his reputation is not untarnished. Brown, who was pleased to be invited to participate in the ownership of the mill in 1806, had already turned against Ware by the following year, wanting him out of the partnership. In 1808, Brown was forced to pay a large sum to get Ware out of trouble when he was pursued in civil court by a firm of Montral hatters. Ware also seems to have violated the terms of the partnership by selling paper to Brown’s competitors. Brown even claimed he had to buy back his own paper from other sources. In the subsequent actions and conflicts with Brown, Ware lost in common pleas court and soon after left St. Andrew’s and returned to Massachusetts where his grave can still be visited in the St. Mary’s churchyard in Newton Lower Falls.

Typical paper mill of the period

According to Joel Munsell (American printer, editor and historian, 1808-1880) “The paper mills in Massachusetts were constructed for two vats each, and could make of the various descriptions of paper, from two to three thousand reams per annum”. The approximately 12 people employed consisted of men, boys and girls.

The raw material for all the mills making paper was old rag collected from any number of sources. Old linen clothes provided the best quality and cleanest rag. Rope ends, sails netting were also sought. Even some wool found use in making cartridge papers because it would not smolder after ignition.

The sorting of the different grades of rag was done at the mill by women. In the rag room they would sort and prepare the raw material and keep an eye on their daughters who worked alongside them. Sometimes the rag was allowed to ferment before beating, in order to soften the fibre. Lime powder could be used to replace the milk sometimes used in Europe.

Beating was carried out in Hollander beaters which had largely replaced hammer mills in the 18th century. Walter Wares’ father in Newton Lower Falls used beaters in his mill, so probably the same technology was used at St. Andrews. The beater roll at the time was a section of a tree trunk set with metal blades mounted parallel across its width.

The roll was fixed to a shaft connected to an overshot water wheel. The power was controlled by a gate directing water from the head race over the wheel. The tub of the Hollander would have been wood-banded with iron straps.

The roll would be lowered using a system of wedges. The beater man’s skill was to recognize when a load of pulp was ready to be made into a specific grade of paper. It is hard to imagine how contamination was prevented since bleaching was not done and the colour of the rag was the colour of the finished product. [ed. note: This is still how the hand-made paper at La Papeterie St-Armand is made.]

This typical mill would have two vatmen with hand moulds and two men couching and several boys putting up the freshly pressed sheets on wooden poles.

Recently, with Lee McDonald, our mouldmaker, I visited the John Ware paper mill where Walter learned his trade. The building is well preserved and the current owners are a firm of executive head hunters, Gustin & Associates. Although surprised at the request, Mr. Gustin welcomed us in and let us look around. Underneath the roof we were astounded to see that the rafters still had slots to hold the drying poles.

Different grades

Clifford Wilson, an histor
ian working with my grandfather, recorded the following grades of paper made at St. Andrews: wrapping, printing in various formats, blotting, writing, cartridge paper, pot paper, large bonnet board, ledger paper, log book paper, blue printing, blue writing, banknote foolscap.

Wrapping was the coarsest paper and could be made using any fibre available, even wool or bombazine, as long as some cotton was present. Bonnet board was a pasted board made of imperfect sheets. Ledger and log book were heavy and gelatin-sized. Cartridge was heavier than writing, coarser surface and contain some wool fibre to prevent smouldering in the musket barrel. It was used to hold gun powder in a twist. Several of the American papermakers refused to make such paper for the British after the U.S. government declared war in 1812.

Historic site

If you visit the site of St. Andrews today, you will find an historic marker with the name of James Brown but no one else. The dam was destroyed 1834 in a spring flood and never rebuilt. Even after this catastrophe Brown wanted to rebuild and continue, but the new seigneur, Sir Christopher Johnson, refused to extend the lease for the hydraulic rights which had expired after 30 years. Without these rights, a mill could not exist.

Nothing is left, and only one eyewitness account exists, that of Joseph Bouchette, the surveyor general of Lower Canada. In his topographical dictionary of 1832, he describes the principal building of the mill as 80 feet long “beautifully situated on a platform opposite the bridge which joins the two parts of the village and the mail road leading to the settlements on the Ottawa.”

For years I thought about the location of the mill on the Rivire du Nord. My grandfather questioned Dr. Benjamin Wales, the grandson of one of the original papermakers, but the oral tradition has been lost in the flow of time. This month, I went to St. Andrews with a map sketched by Dr. Wales in 1929 and a 1930 photograph still showing the posts of the dam. I walked along the river and by the position of a boulder I could deduce the old dam’s location even though the posts were no longer visible. The aqueduct was filled in, but the location of the tailrace was evident due to old, cut stones on the riverbank. Following the plan, the location of the mill would have been very near the present St. Andrews post office.

A second mill

Artemis Jackson, one of the original craftsmen from Massachusetts moved to Trois-Rivire in approximately 1815 and then later to Cap-Sant in Portneuf County where he built a paper mill. This would have been the second Canadian paper mill. While the young New Englanders were building the St. Andrews mill, their British counterparts were perfecting Louis Robert’s idea for a papermaking machine. Based on this Frenchmen’s design, the machine would eventually become the Fourdrinier.

I am now looking forward to reading the Brown and Neilson correspondence and the details of the 53 court cases instigated by James Brown, available at the new Bibliothque nationale du Qubec. While the contents of the documents may be dry and dusty, handling the papers from that era will make my heart sing.

David Carruthers is the founder of La Papeterie Saint-Armand in Montreal, QC. He is in the process of researching material for a booklet on the history of early papermaking in Canada which will be published on the hand-made St-Armand paper later this year.

For more information, please contact David or his wife, Denise Lapointe, at 931-8338 or visit his website at www.st-armand.com

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