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29. It's Not Rocket Science in Canada during 1800-1850

JUN. 3, 2021


New episode! This episode of History Happened Everywhere sees Ryan and Pete heed the call of the wild and trek to snowy Canada to discuss logging, baking, life, death and beer – all things that ‘aren’t rocket science’.

Oh Canada! Famous for it’s natural environment and being the second largest country in the world (after Russia), it is home to 37.5 million people yet still 90% of the land remains uninhabited.

Canada comes from the Iroquoian word kanata, meaning "village" or "settlement" after a French explorer was told the name of a village and he then used that name to refer to the entire area.

The first Canadians arrived around 12,000BC, migrating from Siberia via the Bering land bridge. They were followed, quite a long time later by Norse explorer Leif Erikson in 1,000AD. He explored the East coast of Canada and even set up a small encampment there.

That was about it until 1497 when John Cabot claimed Canada’s eastern coast in the name of King Henry VII of Britain, starting a a series of British and French explorers claiming land for their monarchs in the area.

This culminated in the Beaver Wars in 1650 over the fur trade in the area, and continued after this as well until the Seven Years War in 1755.

In 1775 further South the American colonies declare independence from Britain in American Revolution, which at its end resulted in a land border is established through the great lakes, and 10,000 British loyalists heading up to be on the North side of it.

“It’s not rocket science”
The topic of this episode is ‘it’s not rocket science’, a saying to suggest an activity or task is relatively easy.

Other similar idioms in use include, “It’s not brain surgery”, “It’s a piece of cake” and “it’s as easy as falling off a log.”

Let’s have a look at them.

“It’s not brain surgery”

In May 24, 1833 at the natural history Society of Montréal a young man was awarded the University’s first ever degree - a Doctorate in Medicine and Surgery. That young man was Dr. William Logie and he was McGill University’s first ever graduate and also Canada’s first ever medical graduate.

This was a milestone in the history of medical education in Canada, but it is not a story that ends happily.

William Logie was Born in Montréal in 1810, an only child. At two years old, his father died, and he was placed under guardianship of his mother and a local merchant called Arthur Prime.

In 1828, aged 18 years old he arrived at medical school where he was a good student; who “drew forth the well-merited compliments of the professors of the college” and had ‘superior ability and commendable industry’.

He was hardworking - In 1832, he worked day and night to help during a cholera epidemic - and he was also was popular with his fellow students, as attested by an 1833 newspaper article that said “The medical students of McGill college, as a mark of respect for William Logie, Esquire, M.D., invited that gentleman to partake of a dinner on Thursday last. The party left for Mr. Rasco’s splendid establishment, where the dinner was prepared – and after spending a day of utmost hilarity, they returned to the city on the same evening.”

Following his grand graduation, William applies for a license to practise medicine, which one might imagine would be a simple formality. It was not.

But the Board refused, insisting he undergo a further examination. William refused to do this, and a court case ensues which William wins – he can finally be an official licensed physician in Canada!

Unfortunately, before that, William has already left Canada and in fact he, Canada’s first doctor, never obtained a licence to practise in Canada.

William moved to Louisiana where he became a licensed medical practitioner, possibly because the busy seaport, would bring with it all types of diseases from around the world. Smallpox and yellow fever epidemics were frequent, and malaria and dysentery common.

After a year of thi, William married Frances Matilda Ford and they bought a large tract of land in Louisiana. Here they lived and worked and found time to produce six children too.

Ten years later, in 1851, for reasons unknown, but possibly relating to the growing tensions preceding the Civil War, they suddenly sell up and move to Geneva in New York.

In 1850 this was Geneva is a prosperous, well-established community of ~5000 people with many well-to-do families.

It also had Geneva College which drew students from all parts of the country and had a medical department with six professors, a demonstrator of anatomy, and about 130 students.

He buys a lovely home but soon things take a darker turn. William’s mother dies, aged 77 and soon after William’s eldest daughter died aged just 18.

William reacts by selling their home and buying a farm. Sadly, William’s wife then also died, and just two months after that the doctor receives news that his eldest son, William Jnr, has been killed in action in the war, aged 26.

By 1865, Dr. William Logie, aged 54, now has just four members of his family remaining. The farm is put on the market, taking over a year to sell, after which there is no record of William for five years.

He reemerges in 1872, 500 miles away in South Haven, Michigan living with his son, Charles and working in rooms above the post office.

Eventually Charles receives his own medical doctorate and sets up practice and moves to Kansas, leaving William alone. And poor. In fact, Charles eventually went to court on behalf of his father and stated that for the past 15 years his father had been “very poor and dependent upon my brother and myself for his support.” And that he ‘has been and now is very poor and infirm and unable to support himself, that he owns no real estate and but very little personal property consisting of a few medical books and not exceeding in value the sum of $100”

A newspaper reporter also stated that William has at least once passed through “‘a period of insanity”. In 1878 a Michigan paper reported that William had been removed to New York by his son, and a year later, on October 8, 1879, the Geneva Courier reported that “The remains of Dr. Logie, formerly and for many years a resident of Geneva, arrived in town yesterday morning by the early train from New York and were taken in charge by undertaker Barber, and interred in the family lot in the Washington Street Cemetery. We are without particulars concerning his death. Dr. Logie will be remembered as an excellent practitioner, and a good citizen.”

No other records of the burial in Geneva have ever been found, and so, McGill University’s first ever graduate and Canada’s first ever medical graduate lies somewhere in an unmarked grave

“A piece of cake”

Today, if you need to make a light and fluffy cake, you can make it fairly easily, but in 1800s Canada it was not the case.

One recipe reports that The flour should be dried before the fire, sifted and weighed, currants washed and dried, raisins stoned, sugar pounded, rolled fine and sifted; and all spices, after being well dried at the fire, pounded and sifted. Which is a lot harder than just popping to the nearest supermarket.

It was also necessary to make your own yeast by fermenting fruit, vegetables or grains and keep it alive at the right temperature and not contaminate it.

You’d also have to leave the batter for up to 24 hours to rise.

So getting your piece of cake, was not a piece of cake.

So folks just got used to either not having cake, or having a dense and flat cake instead, such as the cake Ryan baked for Pete on the podcast from a Canadian recipe dated 1827 called ‘Indian Pound Cake’.

Baking Powder eventually got around the rising problem, but it invented in 1843 and only started to be manufactured in England 1846, so it was unlikely to have hit Canadian stores by 1850.

“Easy as Falling off a Log”
1796, Philemon Wright sets out into the Ottawa Valley to discover new territory. On fining a suitable area, he convinced four families and a few dozen other men to settle there including one chap named London Oxford, who became the first free black man in the area and one of the first to own property there.

The settlement becomes known as Wright’s Town, and is now called Hull.

Wright’s Town had large areas of forest, river and land with which they grew hops, which he sold to John Molson, of now-famous Molson beers.

Wright still felt there was more money to be made, so upon learning that most of the forests in southern Quebec were gone because the British need timber to build ships – he started his own lumber business.

Wright hired some Irish lumberjacks (Gédéon Olmstead and Dudley Moore) and set about chopping the trees. Problem was, after felling, he had no way to get it to Québec, 300km away.

So, in July 1806, Wright loaded up a raft (which he called the “Columbo”) with 700 oak pieces and 900 planks and successfully sails it downriver to Quebec.

Thus began the Ottawa Valley timber industry

Soon developed into a fine art, the logging process begins in autumn before the worst of the winter has set in.

A small team of men haul their tools upstream, find a suitable wooded area, chop out a clearing and construct buildings to make a logging camp.

As Winter sets in the swampy ground freezes over and the lumberjacks arrive and start cutting down trees. The timber is branded (like cattle) with an "end mark", to distinguish logs of different companies when being processed at the saw-mill.

These logs are hauled by ox or horses down ice-roads to the river and stacked on "rollways" which let them roll into the stream in one go.

Not yet though. Because you need deep water to float the logs hundreds of miles, it’s necessary to wait for Spring, when the snow thaws and water-levels rise.

When ready, the river is cleared of any rocks and trees that might catch logs and the rollway is released. Suddenly all the tens of thousands of logs flow into the river.

As they float along the current, men have to steer them to avoid blocks, a process known as ‘Log driving’ and the men who did it called log drivers, river hogs, river pigs, river cowboys.

At the front of the drive you would find the the jam or beat crew, composed of more experienced and nimbler men. Their job was to spot a jam, get to it quickly, and dislodge the problem with strength, poles and sometimes even dynamite.

Behind them came the read crew, often the less experienced men who were responsible for spotting and pushing straggler logs.

Other men worked the riverbank, pushing stray logs into the river with hooked poles and all these workers were supported by a network of Wannigans - A kitchen raft, cooking four meals a day and and wangans – wagons carrying commissary, such as clothing, tools and tobacco. A caravan of Wangan trains was known as a Mary Anne.

Together these crews would drive the logs hundreds of miles downstream to the saw mills.

It was dangerous work. Log drivers worked 14-16 hours a day, 6 days a week in fast-moving, freezing water full of massive logs. They risked their lives every day.

In fact, log driving in the 1800s was considered one of the most dangerous jobs and local newspapers had complete sections to report the injuries and deaths. In 1845, more than 80 men died in the Ottawa Valley alone, and cemeteries were created along the river by the lumber industry to inter the bodies of the lost.

Because of these risks, the pay was substantial. A log driver was paid twice as much as a lumberjack who were themselves on a decent wage. In fact wages could equate to hundreds of thousands of dollars in today’s money.

Eventually though log driving died out due to railroads and trucks, although it lasted in some places as late as the 1970s, when the remaining log driving ended with changes in environmental legislation.

But echoes of the industry continue today.

In language. The phrase "High and Dry" describes an unsuccessful log drive. If logs were started downriver when there was not enough water to move them all the way to the sawmill, that timber might be stranded high and dry in shallows until the next spring snowmelt

"Come Hell or High Water" also originated from the industry, referring to the race to get logs into river while the water was high enough to float the drive.

There are also spin-off industries. Some companies today which hunt the old logging rivers looking for lumber that was lost, abandoned or sunk during the drive. Known as old-school deadheads they pull old logs from the riverbed.

There are also shoe makers today whose origins lie in the making of spiked cleats to grip the slippery logs when driving down the river. Today these same companies make ice cleats, golf shoes and lawn aerators.

And finally there is the sport of Log Rolling. Loggers would challenge one another to stay on the longest and the the best rollers competed, in company-sponsored log rolling contests.

This tradition continues today to today where world champions are crowned every year, including eight-time world log-rolling champion, Abby Hoeschler, who spoke to the show about her sport, the development of technology to help promote the sport, and the ingenious Key Log – a plastic alternative to the wooden log one-tenth as heavy as the traditional log.

She gave insight into the strategy and tactics of the sport and her family’s dream to bring the fun and frenetic competition of log rolling to a wider audience around the world.

You can learn more about log rolling, and get your first video tutorials from Abby herself at:

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