Plaster Rock Fraser Mill in earlier days, photo courtesy of Fraser Papers
No history of the Tobique River area would be complete without including the history of Fraser Papers which still operates a lumber mill in the village of Plaster Rock and is the primary employer. The following article, called “Historical Notes” was prepared in 1967 for publication in a special Centennial History project compiled by Grade 7 students of Donald Fraser Elementary School in Plaster Rock, New Brunswick in recognition of Canada’s 100th birthday.
By Plaster Rock Division
We, of Fraser Woodlands, like to boast, not without justification, that our Plaster Rock division comprises a timber limit without parallels in Eastern Canada. Our contention is based on the physical nature of the limit, its location, extent, topography, operating conditions, and the nature of its forest.
The forest lands managed by the Plaster Rock division of Fraser Woodlands comprises an area of practically one million acres in extent, all within the Tobique River drainage. Some two-thirds of this total area are freehold lands owned by Fraser Companies Limited, and one-third is crown lands held under a pulp and paper license and managed in accordance with the terms of timber regulations pertinent to forest management licenses. There is no essential difference in forest management practices on crown and freehold lands.
The terrain of this division varies from generally low-lying and gentle rolling lands in the southwest of some of the most mountainous areas in New Brunswick, in the northeast, in the vicinity of Mount Carleton (elevation 2689 feet).
A public highway, much of it paved, bisects the limit from the lower reaches of the Tobique River to Nictau. This road follows closely the valley of the Tobique River. The Plaster Rock-Renous Road, another public highway, runs easterly through this division from our Plaster Rock headquarters, for a distance of roughly twenty-five miles.
In addition to these public highways, Frasers have constructed since 1941 a network of all-weather gravel roads comprising some 350 miles, including several large bridges, one of which is almost 120 feet in length. No part of this limit is now more than five miles from a good road and a careful survey reveals that we should be able to place fire fighters on any forest fire which occurs within a maximum elapsed time of six hours.
The forest of this limit is typical of the region, being predominately a mixed hardwood and softwood growth with pure softwood stands of some extent. Pure hardwood forests are confined to hilltops and are not of significant area. The forest is, generally, of a relatively young age due to the past history of logging, fires, and insect epidemics.
The first diameter limit on crown lands was imposed in 1883 when a minimum top diameter limit for a sixteen foot log was set at ten inches. In 1908 this was reduced to nine inches. In 1909 it was stipulated that a saw must be used in felling. In 1917 the stump diameter of 12” on spruce and 9” on fir at the “swell of the roots”. In 1919 stump height was fixed at 12” from the ground. In 1923 the limit on fir was removed but reinstated in 1933 at 10”. These were the same stump diameter limits still in use when forest management licenses came into being in 1963, whereby the cutting methods are governed by the nature of the stand being cut and the product produced.
The cutting methods on freehold lands have always approximated those on crown lands, although a stump diameter limit of fourteen inches on spruce was in common use into the 1920’s.
Extensive forest fires in 1825, 1855, 1884, 1912, 1923, and 1933 all have had their impact on the nature of the forest which followed. Since then we have had only two fires over one hundred acres in extent, one in 1937 (160 acres), and another in 1942 (430 acres). In the past twenty-five years, we have had no forest fire that has burned over twenty-five acres in a single fire. The actual record since 1937 indicates the average area burned per year has been around 750 acres.
The spruce budworm attacks around 1920 and again in the 1950’s have had a tremendous effect on the nature of our spruce and balsam stands. The earlier attack completely devastated a large part of this forest and extensively damaged others. There is scarcely a surviving tree that does not show the typical budworm pattern in the 1920’s in the annual rings. The more recent attack in the 1950’s caused no extensive mortality due to control by the aerial spraying program. Only isolated trees or small groups of trees seem to have suffered mortality, although the epidemic was common over the whole limit from about 1948 to 1956. The major loss from this infestation was a distinct reduction in both height and diameter growth over a decade, the actual extent of which will likely never be known.
The other major insect attack on this limit, of recent times, was the bronze birch borer in the 1930’s, now commonly referred to as the “birch dieback” largely because no one seems to know definitely whether there was an insect attack, disease, over-maturity in the birch, or a combination of all three. The “dieback” caused extensive damage and widespread mortality in the birch stands. Both yellow and white birch are affected. The major result of this infestation has been a conversion of many of our mixed wood stands to softwoods or a decrease in the population of birch in the stand. Strictly from the point of view of spruce-fir management this could considered more of a long term benefit than a loss.
Then, in review, we have listed the major contributing factors, logging, fires, and insects that have reduced the relatively young and vigorous forest which is typical of this limit. Since 1949, when our first forest management plan was prepared for this limit, we have been striving to develop forest management practices that will, eventually, maintain this level at the level of its maximum productive capability. Our annual crop of spruce and fir has been steadily increasing until today it exceeds 125,000 cunits. Harvesting operations are directed toward the more mature forests so that they will be replaced, as quickly as possible, by young, vigorous and fast growing stands. Presently, we have a staff of five professional foresters, augmented by a staff of competent forest technicians, whose responsibility is to see that the current harvesting operations are so planned and executed that the overall objective of our forest management procedures are attained to the highest possible degree.
The name of Fraser has been prominently identified with logging on the Tobique Drainage for three-quarters of a century. Our earliest precise record in this regard is, that in 1895, Donald Fraser Sr., the founder of Fraser Companies, Limited, participated in organizing the Tobique Log Driving Company. The firm’s name at that time was Donald Fraser and Sons (incorporated in 1859) comprising Donald Fraser Sr., and his two sons, Archibald and Donald. At this point in history, most of the logs cut on the Tobique were water driven to mills on the Saint John River, at Fredericton or Saint John. In 1894, Donald Fraser and Sons had built a large sawmill at Fredericton called the Aberdeen Mill. This mill burned in 1905 and was never rebuilt. (http://www.frederictonfirefighters.ca/museum/aberdeen.htm)
Around 1900, the Frasers were joined by the two Mathesons, William and Thomas, and Andrew Brebner. These six men proceeded to build a lumber business which, by 1916, was the largest in the Maritimes, if not in Eastern Canada.
In 1900, they incorporated the Tobique Manufacturing Company, Limited, which in 1901 acquired the properties of H. Hale and George A. Murchie, including a sawmill on the site of the present mill. In 1908, the name of this mill was changed to Fraser Lumber Company and this company, in turn, became one of the group of companies incorporated as Fraser Companies, Limited, in 1917.
Thus the firm of Fraser has been operating sawmills on the Tobique Drainage since 1900, and quite possibly, logging on this river as far back as 1895 or even earlier. In the intervening years they have operated, intermittently, several other mills sawing both softwoods and hardwoods. But the Plaster Rock mill has been in continuous operation down to the present.
Some of the interesting notable events in this regard that have taken place since that time are listed below. While lumber and sawlogs have always been the major interest of Fraser’s on the Tobique, pulpwood has, since 1939, played a role of ever increasing importance in the forest harvest.
1917 – Acquired McNair mill properties at the mouth of the Odellic
1918 – Acquired Arbuckle mill Site and built a shingle mill. This site was more recently used for a loading plant for the shipping of pulpwood to Edmundston.
1920 - slabs and edgings to Edmundston, for conversion to pulpwood chips. Production .6 to .65 per M.b.f. ( 1 unit = approximately 1 cord)
1948 – Rebuilt sawmill on site of original mill operating since before 1900
1949 – Installed pulpmill chipper for processing barked slabs and edgings
1953 – Built hot pond and started winter sawing
1957 – Installed Nicholson 26” debarker. Production went to 1.05 –1.08 units per M.b.f.
1963 – Installed Cambo 21” log debarker. Start of fully integrated lumber and pulpwood chip production.
The above chronological listing indicates the steady and continuing expansion and growth of the operations of this company on the Tobique Drainage since 1900. Presently they have reached the stage where we annually harvest over 125,000 cunits of logs from these limits. In our operations all spruce and fir trees are cut which will yield at least one twelve-foot log to a four inch top. Operations are confined to mature and over mature stands. The trees are cut, principally, into sixteen foot logs. These logs are barked at the mill and material suitable for sawn lumber is so processed. All logs not suitable for sawn lumber, plus slabs and edgings from the sawmill, go to the chippers for conversion to pulpwood chips. These chips are transported by rail, in gondola cars, to the Edmundston pulpmill.
In addition to company operations for spruce and fir, a considerable quantity of other species, chiefly hardwoods, is cut each year under stumpage sale permits granted to operators of sawmills adjacent to our forest lands.
The large proportion of freehold land in this limit has meant that Frasers have developed their own forest fire control organization which covers the whole limit – both crown and freehold lands. The company operated four primary and two secondary lookout towers on the limit and the N.B. Forest Service one such lookout. The Forest Service maintains three other towers adjacent to and overlooking portions of the limit. We maintain fire fighting equipment sufficient for a total of over one thousand men. This equipment include eighteen first line fire pump units (each with over three thousand feet of hose), an 800-gallon capacity truck tanker, two trailer tankers (200 gallons each), and a fire truck with equipment and rations for a seventy-five man crew. Both the tanker and the fire truck go out immediately on the receipt of a fire call. A company-owned telephone system of some 250 miles connects all camps, gates, and towers with our Plaster Rock headquarters.
The present century introduced the mechanical age to the forest industry and Frasers were among the very first to experiment with this type of logging. In 1914 they obtained several Lombard gasoline-engine tractors, some of which were used in this division for hauling logs. Its predecessor, the steam log-hauler, was used before this date in other divisions. These tractors were the forerunners of the modern diesel, caterpillar tractor.
Early in the 1940’s we started construction of motor roads which introduced the use of motor trucks for hauling logs and pulpwood, from the stump to the driveable waters of the mill. This mode of transportation rapidly gained in popularity and for several years no other form of land transportation of logs and pulpwood has been used in this division.
In 1960 a Development Camp was set up in this division for the purpose of developing new logging techniques. As a result of successful trials at this camp, the Company embarked in 1964 on a large scale program of mechanical logging with the introduction of the several mechanical, four-wheel, rubber-tired, skidders at the Lampedo Camp in this division. This was the beginning of a much larger program of mechanical logging now in effect throughout all company divisions and involving many different types of machinery for processing tree lengths into logs or bolts and transporting the same to our various mills.
It is not considered, in any degree, that we have reached our ultimate in wood production from this limit. All forecast indicate major expansions in the field of lumber and pulp production. It is anticipated this expansion will be reflected in the future demand for forest products from this limit.