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Memoirs of Robert Dollar
Vol. 1 - Chapter Two. First Business Ventures in Canada


Up to 1872, I had succeeded in saving some money and had been persistently working on my education, having taken a good many books of standard authors to the camps and read them during the long winter, so that isolation from the world was a benefit in that way.

At that time I left the Ottawa River and went to a new country, the Muskoka district, north of Toronto, where in partnership with Mr. Johnson, we bought timber on land owned by farmers and started lumbering for our own account, making our headquarters at Bracebridge, Ontario. It was a new country just opened by the Government, and there was a good opportunity. Business was booming at this time and we did not sell our logs, expecting to get a higher price when we would deliver them at the market the following summer: but at that time along came Black Friday in New York, which paralyzed business throughout not only the United States but Canada as well. When we came to sell our logs we found we had made a loss of what little money we had put in as well as about $5000.00 more. I recall what a friend said to me at that time, which I did not appreciate: "Happy and lucky is the man who fails when he is young." This loss turned out all right in the end, but it was hard medicine to take and it was years before I understood the meaning of my friend's words.

In order to pay up the debts, my partner and myself had to go to work on wages. We divided up the indebtedness, each agreeing to pay half. For my part, it took three years' hard work to get even with the world again.

I had previously been in the employ of H. H. Cook. At this time he tried to get me to go into partnership with him, but I absolutely refused until I had paid up all my debts. I then started with him. He furnished the money and I the brains and hard work. Having the experience of previous years I was extremely cautious and careful, and made a success of the new venture from the start.

In 1874 I got married, and my wife and I made out home in Bracebridge, Ontario, where we lived for seven years. From this time on I date the commencement of my success in life as I was fortunate in getting a good helpmate. Business began gradually to increase and I was kept very-busy .

In 1876 I had started eight camps m Muskoka district, and besides these I started a camp to get out saw logs on one of the islands of Georgian Bay near Parry Sound, which was accessible only in summer So we put the whole equipment on a steamer with men and teams and sufficient supplies to last them until spring of the following year. Early in March I got a letter from the foreman, the first we had heard from them. This letter was brought out by an Indian who had managed to cross on the ice. The foreman stated they would be short of fodder for the horses, and unless some was sent to him the horses would starve before the openin of navigation. It was a serious situation and required drastic measures.

1 went to Midland, bought four loads of feed and hired four teams of horses to take it out on the ice to the camp sixty miles up towards Lake Huron. The owners were so afraid, that I had to value their horses and guarantee if any were drowned I would repay them. We left Midland on the 20th of March, All went well the first day with the exception of our finding a few wide cracks which we had to bridge over. That afternoon and evening a terrific storm blew up. We were out of sight of land and I was piloting them now with my compass and chart. About 3 p. m. a light snow began to fall and then a heavy gale swept down on us without any warning. It was so heavy that it swept one team off its feet. When we got them up it was blowing a hurricane and the snow was blinding. It was impossible to proceed, so we got the loads together and made a hollow square with all the horses and ourselves in the small place, It did not seem possible that we could live through the night in this shape as it was very cold and we were on the open lake without shelter. The soft snow that had been falling had wet us through. On looking at my chart I found there was a small island or rock about a mile directly to windward of us. I took an axe and started out to find it, in hopes we could find some shelter, but after going scarcely a quarter of a mile I could go no further on account of the velocity of the wind and the fine snow which choked me. so I turned back to where I had left the men and teams.

As I had gone directly against the wind I returned with it at my back. When I had gone as far back as 1 thought I had gone forward 1 could not see them. This was not strange as the blinding snow prevented my seeing any distance. It was impossible to stand still so 1 lay down on the ice and called with all my might hoping they would hear .me, but I had begun to choke with the fine snow driven with the force of the wind. So I got up and started again. I was mystified at not finding the teams and men and could not reason it out for a while, but it soon came to me that the wind had shifted, which turned out to be the case. I was driven along having no idea where I was going—sometimes thinking I might be going to open water as Lake Huron did not freeze ail over. There was water over the ice m places making it very slippery and I had some very bad falls besides getting very wet, and the cold wind soon froze my clothes as hard as boards. I was getting badly used up, the head of the ax handle having broken the bones in my hand, although I did not know it at the time. At last I fell and struck on the back of my head which stunned me, and I lay quite a while unconscious. The snow failing on my face at last revived me, but I reasoned it was no use going further, and that I might as well lie there, as it did not seem possible for me to get out of it alive.

After lying there a while I felt a little rested, and thought I would try it again. I got up on my elbow, and to my great astonishment saw land not more than fifty feet from me. I immediately felt as if there was nothing wrong with me, and jumped up as smart as I ever did in my life. Although it was a barren, inhospitable shore—no habitation within fifty miles of me—I was well pleased with it. I walked into the woods far enough to get out of the wind and cut a lot of wood (I never had let go of my axe) and lit a fire. My clothes were frozen so stiff it was only with great difficulty I was able to get my hand into my pocket. When I got out my match box there were only two left in it. I need not say that I took great precautions to make sure they would not miss fire. I got behind a perpendicular rock out of the wind, and everything' ready, was pleased beyond measure when the first match started the fire. My anxiety was great as it would have been impossible to have survived, wet as ] was, through the intense cold of that night. I kept a good fire going and got my clothes thawed out and dried, but did not sleep any. At daybreak I started back to the ice, and found it calm and a clear, bright morning.

All through the night I thought of the poor men still on the ice, ind was sure they had all perished and I was the only one left to tell the tale. They, on the other hand, must have thought it was impossible for me to have reached land and were sure I had perished so they hitched up their horses and started for home, but, as I was the only guide they had, they had no idea which way to go. After consultation they decided on a direction which proved to be entirely wrong. I started in the direction where I thought they were, and found my tracks occasionally. I found I had gone over three miles parallel with and never more than live hundred feet from shore. After traveling eight or ten miles I got sight of the teams a long way off. They appeared like a dot on the horizon. I walked as quickly as I could and fortunately the men saw me, and were overjoyed as they had great doubts of being able to get back home without me. During the night they hail lit a fire and burned about one load of the hay, which saved their lives. We had lost nearly all our provisions, and the only thing we had to eat was bran mash, without salt. When I got up to them it was about noon, so we lit a fire and all had a share.


MRS. ROBERT DOLLAR The Faithful Companion and Counselor of Robert Dollar

The men had had enough of it and all wanted to return home. I urged them to keep on as we were that far, but with only bran to eat, and m view of our late experiences, I don't see, now, how I ever persuaded them to go on. As soon as we finished our meal we started for the camp That night it was not so cold and we reached a small island where the woods were thick. The next day was Sunday, and after dark we reached the place where I understood the camp was located. It had been snowing hard all day and none of the men had been out, so there were no tracks to guide us. We passed on the ice not more than two hundred yards from the camp, but it was in thick woods so we did not see it. We went on about a quarter of a m le when I told the men to light a fire and keep warm and I would go to the place where the camp had been in the fall, three miles off, thinking probably they had not moved. It was now dark and I set off on the run. but when I got to the old camp found it had been abandoned months before. I turned back to where I had left the teams, but they had gone. I followed their tracks and later found them at the camp The fire of our men had been seen and some of the men from the camp had come over to find out who was there.

Next morning I could not move in my bed. I never was so sore in my life. The teams had to return at once as the ice gave signs of breaking up. I called the teamsters to my bed and told them we would send an Indian guide who would take them back as I would have to stay until I got better. They positively refused to go without them, so I got some of them to rub me to get me limbered up. but it was a terrible job to get out of bed. However, we got started, and got through all right except getting the horses m the water several times.

When we got back to Midland I went to bed and I was several days before I was able to go home. It took me man}' months to get completely over the effects of the trip. Although I was able to attend to business my hand continued swollen and when I showed it to a doctor he told me it was broken.

The next year, 1880, I started to get out square timber for the English market, and became much interested in foreign trade. This interest has kept on increasing as the years have gone by. In those days it was quite an undertaking, and required considerable grit and energy to carry through this kind of business.

Two years later in following up this business I branched out, getting out this class of timber at Shawanaga, north of Parry Sound, and at the Servient River, as well as on the Canadian side of the Lakes.

In the spring of 1881 I had an experience while visiting the camp at Serpent River. We sent in the men and supplies by a steamer n the fall and built a warehouse at the mouth of the river to hold our y ear's supplies. We boated supplies up the river to where the camp would be built, sufficient to do until the snow and ice made it possible to haul the balance with teams. They were cut off from all communication with the outer world. 1 started from Parry Sound in February with a team of horses to go to the camp, a distance of two hundred and fifty miles, which was made on the trackless ice right from Parry Sound, Ont. The time occupied was eight days. We slept out every night with the canopy of heaven for our roof. The weather was intensely cold, being below zero all the time, with the exception of the last day, when it rained. Not being prepared for such a change in the weather we had a miserable time of it. Sleeping out in winter in a heavy rain storm is anything but comfortable to say the least. The weather was so bad I left the team and teamster at our warehouse at the mouth of the river and made the last thirty-five miles on foot in the soft, slushy snow. It was hard walking and I was glad to get to the camp and the men were delighted to get news from the outside world. I had to give them an account of the principal events that had transpired since they left civilization.

I found the work had gone on successfully and we had a lot of fine timber on the ice ready to be floated down to Lake Huron, where it was to be loaded in vessels and taken to Kingston at the foot of Lake Ontario, then rafted and run down the rapids of the St. Lawrence past Montreal and towed to Quebec: there to be again loaded into ocean-going ships for Liverpool, where it would be rafted and taker up the canal to Manchester and be sawn up into sizes for making cotton-spinning machinery. I spent three weeks looking over the various tracts of timber, but could not find the large sized timber required for this trade, namely twenty-one inches average diameter. For this reason I later on decided to shift operations to Michigan, where the desired sizes of trees could be found.

It was near the breaking up of winter and we had twelve more men than we needed to drive, the timber down the river, so I started out with a team of horses and the twelve men intending to return as I came, on the ice along Lake Huron and the Georgian Hay to Midland But the fates decreed otherwise. The first night, with considerable difficulty on account of the ice having melted in the recent spring weather, we got tc Little Current on Manatoulin Island. I found it impossible to go farther with the team and decided to send it back to the camp and tried to induce the men to return as I could see we were in for a two hundred and fifty mile walk; and besides, there was the uncertainty of the ice remaining long enough to make the trip. They all decided that if I could go they could. I tried to explain that it was a case of "have to" with me, but they could return and work in the camp until navigation opened; whereas, I had various camps in Muskoka and Parry Sound districts, arid it was necessary for me to be on hand to arrange about getting the logs driven when the water was high. This was of no avail—they were determined to get out to civilization. So I bought a few hand sleighs from the Indians and put on them what was actually required for the trip. Then we started out pulling the sleds on the ice. The third day out a severe snow storm raged and it was impossible to travel, so we had to lay up all day much against our wills, as we had hardly provisions enough to take us to Byng Inlet, which was much nearer than Midland.

Next morning we were up before daylight and ready to start, when to our dismay we discovered the ice had gone out during the storm. There we were on the bleak and barren shore of Georgian Bay and had now to foot it through the trackless forest. We reached French River, which we had hoped to cross on the ice, but to our dismay it was wide open, the ice having gone out in the previous day's storm. So we had to cut logs, and after pulling them to the water made a raft of them. This took an entire day, and was attended with much danger. The first raft capsized and two of our men narrowly escaped perishing in the cold water. So we had to cut larger logs and make a stronger raft. The only tool we had was an axe. We secured the logs together with twisted withes. We all got across alive, and to our delight found the ice was still fast inside of the islands so we were able to make better time. However, our provisions were about exhausted, so I had all the flour baked into cakes and divided equally. It was just enough for a small meal. I told the men that the nearest civilization was a three days' journey and that each one should divide hi® cake nto three parts, but nearly all of them ate it at once. I divided my share into three portions, each piece being about one inch square.

The ice was getting bad and several of us went through it. The nights were very cold and we suffered considerably— wet in the afternoon and freezing at night. The frost hardened the crust so that in the forenoons we had fairly good walk. ig. But in the afternoons every step went through to the ice. I remember I had a pair of deerskin moccasins on. which kept the water out as well as a pair of socks would. The men got tired and it was only by encouraging and urging them on that we were able to make any headway, as many of them wanted to lie down and give it up. The last day before arriving at Byng Inlet 1 told them I would go ahead and get provisions sent back to them with Indians and for them to follow my tracks.

Before noon I came across an Indian wigwam. A squaw and two children were the occupants. She could not talk English or French so I made signs to her that I was hungry and tried to make her understand there were twelve more coming. I found she had about twenty pounds of flour, but no meat of any kind, so she started to make slap-jacks. I did not eat, and encouraged her to make more until about three miles off our men were ti sight. I took her out and showed her the crowd, when she held up her hands in despair. I put aside enough for herself and children for one day and made her understand I would send her plenty the following day, so she went to work and baked the balance of the flour, and, to my surprise, she went out into the snow and dug up a white fish three feet long and put it into a pot of boding water, scales, guts and all. This was as sweet a fish as I ever tasted. In the meantime I saw the very slow progress of the men. I got some birch bark and made a big smoke; the effect was magical. When the men saw there was a habitation near I noticed that they immediately began to step out. When they came they ate everything in sight, but I prevented them from leaving the squaw without anything.

I almost had to use force to get them to start out for Byng Inlet Saw Mills, ten miles distant. We found a trail, which helped us out, and reached the mill at 10 o'clock that night where we got plenty to eat, and washed our hands and faces for the first time in two weeks. We looked more like negroes than white men. To say I was pleased does not express it, as a few days before it seemed like a physical impossibility to come out of our trials alive, and the responsibility was heavy upon me. I sent an Indian back with supplies to the squaw, four times as much as we had used of hers.

I was up bright and early the next morning, as I knew I was urgently needed to start the drives. I had a camp at Shawanaga, and started out on snow shoes that I borrowed. The. distance from Bvng Inlet to Shawanaga. through the woods was forty-five miles; no roads, not even a trail. Before dark I was able to strike an unused Government road which led to our camp, which I reached after every one was in bed. I looked over tin's timber and works the next forenoon. (We were getting out what was called Tonawanda timber, which was the full length of the tree; and in summer it was towed across Lake Huron to Detroit, where I sold it.)

I took one of our teams to carry me to Rosseu, which I reached after midnight. The winter roads had broken up and I could not get any one for love or money to take me to Bracebridge. Muskoka district, my objective point, so I started out again on foot for a thirty-five mile tramp. The mud was ankle-deep in places, and with dirty clothes and deerskin moccasins I certainly was a tough looking tramp. The next morning 1 was busy hiring men for the drives for the various camps, apparently none the worse after as hard an experience as few lumbermen ever had, even m those days when they were used to hard knocks.

It was a survival of the fittest, and only the strongest were able to come out of it alive.


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