The Fir Trade in Canada: Mapping Commodity Flows on Railways


By Joshua MacFadyen and Nolan Kressin*, University of Prince Edward Island

For the full lesson on the historical GIS methods and tools described in this post, see the new tutorial in the Geospatial Historian Methods of Visualizing Temporal Data, by Nolan Kressin and Joshua MacFadyen.

The movement of commodities has been an important study within Canadian scholarship since Harold Innis wrote The Fur Trade in Canada (1930), but many forget that in his earlier thesis on the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) Innis also focused on the goods that these lines carried to market each year. By examining the records of the CPR, Innis painstakingly summarized the freight capacity and the market conditions that shaped this chapter in Canadian environmental history. Innis was well-known as a “dirt” researcher, digging into archival collections and often cutting-and-pasting his notes across manuscripts (literally, with scissors) to organize the enormous amounts of information he collected. As historians turn to more focused studies of individual commodities, we can parse large historical datasets with tools beyond scissors and glue. In this piece we discuss new ways to take some of the same historical railway data and focus on resources like firewood and lumber in their natural environments. In theory, we could even use the railway locations to focus on forest types (softwood) or even species. Perhaps if he had these digital tools, Innis’s first book after the CPR study might have been called the “Fir Trade in Canada.”

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Days Of Horse And Buggy Had Niceties, Drawbacks

“… in the good old horse and buggy days,” a radio-voice sang to us in the kitchen this evening. The work of day was ended. James had come to the old armchair and his reading. Granddaughter, curled up on one end of the couch, where we sat darning the heel of one of James’ work-socks was lost in the pages of a book… Since a small one, reading has been a love of this one girl of the name. And even though she had expressed the thought that “I suppose by rights I should be studying.” we could appreciate the relaxation and rest after her days at classes, and the sheer delight she was enjoying then.

James smiled. “It’s all very well for them to sing about the good old horse and buggy days, Ellen,” he offered, lowering his newspaper, “but they had their drawbacks too. I was thinking that when I was tending to the chores in the piggery this evening. I couldn’t help comparing the easy method of feeding now with the toil of days gone by. Now there’s nothing to it- you put some meal and its balanced ration into the troughs, and you reach for the water to a tap. And its done But in the olden times what work there was to dragging up baskets of small potatoes from the cellar to cook in the farmers’ broiler: bringing in kindling and wood there… and water.”

“But the sight of the fire, the sound of the water bubbling as the potatoes cooked, and the mingled scent of it was good.” we remembered.

He sighed. “Pail after pail of water was carried from the pump in the yard — and wasn’t it good to have it to carry, instead of having to haul it in casks from the stream!”

“There was poetry in pumping a pail of water in the out of doors there was so much to see and hear in the world about. And sometimes you’d catch sight of a bit of blue sky, or a leafy branch in the pail, as well as the choice drink to be had”

A woman with a horse and covered buggy (with fringe) on the sand dunes on the North Shore, Prince Edward Island, ca. 1920-1930s.

“Poetry!” Granddaughter murmured smiling absently.

“There wasn’t too much poetry to it in winter,” James said. “The sleigh-bells- remember hearing them on a market-day on the teams off to town?”

James nodded, smiled. “Now I’m not saying. Ellen, the old days hadn’t their niceties…

They did. Many a one comes to mind. And often. But there was more toil to the living of then. The machinery of now…”

“And the coming of electricity,” we said.

“Have given us a new way of life.”

Today with Alex, we counted tulips reaching up to the sun and sky from the lawn-border.

“When they bloom…” he began

“The hummingbirds will be here,” we said

“And the swallows!” He smiled to think of it.

“There’ll be lilacs then.”

Lilac clouds, like islets floated away from the sunset this evening. And there was scarlet flame behind the firry treetops, great ribbons of it against the blue. The rich colors lingered before fading to a rose-hue which glowed and spread away from the gates of the west. And east? The Lady Moon came smiling down serenely on this valley, on the houses and barns sitting so content in their fields.

-Ellen’s Diary, April 26th, 1962


Kindness And Care Is Given To These Animals

This Monday was radiant with sunlight. And the morning had a ribbon of robin’s trill about it, to call us back from our dreams. James smiled across his pillow.

“Listen to that, Ellen!” he said. Another run of notes flooded the air-waves of the sunny blue day. “It’s what I’ve been waiting for all winter” he offered. And here over every wind of chimney and snowstorm, past every white drift and as well every delight of the season, the time of the singing birds was here. The words of Solomon’s Springsong came to mind: “My beloved spoke and said to me… come away. For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come and the voice of the turtle is head in our land; the fig tree putteth forth her green figs and the vines with the tender grape give a good smell…”

“This is no time to be lying in bed” James said, presently throwing off the covers.

“With the sun burning a hole in our backs” we giggled finishing the quote.

The small terrier which is Gages pet and delight is to Granddaughter’s mind “the cutest thing” now. Mack was careful to close the door against his pup this morning when he lifted and carried a lamb the length of the sheep-shed. “Just to see the ewe follow me.”

“It’s as though she is marching” he smiled over shoulder. “She’s keeping time to my steps…There now” he said putting the youngster down gently before her, “you were afraid I was going to harm your baby, weren’t you? You should know me better than that. He liked being in my arms. Why, he was so happy he didn’t even bleat… They’re something like little pigs” he nodded soberly to us “it’s all in the way you pick them up.”

In 1959: 4-year-old Sharon Stewart hugs a yearling Cheviot at her father’s farm near Charlottetown.

“See this, Mrs. Ellen!” our friend sparrow called resting something on the rosebush beyond the window today.

“Now, what is it?” we asked perring out. “Cord perhaps? Ravellings from feed-sacks the farmers open?”

“It’s better than that— look again!”

“Why, it’s a piece of yarn!” we said softly.


“Soft pink yarn!” we exclaimed intrigued at the sight.

“Call that pink! I’d say it was a pastel blue.”

“Well whichever… where did you get it?”
“Again I can’t say” he nodded with a mysterious grin. “But as the old lady in the fairytale said, “There’s something in the wind somewhere I’d say.”

“And you won’ tell?”

“Can’t— to be exact.”

“Oh dear” we sighed turning away to our work.

Today is going now— out on an amber sailboat of moon, over a silverblue sea. It came in on the warm thrill of a robin-to-be —all in all, a good day

-Ellen’s Diary, April 15th, 1957


Loss Of Spring Litters

We are approaching the season when one of the chief topics of conversation among farmers will be the heavy annual loss of spring farrowed pigs. When hog prices are at profitable levels, as they have been during the past year, this loss becomes a serious matter for the breeders. The fact that some swine growers never lose a spring litter while some others never save one, is evidence that this loss is largely preventable.

In a small percentage of the cases failure may be  attributed to conditions over which the breeder has little control, but such causes are rare when compared with the numerous fatalities due to improper feeding methods.

Pretty Norma Dewar admires a Yorkshire piglet

The great lack of knowledge of the elementary principles of livestock feeding is the chief problem effecting [sic] the swine industry in P. E. Island today. Every farmer knows what constitutes a balanced fertiliser,. but very few understand what goes to make up a balanced ration. Every  farmer should know that a balanced ration must contain everything that the sow required to develop a litter of strong, vigorous pigs. It must contain sufficient minerals to build up the skeleton of the pigs. If these minerals are lacking, the litter may be born dead, deformed, or so lacking strength that they die immediately after birth. If they live for a time, rickets may be the results. A balanced ration must contain protein to build up muscle and blood in the unborn pigs. Any deficiency in this respect may result in oversized, flabby, weak pigs at farrowing time. In this province protein is usually the low constituent in our live stock ration. Skim milk or buttermilk are they only high protein feeds grown on our farms and used for pigs. All other common pig feeds are low in protein; potatoes and roots have only 1 per cent protein, oast, wheat and barley average about 9 to 10 per cent. In a balanced ration for sow carrying young or nursing a litter the ration should contain 15 to 20 percent protein. How can we make up such a ration if we use potatoes roots [sic]  and home grown grains without milk? Take potatoes and grain in equal parts and we have a ration with about 6 per cent protein or less. This is wide efficiency from the necessary minimum of 15 per cent. Yet we find hundreds of farmers feeding such an unbalanced ration. When disaster follows they call it bad luck.

The question naturally arises: what can be used to balance a hog ration if the farmer is short of milk? A number of high protein feeds may be recommended, such as fishmeal 60 to 70 percent protein; blood meal,  60 to 70 percent protein; blood and bone meal 50 to 60  per cent protein; tankage 40 to 60 percent protein, and perhaps oil cake, 35 to 40 percent protein. The last named should be used only when the others are not obtainable. If no milk is available and potatoes, roots and home grown grains are the bulk of the ration, at least one pound of any 60 per cent protein feed should be mixed with every nine pounds of grain, and three pounds with every bushel of potatoes or roots. Such a ration will be suitable for bred sow, sow nursing, and for growing pigs. Immediately before and after farrowing this ration should be adjusted as follows:

Col. F. I. Andrew (left) tattoos herd identification on ear of month old pig in 1958

About ten days before the date of farrowing begin to change the sow’s ration by replacing all other grain feeds with bran. About five days before farrowing the sow should be on a straight bran ration fed in slop form. From this time the ration should be gradually decreased until the sow is on half  rations the day before she furrows.  If the sow shows evidence of farrowing within 24 hours, she should  get nothing but plenty of warm water with a light sprinkling of bran. This warm drink should be  continued until the pigs are 24 hours old, when the bran ration should  be gradually increased to  bring the sow back to full feed on bran alone about five days after farrowing. Then the bran can be gradually replaced by stronger grain feeds if the sow has passed through the farrowing period in a normal condition. 

The main purpose of this system is to have the sow in a laxative condition and have her farrow on a stomach free from all strong, heat producing feeds. A full stomach, constipation and fever are the series of conditions which result in the loss of litters and quiet often dead sows.

It is false economy to feed any pig on an unbalanced ration even if the farmer must spend a few dollars for protein feeds. The price of one sucker pig will buy enough fishmeal, blood meal or tankage  to balance the sow’s ration during the greater part of the gestation period. This principle holds true in feedings pigs [sic] between weaning and  market age. Many cases of unthriftiness, lack of appetite, crippling, even death. may be traced to rations which are too low in protein and minerals. Indigestion is a very common result of low protein rations. Even if the pigs show no serious results from such improper feeding, the grower is wasting feed. Pigs fed unbalanced rations will usually take weeks. and in many cases, months longer to reach top market weights, whereas the addition of  afew pounds of high protein feed would save both time and feed.

With a little foresight this coming spring the usual loss of litters can be avoided. 

– Loss Of Spring Litters, The Charlottetown Guardian, February 27th, 1936.


Parting With The Farm Animals

Another fat hog went to market this morning; provision was made for pork for the home barrel and plans were laid — and sad I was to hear them! — to sell Kelly the cow. With her disposal, in one of the Springs months all of our old friends will have gone from the stable and a new generation we shall meet then at the milking. There is usually a warm spot in a farmwife’s heart for a favorite cow, though it may be only a memory. One hears them speak of it. There is a certain to be mention of an “old Brindle — as wise as any human” and linked with a past “i brought her from home with me.” There would be, of course a “Spotty she whom small lads learned to milk, a tiny pail- held between knees while seated on the edge of a milking stool, head against broad patient flank, Small hands tugging desperately when “this milk doesn’t seem to want to come.!”

1912 milking a cow by a fence Prince Edward Island

There would be “the jersey” small and dainty. She was the one that grew older along with you and the youngsters. Indeed by this they could “race you” at the milking and tears ran down your cheeks —and theirs the morning she was sold. “A good thing she went in a truck” you said, the parting was not so difficult and were you glad when the machine was gone out of sight beyond the hill through the vacancy in the stable was there for many days to come. So down the years one becomes attached to the likable dumb creatures that for the time are as familiar as the sun at morning. The Kelly cow with a crumpled and missing horn is the one of our milking herd whose fate was determined this morning.

Jamie was among those of his kin who hauled feed for some of the stock from trucks at the corner-store today. In the glory of this March afternoon, when it semed [sic] as if “all things that love the sun” were out of doors. Delightful then the day had become with brilliant sunlight and the wind moving in the branches of the old spruces in the orchard with soft breath and it full of honeyed promises. Icicles dripped and snow that had clung to nooks of roofs disappeared. At morning, Jamie had tried a new undertaking. He hitched Mutt, his faithful; companion and friend to his small hand-sled Not without considerable effort, I am led to believe , and drawn to it doubtless by the fact that on the opposite slope two neighbor lads were about the from meadow with “Biddy.” She is a versatile creature. She ceases playing with her young masters each Spring, long enough to present them with an adorable litter and is also evidently more reconciled to the feel of harness than is Mutt. ‘unless I led him” Jamie explained “he just sat there!”

Ice-hauling, which work of late, years seems to go hand in hand with the seasonal hooking or quilting indoors, commenced today. Though neither James nor I could place the spot in stream or pond from whence the loads of it we saw winding out along a field, had been harvested. Other hauling as well there was in today’s sunshine: grits to the mill and, heralding the return of the Spring sawing at the mill, first loads of lumber came then. A blue Jay called joyously from the orchard; a lone wild duck flew down to the river; Karolyn began to make a quilt and jeanie in moments of leisure continued knitting a sweater for grand-daughter, who made this the last port o’ call on her day’s outing. Mr. B. was off to town to visit the sick and small boys cleared a skating space on Kristy’s Pond.

Shipping cattle out of Charlottetown Harbour Prince Edward Island heading to Newfoundland

This evening in a ceremony which ended beautifully for those most concerned, the kitchen pump, idle of late, was set back in place after certain repairs had been made to the cylinder. And in spite of fears and conjectures that perhaps the never-failing stream had disappeared for “we dropped a pebble down and herald no sound” the machine works perfectly. There were moments of suspense after it was in place and we gathered round to see what would happen. Jmes pumping vigorously had that expression which shows no expectation of success. It was Jamie who heard sounds of rising water. He looked up at me and nodded and smiled. ‘She’s caught!’ he said “there’ll be no more bringing the hose from the other pump into this kitchen now! This method as always had proved most enetertatinign to Jmaie and me…

“Listen, Ellen!” James draws my attention to a weather forecast then adds since I have failed to hear it “snow tomorrow!” Well, we,all of us… young and older have had this lovely day

-Ellen’s Diary, March 9, 1943


James And Ellen May Go Someday To Ireland!

“Three in one, one in three”— The Trinity… so signifies the green shamrock worn proudly by “the part of me that’s Irish” this blessed St. Patrick’s Day.

We have anticipated happily its coming. “By St. Patrick’s Day” we said with some longing when the fall hushed the crickets’ tunings and turned the cattle down the summer – path to continued stabling And in mind we pictured the break of the spring tide along the farmlands. We could fancy then [sic] as we looked off over the silent fields, the burst of music we should hear. No funeral march then, but an elfin movement, a light melody full of the blythe [sic] laughter of the tricking streamlets that ever at Alderlea, steal down from the rise of slope above us bearing off Winter to the millstream and river below. St Patrick’s Day invariably brings us, as now, those among opening bars, the eager happy prelude to the Spring Song we enjoy.

St. Patrick’s Day play, 17 March 1894. The traditional St. Patrick’s Day play was an annual event sponsored by the Benevolent Irish Society.

Its coming too, brings us choice glimpses of that Emerald Isle we think we have come to know better of late, since the lady of the manse at the corner, born and reared there as was her husband the minster of the “Old Kirk” has told us something of its rare beauty and charm…

Some day, who knows? We may come there to visit with James, to see that countryside where Irish folk declare “A bit of Heaven lies,” with its gold green sod, its misty mountains, its “lakes and fells.”

And he will see first the ponies, the cattle and pigs (“Isn’t that a handsomeone, Ellen.” he will say) and the sheep. And it will come to mind that maybe the forbears of those were of a flock the boy Patrick tended so carefully, when as a slave of the marauding King Niall, and only the age of Jamie, he was brought a captive to Erin’s shores. Born, historians are nat [sic] sure where— maybe in Britain or France they say— when the centuries were young, he was destined to become one of the greatest of missionaries. 

A group of Irishmen on parade St.Patrick’s Day in Souris Prince Edward Island

Called in a dream later to return from other lands to which the years had taken hime, to, Ireland, he heeded the voice that had begged him to “come and walk with us a before.

So great was his gift and zeal, it is said he made converts wherever he went, and before he died the whole Island was won to Christianity. He taught the doctrine if the Trinity by plucking a shamrock an pointing to the three perfect lobes growing from the one stem.

Rosa Mulholland, whose pen must have been dipped in Irish magic, so characteristically sweet sad the verses are, wrote: I wear a shamrock in my heart Three in one, one in three— Truth and love and faith, Tears and pain and death, O sweet the shamrock is to me!

Lay me in my hollow bed, Grow the shamrocks over me. Three in one, one in three Faith and hope and charity, Peace and rest and silence be With me where you lay my head: O, dear the shamrocks are to me”

– Ellen’s Diary, March 17th 2021