Heritage Sawmill

The sawmill museum

The lumber industry has been instrumental in the development of the community of Hearst. The Heritage Sawmill was built to recognize the important role of this industry in the development of the community.

A place appreciated by tourists and locals

This community gathering and interpretation center highlights the importance and impact of the forest industry on the community. The center features photos and artifacts showcasing the region's rich forest heritage while sharing the experiences of the pioneers who built one tree at a time, with the sweat of their brow, this united community.

Sawmill

Colonization in the region created a demand for lumber thus moving the area’s first inhabitants to establish small sawmills, producing wood for houses, barns, churches, and schools.

Many of these sawmills operated on steam engines activated by boilers, which were heated by burning sawdust while others were active by tractor engines. Often located near water these small sawmills were operated in spring or summer, and only employed a small number of people, usually members of the family that owned the mill. These settlers generally harvested 100 cords of logs per winter which they brought to sawmills to have transformed into construction wood. 
 
Small sawmill owners had no logging rights on Crown lands and licences to harvest were only awarded over vast territories to pulp and paper companies. However, in the late 1930s the government revisited this system, providing licenses to a small number of operators enabling them to expand, while other small sawmills were gradually forced out of existence.

Hearst Train Station, Circa 1911

The Heritage Sawmill was built to recognize the important role the lumber industry played in Hearst’s development. Although Hearst became a center for forestry, it was always dependent on the railway, relying on it for communications as well as for economic survival. The settling of Hearst proceeded as an effort of the Ontario government to direct prospecting activities toward permanent occupation of the “New Ontario”, a concept that dated from the exploitation of resources following the completion of the CPR line in the 1880s.  Railway schemes figured prominently as instruments of policy and of development.

The railway station at Hearst was built in 1912 for the National Transcontinental Railway (NTR), a subsidiary of the Grand Trunk Railway (GTR) that was created in conjunction with the construction of the Grand Trunk Pacific (GTP). The last spike of the line was driven at Hearst in 1913. The GTP became the western division of the NTR, and the entire enterprise was nationalized as part of the Canadian National Railways (CNR) in 1921. 

Restaurant

Like many northern Ontario towns, Hearst came into existence when the railway arrived, and the station was the first prominent building in the town.  Providing passenger rail service until 1970 and freight until 1984, it was the terminus for the Algoma Central Railway train service and served not only as a transportation hub but was also home to a restaurant run by a mother and daughter duo.  

After the withdrawal of CNR services between 1968 and 1982, the station was closed and around 1982 the railway office was moved into the small shed built by CN (rumored to have been done without a permit) which is still in service.

In 1982, a group of residents lead an initiative to examine the feasibility of establishing a cultural centre in the station and to prepare renovation plans.  However, based on the results of these studies, prospects for reuse dimmed due to the high dollar amount estimated for renovation costs.  In 1990 the council declared the rehabilitation project unfeasible and the building has since been demolished.

History of the interpretation center project

In June 2004, the Municipality of Hearst opened a dialogue with Imperial Oil to rehabilitate and develop abandoned brownfields, adopting a positive attitude towards the prospect of leasing these lands for a new project. The city wanted to reproduce the wood burners of the old sawmill to make it an observation tower on the urban center and Highway 11.

Unfortunately, because the safe access to the top of the burner was causing concern, the project fell through. After rigorous research, the economic development company decided to buy the old Bergeron family sawmill in Harty and relocate it on Route 11 in Hearst.

The sale was closed in 2005. In September 2010, the Bâtisseurs Strategik Builders team undertook the "plank by plank" dismantling, transport and reconstruction of the sawmill. The family history of the founder of Bâtisseurs Strategik, Mr. Pierre Bélanger, has been faithful to the plans, since he himself had worked at the Bergeron mill, as had done his grandfather, his father, his uncles and his cousins ​​from the 1940s to the 1980s. Based on local content referring to the existing old sawmill, the team completed the project fairly quickly and the Scierie Héritage was inaugurated in September 2011.

Lumbermen

At the very beginning of Hearst's history, before 1921, the town had only one mill, owned by Mr. Simmons. Mr. Simmons was the only employee of the mill and cut wood for the few inhabitants of the town. This mill was later sold to Mr. Huard. Shortly after, in 1921, a second mill was established in Wyborn. Logging and agriculture quickly became the main sources of income for Hearst residents. 

Since the end of the Second World War, the town of Hearst and its surroundings have gradually become a leader in the lumber industry. However, unlike many other northern Ontario communities, which owe their development to the establishment of large, often American paper mills, the Hearst region’s growth was driven by small, mostly French-Canadian entrepreneurs. These lumbermen established their sawmills and factories and watched them grow over the years, thus ensuring the community’s growth and prosperity.  

Wilfried Bergeron presents a prime example of this dogged approach to life. Having worked in lumber for several companies such as Nicholson and Spruce Falls, Wilfried toiled from 1939 to 1946, building his own sawmill on the Lost River near the Concession 14 and 15 bridge.  The sawmill, which was relocated in 1947 and after several years in operation, was subsequently abandoned.

In 1974, Wilfried’s son Lucien decided to resurrect the sawmill and undertook various repairs and modifications to the old machinery.  Having successfully landed a sawing contract for Spruce Falls, Lucien cut his first log on May 28th, 1976.  A decade later, Lucien decided to operate his sawmill independently as MOULIN À SCIE - Bergeron's - LOGGING SAWMILL in Harty, where both his children and grandchildren worked until the mill made its last cut in June 2008. 

Photo : McCord Museum.

Heritage Sawmill Re-Construction

In June 2004, the Town of Hearst began a dialogue with Imperial Oil for the remediation and development of their abandoned industrial brownfields. The Town had a positive attitude towards leasing the land for a new project. This project consisted of a replica of the old sawmill wood burners as an observation tower for the Town Centre and Route 11. Unfortunately, concerns about safe access to the top of the burner were too great to revisit this project. After extensive research, the Economic Development Corporation opted to purchase the former Bergeron family sawmill located in the village of Harty for its relocation to HWY 11 in Hearst. 

The sale was completed in 2005 and in September 2010 the team from of Bâtisseurs Strategik Builders undertook the “plank by plank” deconstruction, transportation, and reconstruction of the mill. The family heritage of the founder of Strategik Builders, Pierre Belanger, was an integral part of the project as he himself, his grandfather, father, uncles and cousins all worked in the Bergeron family sawmill throughout the 1940s to 1980s. Using local content combined with the existing historic sawmill the project was completed relatively quickly with the official opening of the Heritage Sawmill taking place in September 2011. 

Today this interpretative and community gathering centre highlights the significance and impact that the forestry industry has had on the community. It showcases through photos and artefacts the richness of the community’s forest heritage and shares the experiences of the pioneers who built this tight-knit community one tree at a time by the sweat of their brows. 

Beehive Burners (inside view)

Beehive burners (or Teepee burners as they are called in the US) were used as incinerators by sawmills to burn sawdust and scrap wood up until the mid 1970s.

The terms beehive burner and teepee burner refer to the structure’s conical shape. These self-contained steel structures usually ranged from 30 to 60 feet in height and have an opening at the top that is covered with a steel or mesh grill to keep sparks and bright embers from escaping. Sawdust and wood debris were delivered to an opening near the top of the cone by means of a conveyor belt or screws, where they fell onto the fire near the center of the structure.

Beehive Burner in operation

Used by many sawmills throughout North America, beehive burners posed obvious air quality issues. Given their purpose, they produced a large amount of smoke and ash, which was vented directly into the atmosphere, without filtering.  In Hearst, the local Heath Unit grew concerned over the increase in asthma cases, particularly because the burners producing the smoke were in the middle of town. Environmental laws regarding air pollution (the Clean Air Act of 1970) put the beehive burners to rest by about 1980. 

While companies such as Custom Sawmill Hearst Limited ceased operation of their burners in the late 1970's, others were grandfathered and continued operating for several years.  For example, the burner owned by United Sawmills Limited, which was the last to be actively used in Hearst, didn’t shut down until the 1980s. The latter burner is now located in the RYAM (formerly Tembec) yard behind the Heritage Sawmill Museum.

Polluting Ovens

Many sawmills in North America used wigwam ovens, although they had obvious air quality problems. They produced a lot of smoke and ash, which were directed without filtering directly into the atmosphere. In Hearst, the Public Health Department was concerned about the growing number of asthma cases, mainly because of the location of the ovens in the center of town.

Around 1980, wigwam ovens were permanently decommissioned under environmental laws regulating air pollution (Air Quality Act 1970). Although companies like Custom Sawmill Hearst Limited stopped using the ovens in the late 1970s, others acquired rights and continued to use them for several years to come.

As an example, the United Sawmills Limited kiln was the last to burn in Hearst and was not extinguished until the 1980s. This wigwam kiln is currently located in the courtyard of RYAM (formerly Tembec), behind the museum of the Scierie Héritage.

Selin Company

Originally from Sweden, Henry Selin arrived in Canada when he was only 13 years old, settling with his family in Sault Stem Marie. 

In 1944, after working as a pulpwood contractor for the Abitibi Paper company, he moved to Hearst where he operated camps for Marathon Paper.  In 1947 he purchased the Queen's Hotel in Hearst following which he bargained with Transcontinental Timber to establish a sawmill on townships he held west of the community where, in 1948, he built a mill and a forestry village at Nassau Lake. 

In the late 1950s, the Henry Selin Forest Products mill was considered the most important sawmill in Eastern Canada, with an annual production of 50 million feet of lumber. The company innovated in many domains, such as being the first to install and operate a chipper to make and sell wood chips. In the fall of 1961, a 40-day legal strike preceded the signature of the first bargaining agreement, making employees of the company among the first to unionize. During the work stoppage, the Hearst planer and the garage at Nassau Lake were destroyed by flames. 

After having encountered many financial problems, Henry Selin Forest Products was sold in 1967 to Helpert Lumber of Toronto who, shortly thereafter, filed for bankruptcy protection.  In accordance with the company's agreement with Transcontinental Timber, all installations were removed from the Nassau Lake location, and the beehive burner was relocated to Hearst and can be seen today at its current home on the west side of town. 

Hearst, a leader in the forest industry

Since the end of World War II, the town of Hearst and its surroundings have gradually evolved into a leader in the forestry industry. On the other hand, unlike other northern Ontario communities whose development was due to the creation of large, often American paper factories, the Hearst region has grown mainly thanks to small French-Canadian entrepreneurs. They established their sawmills and factories and grew them over the years, ensuring the growth and prosperity of the community.

Mr. Wilfried Bergeron is an excellent example of this tenacious approach. Having worked for several logging companies, such as Nicholson and Spruce Falls, he worked from 1939 to 1946 building his own sawmill on the Lost River, near the bridge at Concessions 14 and 15. The sawmill was relocated in 1947 and, after been operated for several years, has been neglected.

In 1974 Lucien, Wilfried's son, set out to revive the sawmill by carrying out various repairs and modifications to old machines. He made a sawmill contract with Spruce Falls and cut his first log on May 28, 1976.

Ten years later, Lucien decided to operate his sawmill independently under the name of MOULIN À SCIE - Bergeron’s - LOGGING SAWMILL, in Harty. His children and grandchildren worked at the factory until June 2008, when the last log was cut.



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Self-Guided Tour of Kapuskasing and Hearst Region

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