by Marion Belanger
The Township of Wallbridge lies between Harrison and Henvey Townships with Georgian Bay on it west border. It is 90 Kilometers south of Sudbury and 40 kilometers north of Parry Sound. According to a mid-nineteenth century surveyor. He described the township as being very broken by rivers and lakes and the land generally considered as very inferior quality. There are a few patches of fair hardwood land but the remainder of the township is too rough and broken for farming. The Magnetawan River flows northwesterly through the township and is a fine large stream, and admirably adapted to the purpose of driving the timber from this and adjacent townships. A number of smaller streams flow into the Magnetawan, which can all be utilized for driving purposes. Still River which flows through the northeast portion of the township and enters into the Magnetawan about three miles above its mouth is also large enough to be used for driving logs.
A few miles up the Magnetawan River, on its south shore, is the Magnetawan Indian Reserve, which was founded under the Robinson-Huron Treaty of 1850. It is a small Ojibway Reserve but with many modern and progressive ideas. The young people travel to Britt and Parry Sound for their education and then many leave to find employment in the cities of Sudbury and Toronto. The people that remain, act as councilors and maintain their reserve. Lately, new businesses have been established to bring revenue to the reserve, and many return permanently or on an annual vacation basis, to enjoy hunting, fishing and trapping as their ancestors did.
The primeval wilderness was broken in 1866 when lumbering operations began. A Mr. Gibson built a sawmill on Mill Island when the first Timber Limit License was issued. An efficient communication network must have existed because it was that same year that Alexis Belanger, with his wife and five children, left Mattawa with Indian guides to paddle down the French River to the more prosperous life of lumbering at Byng Inlet. In the next two years many other French-Canadian families left the Three Rivers, Quebec area where the lumber industry was declining, and journeyed to Byng Inlet for more and better paying jobs. Many of these workers built family dwellings on the north side of the river near the mill and now the village of Byng Inlet North was born.
In 1869 Mr. W.E. Dodge bought Mill Island mill but only ran it for two years when he sold it and built a large mill in Byng Inlet South across the Magnetawan River. The Magnetawan Lumber Company also had a mill built here and it grew faster and larger becoming a company town with its own tokens for currency, a public school for its employees children and even a doctor and hospital by the end of the century. Steam ships were now sailing up to docks built out into the river for the south shore.
These ships were loading with the millions of board feet of lumber, which was shipped to major centres like Collingwood and Chicago across the Great Lakes.
During this early history of the area, many of the workers followed the Roman Catholic faith and Wallbridge was considered a mission served by the nearest permanent church. Jesuit priests visited the area from the Wikwemakong Indian Reserve on Manitoulin Island. They performed sacramental duties and recorded baptisms, marriages and deaths taking their records home with them when the event was completed. Any genealogist interested in seeing these early records would be wise to contact this Reserve to see what still remains there.
In 1875, the lower mill school was built in Byng Inlet North and it was their first. It was a small frame school and became known officially as S.S. #2 Wallbridge since #1 was already operating in Byng Inlet South. It ran until 1883 when the teacher, Miss Armstrong was drowned while skating home across the river. The school did not reopen, partly because of declining students due to a slackening in the lumber business, partly because of the difficulty in finding a teacher who was willing to come to the area. For the next three years Bying Inlet North children went to school across the river, walking on ice in the winter and across the log booms the rest of the year. It is during this time that Michel Boucher with his large family moved from Penetang and helped to increase the Byng Inlet population from then to this day.
In 1880, a new and larger mill was built on the north shore close to the present day site of Britt. It was called Burton's Mill and one can still see the foundation and dock piles. This new mill became the centre of a new and thriving village having company houses, church and store. There were over forty pupils making the dangerous crossing over the river and Mr. Peter Potvin, storekeeper and others began agitating for a new school in Byng Inlet North. The new school was built high on the rocks, overlooking the Magnetawan River and opened in the fall of 1886.
One windy day early in the spring of 1891, a fire started on the roof of Burton's Mill and the entire village including the school was wiped out when the fire got out of control. Since they did not rebuild the mill, many families moved out of the area to other towns and villages. Again because of declining enrollment, the school was not rebuilt but students had to cross the river once more to go to school at Byng Inlet South. School attendance laws were not strictly enforced and many children did not attend school at all during these years.
In 1898, the mission of Byng Inlet ceased to exist and a Roman Catholic Church was built near the general store. It was a frame building with a porch in front and covered with board and batten siding. The first resident priest was Rev Fr. Pierre Hamel and he must have then traveled north and south baptizing, marrying and burying because the present church has all these old records in their original form of Latin and French. Some of the certificates that I have seen were as far north as Killarney and the French River down the shore of Georgian Bay to Wiarton and the Indian Reserve of Parry Island.
After Mr. C.E. Begin bought the general store in Byng Inlet North, there began another petition to make this north shore an independent village. A step in this direct ion was again a north shore school. They built the new school on the site of the one that burned in 1891 and Mr. Begin financed the initial building expense, being later paid back by the taxpayers. The new school opened in September 1900 with sixty students and a teacher named Miss Minnie Cavanaugh of Barrie. By 1911 the attendance of seventy-five pupils necessitated the building of a junior room and the hiring of a second teacher.
During this same time period, the village of Byng Inlet South just kept getting larger and larger until at its peak period just after 1900, the population was 5,000 persons. Mr. Dodge who had the earlier mill had sold out to Emery and he took a partner by the name of Mr. Holland who married his daughter and they formed Holland and Emery Lumber Company, which in turn sold out to Graves. Holland and Graves first cut timber on their rights in 1894 and brought log booms down the Magnetawan River. The Graves Bigwood sawmill was built and completed by 1902 and eventually became the largest mill of its kind in Canada. The mill and its facilities covered over one square mile with a large lumber yard, green lumber yard, planing mill, 11 wood fired boilers for steam power, and dock slips and a box factory close by. In the spring of 1912, the original mill burnt down but was rebuilt that fall. At this time Mr. Holland sold out and a Mr. Woods bought into the company which changed its name to Graves, Bigwood & Company Lumber Mill. At the start of the operation the lumber products were still going out by boat but the railway would soon arrive.
In June 1908, the C.P.R. opened its Parry Sound to Sudbury route, which passed within a mile of Byng Inlet North. A small station was built one mile up the Still River just south of the present day station and it was named Dunlop after the resident engineer. On the shore, a spur line was built from the main line to Byng Inlet South. This spur line was also connected south and carried lumber up from Pointe au Baril. Every two days, fifteen boxcars containing fifteen to twenty thousand board feet of lumber left the mill. Most of this lumber went to the Spanish River northwest of Sudbury. The village of Byng Inlet on the south shore now had a hotel, three churches, a school, railway station, jail, dance hall, bakery and even a theater where silent movies were shown. This boom lasted until 1927 when the timber supply on the mill's property ran out and the mill closed and was torn down one year later. A few people remained and were allowed to purchase their houses and lot but the majority moved to other places to find work with many going to the United States. The village of Byng Inlet South now known only as Byng Inlet began a continual decline until now there is only a store and post office. A great come down for a booming town of 5,000 only fifty years ago.
From the state of the lumbering decline in the 1920's, many families looked for new endeavors and a large number turned to commercial fishing. They formed a large fishing co-op and fished with gill nets out from the mouth of the Magnetawan River in the Georgian Bay as far as the Bastard Islands. One of these families still living in the area are the Wrights who now own a large marina.
During this decline of Byng Inlet, Dunlop saw a new day dawn for their community in 1910. The C.P.R. opened a huge coal dock at the junction of the Magnetawan and Still Rivers where the waters are at there widest. Ships up to 7,000 Tons came bringing coal mostly from Pennsylvania. From Dunlop the coal was transported by rail and handled a peak of 500,000 toms per year. It was shipped north for use in railways, mines, and pulp and paper mills. The north shore was now booming instead of the south shore. From 1910 the trend was to build more and more along the Still River to be near the coal docks. At first, outsiders, many from Europe, worked at the docks and lived in company houses but they soon became assimilated as they built houses in the village.
In 1914 the school was moved to a more central location at the site of the present Catholic Church. Its student population continued to get larger and by 1924 there was a definite need for a new school. The property was sold to the church and a new school was built further up the Still River. It was a consolidated school with the closure of the Henvey Township school and now had one hundred and sixteen pupils registered at it September opening.
In 1927 a post office was opened on the north side in Dunlop but since it was a duplication of the name in Ontario, the name of the village was changed to Britt in honour of C.P.R.'s general fuel superintendent. In October of 1956, the community was dealt a crippling blow when the C.P.R. closed the coal docks resulting in unemployment and causing the population to decrease by half within two years. Oil companies saw the advantages of a good harbour and installed oil tanks and dock facilities for tankers. Much of this work is mechanized however and relatively few people are employed by them.
Today most of the Township, both north and south shores are involved in the tourist trade with many tourist parks and camps, marinas, cottages, and guiding for fishermen. Now a boom time occurs annually in the summer months as the population again escalates but for this short period only.
This article first appeared in the November 1988 newsletter, Volume 4 - Number 2
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