October 30, 2018: Lumbering Days Legacy;
Kitchissippi poet celebrates J. R. Booth.
By Barbara Clubb.
[Ed: the print version of this article will appear later.]
The Ottawa street leading to the Chaudière Bridge, a hill in Kingsmere, a road in North Bay, an Algonquin Park lake, and a red brick mansion on Metcalfe Street –– all are named after John Rudolphus Booth, pre-eminent among the Ottawa Valley lumber kings but today forgotten by many. A new book, Building on River, by longtime Kitchissippi resident Jean Van Loon, brings him back to life.
Curiously, Van Loon chose to explore Booth’s life and times through poetry. “Poetry felt like the way to draw out the sounds, smells, and textures of his childhood on an eastern townships homestead and his life in roughneck Bytown. Plus, I could present the perspectives of different voices in different poems.” In fact, the first poem in the book assumes the voice of the Ottawa River.
Upon his death in 1925, Booth had his papers burned. No diaries or journals or personal letters admit a reader of today into his thinking. “Poems have the advantage that nobody expects them to be literally factual,” says Van Loon, “so I felt freer to imagine his thoughts and feelings and those of his family and business associates.”
Booth lived to 98 and worked to the very end. He built a business empire on the forests of the Ottawa Valley and the power of the Chaudière. In the 1880s, with his Chaudière sawmill becoming the largest in the world, he built a railroad from Vermont to Georgian Bay, a steamship line to link the railroad to the Canadian prairies and the U.S. Midwest, and grain elevators on Parry Island to accommodate shipments moving east. Van Loon notes, “the Queensway through Kitchissippi follows the path of that railway. And the original Experimental Farm consisted largely of land bought from Booth’s farm holdings.” This was a man recognized not just in Canada but around the world for his business achievements.
Van Loon shows Booth as a driven man, passionate about his work. He was also an eccentric, loved by thousands of employees. He dressed in tradesman’s clothing, worked at manual labour alongside his men, and offered his own home remedies if they were sick. The poor state of public health and medical treatment in the 1800s affected his family – three children of the eight born to him and his wife Rosalinda died in early childhood, and one of tuberculosis at 23. “In those days,” says Van Loon, “one in five people in this area caught TB, and the average life span after diagnosis was five years.”
Building on River brings to life a fascinating figure who shaped Kitchissippi and much of Ottawa. “More Canadian history needs to be re-imagined as poetry,” poet Catherine Owen wrote, reviewing the book in her blog Marrow Reviews. Van Loon’s Building on River made the bestseller list of Books on Beechwood for two months running and is available at the Ottawa Public Library and in Books on Beechwood, Perfect Books, Octopus Books, branches of Chapters and Coles and online from Amazon and Indigo.
Photo Caption: Kitchissippi writer Jean Van Loon celebrates the life and times of Ottawa Valley lumber baron J. R. Booth in her new book Building on River. Photo by Michelle Valberg.
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