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History of the Lumber Industry of America
Chapter XXIV. The District of Ungava


Historic association still gives the title of Labrador to the entirety of the great peninsula which forms the northeastern extremity of the North American continent; but, in its political significance, the name has applied since 1809 only to the narrow strip of coast along its eastern edge which drains into the Atlantic.

The Labrador Peninsula has been described as two and one-third times as large as the Province of Ontario, 65 percent of the size of all that part of the United States lying east of the Mississippi River, or nearly five times the area of Great Britain. It extends from the fifty-fifth meridian to the seventy-ninth meridian and from the forty-ninth parallel to the sixty-third parallel. It is contained within a nearly continuous water boundary—the Saguenay, Chamouchouan, Waswanipi and Nottaway rivers at the south, James and Hudson bays on the west, Hudson Strait and Ungava Bay on the north, the Atlantic Ocean on the northeast and the St. Lawrence River on the southeast. From Cape Wolstenholme, at the entrance to Hudson Bay, to the mouth of the Seguenay River the distance is 1,040 miles “as the crow flies;” from Belle Isle on the east to the mouth of the Nottaway River on the west the distance is more than one thousand miles. Roughly described, the peninsula froms a triangle one thousand miles long on each side.

Of the 560,000 square miles embraced in the Labrador Peninsula, the greater part lies within the district of Ungava, a Canadian territory created October 2, 1895. At the time of its organization on the date mentioned Ungava included a much larger area than that with which it is now credited. It embraced all of the Labrador Peninsula north of the Height of Land, exclusive of that part of the Labrador Coast which is a part of the jurisdiction of Newfoundland. Quebec, the province to the southward, which is itself largely a part of the Labrador Peninsula, later had its boundaries extended so that it acquired all that part of Ungava lying south of the East Main River on the west and the Hamilton River on the east. By this order in council Quebec secured a strip of territory which is 250 miles in width at its western end and includes the regions of the Rupert and Nottaway rivers and Lake Mistassini, embracing important timbered areas. The following is the present area of Ungava: Land, 349,109 square miles; water, 5,852 square miles; total, 354,961 square miles.

This great Labrador Peninsula, the largest peninsula in the world, is of historical importance, for it was the scene of the discovery of America by white men. There is little doubt that its coast was touched by Norsemen as early as 1000. June 24, 1497, a year previous to the first continental discovery by Christopher Columbus (an Italian sailing under the Spanish flag) Giovanni Cabot, or Cabotto, a Genoese in the employ of the English, visited the eastern coast of North America; and in the following year Sebastian Cabot, his son, discovered Hudson strait. In 1500 Gaspar Cortereal, a little known Portuguese, landed and gave the name of Labrador, or “laborers’ land,” to the peninsula. In 1576 Martin Frobisher visited the region and in 1585-6-7 John Davis explored arctic Canada, including the vicinity of Labrador. To the westward, in Hudson Bay, occurred in 1611 one of the most tragic of the many tragic events linked with the story of the New World. Henry Hudson, the explorer, upon determining to winter in the region in order that he might continue his search for a northwest passage the following spring, was cast adrift in Hudson Bay with his seven-year-old son and seven seamen and died a miserable but unknown death.

The exploitation of the timber of Ungava has never been seriously attempted, beneficent natural conditions of climate serving to keep in reserve these timbered areas until the demolition of the forests farther south shall render the utilization of more northern forests necessary. The southwestern portion of that part of the peninsula contained within Ungava was early, however, the scene of extensive trading by the Hudson Bay Company, which had posts at the mouth of the Rupert River, at Great Whale River and Little Whale River and on Lake Mistassini and at other points in the interior. This company was incorporated in 1670 and was headed by Prince Rupert, a cousin of Charles II., of England. It had the exclusive trading rights on Hudson Bay. Two employees of the Quebec fur-trading monopoly, Groseillers and Radisson, conceived the idea of exploiting the Hudson Bay region. They failed successively to interest their own employers, a coterie of Boston merchants and the French court and finally had recourse to London, where the Hudson Bay Company was organized. It was capitalized at £10,500 and Prince Rupert and his seventeen associates received a charter May 2, 1670. This was granted to “The Governor and Company of Merchants-Adventurers trading into Hudson’s Bay” and gave the company the exclusive right to trade in the bay and on the coasts, power to expel trespassers on these rights and the privilege of building forts and fitting out privateers and armed ships for the purpose of making war on any non-Christian people..

From the time of its occupation until the present the company has been a potent factor in the history of Canada, no less in Ungava than elsewhere. In the district it gave the name to Rupert’s River and established Rupert’s House at the river’s mouth early in its corporate existence. It established in the interior of Ungava in later years Mechiskun House, Waswanapi House and Mistassini House and, on the west coast of Ungava, posts at Great Whale River, Little Whale River and elsewhere.

While the early operations of the company were carried on with profit, they were never so large, in the earlier years, as to render these profits exceptionally heavy. In 1676 it handled £19,000 worth of furs, giving in exchange to the Indians £650 worth of goods. In 1748 the amount of business had increased to only £30,000 from which had to be deducted £17,000 for operating expenses and £5,000 for goods for the Indians. At that time the business required the employment of four ships and numerous'garrisons. A French claim to the territory embroiled the Hudson Bay Company in difficulties from 1682 until 1713. In 1682 and 1686 the French captured several of the company’s forts. These troubles were ended by the treaty of Utrecht in 1713 and thenceforward the company enjoyed prosperity. It was not until 1763 that the operations attained any great magnitude, however, and then they were .vastly increased by the opening of all the Hudson Bay country by the session of French Canada.

The Declaration of Rights, which guaranteed free and open trade to all British subjects, produced the first serious competition which the company was forced to encounter. In 1782 the Northwest Fur & Trading Company was organized in Montreal. It invaded the old company’s territory and the competition eventually became actual warfare. In 1821 these evils were cured by a union of the companies. The later history of the great enterprise concerns more particularly its westward progress.

It will be observed by this history of the operations of the Hudson Bay Company that a great fur trade was early developed in Ungava. The forests remained untouched, and in a consideration of the forestal wealth of Canada the southern part of Ungava should be considered among its resources. Along the southern border exist important areas of hardwoods and from these forests the growth gradually lessens until the barren shores of Hudson Strait are reached.

The interior of Ungava is a plateau of less than 2,500 feet elevation and broken by a network of lakes and rivers which make water transportation in any direction possible. A portage of two or three miles will generally serve to move a canoe from one river to the waters of another. The plateau rises precipitously from the Atlantic Ocean at the east but slopes gradually to James Bay at the west. The longer rivers are, therefore, in the western part of the peninsula. The chief rivers of Ungava are the Koksoak and Leaf rivers, emptying into Ungava Bay, the Hamilton and Northwest rivers, flowing into Lake Melville, and the Great Whale and Mistassibi rivers, flowing into Hudson and James bays. Grand Falls on the Hamilton River has a drop of 302 feet and a volume of 50,000 cubic feet a second. The important lakes of Ungava are Mishikamau, Kaniapiskau, North Seal, Clearwater, Apiskigamish, Nichikun, Manuan and Payne.

The district of Ungava possesses a considerable forest area which will be of commercial importance when the provinces shall have been denuded. In the consideration of this forest ground, however, the northwestern projection of the peninsula may well be eliminated, as the forest is of no value. Even as far south as Richmond Gulf the region takes on the characteristics of the Labrador Coast, the hills rising abruptly 500 to 1,000 feet. These hills are barren on top, small trees growing only in the lower gullies and about the edge of the water. Clearwater Lake, to which reference has already been made, is in the same locality. It is thirty-five miles long from northwest to southeast and eighteen miles across at the widest point. The bare and rocky hills are clothed only with lichens and arctic shrubs. The trees about the lake are very small black spruce or larch. At North Seal Lake the trees are even smaller and the barren areas more extensive.

The chief forest areas occupy the valleys of the streams flowing into James Bay at the westward and the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of St. Lawrence at the eastward. This wealth has, unfortunately, been much lessened by forest fires which have, within the last quarter century, destroyed one-half of the timber of the interior. In some places this destruction has been so complete that two hundred years will be required to restore the soil to its old fertility. These fires are attributed generally to Indians. A. P. Low, of the Geological Survey of Canada, whose explorations of unknown Ungava have been highly valuable, says that the fires occur annually and often burn during the entire summer. In 1894 he wrote: “These fires are due to various causes but many of them can be traced to the Indians, who start them either through their carelessness or intentionally.” However, settlers, tourists and hunters are equally culpable. Many of the fires may be traced to their lack of care in building camp fires in places carpeted with gummy leaves and resinous twigs. On the upper canoe routes notices printed in English, French and Indian have been posted at every portage. These appear to have had some effect.

Despite the destructiveness of forest fires and the barrenness of the northern part of Ungava, the district contains a large amount of excellent timber, particularly adaptable to pulp manufacture. Ungava forests embrace spruce, larch, balsam fir, scrub pine, poplar and birch, distributed according to the altitude, latitude, distance from the sea and character of the soil.

Black spruce (Picea nigra) constitutes 90 percent of the forest growth of Ungava and extends northward to Ungava Bay and Hamilton Inlet and westward to the sparse growth of Richmond Gulf, although in the northwest it does not exist in merchantable quantities. In the southern part of Ungava black spruce grows in thickets, which habit prevents it from obtaining any considerable size. Farther north the trees are more distributed and of larger girth.

White spruce (Picea alba) is found in smaller quantities throughout the peninsula wherever there is well drained soil.

Black larch (Larix americana ), or tamarack, ranks second to black spruce in the extent of its growth. It also extends the farthest north of any of the Ungava trees, growing to a considerable height in regions so arctic that the spruce is stunted to a mere shrub. It is the largest of the trees found in the interior and makes the cold swamps its particular habitat. The European larch saw fly has been working northward in recent years and doing some damage to the tamarack growth.

The balsam fir (Abies balsamea) seldom grows farther north than the fifty-sixth parallel and is found in considerable quantities on the east shore of James Bay and eastward to Hamilton Inlet. It is particularly abundant on the lower Rupert River, where it grows in company with the white spruce, aspen and canoe birch.

Banksian pine (Pinus banksiana) variously known as the gray pine, scrub pine, jack pine, Labrador pine and “cypress,” has attained considerable growth on the burned-over area south of the Whale River and it is found in the swampy regions southward in the vicinity of James Bay.

The aspen (Populus tremuloides) grows south of the fifty-fourth parallel and is assisting to restore the burned-over areas. It conserves the soil on steep slopes and affords shelter to the seedlings of coniferae.

The balsam poplar (Populus balsamifera) grows as far north as Clearwater Lake and is partial to the clay soil of the river valleys. It reaches a diameter of ten inches on the Kaniapiskau River.

The white, or canoe, birch (Betula papyrikra) is common to the southern part of the peninsula. It reaches ten inches in diameter at Hamilton Inlet, but up the river seldom attains more than eight inches. As it extends northward it is dwarfed in size.

As a source of future pulpwood supply Ungava takes important rank among the more northern districts of the Dominion of Canada. It is peculiarly well endowed with water power and means of water transportation and will eventually be the scene of extensive and profitable pulpwood manufacture.

Ungava
A Tale of Esquimau Land by R. M. Ballantyne (pdf)

Ungava Bob
A Winter's Tale by Dillon Wallace (pdf)

The Lure of the Labrador Wild
The Story of the Exploring Expedition conducted by Leonidas Hubbard, Jr. by Dillon Wallace (eleventh edition) (pdf)


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