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Nipigon River Log Drives

The Nipigon River is a river in Thunder Bay District in Northwestern Ontario, Canada. It is about 48 km (30 mi) long and 50 to 200 m (160 to 660 ft) wide, and flows from Lake Nipigon to Nipigon Bay on Lake Superior at the community of Nipigon, dropping from an elevation of 260 to 183 m (853 to 600 ft). The Nipigon River was famous for the size and quantity of its brook trout. However, four dams built on the Nipigon led to a major decline in their population: Cameron Falls Dam (1918), Virgin Falls Dam (1925), Alexander Dam (1930), and Pine Portage Dam (1950).

Ginny Flett on growing up with Nipigon logging

Babikan page

(July 22, 2008): I grew up on Lake Nipigon at a place named Virgin Falls where my father (George Flett) was camp foreman. His boat was the Babikan and the sad pictures of the existing boat lying like a dead fish on the shores of Squaw Bay do not tell the story of a great little boat.

The Babikan was on lake Nipigon from 1945 to 1973 and all of my 4 brothers and my father were either log men or operators on her. She came to my father new and he always thought of it as being his baby. Her predecessor was a wooden boat known as The Red Wing. I probably knew more about her and her engine, winch, tow posts and cleats than any other little girl!

This boat has a family history, we lived most summers at Virgin Falls. Because it was remote and plagued by bear problems, if a bear ventured on the camp site my father promptly shot it. Many a bear was winched onto the bow and took their last ride to a dumping ground down the river. The Babikan's main purpose was to spill rafts for Abitibi, she worked in conjunction with the Tugs Nipigon and Orient Bay. I can remember my father leaving early in the mornings to go and spill rafts.

The Ogima II was also a boat the I remember well as it was used to bring supplies to the tugs as well the camps on the river (Miner and Devil Rapids). The operator Art always used to bring my brothers and myself treats when he came to bring supplies. Other boats on the river drive I remember were the P.P.M. 31, the Wabinosh, Ghost, Outan, Picotan, Onaman, and the Goki. I shall always treasure my memories of that time in my life. I just wanted you to know that The Babikan was a great little boat that was well used and loved.

When Pine Portage dam was built it was the largest gravity dam in the world. Once flow developers were installed it made sluicing much easier. The flooding of the rapids and Virgin Falls did significantly change the river. I remember my mother say all was silent when they flooded the river as the sound of Virgin Falls was gone.

There were many colourful characters who worked in these camps and on the drives. George Hayes was the camp clerk at Pine Portage during the summers. Camp Foremen: Red Craig (Pine Portage), George Flett (Virgin Falls), Henry Hill (Cameron Falls), Bob Matchett (Lake Helen).

My Dad and brothers worked on all these boats. At Pine Portage the Wabinosh, PPM 31, among others were moored. The Babikan was at Virgin Falls where my father was camp Foreman. At Lake Helen some of the g-boats there were the Wendigokan , Pikatan and the Minikan.

Short Glossary

RAFT/BOOM - a large collection of floating logs, contained by a perimeter of logs chained together
SLUICE GATE - the small variable opening atop a dam where logs are floated over into the next section of river
SLUICE WAY/SPILL WAY - a short conduit which carries the floating logs from dam top to the next section of river at the bottom
STORAGE - a wide spot in the river where a large number of rafts of logs are kept (perhaps over winter) before proceeding with the next step of the drive. i.e. Victoria Storage is a spot on the Nipigon River.
FLOW DEVELOPERS - triangular physical structures that quicken the water flow rate into a sluice gate atop a dam, which reduced the work the boats and men had to do to get the logs over.
REARING - going back to pick up straggling pockets of wood that escaped the main initial drive. Rearing was also called Sweep ... the action of cleaning the side of the river to put the logs back in the water.
PEAVY Peavy (pivé) in French, was a tool used to turn heavy logs or Booms when on the ground. One fixed point at the base and a mobile hook on the side
LOG JAM Logs piled together preventing the mass moving downstream
PIKE POLE Handheld pointed stick used to push logs


The following is a brief history of the "Taming of the Nipigon". This was written by Pine Portage Camp Clerk George (G.A.) Hayes. To the best of our knowledge, this history was compiled sometime in the early 1960's when the river drives were eventually phased out of existence...(n.b. the last Nipigon river drive was in 1973 - SB).

Taming of the Nipigon
Nipigon Gazette, Wed. Feb. 9, 1983, page 9 article online source:

In its natural state, the Nipigon River was considered driveable. The drop of 250 feet with its many falls and rapids from Lake Nipigon to Lake Superior, was a challenge to courageous men who had to navigate this turbulent stream. Those early voyageurs never dreamed that millions of cords of pulpwood and millions of feet in sawlogs would some day be driven down this mighty river.

James Whalen made the first attempt to drive the Nipigon River in 1900, bringing pine sawlogs from Lake Helen to Nipigon. This bold pioneer in the following years moved operations up the river and its tributaries - Frazer Creek and Bass Creek.

Pine Portage (click to enlarge)
He took drives from as far up the river as Pine Portage. He met with considerable difficulty with centre jams in the section between the present sites of Cameron and Alexander Dams. Some of the wood remained there until the flooding of the area on construction of the power station. After the 1907 season, Whalen discontinued operations and very little activity was noted on the river for the next 15 years.

Cameron Falls power station was completed in 1921. The 72 foot head of water thus created raised the water level to form Lake Jessie from two smaller lakes. The rapids at Split Rock and the falls at Island Portage disappeared under this flood.

The power station at Alexander Falls went into operation in 1931. The chief influence this dam had on the river was that it reduced the eddies below Cameron Falls. The main operations driving the nipigon River during the twenties and early thirties were D.A. Clark, C.W. Cox and Thunder Bay Improvements. Centre jams below Cameron Falls created most of their troubles, some taking a week to break.

In 1937 Abitibi began the huge job of installing improvements along the entire river from Virgin to Lake Helen. Camps were constructed, storages were built, glance booms and piers were placed in vital spots to direct the flow of wood.

Gerald Flett on Naonan at
Victoria Storage c. 1969
The tugs Nipigon and Orient Bay were built in 1938 to raft wood to the head of the river. That fall, the Nipigon spilled its first raft into the storage at Virgin Falls In all, 14,000 cords were towed in four rafts. The first of the wood was sluiced through Virgin Dam on September 28, and the last of it arrived on November 9. The undriveable river had finally been driven.

Production during the war years was limited - a yearly average of 150,000 cords were driven. A distinct increase was shown shortly afterward, the peak year being 1948 when over 400,000 cords came down the river. In al, approximately 5.5 million cords of pulpwood have been driven since 1938. This figure does not take in the several millions of sawlogs included in the drives.

The power station at Pine Portage brought about further changes in driving conditions. This great dam raised the water level in the river to that of Lake Nipigon, causing Emma Lake to disappear in the larger, newly formed Pine Lake. Virgin Falls, White Chutes, Devil's Rapids and many other fast water headaches of the drive foremen were eliminated by this flooding (~30).

P.P.M. 31 (Rob Farrow photo)
Pine Lake has become a towing operation, as well as Lake Jessie. Warping tugs Wabinosh, and P.P.M. 31 make up rafts of approximately 5000 cords at Victoria storage and tow them to a storage just above Pine Dam where the gator Ovongan takes over and pushes the wood into the sluiceway. On Lake Jessie the Outan, with the help of the Purdom, performs similar operation. The Flatrock or the Knight help sluice at Cameron Dam. It has become necessary to work these boats on a two shift basis, and often three shifts, to keep the wood moving at a steady pace.

Nipigon River drive is not a single operation, but a series of individual drives. The number of drives depends on how many operators are making use of the river, and the availability of their wood over the season. There have been as many as ten individual drives over one season.

Each one of these drives has to be reared beyond a certain section of the river before the succeeding drive can proceed. The higher water has made rearing a simpler operation. Small alligators like Babikan, with a small string of booms can get quite close to shore to pick up small straggling pockets of wood. The long, awkward, hand operated pointer is becoming a thing of the past for rearing purposes. The full cooperation of the Hydro crews at the various dams in giving more water when needed, has facilitated rearing considerably.

Installation of flow developers above the sluice gates at the dams has reduced the work of the sluicer. A small 'gator, working its way through the wood at the trip boom, breaks off a small quantity of wood at a time; this wood is then caught in the current developed and carried down into the sluiceway. Very seldom does a sluicer have to push wood with his pike-pole from beginning to end of shift.

Once the wood is below Alexander Dam a good current carries it to the mouth of the river at Lake Helen. Here it is stored for eventual delivery and rafting to Nipigon Straits for for the Lake Superior tugs.

Most physical hazards of the river have been brought under limited control, but mother nature still presents our major driving problem - wind. The best results shown on the river have been when the storages were full of wood. A constant supply at the head of the river depends on deliver from the main sources of supply; the Ombakika and the Blackwater rivers.

Favourable wind direction allows rafts to be made up in these storages, contrary winds have held up rafts as much as two weeks. Operating periods over the last 20 years have varied from 105 to 188 days. The quantity of wood stored in the river over freeze-up, the number of drives, or the length of the operating season have no appreciable influence on the quantity of wood driven. in 1956 it required 187 days to to handle 344,000 cords, while in 1957 it took only 131 days for 376,000 cords. "As the wind goes, so goes the Nipigon River Drive" to quote an old drive superintendent.



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