Part of a building©Copyright: Jeri Danyleyko
Biscotasing, better known as Bisco, was one of those instant towns that jumped out of nowhere during construction of the CPR Railway in the early 1880s. Bisco started out as a large railway camp that grew into a CPR construction town, where nearly 500 men lived, drank and caroused and womanized. Bisco was filled with brothels and saloons and quickly developed a reputation for being rough, wild and raucous.
From 1882-1886, Bisco effectively became a divisional point. The settlement included freight sheds, a telegraph office, where as many as three telegraphers were on duty at different intervals, boarding houses, a wye, coal chutes and water tank, all contained within an area of about 470 acres. A huge siding was managed by J.B. Jones and housed shops for 19 locomotives.
In addition to the telegraphers, there were also 15 engineers and 15 firemen working twelve-hour days. Daily pay for the engineers ranged from $2.50 to $2.75 and for the firemen, $1.10 to $1.50. Railway ties were produced in a portable mill operated by Mr. Leech and Mr. Rowan. The CPR contacted jobbers for tie production whenever the need arose. Things slowed down after 1886 when the divisional point was moved to Chapleau. The village was left with a small population that included a few rail workers, lumbermen and trappers, who were serviced by a small Hudson Bay post.
After the railway moved out the sawmills moved in. Around 1894, two groups, Barnath & McNeil, and Joiffe & Beatty each set up mills. A third firm, O'Neil & Simpson, began producing squared timber primarily for the CPR. The latter company eventually changed their name to Sudlen & O'Neil, and only produced sporadically until shutting down entirely in 1898, leaving four million board feet of unsold lumber. Booth and Shannon went on to purchase the mill and quickly built it up to become the dominant mill in the area.
Bisco sprang to life following the success of the sawmill. After making extensive enlargements to the mill in 1903, Booth & Shannon were able to produce an average of 10 million board feet. Production peaked at 14.5 million board feet and four million laths in 1911. There were so many workers the company found it necessary to add new sleep camps, boarding houses, a cookhouse and company store.
Major improvements to the Bisco were visible everywhere. In addition to the company store, there was a Hudson's Bay store and a combination general store and post office, owned by J.A. Wright. A school was added in 1906 and a hospital in 1909. There was a new two-storey railway station and a Catholic church. An Anglican church was opened in 1908 with Rev. Banting officiating as the first minister. In 1907 the government set up an Ontario Forestry station that would figure more prominently in Bisco's later years. Thirty brand new homes were built. By 1911, Bisco's population had jumped to 271 from 102, ten years earlier.
Unfortunately Bisco's new found prosperity was short lived. On June 12th, 1912, a horrific fire began in the stables situated behind Wright's store. The flames quickly spread to the store, the Catholic church and then to the mill and yards. Once the yards caught fire, the entire community was reduced to ashes. Wasting no time, the mill owners began rebuilding the mill in October of that same year. Booth dropped out of the partnership, only to be replaced by his son two years later.
Production levels never really recovered following the devastating fire. In 1913, the company produced a mere 1 million board feet and 650,000 laths. 1914 showed an improvement at 5 million board feet and 2.925 million laths but in 1915 production dropped back to 3 million board feet and 1.7 million laths. By 1920 most of the prime timber was harvested.
On February 25th, 1923, David Shea Pratt and Henry Shancy both from Midland, purchased the timber limits and mill. Production in 1922 and 1923 stood at 4 million board feet and 3 million laths. The mill assets were valued at $558,478 and included a machine shop, two alligators, a locomotive and shed, stables, sled and lumber camps and 11 homes for the workers.
Optimistically, Pratt and Shancy made improvements to the mill that enabled it to cut up to 10 million board feet. Unfortunately it never had a chance to cut even half that amount. Production never exceeded 4.3 million board feet and the firm was heavily indebted to the Standard Bank of Canada. By 1927, the struggle was over and the mill closed. The Cohen Standard Chemical Company of Toronto purchased the mill and dismantled it in 1938.
Bisco and the surrounding area experienced a devastating legacy of serious bush fires. The original Hudson's Bay Company post went up in flames in 1888. An earlier mill fire in 1911 resulted in the loss of 100,000 board feet of lumber. Fire destroyed the entire village in 1912 and the mill yards lit up again in 1926. The Hudson's Bay Company post went up in flames for the last time on February 11, 1927. Aerial fire surveillance in Ontario finally began in 1922 and the first fire watches were conducted from Bisco's fire station.
One of Bisco's more notorious characters was a loud, drunken hermit who lived in a remote cabin a few kilometres outside of town. His life consisted primarily of drinking, poaching and occasional trapping. Periodically he would come into town to deliver his pelts, collect a few bucks from the Hudson's Bay Company, and spent the rest of his day gambling, fighting and beating up on native women. One time he attempted to shoot a man named Gus Christinik, but missed. Another time, he severely beat and left for dead a man named Gordon Langevin. Luckily Langevin was found three days later, albeit at the brink of death, by a boy named Newman. The hermit was run out of town on more than one occasion over incidents ranging from drunk and disorderly behaviour to attempted murder.
Unknown to most, Bisco's hermit didn't originate from the area but in fact was a transplanted Englishman named Archie Belaney. As a child, growing up in Victorian England, Belaney had been enthralled by adventure tales of native life in the bush. He arrived in northern Ontario as a young man determined to experience it on his own. Archie first made his way to Bisco in 1912 but eventually left the area and travelled to even more remote regions. Whether he experienced a change of heart or was just generally bored, frustrated and broke is unknown, but after adopting the persona of a native chief named Grey Owl, he began submitting surprisingly literate and colourful tales to British journals about native culture and life on the wild northern Canadian frontier.
Grey Owl was reportedly a wonderful storyteller and orator who could hold an audience captive for hours. He lectured brilliantly on the destruction of wildlife, the wilderness and the need to preserve the delicate ecological balance. As his fame grew, rumours began to circulate in Canada about his identity. Eventually, a reporter for the North Bay Nugget discovered the truth. The newspaper wisely chose to sit on the scoop until after Grey Owl's death. Although people cried foul when the story finally came out, to this day, Grey Owl is generally credited as being the father of the environmental movement.
During the 1930s and 40s, Bisco's fortunes spiralled upwards and downwards. The mill finally closed for good in 1929. By 1931 Bisco's permanent population dropped from a high of 244, a decade earlier, to a mere 7. Later on in the 1930s, more lumbering jobs arrived resulting in a short-lived turnaround. However by the beginning of the World War II, the lumbering jobs were gone and Bisco declined again.
By 1956, Bisco was supporting a population of 153 residents. As the population continued dwindling downwards, things gradually began to shut down. The siding was lifted in 1965 and the original station reportedly demolished in the mid 1990s. The school finally closed in 1972. By then the population had dropped to between 50 - 100 residents.
Today Biscotasing is a partial ghost town. Lumbering is still carried out in the area and the most recent records indicate that Bisco supports a year-round population of 22. During the summer, the population swells to around 300 as the area springs to life with tourism and fishing. A provincial park is located nearby. One of the churches still functions and the general store and post office remain open to this very day.