Biscotasing: Hudson's Bay Company Store

We collect historic photographic postcards, because every picture tells a story. This is one of them.

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.
Continue reading this history of Biscotasing here and another at Ontario Ghost Towns, where there are more photographs of Biscotasing.

What's really interesting about this postcard is that it was signed: "Good luck, K.G. Ross." and was sent to H.J.E. Keys, Esq. 84 Avenue Road, Toronto. Mr. Kenneth G. Ross was the chief forest ranger for the district including Biscotasing and figured in the negotiations of the James Bay Treaty, Treaty No 9 with the Indians in 1906, as described in this story of the journey through Biscotasing at the time.

The next photograph from the Ontario Government Archives is of Chief Espagnol (Sahquakegick) before the Hudson's Bay Company store at Biscotasing, Ontario, taken on the 20th of July, 1906, by Duncan Campbell Scott,1862-1947. He was a civil servant in the department of Indian affairs (1879-1932). He became a clerk at the age of seventeen. He was Deputy Superintendent from 1913, until 1923, when he became Deputy Superintendent General for the Federal Government. His responsibilities included representing the Federal Government in intergovernmental negotiations with the aboriginal peoples in landholding agreements and establishing treaty settlements. As Commissioner in the first of two Commissioners’ visit in 1905-1906 (the other in 1929-1930) to Northern Ontario, Scott was instrumental in submitting Treaty No.9 to the Governor General for ratification in January, 1907. Scott was also an amateur photographer and during the Commissioners’ visit in 1905-1906, to James Bay area he photographed the native population and scenery.

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.

Directions to the village of Biscotasing.


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