Delivering “The Volunteer” – a John Dunn story

John-DunnErnie Little’s horse leaned hard into the collar of the harness and strained, head down, rear legs stretched back, left front hoof tipped forward and down so that he could drive the caulks into the pavement to keep from slipping with the load. The pull on the wagon seemed heavier than usual on the stretch of Little Bridge Street from the subway to the roadway in front of the Town Hall.

Ernie sat up front on the upturned nail keg facing the side of the wagon with one arm on the rack. The lines were slack in his hands. He was content to let the horse move up the slope at its own pace. Ernie was happy as usual, smiling, looking around in full enjoyment of this day in early June, 1927.

Behind him on the wagon was a wooden crate which was nailed snug and hard all round. Although it wasn’t so very big, it must have had something unusually heavy inside to make the horse strain as hard as it did coming up the slope from the subway to the Town Hall.

“What’s in the box, Ernie?” a man called from the street.

“Dunno,” said Ernie. “Sure is heavy though.”

Then, as a kind of afterthought he added, “I think it’s got something to do with Alex Rosamond.”

The horse seemed to be wondering too. The box wasn’t anywhere near the size of the thousand-pound bales of wool that came from Australia and that were wrapped in burlap and tightened in like a corset with steel bands. Two of these bales filled the wagon and made up the usual load for the horse and wagon for the trip to the Rosamond Woollen Company’s No.1 Mill from the CPR sheds, and sometimes in the other direction, from the mill to the railway. This was a regular route for the horse, and now as the wagon came to the level in front of the town hall the horse eased up the strain on the collar and started to go up Water Street and on to the freight sheds. A small tug on the reins brought him up short. He stopped in his tracks for a moment, as if wondering what now?

“Gee. Gee up there. Gee!” Ernie called out. The horse drove his shoulders again into the collar, swung to the right and moved forward up Bridge Street towards the railway crossing.

“Whoa now. Whoa.” Ernie brought the horse and wagon to a halt in the space between the Town Hall and the tracks. He stepped off the wagon to look over the site more carefully. Men working there on a stone structure laid down their tools and came back to the wagon to inspect the crate.

Ernie returned to the wagon, picked up the reins and moved to the side of the wagon.

“Back up now. Back, back, back up.” The wagon moved back close to the stone base. Ernie again slackened off the lines, and let the horse enjoy a rest while the men prepared to unload the crate from the wagon.

Ernie read the packing slip idly as he watched the men make ready to lift the crate. “The Volunteer” he read.

“The Volunteer,” he mused. “Just how does that connect with Alex Rosamond? I wonder.”

The first census taken in this part of Canada in the year 1851 showed the elements of a village clinging to the rocks and the falls of the Mississippi. The growth of the village had been modest indeed. Some thirty years before a man named Daniel Shipman had built a saw mill, and the place came to be known in the district simply as Shipman’s Mills.

Then in 1821 a few venturesome Scots from the Lanark Military Settlement set out from Lanark on the Clyde onto the broader reaches of the Mississippi. They built a scow and floated down the river. They got past Ferguson’s Falls and Ennisville. They got the scow out into the lake and the current took them on until once again they were in the narrow region of the rocks around Morphy’s Falls. They got through this area, and floated down past the picturesque spot they called Appletree Falls, and on again down the river until they reached the big drop in the Mississippi. Here stood Daniel Shipman’s place.

The Scots liked the look of the country round about. Many of them had been Paisley weavers back in Scotland, and, standing now at the head of the falls, they could look back up the river the way they had come and see visions of sheep grazing in the upland meadows all dressed in pure wool which the woolly ones might be persuaded to share in time with friends who came from Paisley.

Two years later, in September 1823, Peter Robinson, Superintendent of Emigration from the South of Ireland, reached Prescott on the St. Lawrence with 568 emigrants from the districts around Cork. They were mostly distressed famers and were skilled in the management of land and beasts. Anxious to get them located on their lands before the onslaught of the Canadian winter, Mr. Robinson decided to move overland with his charges from Prescott rather than proceed further up river to Brockville where the Scots had landed two years before. He recorded this decision in his journal:

“At Prescott I engaged wagons to take the settlers sixty miles across the country to a place on the Mississippi with a falls.”

Now the 1851 census showed this little rude settlement of Scots and Irish had grown into a village of some 200 people. Furthermore, it showed that they had a number of mills in operation, a shingle mill, a grist mill, a saw mill, a square-timber-making yard and a carding mill. All these mills and the skills of the people who worked them served the needs of a well-established farming community where fields, all nicely cleared now of the stumps of pioneer days thirty years before, ran back between cedar rail fences from the river. Great quantities of timber stood ready for the felling in the bush land at the back of each farm.

Every day after the census of 1851 brought evidence of progress. In 1854 the first railway train in these parts made its debut running from Prescott to Bytown. Sparks from this event landed a few miles away at Brockville and fired up a group of local promoters with enthusiasm for railway building. They seized on a magical idea. They talked of running a railway line from the docks at Brockville way back into the country, past the Rideau even, yes, on into Lanark and Renfrew to get at the big timber of the fabled Ottawa Valley. A railway could get the timber down to the St. Lawrence at Brockville and it could be shipped off to feed the demands for housing in the mushrooming cities of the northern states. Meanwhile the trains returning could bring supplies of mess pork, and flour and beans and can hooks and logging chains and even anchors for the painters, all the things that men would need in the bush camps and shanties up the Valley.

By 1858 they were on their way. They made a start at the docks in Brockville and immediately drove a tunnel through the rock, right under King Street, all the way up until they came to the surface again just north of the court house. Foresight persuaded them to install big heavy wooden doors on this exit for the tunnel so that cows wouldn’t wander down off the court house pasture and start going down through the tunnel to get a drink from the St. Lawrence River.

Their charter read: “From Brockville on the St. Lawrence to some point on the Ottawa.” Direct as an arrow in flight their route lay on the map from Brockville to Arnprior and Sand Point.

The work went on, and the rails were laid. Enthusiasm drove the enterprise to Smiths Falls, to Morphy’s Falls, to Shipman’s Mills, which they reached in August, 1850.

People saw that the coming of the Brockville and Ottawa Railway was assured and at that moment the village began to grow rapidly. People began building houses on both sides of the river. The Irish tended to build theirs on the north side, and sometimes that section of the village got the name of Waterford. The Scots, on the other hand, tended to build their homes on the south side, and it was frequently referred to as Ramsayville. Still others continued to refer to the place as Shipman’s Mills, until one day James Haskins who kept the timber slide, suggested to Colonel Gemmill the need for a single name for the whole community. The name of General Juan Almonte of Mexico came up, for he had recently played a prominent part in the Mexican War of Liberation. The name was accepted and brought into use. So the railway came to a place called Almonte.

Late in that same decade of the 1850’s, James Rosamond stopped and looked closely at the water of the Mississippi crashing through the gorge at this place. He and his sons went to work to measure its flow. They calculated. The frothing energy just had to be put to use.

A small dam to divert the water to a mill flume, and the energy was going to waste over the rocks would be transmitted to a finely-balanced mill wheel to spin the shafts and belting and wheels needed for an integrated woollen enterprise. The place for this had to be near the bottom of the falls to get maximum use out of the energy of falling water. They chose the far side of The Island. There the noise of the spinning machines and the clacking of the looms would disturb no neighbours yet, and the reputation of the company for manufacture of fine worsted would be made.

The whole thing would take a mill on the grand scale. Perhaps for that reason they’d have to name it their No. 1 Mill, and the present enterprise on Mill Street would become No. 2.

All looked grand. Opportunity was at the door, and knocking. Look at all the people flocking into this part of the country looking for work. They could be employed in such a woollen mill.

Look at the railway on the doorstep. Look at the constant flow of the river, waiting to be put into harness the same as George Stephenson had harnessed the iron horse. Well, siree bob, things looked promising indeed. Bennett Rosamond decided to move. He and his family would invest in Almonte to the fullest limit of their energy, their capital, their resources.

They built No. 1.

Note from Michael Dunn:In the above story, my father refers to the freight sheds. For those not familiar with Almonte before the 1960’s, I have included a 1950 map of a section of Almonte for reference. The CPR railroad station stood on the site of the present day library and there were extensive freight sheds directly across the tracks. These sheds and the two adjacent sidings explain the vacant land alongside of Reserve Street today.

 map of Almonte