Hydro-Electric Development and the Expansion of Pulp and Paper Manufacturing in Fort Frances and Rainy River District

Fort Frances Times and Rainy Lake Herald


About twenty-five years ago, when the Town of Fort Frances was little better than a Hudson’s Bay Co. post, and the Town of International Falls just a frontier hamlet, consisting of a few houses and several saloons, one man caught a vision. To him the canvass revealed in colors, too faint for the average eye, the outline of mammoth mills where daily throngs of workmen would find profitable toil, the whirling of electric generators harnessed to the needs of industry. In place of the dull booming of the mighty waterfall would be the steady hum of machinery, turning into a finished product the raw materials for the requirements of the people. This man was Edward Wellington Backus, lumberman and promoter, of Minneapolis Minnesota.

Other men before him may have had such visions, but what probably distinguishes Mr. Backus from the ordinary visionary human, is his ability and courage to change fantasy to fact and anticipation to accomplishment. Having obtained some engineering data on which to base his facts and figures, he set about the task of it’s accomplishment. In the year 1904, an agreement was made, further amplified by the agreement of 1905, and ratified by special act of parliament, whereby he was given the right to develop the Koochiching Falls, on the Rainy River, between Fort Frances and International Falls.

The commencement of development in 1905 marked the beginning of the Town of Fort Frances as a centre of industry. But the carrying out of the promotion of his industries at Internanational development plans by Mr. Backus was not unmixed with disappointments. The money purses of the financial magnates were double locked. It required plenty of courage, and plenty of optimism in the part of the promoter to obtain financial backing. Fortunately, Mr. Backus had in his make-up, abundance of both. So that by the year 1911 work had begun on the building of a paper mill in pursuance of an agreement entered into, whereby 100 tons of paper per day was to be turned out. In 1911 this mill was opened and Fort Frances as a paper producing centre was on the map.
The building of the paper mills and the same time the erection of the splendid mills of the Shevlin-Clark Co. gave the Town such a start that its future growth was assured. Until the year 1925 Mr. Backus was looking after newer development at Kenora.

About this time, this intrepid promoter saw that the time was opportune for a greater expansion of a carefully thought out scheme. An agreement was negotiated that year between the Town of Fort Frances and Mr. Backus whereby and additional mill was to be built increasing the paper output by 150 tons per day. Contemporaneously with this expansion Mr. Backus obtained the right to develop the falls on Seine River, and transmit the electrical energy to Fort Frances.

This is now also an accomplished fact. The mill have been built and are today turning out newsprint on the most up-to-date paper machine to be found anywhere. Co-incident with the building of the mill additional facilities for the grinding out the pulp and the preparing of the raw material for the machines had to be installed. A magnificent new substation has been erected in the ravine that at one time was know as the Hudson’s Bay Creek. Over one hundred miles of transmission line has been erected and electrical current pulsating at 110,000 volts is being transmitted from far away Big Falls to turn the wheels of industry and Fort Frances.

Views of these various undertakings, for the first time, are made to appear on the printed page. What was once only a flowing stream, the haunt of deer, the moose and the beaver, is now a source of power that is building up at Fort Frances one of the biggest and most important paper manufacturing places on the North American continent.

But the man of vision is not through. Ahead is an extensive program that will far over shadow the preset industrial enterprises, large as they undoubtedly are. Paradoxical as it may appear, Mr. Backus has given has in view, not the mere making of money, as some are prone to imagine, but the building of enterprises that will convert the waste products and the natural assets of the Northern Ontario wonderland into merchantable goods. In other words to produce something that will endure long after the man who promoted them is part of history. In such an enterprise and with such laudable purpose we are glad to give him due credit. Such as he are the real makers of Canada, and just as co-operation is extended to them will Canada prosper and take her proper among the great nations of the world.


In October, 1925, work has begun on the extensions at Fort Frances to the proposed paper mill. The first work undertaken was the building of a new train shed. This was completed in the winter or early spring of 1926. To permit of access to the train shed tracks had to be built down the hill, and a retaining wall constructed on the east side of the old mill. Owing to the slippery under-strata and the extreme depth of foundation for this wall, is presented a very difficult problem. An excellently equipped machine room had been constructed under the train shed and the new finishing room. The new paper machine, the largest in the world today, has been installed and is now turning out paper at the rate of 150 tons per day.

To supply this additional paper making machine an additional to the grinding room has been completed and 10,000 electrical horse power from Seine River will be required to turn these new grinders of pulpwood. The old barking room has been remodelled and two new automatic barking machines installed. This entire work was under the immediate supervision of Mr. W. H. Horton and was completed June, 1927.

During the construction of the work a long distance telephone line was constructed from Fort Frances to all the various units as far as Big Falls.

The Construction Superintendent was able to be constantly in touch with his managers in charge, and the work was greatly facilitated. For the further convenience of the men and the making of life at the camps more attractive, radio sets were installed at many of the camps providing amusement for the men during the winter evenings. Post offices of the second class variety were established and regular service inaugurated. Headquarters for Backus Brooks Construction Department was established at Atikokan where a complete office staff was maintained. Here as well as at the various works store rooms were maintained.

The electrical work on all these developments was under the direction of Mr. E. M. Rickenson. The engineering features of the projects were presided over by Mr. R. W. Andrews, chief engineer, Mr. W. M. Reynolds, resident engineer at Moose Lake and Calm Lake, Mr. F. M. Cornell, resident engineer at Sturgeon Falls and Mr. E. H. Lowe, resident engineer on transmission line construction. The work of controlling the water on the three projects has been carried on by Mr. Frank England, and the whole construction work was in charge of Mr. J. T. McLellan, Construction Manager, with headquarters at Atikokan.

To provide adequate medical care of the very large number of men employed a hospital was established at Atikokan for providing first aid and for the sick and injured. From there the more serious cases were sent to the hospital at Fort Frances where Dr. McKenzie took charge in the modern hospital. Dr. Robt. Henderson was in charge of the hospital first aid work at Atikokan.


Built and designed and installed by the Beloit Iron Works, of Beloit, Wis., the paper machine is driven by what is known as the Harland sectional paper machine drive, which consists of a main motor generator set of 900 h.p. capacity, switchboard and driving motors in each section of the paper machine. This drive is unique in that every drive motor is started and controlled by a remote control push button station in the front of the machine. Each section on so internally locked electrically that all sections are kept at relative speed. The machine manufactures a sheet of newsprint 212 inches, or almost 18 feet, in width. The Machine rolls travel at a maximum speed of 1,500 feet a minute, or over 17 miles per hour. This gives an output of 150 tons per 24 hours. It is the widest and fastest machine on the continent.

There are several novel features on the machine. The wire part can be taken out as a unit to facilitate changing of mesh. Where it formerly took 20 men six hours to change a wire on the old type of machine, six men can make the change in 30 minutes on this new machine. The old system of taking the paper over the drives to start by hand is now superseded by a rope drive that avoids this dangerous work. Compressed air is used on the callender and reel to guide the paper over. The reel is known as the continuous automatic type. And when one roll is completed another roll is started by means of a push button.