The Founding of Iroquois Falls

On October 1, 2009, the Ontario Heritage Trust, the Iroquois Falls Community Development Team and the Town of Iroquois Falls unveiled a provincial plaque at the Iroquois Falls Curling Club to commemorate the Founding of Iroquois Falls.

The bilingual plaque reads as follows:


    This region’s first inhabitants were aboriginal peoples who were attracted by its abundant natural resources and extensive water routes. Europeans arrived in the late 1600s to acquire furs and establish trade with the First Nations. During the early 1900s, Montreal businessman Frank Anson recognized the region’s potential for paper manufacturing and, in 1912, he and Shirley Ogilvie were granted a pulpwood concession of over one million acres. Anson oversaw the establishment of Abitibi Power & Paper Company, Limited – the largest newsprint mill in North America at the time. The extension of the Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Railway further supported the development and rapid growth of the area. Initially a company-owned and planned town, Iroquois Falls was incorporated in 1915. The Great Fire of 1916 destroyed a large portion of the town but the community was able to rebuild. In 1920, Anson initiated a beautification program that incorporated some elements of Garden City planning ideals, which remain evident today.


    Les premiers habitants de la région sont des peuples autochtones, attirés par l'abondance des ressources naturelles et l'étendue des voies navigables. Les Européens arrivent à la fin des années 1600 pour faire l'acquisition de fourrures et établir un commerce avec les Premières nations. Au début des années 1900, l'homme d'affaires montréalais Frank Anson prend conscience du potentiel de la région pour la fabrication de papier et, en 1912, il se voit accorder, avec Shirley Ogilvie, une concession de bois à pâte de plus d'un million d'acres. Il supervise alors la création de la Abitibi Power & Paper Company, Limited, la plus grande usine de papier journal de l'époque en Amérique du Nord. L'expansion du Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Railway contribue à favoriser le développement et la croissance rapide de la région. Initialement propriété de la société qui l'a bâtie, la ville d'Iroquois Falls est constituée en personne morale en 1915. Le grand incendie de 1916 détruit une grande partie de la ville, mais la collectivité renaît de ses cendres. En 1920, Frank Anson entame un programme d'embellissement incorporant certains des concepts d'aménagement d'une cité-jardin, qui subsistent encore de nos jours.

Historical background

The environment, original inhabitants and contact

The physical environment left in the wake of the Laurentide Ice Sheet’s retreat roughly 10,000 years ago played a crucial role in founding Iroquois Falls. The bed of the glacial Lake Barlow-Ojibway left behind the heavy soil that created the Great Clay Belt of northern Ontario and Quebec. This generally flat terrain supported a forest composed largely of black spruce, with the scattered pockets of sandier soils boasting stands of jack pine; white birch and poplar were interspersed among these species on disturbed sites. Water was also a dominant feature of the local terrain, which was criss-crossed by rivers and pockmarked by lakes and swamps.1

The area around Iroquois Falls — a cataract on the Abitibi River in the Great Clay Belt area of northern Ontario — was originally the territory of Ojibway peoples of the Nipissing and Dokis bands.2 They lived by hunting, fishing and trading, an existence they continued for decades after the first Europeans entered the region in the late 1600s to establish the fur trade. The water route from Iroquois Falls through the Abitibi River east into Lake Abitibi and into Quebec was a major transportation route used by First Nations peoples and later by explorers and fur traders for several hundred years.

Aboriginal oral tradition explains that the present-day site of Iroquois Falls was given its name after the region’s Ojibway inhabitants spotted a flotilla of attacking Iroquois upstream in canoes and either led or drove them over the falls — a drop of roughly 4.5 metres (15 feet) — to their death, thereby foiling their attack.

Europeans began arriving in the region during the late 17th century. Attracted for numerous reasons, most notably the desire to obtain valuable beaver furs, the French and British battled for control of this area by establishing competing posts in the region; the first one on the shores of Lake Abitibi appeared in 1686. While contact brought diseases to which the First Nations people were vulnerable and unleashed unprecedented pressures on local fur-bearing populations, for several centuries the aboriginals in this region were able to adapt their traditional lifestyles to the newcomers’ arrival.3

The advent of industry

Railroads were built in northeastern Ontario just after the turn of the 20th century. They brought people into the region and transported its vast resources to market. For its part, the Ontario government advocated the challenging notion that the area could be turned into the province’s new agricultural frontier. To facilitate this goal, it constructed the Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Railway (T.& N.O.), with its original line running from North Bay to Cochrane, and made practically free land readily available for settlement. But the enormous challenges inherent in first clearing the forest and then farming in such a harsh environment, combined with the astounding silver and gold strikes respectively at Cobalt and Porcupine in the early 1900s, dictated that mining — not agriculture — would be the attraction that drew most people to the region.

Frank Harris Anson, a native of Michigan and a Montreal businessman, whose business experience prior to coming to northern Ontario included exploring the Orinoco River in South America for rubber, became fixated on the prospect of finding gold in the Abitibi basin. Although two McGill University students he had hired to search for gold found none, they did return with a report of impressive forests of giant spruce trees and potential waterpower. After a personal visit to the region confirmed the positive news, Anson decided to devote himself to the development of a massive newsprint mill in the midst of the hinterland. While his detractors referred to his venture as “Anson’s folly,” Anson and Shirley Ogilvie — his partner in the project — identified economic advantages accruing to a mill location that allowed lower shipping costs to the burgeoning newsprint markets in the midwestern United States than its more eastern rivals.4

The government tendered the 4,040-square-kilometre (1,560-square-mile) Abitibi pulpwood concession in mid-1912 and promised the winning bidder a waterpower lease to Iroquois and Couchiching Falls.5 Anson and Ogilvie won the tender, but in negotiating a lease to the pulpwood tract, the government demonstrated its desire to expedite settlement in the north and its intent to retain the balance of power vis-à-vis the new industry. Anson sought exclusive privileges to his pulpwood, but the government believed granting this request would inhibit colonization. So when Minister Howard Hearst announced news of this deal, he emphasized that the “lands covered by this pulp concession are not withdrawn from sale or settlement, so that there is no monopoly or tying up of land,” and that the local settlers could now sell the spruce they cleared from their land at better prices.6 Within a few years, local residents had claimed thousands of acres near Anson’s mill. Likewise, when he negotiated the leases to develop the waterpowers for his undertaking, the Ontario government drew up contracts that granted him tenuous control over them and limited his ability to generate electricity.7

Abitibi and Iroquois Falls are born

Nevertheless, Anson was determined to disprove his detractors, and he pushed ahead with the enterprise at Iroquois Falls, which he named Abitibi Power & Paper Company, Limited.8 A branch line was built from the T. & N.O. to the town site in 1913, and by 1915, Abitibi was producing 225 tons of newsprint daily, or as much newsprint as its power supply would permit. By the end of the decade, the firm had increased the capacity of its mill to over 500 tons daily, making it the largest of its kind on the continent.9 The meteoric growth of Anson’s mill and Iroquois Falls signified the arrival of the newsprint industry as one of northern Ontario’s social and economic pillars.

Anson was just as committed to building a company town for Abitibi’s employees, one that was anything but the typical, haphazard frontier community. This entailed applying the ideas from the British and American Garden City movement, which combined aesthetics with utility in planning urban centres.10 In the case of one-industry towns, it involved laying out self-contained communities that provided for all facets of their residents’ lives. The plans for Iroquois Falls, drafted by a Chicago architectural firm,11 included distinct residential and industrial areas, with the mill located in the latter, and its curvilinear residential streets intersecting on a grid. At its core was the “downtown,” one that boasted both a large park and the community’s commercial enterprises. Although the company arranged the houses in a manner that segregated the different strands of the community’s socio-economic strata (single homes for managers and administrators and semi-detached for workers), every residence was aesthetically appealing because all the lots were large enough for their own lawns and gardens and the sewer and hydro-electric lines were located in alleys behind the homes. The company also built a hotel, town hall and sports facilities to accommodate the social and leisure needs of the earliest residents of Iroquois Falls, most of whom had migrated from pulp and paper towns in New England. By 1915, the town was no longer closed, and was incorporated by the Ontario Railway and Municipal Board. Abitibi continued beautifying the community during the 1920s through the addition of flower gardens along its main thoroughfare and a golf course between the mill and town.12

In 1916, a great fire swept through much of the northeastern area of Ontario and destroyed a large part of Iroquois Falls and the surrounding communities. A determined effort by employees saved the Abitibi lumber mill. Iroquois Falls and nearby communities were subsequently rebuilt.

Those who wished to work at or in the shadow of Abitibi’s mill but not live in the planned community found several outlets for expressing their views. A town sprang up on the other side of the railway tracks from Iroquois Falls soon after the company produced its first newsprint. Originally known as The Wye, and later Ansonville, it was a separate and unplanned community that lacked basic amenities but provided its largely French-Canadian citizens (and a few Jewish and eastern European immigrants) with the freedom to locate and build their homes and businesses as they pleased. When an effort to bring a modicum of municipal administration to the breakaway community proved contentious to some residents in the early 1920s, they established Victoria (later Montrock) to the northwest of Ansonville.13

By the time Abitibi had its 10-year anniversary, the town of Iroquois Falls had much to celebrate. The community had ‘arrived’. It was a modern, robust paper mill town deep in northern Ontario, whose beauty and spirit personified the ideals of Frank Anson, the town’s progressive and innovative founder.14 In January 1935, the town set the record low temperature for Ontario of -58°C (-73°F). Today, Iroquois Falls continues to be a small but vibrant community that is home to the top-producing mill of AbitibiBowater, and paper manufacturing remains the town’s primary industry.

The Ontario Heritage Trust gratefully acknowledges the research of Mark Kuhlberg in preparing this paper.

© Ontario Heritage Trust, 2009

1 Ken Armson, Ontario Forests: A Historical Perspective (Toronto: Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 2001), 33-38 and Ch. IV.

2 While the terms Ojibway and Iroquois are still used in this historical context and by certain First Nations, many groups and communities now choose to refer to themselves as Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee respectively.

3 Kerry M. Abel, Changing Places: History, Community and Identity in Northeastern Ontario (Kingston/Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006), Ch. 2.

4 D.W. Ambridge, Frank Harris Anson: Pioneer in the North (New York: Newcomen Society in North America, 1952), 8-12. Apparently, there was an abortive attempt to establish a pulp and paper mill in the Abitibi basin in 1901, the details of which can be gleaned from AO, RG3-1-0-1, all documents, especially June 1901, Agreement between the Ontario government and John McAlpine.

5 AO, RG75-57, OC68/425.

6 Annual Report of the Ontario Department of Lands, Forests and Mines, 1913, vi.

7 AO, MU1311, Northern Ontario — Its Progress and Development under the Whitney Government (ca. 1914).

8 The company went through several corporate incarnations over the 1912-1915 period, but it ended up with this name, which it retained for decades.

9 Ambridge, passim; AO, F150, File-F-150-8-0-23, Murray, Mather & Co., Circular for Abitibi stock offering, 1914; ibid., MU1309, File – Envelope 1, 23 October 1912, Memo for Mr. Gibson Re: Abitibi; ibid., 11 October 1913, J. A. McAndrew to W. H. Hearst; ibid., RG1-E-4-B, Volume 3, 8-9, 15 August 1912, F. Anson and S. Ogilvie to W. H. Hearst; ibid., RG3-4, Water Power Crown Leases 1920, 29 November 1920, E. C. Drury to A. Beck; PPMC, 13 May 1920.

10 During the late 1900s in England, Ebenezer Howard began to create plans for Garden Cities, which included both socio-economic and physical parameters. Howard’s philosophy was to sustain a healthy, natural and economic combination of town and country life complemented by a balance of work and leisure.

11 Chicago architect A.P. Melton designed the original plan which was later reworked by G.F. Summers and H.S. Crabtree. Summers and Crabtree were local land surveyors who paid particular attention to the topographical conformation of the site.

12 Oiva Saarinen, “The Influence of Thomas Adams and the British New Town Movement in the Planning of Canadian Resource Communities,” in Artibise and Stelter, The Usable Urban Past: Planning and Politics in the Modern Canadian City [Carleton University, 1979]; Abel, 82-86.

13 Abel, 85-86. In 1969, the three towns were amalgamated and became known as the Corporation of the Town of Iroquois Falls.

14 Abitibi: A Story in Pictures — An Illustrated Story of the Development of the Newsprint Paper Mill of the Abitibi Power & Paper Company, Limited, Iroquois Falls, Ontario, Montreal, Abitibi Power & Paper Co., 1924.