A paper company waved an eighteen-million-dollar wand —and a town sprang from the Lake Superior wilderness

BRUCE McLEOD June 1 1947


A paper company waved an eighteen-million-dollar wand —and a town sprang from the Lake Superior wilderness

BRUCE McLEOD June 1 1947


A paper company waved an eighteen-million-dollar wand —and a town sprang from the Lake Superior wilderness


HE WASN’T a big man but he had a short bull neck and a barrel chest that made him look like a wrestler. He gnawed at a plug of tobacco and began pacing up and down the station platform at Marathon, Ont.

A flaming three-inch beard covered his chin and cheeks. Hair as black as a priest’s habit straggled over the collar of his sweat-stained bush shirt. He smelled Uke he needed a bath. Men often do when they come out of the pulp-cutting camps after weeks of slogging in the snow-filled forests, swinging an axe or bucking a saw through jack pine, balsam and spruce.

The young man beside me pointed out the burly Frenchman. “Wood chopper,” he said. “He’s the bush side of this Marathon story. He and the hundreds like him back in the bush camps. They’re the fellows who deliver the woods.”

“And made this town,” I suggested, jabbing a thumb in the direction of Marathon—an $18 million community hacked out of the bush wilderness 125 miles east of Port Arthur on Lake Superior’s rugged rocky north shore.

My companion shrugged. “Well, not exactly. Marathon is a combination of things. Men, wood, chemicals, machinery. Together they make paper. And paper made this town.”

I walked to the edge of the platform and looked out over the town. I saw the new mill where 450 are employed—five acres of it sprawled at the foot of Peninsula mountain. I saw the new homes, all neat and bright in their parklike surroundings. And out in the bay, one of the best-sheltered deepwater harbors in this part of the country, I saw a stubby little terrier of a tug plodding shoreward past the strange humpbacked islands that stick out of Superior’s cold, trout-filled waters.

But it was the sight of the wood that made me catch my breath. Two immense stacks of barked pulp stood along the rim óf the bay, looking for all the world like giant toothpicks spilled from a box. It had been cut by men like the big, tobaccochewing Frenchman and rafted behind tugs from the mouth of the swirling, muddy Pic river, 12 miles across the bay. Those towering stacks of pulpwood seemed symbolic of this bustling new town. They were food for the mill; payday for the town’s 1,200 people; indeed father and mother to the town itself.

Standing there by the big black water tower overlooking Marathon, I found it hard to believe that three years ago there had been nothing here but the bush and rock and the bleached bones and empty whisky bottles left behind by the builders of the Canadian Pacific Railway who had passed this way more than half a century earlier. Back in the 1880’s they, too, had founded a town on this site. They called it Peninsula—the wickedest frontier town in Canada. But as the twin ribbons. of steel had been pushed farther and farther to the west the construction gang® had pulled out. The buildings had been left to rot and the bush, stripped for acres around to make ties for the railway, had come back and swallowed the ruins of the town.

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When the papermakers arrived one rainy day in June, 1943, to reclaim the site, they found only a handful of people in the area. Most of these were settled in three or four frame shacks near the old railway station, a half mile east of where Marathon was destined to rise out of the forest.

“We started from scratch,” recalls Grant Ross, former chief engineer and now mill manager for the Marathon Company. “After several preliminary visits construction men broke the first ground in April, 1944. We spent about a year setting up camps, laying tracks, building roads, bulldozing timber.”

Within 36 months a completely new town rose out of the wilderness, complete with post office, police and fire departments, a 14-bed hospital, church, model school, 30-room hotel, community hall, bank, theatre, 261 homes and apartments and a streamlined shopping centre.

But this was only part of the Marathon success story. There was the mill, completed and in production a scant 16 months after actual construction work started. Fifteen million dollars was poured into this giant which today is approaching a production rate of 300 tons of sulphate pulp a day.

Dr. Ferdinand Kraft, the mill’s technical director, points with pride to his “baby.* It has all its operations under a single roof, and Dr. Kraft says there is nothing to equal it anywhere in the world. He estimates the value of its annual output at close to $10 millions.

You bump into a statistic almost every time you turn a corner at Marathon. They talk about the 10 million feet of lumber used in construction; the 2,500 workmen employed on the job; the more than 4,000 railway freight cars that brought in supplies and equipment; the 25 miles of pipe laid in the town and mill; the 20 million gallons of water used every 24 hours by the mill—and a lot of other things, all staggering in size and volume. But a town is only as interesting as its people and I was more interested in seeing what made them tick than 1 was in looking at long rows of figures on a chart.

No Welcome for No-Goods

The first man I met at Marathon was a little, stooped individual who liked to talk about dogs. As I stepped off the train he offered to carry my bags down the sand and gravel slope leading to the hotel. “Quite a town,” he said, blowing rain off the tip of his nose. “Peaceful and respectable. Since most of the construction boys moved out t’ain’t even a good crap game or a fist fight. Ain’t nothin’ like the town that used to be here long time ago.”

“You mean Peninsula?” I asked.

He shifted the bags in his hands. “Yep, worst town in Canada, so they say. Drinkin’, brawlin’, killin’. Lots of fellas lyin’ around these parts in graves nobody bothered to mark. They tell me one night a big dice game was on when a dog walked into the room luggin’ a man’s head in its mouth. Nobody paid no attention. Just kept rollin’ the dice.”

One thing you have to get accustomed to in Marathon is the fact it is a company town. The company owns all the buildings and leases space in them to businesses. The drugstore, bank, theatre -everything occupying space in Marathon is there only because the company permits it. If the company doesn’t want you there it can even prevent you from getting off the train.

The company system has also kept Marathon free from the card sharks, gamblers and fly-by-nights who travel the country preying on new towns especially during construction days. Such characters, including several ladies of the evening who attempted to invade the townsite, were quickly hustled out.

The incorporated name of the community is the Improvement District of Marathon. A three-man board of trustees, appointed by the government, directs its affairs. A. R. MacCallum, comptroller of the company, is board chairman. Acting with him are W. O. Elliott, manager of Marathon’s branch of the Dominion Bank, and Robert Marsden, a mill employee. Much of the administrative burden falls upon the shoulders of Len Pennal an easy-going, patient man who, as townsite manager, has to listen ti» the daily troubles and complaints of the men and women who came from many parts of Canada and the United States to settle this new town.

Pennal took me on a tour of the townsite and practically everywhere we ( went someone had a problem for him. ; Young men from the mill heckled him for homes. Wives whose husbands worked night shifts at the mill and slept during the day wanted to know how they could get wood split for their stoves. Another young bride, who had travelled more than 2,000 miles to join her husband at Marathon, complained that a bear was raiding her garbage by night. She wasn’t frightened but, she told Pennal, “I don’t think it’s sanitary.”

The bush fringing Marathon is a favorite haunt for bears. Gordon Chisholm is the town’s top bear hunter, with more than a dozen to his credit. Residents have shot more than 24 of the animals at the town dump.

“We have to clean ’em out,” says Chisholm, “so people can go picking berries. We got the biggest blueberries up here you ever seen.”

Where Dogs Go to School

Dogs, not bears, are one of the town manager’s biggest headaches. Everybody seems to own a dog. Big ones, little ones. Friendly ones, snappy ones.

All sha{>es, sizes, colors and breeds. No one bothers to tie them up and Pennal is wondering how to control the situation. When the temperature drops to subzero levels (White River, Canada’s famous cold spot, is only 60 miles away) the dogs line up in the drugstore and go to sleep.

Even at the town’s school the dogs are a problem. Dogs often follow the children to school and sit on the low sills of the full-length windows to j watch their young masters at work. Sometimes they howl so loud the j teachers have to send the little gaffers out to take their pups home.

In addition to being trouble shooter among residents of the new town, Pennal supervises a booming property business in the company’s behalf. Under his management come the 261 dwelling units now available to townspeople. And there’ll be more before the building program Ls completed.

It is refreshing to walk the wide sand and gravel streets of Marathon and find yourself hemmed in by bright new homes. I have visited many company towns hut I have seen nothing to match the townsite at Marathon. No tar paper shacks here. No monotonous rows of dingy dwellings constructed from the same set of plans. When they laid out their town Marathon’s officials displayed the same foresight and planning they used in construction of the mill^

There are about 160 fourand sixroom detached homes and 40 semidetached dwellings. There are also 40 apartments and 21 prefabricated houses. The long row's of barrack-type buildings used to house construction workers are being torn down as rapidly as the construction gangs move out. A few will be retained and converted into a laundry and possibly a curling rink.

Most of the homes are two-story frame buildings such as you might see in any suburban residential area. Costing anywhere from $6,000 to $12,000, they are covered with asbestos shingle, have picture windows, full basements and warm-air furnaces. Each home has hardwood floors throughout, a modern kitchen, living room, dining room, two or three bedrooms and tiled bathroom. Spacious grounds surround each home and the bright red, blue and green roofs sticking up out of the white birch and pine of the town’s winding boulevards make a very picturesque sight. Monthly rents range from $30 to $42.50.

Before the bulldozers were turned j loose on the timber, hundreds of trees I were marked and left standing. This* has greatly simplified the landscaping job to be undertaken this summer.

Town Without Cars

Marathon is a town without fences, doorbells and traffic hazards. The company has a few trucks, but no one cares to own a car since there is no highway to the outside. Everybody comes and goes by train. It’s a town without a graveyard, too - though a site has been picked. To date, there have been no deaths in Marathon. The town’s first barber was drowned while out fishing in the hay, hut Lake Superior, running j true to tradition, never gave up the I body.

The new barber, Hank Marcotte, is a former hard-rock miner and trumpet player from Geraldton, Ont., who was working in the company’s barking plant when his predecessor with the clippers tumbled to a watery grave. Hank figured he could shave faces as well as logs - and he hus worked up one of the sweetest businesses in tow'n. During the height of the construction days he clipped 73 heads and shaved 15 i beards in a single day.

Hank, who is married and has three ! children, sometimes works from 7.30 j in the morning until 11 o’clock at night. But now that the construction crews are thinning out he’ll probably spend j less time lathering chins and more singing with the church choir or blowing hot licks on the trumpet.

The first woman in Marathon was pretty May Nichol, a slim efficient blonde who came from Port Arthur to join her husband Johnny, manager of the town’s swank Everest Hotel. The ; Nichols arrived about two and a half ; years ago, before the hotel was completed, and they have watched the ! town grow from a lusty, squalling babe ; in the woods to a dignified, prosperous j community.

Johnny, a pleasant dark-haired chap, I who wears a friendly grin and glasses, is very proud of the establishment he runs. It is a 30-room building tinted attractively in various shades of cream, white and green. Maple furniture is in all the rooms and the lobby Ls bright with chrome and leather - finished chairs. There Ls a beverage room in the basement, a quiet, orderly place where bush workers and construction men and mill hands sip their ale with none of the noisy rowdyism usually associated with frontier towns. No women are permitted. And if anybody in Marathon wants a drink of liquor they have to send to the Lakehead for a bottle.

“Right now,” Nichol told me, “most of our rooms are used by employees. When things get rolling properly, however, we’ll be catering to outsiders just like any other hotel.”

The drugstore soda fountain is another good place to get a close-up of Marathon’s population. On the stools of the lunch counter you can see men in army jackets, parkas, sport jackets, mackinaws, sweaters. Office workers. Executives. Mill hands. Pulp cutters. Everybody has a wad of money. (Wages in the mill start at 90 cents an hour.) I watched five men, one after the other, pay for sandwiches or coffee with $20 bills. Another left a dollar tip for the waitress who served him a butterscotch sundae.

Marathon’s housewives can’t. and don’t lay claim to a frontier existence. They’re pioneers, all right, but they’ve taken up life in the new paper town without any of the hardships and privations experienced by settlers in Northern Ontario’s mining and paper towns 25 years ago. Posh homes, modern sew'ers, running water and electric lights have replaced the tents, outhouses, creek water and lanterns with which many a bride of another day started life in the northern forests.

Marathon women can shop at the town’s department store. Millinery, men’s wear, hardware, furniture, china, toys, draperies even a special department for babies - are at milady’s beck and call. The modern grocery store and butcher shop features well-stocked shelves and, when shortages were most acute, hard-to-get supplies and merchandise were handed out to shoppers in alphabetical order.

The wives do have a couple of squawks, however. They’d like a milk delivery and they think the men have hatched a deep, dark plot to keep them from having a beauty shop. Officials have promised it won’t be long before the ladies will be able to park themselves under a drier and gossip to their heart’s content.

Up-to-date Medical Care

For a time, having a baby in Marathon was a sort of outpost affair. But now Marathon’s mothers haven’t much to worry about. The town’s ultramodern $120,000 hospital offers the latest in equipment and surgical skill. Three Marathon babies wouldn’t wait for the hospital to be completed and were born “at home.” Half a dozen babies have been born since the hospital opened. The first was a little girl named Gain/

“We couldn’t resist . calling her ‘Sugar,’ ” confesses Mae O’Brien, one of the five nurses attached to the staff.

I dropped around to the hospital for a chat with Dr. George Bastedo, a softspoken man who served with the Canadian Army in Italy and Holland and won a D.S.O. for his work as a front-line surgeon. He showed me his hospital, pointing with pride to the neat, colorful rooms, the Swedish surgical instruments, the gleaming sterilizing units, X-ray equipment and the explosion-proof switches and lighting with which the two-story building is equipped.

Assisting Dr. Bastedo is Dr. Robert Graham, a veteran of the RCAF. They are busy men. In a single month last year they gave 1,100 treatments at the hospital. Since it is a company hospital fees are no barrier between doctor and patient. Marathoners come readily to be. examined and usually, says Dr. BjSstedo, one out of every 10 patients is Cpund to suffer from an ailment he is quite unaware of.

The town’s spiritual life is supervised by a priest who comes from White River each Sunday to conduct mass for Catholics and by a minister who travels 50 miles from Schreiber to preach to the Protestants. Catholic services are conducted in a little weathered grey frame building. Protestant services are being held in the theatre until a new church can be built. It will be a community church without Anglican, Presbyterian or United Church labels. Marathoners like to think of it as the first practical step to the much-talked-about union of Protestant churches in this country.

The theatre, recently completed, is made of cement and seats 500. The new community hall, too, is a popular spot with its bowling alleys, snack bar, billiard rooms, library, clubrooms, auditorium and accommodation for basketball and badminton. The huge cobblestone fireplace was fashioned from boulders ripped from the lake bottom.

The bank is the only brick building in town. On paydays the 1st and 16th of each monthit stays open from six in the morning until nine at night.

The town school is something to see. It has eight classrooms, all on one floor, with huge windows. North-side rooms are tinted suntone and rose tan. Rooms on the south are a restful green.

-Most of the more than 80 students afe in the early grades, and they come from Grand Falls, Nfld.,on the east, to New Westminster, B.C., on the west. Books, pencils, scribblers everything is provided by the company. “The kiddies just need to bring themselves,” says Stuart Armstrong, the principal.

Paper From Porridge

One place you can’t visit without a permit is the mill. The processes used by Marathon have been very hushhush and observers aren’t encouraged to watch. With Grant Ross, a big, discerning man who likes plaid shirts, I went on a tour of the plant. Ross, who is manager of the mill, is considered by people who should know, to be tops in his line.

As you walk from the spacious fluorescent-lighted offices into the processing plant of the mill, it’s like stepping into a Buck Rogers world where jade and pale green are the ruling colors. High above ground level catwalks run everywhere. You feel like an ant as you look up at the giant digestors where pulp chips are cooked under pressure until they become wooden porridge. There are squat vats of flowing liquids and a huge drying machine 110 feet long. Out of its jaws rolls an endless soggy sheet of sulphate pulp 136 inches wide.

There’s drama in this mill - and humor too. Like the story of the employee who uses a 600-ton mill press to put a crease in his trousers.

The first bale of sulphate pulp came off Marathon’s production line at 10.30 the night of Oct. 15, 1946. I saw it standing in a corridor of the mill, dozens of autographs scribbled on its sides. To produce that first bale of unbleached paper Marathon had spent more than $15 millions.

That bale had its beginnings miles back in the bush where Marathon’s woods division operates a string of pulp-cutting camps. Cutting limits extend over an area embracing 2,800 square miles, and when the first freshet unlocked the waters of the Pic River, thousands of logs went tumbling down toward Lake Superior urged on by the pike poles and muscles of the river drive crews.

Asa Allhiser, who supervises the woods operations, told me that some of these logs travel 120 miles to Marathon from the spot where they stood with their feet in the rock and muskeg of the north shore country.

At Marathon they are held by a giant wooden necklace that stretches from the shore line half a mile into the bay. As they are taken from this boom they are cut into four-foot lengths, hustled screaming through the drum barking plant and tossed high onto the stock piles.

Allhiser pointed at those mountains of wood. “About 12 million pieces up there,” he said. “Keep freezing in wintertime so we have to dynamite ’em. The mill eats it up at a rate of 500 cords a day.”

Conveyor belts carry the harked pulpw(K)d from the stock piles to the mill. There it’s dumped into the whirling knives of the “chipper,” which slashes and tears it to almost toothpick proportions, and a scant 36 hours later it emerges from the production line in t he form of sheets of sulphate pulp. Trains or boats haul it. to the parent company in Wisconsin. There, after further screening and bleaching it becomes the stuff that goes into your newspaper, wraps up your groceries, dries your hands in the washroom and soaks up the ink from your fountain pen.

Its uses are without count. And at Marathon, newest of the paper towns, it’s rolling off the line 24 hours a day.