Representative Settlements—Planned and Unplanned

Nelson and Lumbering on the Miramichi

By Maureen English

As the Irish immigrants sailed into Miramichi Bay and onward up the Miramichi River towards Chatham they were amazed at the countryside.

It was just as had been told to them by sailors arriving in Ireland from the Miramichi. They told of the beautiful Miramichi River where they had docked; of the beautiful lush green land and trees as far as you could see; and about the government giving grants of land to people arriving from foreign lands.

In the years before the potato famine in Ireland, many people left the country for Canada (the New World). It was due to the unrest in Ireland due to religious persecutions. Many wanted a better life for their families, so they found passage aboard a ship bound for Canada to find this better life.

They were given land grants, some near the towns and some farther out of town. All cleared the land, cut the lumber, built their homes, and cleared more land and planted gardens, raised chickens and cows for food. They survived.

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Miramichi in 1851 – Nelson is just across the river from Newcastle. Photo courtesy of King, “The Irish Lumberman-Farmer”

As the time passed, many sawmills opened up, and the men were able to find employment to help with the growing cost of daily living. By 1832 there were 18 sawmills located in the Miramichi area.

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Logging in the Miramichi – photo courtesy of King, “The Irish Lumberman-Farmer”.

It was hard work, driving logs down rivers, carrying them on their backs, – getting them to the mills was the goal – they did what they had to do and made the best of it. These men had a real pioneer spirit unmatched by any we would see today. They had the courage and the foresight to see that as the years past, new methods and better modes of moving the logs would come and life would be easier for their children.

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A log jam on the Miramichi – photo courtesy of King, “The Irish Lumberman-farmer”

In the winters, many of the men left their home, leaving the wife and children to tend to the farm, while the went into a camp in the woods and cut the logs , and had them ready to transport down the river when spring came and the water was flowing fast. Many a life was lost during these “river drives”.

I will tell of three sawmills in my area of Miramichi ( Nelson ), that were founded by Irish immigrants. There were many more sawmills in the area, perhaps founded by Irish immigrants, but time permits me to mention these three.

Burchill family

The Burchill family—left to right—John Burchill, his mother Eliza, brother George with George’s wife, Mary, their daughter Mary, Percy (second child seated in front), George Sr., and Eliza, wife of John. Photo courtesy of English, “Nelson and her Neighbours'”

George Burchill

George was born in County Cork, Ireland in 1820 and came to the Miramichi in 1826 with his parents and siblings. In 1850 he purchased a half share (with John Harley) of Beaubears Island , including the ship yard, buildings, equipment and supplies. He and Harley continued their partnership of building shipS until 1857. At that time George sold his share to Harley and moved on to the mainland, Nelson. He opened a merchantile store in Nelson, on the banks of the Miranichi River. As business prospered, and the opportunity to have a sawmill on the same property arose, he took it. In 1875 the Burchill sawmill opened. The merchantile business and the sawmill continued to operate through five (5) generations of Burchills. In the years from 1970 to 1980 both business ceased operation.

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Burchill Mill Crew – circa 1900. Photo courtesy of English, “Nelson and her Neighbours'”

From the Burchill Family

  • Hon. John Percival Burchill M.L.A. for 29 years
  • Senator George Percival ( Percy )Burchill ( 1945 – 1977 )

John O’Brien

John O’Brien arrived on the Miramichi from Ireland in 1818 as a young man. He worked in the lumbering industry for a number of years, and in 1857 he established his own lumber business. O’ Brien’s Mill.

By 1902 he built his own sawmill. It continued to operate until the 1970 era.

From the O’Brien Family

  • John O’Brien M.L.A 1890 – 1903
  • J.Leonard O’Brien M.L.A. 1925 – 1930
  • House of Commons 1940 – 1945
  • Lieutenant Governor of N.B. 1958 – 1965

Thomas Gill

In 1825 Richard Gill arrived here from Ireland. He was 24 years old. He settled in Barnaby River. He married and raised his family.

His youngest son, Thomas, started the GILL lumbering business in the early 1900’s (possibly 1910). It continued operating until in it ceased operation in 1957.

There were numerous sawmills on the Miramichi during this era. The reason I mention these three founders of sawmillS in Nelson is that their descendants have made an impact in the political arena as well.

Also, from the Gill Family

Richard Gill M.L.A 1930 – 1959


  • Burchill, John G., A Miramichi Sage, Unpublished manuscript.
  • English Earl J., Nelson and Its Neighbours, Chatham, Walco Print & Litho Ltd., 1987.