Thomas W. Riordan and his Grist, Carding and Sawmills
From Disadvantage in County Cork, Ireland
To Small Industry in Gloucester County, New Brunswick, Canada

By Greg Riordan

Thomas W. Riordon was born in Pokeshaw, New Brunswick (a portion of which was called Riordon for some time) on March 12th, 1867 to John Joseph Riordon Jr. and Ellen (Walsh) Riordon. His father (J. J. Riordon Jr.) was born at the same place in 1837, being the son of Irish Immigrants, John Riordon Sr. and Johanna Leahy. John Riordon Sr. (the immigrant) was one of four boys; Patrick, John, James and Matthew, all of whom crossed the Atlantic from Ireland to North America some time between 1820 and 1825. The exact place of residence and the socio-economic status of the Riordons immediately prior to their departure from Ireland is not known. As to date, investigations have not revealed precise information.

A biography of Archbishop Patrick William Riordon, second Archbishop of San Francisco does provide some insight however. Patrick William Riordon was the eldest son of Matthew who is believed to be the youngest of the aforesaid four brothers. Matthew appears to have arrived in Canada several years later than the three other brothers and initially settled in the Miramichi area (rather than on the south shore of the Bay of Chaleur as his brothers did) where he married one Molly Dunne. Shortly thereafter, he and family moved to Chicago with other members of the Dunne family where the young Patrick entered the seminary and began what was to become a somewhat pivotal role in the early Roman Catholic Church of the Western United States.

The biography, written in 1965 by Reverend James P. Gaffey suggests that the Riordons lived in Kinsale prior to departure. This coincides with what has been passed down orally through the successive generations of descendants of John Riordon Sr. The proposition that Matthew was a tradesman (shipwright) and therefore quite employable also coincides with family oral story. There is no mention either in the biography or in family folklore as to what the other three brothers might have been engaged in before departure from Ireland, nor what might have instigated their immigration to Canada.

In the aforementioned biography, Reverend Gaffey does quite eloquently describe the extremely disadvantaged state of Ireland and its native people. He describes the effects of the end of the Napoleonic Wars, centuries of confiscations of Irish Lands by the English from the largely agrarian Irish people, the penal laws and the crippling collection of tithes for the established Church of England. The basic derangement of the Irish economy and the rapid growth of the Irish population in the early 1800s created a crisis. Vast estates were in the hands of foreign landlords and remaining lands were divided and subdivided into a multitude of holdings so small that the native farmer could barely survive. Reverend Gaffey quoted Sir Walter Scott who described the condition of the average Irish farmer at the time:

There is much less exaggeration about the peasantry than might be imagined. Their poverty is no exaggeration; it is on the extreme verge of human misery; their cottages scarce serve for pig styes even in Scotland; and their rags seem the very refuge of a sheep, and are overspread on their bodies with such ingenious variety of wretchedness that you would think nothing but some sort of perverted taste could have assembled so many shreds together.

Again, it is not known where the Riordons fit into this mosaic, though one might assume that their position was not one of utter despair as they were able to buy passage to North America. No doubt the political stagnation and the relentless economic constrictions that clouded the breadth of Ireland gave birth to the waves of Irish Immigration after 1815 in which the Riordons found themselves.

Certainly, at the outset, life in Canada was not easy. John Riordon Sr. settled next to his brother Patrick in Pokeshaw where they began establishing clearings in the hope of obtaining land grants. The following quote from an 1833 Land Grant petition submitted on behalf of 36 of Pokeshaw’s original settlers, including Patrick Riordon, John Riordon Sr.’s brother, aptly describes the plight of Pokeshaw’s initial inhabitants. (It should be noted that many of the 36 had petitioned for their lands before this time).

“Your Excellency’s petitioners having been neighbours in the land of their birth were naturally desirous of continuing so in this country and having heard of this desolute and lonely tract from which the face of mankind appeared to be averted, they, in a body attempted a settlement upon it, trusting that by reciprocal acts of support and assistance they might in time surmount those obstacles which have too long deterred individual enterprises. Ignorant of the rigours of the climate and nearly destitute of the means of procuring those common necessities of life which they had then scarcely learned to want, their sufferings in a trackless wilderness far distant from any habitation of man may be easily conceived, they cannot trouble your Excellency with a recital of what they endured, suffice to say that several of the old people and some of the children perished during the first winters.
Your petitioners by dint of hard labour and industry have at length in some measure subdued the wilderness, their clearances are now sufficient for the support of their families, and they have lately entered into arrangements for the support of a schoolmaster, nor have they been negligent of those duties which they owe to their King and County. Your petitioners during the last nine yeas have cheerfully performed their Militia duty and Statue labour and paid their proportion of all rates and assessments for country and parish charges, participating (until lately) in the provincial appropriations only to the extent of a few small sums to offset in cutting passages down the cliffs.”1

In 1839, John Riordon Sr. who had been living next to his brother Patrick and who had been working in co-operation with Patrick, applied for 100 acres next to him. Fortunately, with his petition, he was assisted by William End, a Justice of the Peace in Bathurst whom, it is reported, had been a champion of Irish and Acadian efforts. Mr. End added the following remark to John Riordon Sr.’s petition:

“I cannot refrain from laying the case of this unfortunate petitioner before his Excellency. He has a sickly wife and seven children all dependent on his labour. About four years ago he was caught in a snow storm and had both feet so frozen that all of his toes dropped off. In this condition, he continued to cultivate his clearance for the support of his family. He got a little better and at length was able to go into the woods for firewood. While there employed, a tree fell upon him and broke his left arm. Far removed from proper assistance, he lingered a long time under this injury and his feet again became very troublesome. He is a hard working and sober man and determined to die rather than apply for aid to the parish. When his arm began to mend, his feet still continued so painful that he was for several months, unable to stand. Notwithstanding this accumulation of misery, he has persisted in supporting his family and, as I am credibly informed he has frequently been seen at the earliest dawn of day assisted by his eldest child, a girl of ten, on his knees, his left arm bound up, hoeing his potatoes with the right, unable either to stand or use his left arm.”2

In time, with perseverance and hard work, progress was made and self-sufficient farms were established. The business of clearing lands, raising crops and livestock, building houses and barns was all consuming during those years. Survival dictated their industry. Unfortunately, their initially weak socio-economic status, their reluctance to promote and infringe on others and the overbearing influence of the neighbouring cultures, dictated the gradual demise of their own language and many of their cultural niceties, just as was the Irish experience in the remainder of the Province.

In 1852, John Riordon Sr. conveyed one acre of his land where the Pokeshaw River crossed his Grant, to a William Boltenhouse.3 Mr. Boltenhouse purchased three acres from Patrick Riordon’s neighbouring lot (also where the Pokeshaw River crosses) in 1853.4 It is said that Mr. Boltenhouse was a close descendant of the Yorkshire settlers who established themselves in the Sackville area of New Brunswick during the latter half of the 18 century. In any event, Mr. Boltenhouse apparently had the capital to construct a saw and grist mill on the property purchased from the Riordon’s which he operated for the better part of a decade. Following William Boltenhouse’s death in 1860, Boltenhouse’s descendants transferred the Mills and mill property to Thomas and Richard Dempsey5 and Richard Dempsey conveyed his ½ interest to Thomas Dempsey in 1880.6 Both Dempseys were descendants of Irish Immigrants. In 18887 the Mill site returned to the ownership of the Riordon family along with the dam, the mill buildings and machinery. They were purchased in the name of Thomas W. Riordon; however, there were resources required for such an acquisition and such were provided for by his father, John J. Riordon Jr. as Thomas would only have been 21 years of age at the time.

Young Thomas W. Riordon began learning the business and operating the mill soon after the purchase. Unfortunately, within a year or so disaster struck. The Mills, the adjacent road bridge and the dam burned to the ground.

Thomas W. Riordon was somewhat discouraged. However, at the urging of his father, his neighbours and the local parish priest, he decided to rebuild. With the help of his father and neighbours who were aware of the advantage of a local mill, construction began. Two “post and beam” buildings were constructed. Family oral tradition holds that a civil war veteran, Patrick McKernin, was the principal carpenter. It is said that all of the frame pieces were cut, squared and mortised in the forest with assembly taking place later at the site. One building was finished on the exterior as finely as a home; this one housed a three story gristmill and a large carding machine. Each story of the grist mill building was packed with machinery used in the different phases of flour production and consisted of over twenty tons of shafts, turbines and rollers. Being inside the mill was like being at the center of a sprawling tangle of shafts, conveyor belts, chutes and collector bins. Before the wheat was ground into flour, it traveled from the bottom floor to the top three times. Advanced for its time, the grist mill used metal rollers rather than mill stones to grind the wheat and water driven turbines rather than water wheels to supply the water power. The mill equipment was built to be aesthetic as well as functional. Each piece of equipment was carefully painted and shaped in an almost sculpture-like fashion. The manufacturer name “Greey’s” of Toronto appeared in several places on the machinery written with italic grandeur along with its patent date, being 1888. It is obvious that the machinery and equipment was very advanced for its time, especially in rural New Brunswick given the date of its patent and the date of its installation at the Riordon Mill site (early 1890s). The carding machine, on the upper floor, also powered by the same turbine, was as technologically advanced at the grist mill and somewhat massive in weight and size.

The second building housed the sawmill which included a long lumber left-handed carriage, cut-off saws, a lathe machine and a shingle mill. That equipment was initially powered by a twin set of water wheel turbines, 22 feet in diameter and 14 feet in width. These were replaced some 36 years later by a much smaller and more efficient steel turbine. The new dam was constructed of cedar cribbage underneath with a smooth surface on the top water side. The water side consisted of 2 layers of 3 inch deal. Two pinstocks carried the water, one from the dam gate to the grist and carding mill building, the second to the sawmill building.

In 1891, Thomas W. Riordon married Mary Ann Barry of Pokemouche when he was 24 years old. With his wife, he proceeded to raise a family and to operate the mills which had become a going concern in the area. His father, John J. Riordon Sr. passed away in 1909 and Thomas assumed the operation of the whole Riordon farm which he expanded as time passed. In those days, horses provided the power utilized in the operation of a farm and logging business. A substantial portion of the land had been cleared and was continually being cleared and coming under cultivation. Much of this land was used to provide hay and grain for the horses. As with any other farm, the Riordon farm also raised cattle, sheep, hogs, poultry and mink. As part of a program established by the Department of Agriculture in the early 1900s, the Riordon farm was designated as an “Experimental Farm” where numerous yearly experiments in relation to crop varieties, fertilizers, crop rotation, cattle and horse breeding were sponsored and carried out. Annual field days attracting hundreds of farmers from throughout the County provided the opportunity for all to examine and discuss various farming practices and procedures. As for the mills, they attracted customers from across the County from as far away as Tetagouche and Petit-Rocher in the West to Miscou in the East. Customers arrived, and their horses were allowed to rest in a horse barn specifically provided for that purpose and in the event that the mill process could actually be carried out in short order, many customers from a distance were accommodated at the Riordon home overnight.

An excerpt, from the Gloucester County Council in 1902 was reproduced in the Le Courrier des provinces Maritimes on February 6th, 1902. It read:

“moved by Councilor Comeau and seconded by Councilor Branch in view of other flour mills in the county not being taxed, and that it was the express wish of the Council of 1899 and 1900 that it was right such industries should be exempted, that the assessors of the Parish of New Bandon be requested not to assess the Mill of T. W. Riordon in said Parish and that this exemption apply so long as the other flour mills are exempted in their respective parishes; and further, that the secretary-treasurer do and is hereby requested to attach a copy of this resolution to the warrant of assessment each year when sending said warrant to the assessors of the Parish of New Bandon. Carried.”

The mills of Thomas W. Riordon provided not only valuable services to a substantial portion of Gloucester County, but also provided employment. In the days when trees were cut with axes, cross-cut saws, and buck saws, substantial numbers of men were required in the woods. Many horses and expansive logging equipment were required to move the logs to the mill site. At the mill site, labour requirements were great as “fork lifts” did not exist and conveyor belts were primitive by today’s standard. Employees worked long hard hours and were paid not only in cash but also in kind from the General store operated by the Riordons.

Coincident with the farming and milling operation, Thomas W. Riordon became a dealer in several commodities. T he Caraquet railway was constructed in the late 1880’s and fortunately, the railway crossed the original Riordon Grant within 500 feet of the mills. Of course this allowed the shipment by railway of the products of the mill. Long lumber, railway ties, shingles and lathes were shipped by the boxcar load to various points for many years. The railway also allowed for the shipment of pulp wood to the Bathurst Power and Paper Company Pulp Mill in Bathurst constructed in 1916 along with potatoes purchased from many neighbouring farmers, Christmas trees, pit props destined for off shore markets and various other commodities.

A small migration in the 1920’s, typical of other similar migrations on New Brunswick’s north shore would affect the production of the Riordon water powered sawmill. Many communities in Northern New Brunswick were along the coast and their inhabitants depended largely on the fishing industry and the large companies controlling it. Moreover, many of those communities along with some inland communities became populated to the point where the strips of land originally settled and utilized in an agrarian fashion became divided and subdivided and in time became too small for the numbers living on them. Consequently, the Provincial Government with the support of the Catholic Clergy made inland tracts of land available to those who wished to relocate and become self-sufficient on adequate parcels of land. In the mid 1920’s, 25 to 30 families from nearby Saint-Léolin relocated to what is commonly known as Upper Black Rock Colony. The resettlement in this area involved the clearing of land, cutting of trees and the inevitable draining of fairly large tracts. Initially, the new settlement presented an opportunity for Thomas W. Riordon as most if not all of the buildings constructed in the new settlement were constructed with lumber and shingles that had been processed in his mill. General supplies and food stuffs were purchased through his store. Moreover, he was the principal purchaser of pulpwood, logs and farm produce from the new settlement and a number of its inhabitants were under his employee for substantial portions of each year. The new settlement however did present a problem. The Pokeshaw River originates in the area of the new settlement and due to the aforementioned settlement activities; the water level in the river was reduced drastically. During the dryer months of July, August and September, the water powered mill could often only operate until noon and even then, some days it could not be operated at all. This forced Thomas W. Riordon to explore other options and in 1928 along with several of his sons (he had nine sons and three daughters) he constructed a new mill building which was to house a saw, shingle and lathe mill on the south side of the original mill pond all powered by a large single piston steam engine. Much of the equipment in the mill had been used previously as it was purchased from a pre-existing mill operated by the Dumas’ in Grande-Anse and some pieces were purchased from the Sutherland Mill in Pokemouche. The steam powered mill had substantial production capacity and the long lumber carriage and saw had the capacity to cut logs up to three (3) feet in diameter. Adjacent to the steam mill, a small house was constructed to house a night watchman who maintained fire in the fire box so that steam could be produced to power the engine at the beginning of each 8 am. workday. The steam powered mill was operated for many years and for a number of years when the water level of the Pokeshaw River allowed, the steam powered mill and the water powered sawmill operated concurrently.

The grist mill was not operated beyond 1914. Large commercial operations had the ability to supply even rural New Brunswick with more refined flour by that time. The “opening” of the western provinces and their ability to produce grain along with the expansion of the railway impacted greatly on the production of grain in the Maritime provinces. Moreover, advancing technology outdated the Riordon grist mill and parts became difficult to replace.

Thomas W. Riordon passed away in 1939 at the age of 72 and Mary Anne passed away in 1942 also at 72 years of age. The sawmills were operated for a number of years after the latter’s death by their sons; however, as time passed pulpwood sales became the principal source of livelihood along with various agricultural commodities. As with the grist mill earlier, both the water powered saw mill and the steam powered mill became outdated. They could not compete with the large modern mills in the big centers. Eventually, the mills fell into complete disuse and presently the descendants of Thomas W. Riordon operate a relatively large and modern dairy farm on the original Riordon farm. In the early nineteen eighties, the grist mill building and machinery, along with the carding machine, which had fallen into a state of disrepair, were purchased for little more than a nominal figure by the Province of New Brunswick for refurbishment and reconstruction at the Acadian Village. Both the building and each part of each machine were completely disassembled and painstakingly repaired and reassembled to their original condition at the Acadian Village in Caraquet.

Today, it forms a major component of the attractions at the Acadian Village. Its history, though not properly recognized, is partially provided orally by the Village staff if requested.

To the passerby, driving by the Riordon farm, he or she would not be aware of the industry that once took place there. Neither would they be aware of the contribution of the mills that were there to the development of not only the small and immediate communities in the vicinity but to New Brunswick’s north shore in general and of the contribution of those who worked and supplied them. Certainly, the industry created and operated by John Joseph Riordon and Thomas W. Riordon was small in comparison to the larger industries in bigger centers. Small industries of this kind however at one time dotted rural New Brunswick in its entirety. Stories of this nature can be written by the hundreds for each and every one of those little industries. There is no doubt that those little industries in New Brunswick formulated a major portion of the foundation of New Brunswick’s development and contributed in large part to the raising of generations of New Brunswickers, many of whom had roots in Ireland and many of whom have left our province and who have and continue to contribute to the development of vast regions of Canada.

[1] Land Petition Records, Provincial Archives of New Brunswick.
[2] Land Petition Records, Provincial Archives of New Brunswick
[3] Gloucester County Records, Volume 5, page 586.
[4] Ibid. p. 443.
[5] Ibid. Volume 23, p. 479.
[6] Gloucester County Records, Volume 28, p. 163.
[7] Ibid. Volume 33, p, 916, No. 415.