Russel Brothers Limited   OWEN SOUND, ONTARIO   Steelcraft Boat Builders
SB notes (Oct. 2007): Arden Barnes lives close to the original Russel Fort Frances
factory site, and has provided many current photos of the old location as well as:

The Mother Lode - Photos of, and info on Arden's 26' Winch Boat (the ex Owandem).
Remembering the Hallett - a 2003 article describing Hallett's Fort Frances duties.
The Convict's Winch Boat - Hull 333 in the weeds near Fort Frances.

Their Fort Frances Legacy
by Arden Erickson Barnes, RN, Anesthetist (Ret.)
PO Box 47, Ranier, MN 56668 USA

This being written in 2007, it was exactly one hundred years ago that Russel Brothers' marine business got its start in Fort Frances, Ontario, and exactly seventy years ago that the firm moved, lock, stock and barrel, from Fort Frances to Owen Sound, Ontario.

In 1907, an industrial boom was well underway two miles downstream from the point where Rainy Lake releases itself into Rainy River. A hydroelectric power dam, having a 30-foot head, spanning the border between International Falls, Minnesota, and Fort Frances, Ontario, had been completed at this downstream location in 1906, to provide power for paper mills planned for either side of Rainy River.


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Russel Bros. Machine Shop, Fort Frances c. 1912.
Photo courtesy Dennis Busch and Arden Barnes.

Looking east along Front Street, with Rainy River (flowing west) on the right and the Ontario and Minnesota Pulp and Paper Company situated about 300 yards downstream. Brothers Colin and Jardine Russel operated at this location between 1907 and 1937, whereupon they moved their entire operation, including sixteen (16) employees and their families, to Owen Sound, Ontario.
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The old Russel Brothers property c. 1980.
Photo courtesy Dennis Busch and Arden Barnes.

Looking North at the former Russel Brothers property at Front Street and Armit Avenue (Rainy River in foreground). Cyril Maffey acquired the Russel Brothers property in 1937, later selling it to Art Busch, who sold it to his nephew Dennis in 1976. Dennis sold the property to the new hospital. The buildings shown in the photo have been completely demolished. Enlarge Busch ad: 600   1024

The power dam and paper mills were the brainchild of industrialist E. W. Backus (1860-1934). Several lumber mill operators were already producing, or had plans to soon commence production, upstream from the dam, on either bank of the river. This was the scene as brothers Colin and Jardine Russel established their marine business smack in the middle of the industrial activity taking place in Fort Frances, on the north bank of Rainy River, along Front Street, between Armit and Crowe Avenues, in January, 1907.

Over the next thirty years, Russel Brothers Limited, as the firm eventually became known, specialized in the production and manufacturing of warping tugs, power winch boats, supply boats, warping anchors, logging machinery and hand winches. As a business, Russel Brothers experienced their share of difficulties, but the years following the crash of 1929 were particularly difficult. That situation, coupled with changing times, begat changing markets that prompted Russel Brothers to understandably take advantage of an opportunity to move their operations to Owen Sound, Ontario.

In due course, Russel Brothers disposed of its Fort Frances land and buildings, selling them to Cyril M. Maffey (1899-1970) on September 1, 1937. Later that month, Russel Brothers completed its move to Owen Sound, commencing operations there in October 1937. Between 1937 and 1962, Maffey conducted operations at the old Russel Brothers' site in Fort Frances, designing and fabricating steel boats for business and pleasure purposes, and doing custom fabrications for the logging industry.

Maffey was bought out April 1, 1962, by Arthur Busch (1906-1993), a Fort Frances native who had worked for Russel Brothers between 1928 and 1942, moving with them from Fort Frances to Owen Sound in 1937. In announcing his acquisition of the old Russel Brothers' property from C.M. Maffey, Arthur Busch pledged that, as president of a new firm known as Fort Frances Steel and Welding Ltd., he would manufacture steel boats of all types, from 12 to 60 feet, and that his new firm would perform other steel fabrication work.

By 1973, the E.W. Backus Pulp and Paper Company in Fort Frances had changed hands several times and was then owned by Boise Cascade, who, responding to pressures of the times, abandoned logging in much of the Rainy Lake tributary region thereby eliminating the need for log booms and tugs, including the Hallett (RB1940) and small winch tugs, like the Motherlode (RB 1942). The ripple effect of all this included a call from the town of Fort Frances for cleaning up the waterfront.

Arthur Busch continued operating at the old Russel Brothers' site until being bought out by his nephew, Dennis Busch (1937 ) in February, 1977. Dennis Busch said that his business plan called for specialized manufacturing, fabrication and repair work for the forest related industry, and added that he had no plans to build watercraft, as did his predecessors at the old Russel Brothers' location.

In June 1982, Dennis Busch moved his business from the old Russel Brothers' property on Front Street to newly constructed facilities situated on a three-acre lot in the Fort Frances Industrial Park. Busch sold the old Russel Brothers' site for redevelopment. During the 1980's and 1990's several miles of Front Street, extending east from the old E.W. Backus pulp and Paper mill, have been redeveloped into a respectable residential area. Virtually all remnants of the industrial era have disappeared, replaced by a rip-rapped shoreline, a tree lined boulevard and paving brick walkways.

Busch Supply Company (see photo), a firm employing 15 people, can certainly claim a heritage going back to Colin and Jardine Russel. Of the dozens of Russel Brothers' vessels that have plied the waters of Rainy Lake over the decades, the Hallett, captained by Billy Martin (1885-1970), unquestionably the grandest of all Russel Brothers' vessels to cruise Rainy Lake, is now, thankfully, a nicely maintained and protected Fort Frances museum piece. Finally, the Motherlode, the last Russel vessel still in operating condition in the Rainy Lake area, can still be seen chugging up and down the lake every summer. And that's the Russel Brothers' Legacy in and around Fort Frances and the Rainy Lake area!!!


Views of Fort Frances ON. Photos by Arden Barnes, Oct. 2007. Click to enlarge to 800 pixels wide.

Looking west, downstream on the Rainy River. Shoreline location of the former Russel marine railway. Looking east, upstream on the Rainy River. Russel marine railway was near the two shoreline pines in the distance.
Billy Martin Jr. stands on the site of the old Russel Marine Railway, with timbers still visible in the foreground. Billy worked alongside his father, Capt. William Martin, on the Hallett, starting at 25 cents an hour. Looking south across the Rainy River between Crowe and Armit Avenues. This log and submerged parallel timbers still remain from the Russel marine railway, although the steel is gone.
Hospital parking lot, corner of Front St. and Armit Ave., adjacent to the site of the old Russel Brothers boat shop location. Hospital parking lot, corner of Front St. and Armit Ave., adjacent to the site of the old Russel Brothers boat shop location.
Former Tar Dock at the foot of Crowe Ave. has an historical plaque but no mention of Russel Bros. Former Tar Dock at the foot of Crowe Ave. has an historical plaque but no mention of Russel Bros.
Looking out from the location of Russel Brothers shop on corner of Armit Ave. and Front Street. Looking west, downstream on the Rainy River, from in front of the old Russel location.
Front St. is a main logging truck route for hauling wood to, and newsprint from, the Abitibi paper mill. Hospital parking lot, corner of Front St. and Armit Ave., the site of the old Russel Brothers boat shop location.

FORT FRANCES STREET PLAN: Click the numbered arrows below to view (800 pixel).   P1   P2   P3   P4   P5   P6   P7  

P1 P2 P3 P4 P5 P6 P7


For more Russel exhibits visit Owen Sound Marine & Rail Museum 1165 1st Ave West, Owen Sound, ON N4K 4K8
(519) 371-3333