Sandy Caldwell King of the River Boys


Perth Courier, Jan. 7, 1965

Sandy Caldwell King of the River Boys


W. C. Caldwells Aberndeen Mills, Lanark Ontario. Grist and carding mill. Photo: Ewan R. Caldwell Collection, Negative No. PA-135197. Public Archives of Canada. –Perth Remembered


Sandy Caldwell was short, stocky and powerful.  He was quick to decide and act, a devil for persistence (said his enemies) and fiercely loyal to his own in the manner of good leaders everywhere.  For forty years he owned and supervised a great lumbering industry in Lanark County; ate what his men ate; shared their accommodations, however humble; and asked no one to do what he would not.  And when he died it was chronicled “When death came to him at the untimely age of 54 it was as if a great pine had crashed on a hillside leaving a wide gap in the sky line”.

His name was Alexander “Sandy” Caldwell and it may be that when the first snows of winter fall his ghost comes back to wander the Clyde, Mississippi and Black Rivers and across country to the Trent, areas he and family members put to the axe.  Sandy was the son of John Caldwell, a weaver from Lochwinnoch of Renfrewshire, Scotland who like many of his profession, was adversely affected by the depression which followed the Napoleonic wars and made the seven week voyage by sail boat to Canada to start over.  Sandy and his brother Boyd and sisters Margaret and Mary, like most healthy children, remember the voyage as a grand adventure and never recall the crowded conditions under which they and 600 fellow passengers traveled, the rolling seas, poor food, confusion, retching and drunkenness

History recalls that Sandy and his brother Boyd too their first raft of square timbers to Quebec in 1837 when they were scarcely out of their teens.  In this fashion they yearly delivered the county’s choicest white and yellow pines to Quebec until 1850 when they dissolved their partnership.  Sandy continued on the Clyde while Boyd concentrated on the Mississippi.

Soon Sandy acquired vast tracts of timber on the Trent, where he encountered the hostility of rivals.  He withstood all manner of “accidents”—cut booms, timber getting mixed up and so on—and pushing steadily ahead, defending his holdings and rights by the grace of devil may care, hard work, and hard fighting crews who never doubted his leadership and whom he had in turn never deserted.

Caldwell bought this animosity to an end when, alone and armed with a sword, he stalked into the enemy headquarters (a bar at a lumber depot on the Trent), stuck the sword into the low ceiling and issued a challenge to the best and bravest among them.  None accepted and in that manner did he win his rights on the Trent without fighting.

A second rival gang forcibly jailed him in (again) a tavern and while trying to reach a decision about his fate his men were brought word of the danger.  At great peril to their lives they crossed a boom at night, swam the final distance to shore, broke into the tavern, laid low his captors and freed their leader.

An impatient man in many respects, he assumed that when one of his men got into trouble, he was innocent until proven guilty.  Suiting actions to this belief, he once whipped a Bytown (Ottawa) policeman whom he interrupted clubbing one of his employees in town on a spree.  Dispatching the police officer, he dumped the dazed worker (and the cop’s club) into his sled and took off.  The club became a Caldwell heirloom.

Another exploit that increased his fame was a timber cruising project in mid winter on snow shoes from Peterborough to the Mississippi watershed.  It was said he could survive the bitterest weather on a hand full of dry rations and shrouding himself in a robe, burrow into the snow for the night.



Clyde Hall was always open to men who had grown grey in his service. He kept many on his pay roll as retainers and no one knows how much he quietly gave away to others including men who in their younger days fought for his rivals against him.

Perhaps his ghost lingers over the Mississippi, remembering a decade of blood shed and bitterness over river rights between his brother Boyd and Peter McLaren.  Those were turbulent years when whole families and entire settlements were divided by the Caldwell/McLaren feud which precipitated stormy debates in legislative assemblies and engaged the attention of Canadian courts.  Finally, in 1889, a Privy Council decision restored peace and prevented further hostilities and the two families became friends.


UPDATE on location of the mill in photo–  As far as we know that is the mill on Hillier Street but it is not on the river. It stands across the street from the stone doctors house, now a B&B. It was burned many years ago and the top story is gone. It is now a private residence.
Nic Maennling– Lanark Museum

You can read the Perth Courier at Lanark Archives

Related reading: 

Your Mississippi River, Ontario Fact of the Day

Lanark Historical Note

A Lanark County Genealogical Society member, Leann Thompson, sent this to me today with information that John Thompson finished building that mill in the picture above.



CLIPPED FROMThe Lanark EraLanark, Ontario, Canada21 Dec 1910, Wed  •  Page 1

About lindaseccaspina

Before she laid her fingers to a keyboard, Linda was a fashion designer, and then owned the eclectic store Flash Cadilac and Savannah Devilles in Ottawa on Rideau Street from 1976-1996. She also did clothing for various media and worked on “You Can’t do that on Television”. After writing for years about things that she cared about or pissed her off on American media she finally found her calling. She is a weekly columnist for the Sherbrooke Record and documents history every single day and has over 6500 blogs about Lanark County and Ottawa and an enormous weekly readership. Linda has published six books and is in her 4th year as a town councillor for Carleton Place. She believes in community and promoting business owners because she believes she can, so she does.

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