When Waterways Were Our Highways

This summer, the Campbell River Museum is offering historic guided boat tours to the Discovery Islands, whose fascinating history has been the subject of such books as Tidal Passages by local historian Jeanette Taylor.  Long before Campbell River became a settlement, there were three thriving centres of importance in the islands area: Rock Bay on the east coast of Vancouver Island, Shoal Bay on East Thurlow Island, (see map) and Thurston Bay on Sonora Island. Such was the importance of these settlements, that even before WW1, there was a telephone line connecting Rock Bay, Shoal Bay and Thurston Bay, several years before Campbell River had telephone service.

SS Cardena Union Steamship

In an era when waterways were the highways, and settlement was moving west from Vancouver, these centres had natural good harbours and the natural resources that expanding companies and settlers were looking for.  The easily accessible timber and mineral finds lured loggers and prospectors to the area, and after WW1, the government was granting 160 acre parcels of homesteading land  to entice settlers as well.  Soon afterward, the Union Steamships made their way up the coast from Vancouver and stopped at all the important settlements.

As early as 1880, logging operations like Hastings Saw Mill out of Langley, BC were looking to expand west of the mainland.  They first made Bickley Bay on East Thurlow Island their regional headquarters, then moved their operation to Rock Bay, on the east Vancouver Island, about 40km north of Campbell River.  In ‘Upcoast’ , Richard Rajala explains how “Rock Bay became the first upcoast site of mass production logging – tugboats moved logs from this site to Lower Mainland mills. [Rock Bay offered] accessibility, high-quality timber, efficient logging with oxen and horse teams.”

Horse and oxen were soon replaced with railroads starting about 1910.  These rail lines were never used to connect Rock Bay with other communities on the island however, and even today, the only way to get to Rock Bay by land is to follow a rough logging road from Highway 19.  At one period, Rock Bay had more loggers employed than at any other location on the coast, (about 1500).  A hospital was built there in 1904, further increasing its importance, but was closed in the early 1940’s when logging activity ceased.

Shoal Bay on nearby East Thurlow Island was a boom town in its own right, owing its growth to mineral finds.  The first stake was claimed 1884 and the gold rush followed in 1890. (Jeanette Taylor, Tidal Passages).

Old store at Shoal Bay, now torn down

This caused a great deal of excitement and drew large numbers of prospectors there.  By 1897, there were two stores and two hotels, and Shoal Bay was the distribution point for other mines in the area.  That same year Shoal Bay became incorporated as a town and the Union Steamships were stopping by four times a week.

The steamships were a vital link to people and supplies, in an era when it was rare for individuals to have their own motorized boat. When it was time to go to civilization, loggers with their paycheques and settlers would take the Union Steamship to Vancouver, enduring the 30 hour trip there and back.

Even as recently as the 1940’s, people in the islands used row boats for getting around in.  In fact, they rowed astonishing distances – from as far away as Cortes and Quadra Islands to reach destinations like Shoal Bay.  In ’Guide to Blind Channel’, Phil Richter tells us how a mother who lived at the Green Points settlement on the mainland would row from there to Blind Channel (on West Thurlow Island), a distance of about one mile, to get her children to school.   Len Crawford, who wrote ‘The Way It Was’,  remembers rowing as being the main means of getting around.  It could be dangerous, as most people didn’t wear life jackets—the only available style was too bulky.  Len himself never learned to swim, even though he spent his whole life on the water.  The water was too cold to enjoy, and as he says “the main thing was to stay out of the water.”

Thurston Bay

Thurston Bay on Sonora Island was unique from other coastal communities.  Instead of developing as a result of pioneering or exploitation of its natural resources, it was established in 1914 as a BC Forest Marine Service station and according to John Parminter, who for many years was editor of the Forest Marine Service newsletter, it was also a ship building centre for the Marine Service starting in 1917.    During its busy years, Thurston Bay had several boat building sheds, floats and bunkhouses and its own electricity, created by a Peltham wheel, and homes were built to house the families that came with the Forest Service Rangers, engineers and boat builders.  While rangers were out on patrol or fighting fires, their wives would man the station and keep up radio contact, and homeschool the children. As many families homesteaded in the area, eventually they had a school in Thurston Bay.  The community thrived until1941, and kept its status as a Ranger District until 1969, when that was transferred to Campbell River.

By the 1950’s, times were changing drastically in the islands.  The Union Steamship Company went out of business, and new provincial legislation meant that small logging concerns could no longer get forest licences. Schools were closing due to lack of enrolment and families moved to where the work and amenities were. The era of waterways as highways was over, giving way to recreational boating and floatplanes.

Catch a glimpse of a bygone era and imagine the coastal communities as the vital and thriving settlements they once were this summer.  Take a trip on Discovery Marine Safaris comfortable boats and learn about your desination from knowledgeable local guides.  Follow this link to the schedule.

Transformation of a Town

Transformation of a Town, the opening of Elk Falls Pulp and Paper Mill in 1952

For many residents of Campbell River, the closing of the Catalyst Pulp and Paper Mill this year marks an historic moment.  Symbolic of the changing times in Campbell River, it reminds us of how a village grew into a town due in large part to the influence of the mill and the large numbers of people it employed. It also reminds us of the excitement generated in this small western boom town when the Elk Falls Mill first opened for operations in 1952.

Duncan Bay in 1950, before construction of Mill

Described as ‘a milestone in the development of Campbell River’ the opening of the pulp mill was an influential factor in the new era of economic growth and job stability in a region that had already received a substantial boost when the John Hart Power Station was built.  At right is a photo of the opening ceremonies on September 15, 1952, attended by more than 500 people in the mill warehouse.

As many as 1,000 men worked on the twenty one million dollar mill project during peak construction times.  In ‘the Edge of Discovery’ we are told that “New investor money poured into the area as hotels, landlords, beer parlours and cafes did a landslide business.”

Premier W. A. C. Bennett said that the Duncan Bay development was ‘free enterprise at its best’.

The Campbell River Courier commemorated the opening of the mill with a special supplement.  Included were congratulations from the various local businesses that had benefited from the beginning of the construction of the facility and expected to reap the benefits of being part of a progressive, growing community.

“Advent of the Elk Falls Company had produced a marked change in the spirit of Campbell River”. wrote the editor W.B. McCusker of the Campbell River Courier in the Canadian Pulp and Paper Mill, September 1952 Journal. “Housing is still at a premium, although prices are somewhat more reasonable than during the boom period.”

When Don McIver transferred from Comox Logging to start work at Elk Falls Mill in 1952, he couldn’t find a place to live.  Crown Zellerbach (the parent company) had built 26 homes for their key mill employees (see left) like T.B. Hargreaves, the mill manager, who Don remembers as being very sociable and who made a point of getting to know all of the employee’s names.  The village, however, was still unable to handle the influx of new employees and initially, a number of fellows including Don, attracted by the steady wages at the mill, commuted from Courtenay until places in Campbell River became available. Although the pay was better in logging (roughly $12 a day instead of the $9.70 per day offered at the mill) work at the mill was steady and less dangerous.

A writer from Victoria (Aug 1953) commented: “Campbell River is becoming essentially a settled place—not just the loggers’ Saturday night town it used to be.” In the same article, A.D. Corker, clerk of the village municipality is quoted as saying: “People are beginning to improve their houses and to build more solidly…  Population has leaped to 2600, at least doubling itself in the last few years.”

It was the advent of families that helped change the face of the village as well. There were plans to construct three new elementary schools in 1952, due to the fact that it had become a ‘young folks town’  with the number of children under the age of six comprising 1/6 of the population.

“I arrived to settle in Campbell River after the Pulp Mill had been built (from a letter to Jeanette Taylor).

The company.. moved many of its employees from Ocean Falls to Campbell River. Both economic and social effects (of this) were vital (to the growth of the town). Of course the population grew quickly to man the mill and the necessary services—schools, hospital etc.”  Initially, the Elk Falls Mill relied on Ocean Falls to supply its pulp, but the Crown Zellerbach pulp mill at Ocean Falls was small and antiquated compared to the brand new facilities at Campbell River, and once Elk Falls started producing its own pulp, it was destined for expansion, whereas the mill at Ocean Falls was destined for eventual closure.

Families coming from Ocean Falls had enjoyed living in a mill town where there were good facilities like an indoor swimming pool. However, Ocean Falls had few roads and most were constructed of boardwalks. Newcomers from Ocean Falls were quite taken with the opportunity to drive for miles in any direction.

Workers and families also came from the Prairies and mills in other provinces. Chuck Saults, who started at the mill construction site in 1951, had come from Calgary. When mill construction was completed, Chuck was offered a job and eventually worked his way up to foreman of Paper machine #5.  Chuck remembers that there was a combination of very experienced employees—those who had come from other mills, and very novice workers.  The Mill employed about 220 workers in 1952 and by 1958, after the addition of the Kraft Mill and another paper machine, the number had grown to about 500 employees.

Skip McDonald recalls the buoyancy of Campbell River citizens in the 1950’s and 1960’s and feels it was the busiest time in the history of Campbell River in terms of growth and prosperity.  Local business people profited from the continual expansion of the mill and from the presence of contractors and guests of the mill.  These short term employees stayed at places like Painter’s Lodge and went fishing while they were here. The town of Campbell River also benefited when the municipal boundaries were extended to include Elk Falls mill in 1964, (previously the boundaries had gone just to the bridge at Hwy19) as taxes from the mill provided a new and vital source of revenue to the town.

Some developments in Campbell River in the 1950’s include:

  • First grocery franchise (Overwaitea) 1951
  • United Church 1952
  • A new Community Hall 1954
  • Willow Point School and Campbellton School 1954
  • Village offices moved into larger quarters (old Lourdes Hospital)
  • Campbell River & District Hospital opened in 1957
  • Campbell River Museum established, 1958

The Campbell River Museum archives house a wealth of information about early Campbell River, including a library, archival photos and newspaper clippings.  Come visit us soon!  Archive hours are Tuesday – Friday, 1pm – 4pm or by appointment – 250-287-3103.

Gilbert Pat – First Nations Jeweller

A member of the coast Salish band, Chawathl, Gilbert Pat is an extremely gifted and self taught First Nation’s jeweller from British Columbia who has been carving beautiful works in gold, silver and copper for the past 30 years. Pat studied Kwakiutl design, guided by many designers of his wife’s family and was shown how to use the tools of the trade by Lloyd Wadhams, a Kwakwaka‘wakw artist.  Pat has since passed on his knowledge to his two sons, Jeff and Jason who are also silversmiths.

The Orca pin pictured here illustrates Pat’s unique and exacting style, and intricate workmanship.  Today, Pat’s work can be found all over Europe and the Far East.

This pin and other similar pieces can be found at the Campbell River Museum Shop.  Open Daily 10am -5pm during the summer months, and from Tuesday to Sunday, Oct 1 – May 17, 12 – 5pm. 250-287-3103


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The Campbell River Museum maintains collections and archives from Campbell River’s wide and diverse history, culture and community.  For more information about your local Campbell River Museum, call 250-287-3103 or visit www.crmuseum.ca