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.