“It was good coffee. A man with big feet could walk on it.”

In the late 1800s, in an effort to increase production, steam technology began to replace horse and oxen in the logging industry.  Until diesel machinery began to be in use in the 1940s, steam donkeys could be seen all over the Pacific Northwest.  They were mounted on log sleds and could be towed from one area to another on floats.  Steam donkeys were versatile machines that could be used for yarding, hauling and loading logs.

One of the lesser known uses of the steam donkey was also the highligmcr018981ht of many a loggers’ day – donkey boiler coffee.  Arthur “Bill” Mayse, who told his story to Jeanette Taylor shortly before his death, recalled fondly waiting for the engineer to blow his whistle at eleven thirty signalling lunch break.  “Woooo woo – one long and one short – and that meant lunch time.  So everyone would drop their gloves and head for the donkey engine.”

The fireman who stoked the fires of the engine, was responsible for making the coffee.  “He would take a great big lard pail, one of the great big storage pails that holds two or three gallons of water, off a hook and he’d reach for what he called his injector hose.”  The injector hose was a high pressure hose filled with steam from the donkey boiler.  “He’d take the injector homcr005518se and whoosh, he’d send a big jet of hot steam into it and would bring it right from cold to boiling in nothing flat.  Then the important thing, he’d take about two pounds of coffee, which is quite a lot of coffee, and he’d dump it into this furiously boiling water.  Then he’d take what they called the slice bar, one of the steel pokers that they used for poking up the fire in the firebox, and he’d hang his pail with his coffee makings on one end of the slice bar and he’d ram it right into the white-hot donkey boiler.  He’d hold it there for a while and let it have a good bubble, good boil.  Then he’d set the pail on the donkey deck and he’d grab another of these bags of cold water, drinking water, and he’d pour about two quarts in the coffee; that was to settle it down.  And then the coffee was ready for drinking.”

The loggers would gather around the steam donkey and each grab an empty tobacco can.  “They’d take a dip into the big steaming bucket of coffee and get about a half-pound can of coffee, which is quite a lot.  And then there’d be canned milk, “canned cow” we called it, and sugar in bags and we’d fix our coffee the way we wanted it.”

The loggers would then find a place to sit and open up their nose bags, which is what they called their brown bagged lunches, and settle in for lunch with their sandwiches, pie and coffee.

“It was good coffee.  A man with big feet could walk on it.  It was the best coffee I ever tasted in my life, even if you did have to fish bits of burnt twig and charcoal out of it mcr005156every now and then.  But it had a taste, I think maybe from the quick, really savage boil in the white hot steam that no other coffee anywhere else ever got, so we loved it.”

An Empire Steam Donkey manufactured in 1916 can be seen at the entrance to the Museum at Campbell River.  This fully restored donkey will be fired up for Canada Day at 11:30am and the public is invited to bring their nose bags for a picnic on the Museum grounds, and join us for a sip of coffee in honour of the loggers of the past who once gathered around the steam donkey for this daily ritual.

Steam Donkey A Community Treasure

Volunteers Bring Steam Donkey Back to Life!

There were smiles all around when our steam donkey’s refurbished boiler was hoisted back into place on the Museum’s historic logging machine. With innumerable hours of volunteer labour, the boiler has been sandblasted, fitted with new crown sheet and tubes, staybolts, rivets, inspection covers, cowling, studs and fittings; welded, painted, tested, bringing us further along in achieving the donkey’s operational status.

This “volunteer spotlight” shines collectively on the people who are helping make the donkey’s restoration possible. The project has called for a huge investment of services and skills, and it is being achieved through hours of donated labour and expertise.

We gratefully acknowledge the following, for their contributions to restoring the boiler and bringing the donkey closer to operation. Thank you to Harry Bellrose, Alfie Boudreau, Bob Brind’amour, Ron Cooke, Peter Davies, Russ Davies, Beatty Davis, John Dykes, Ken Eck, Norm Fair, Maureen Gautier, Norm Grant, Al Bjorn Horst, “J.R.”, Les McCann, Bryan McCrae, Wayne Nolan, Dieter Pellman, Bob Purkiss, Steve Roberts, Eric Robertson, Steve Seidel, Bill Smith, John Smith, Paul Suarhoff, Mike Thompson, Boyd Van Ingen, Ed Visser, Bruce Visser, Ken Visser, Ron Whitlow, George Williamson, Pat Williamson, Jodie Woodland, Jim Young.

Some helpers have been anonymous in the ongoing course of this project, and our appreciation goes to them as well.
May you all feel rewarded by every whistle and puff of steam!


Check out all our Steam Donkey photos on Flickr…Click Here

Steamin’ Days Are Born…

On Labour Day, September 6, our steam donkey celebration drew a crowd of all ages. Arriving from every direction, local residents and visitors from across the island filled the Museum grounds, enjoying west coast music, hot dogs, pop and Lucky Lager as they watched our restored donkey “getting up steam.” When the donkey’s shrill whistle blew, it seemed a fitting salute to the last holiday of the summer and a return to workday routines.

Among the onlookers, many had logging memories and stories flowed as they inspected the donkey and met with old friends. The donkey was especially familiar for 85 year old Doug Boardman, who operated it when it was owned by his father’s company Dot Logging in the 1930s and 40s. “I could run it when I was 15 years old,” he said. Mr. Boardman’s sound knowledge of the machine was appreciated by those who restored the donkey, and they enjoyed his visits while the project was underway.

picture-001Check out all our Steam Donkey photos on Flickr…Click Here

The steam donkey, manufactured in Vancouver about 1916, now resides not far from where it began its career. It was first owned by logger P.B.Anderson who used it at Knox Bay on West Thurlow Island, just north of Campbell River, and then sold it to Clarence Boardman. Like many similar machines in use all over the coast, the donkey was frequently moved from one stand of timber to another. Mounted on log skids, it could be pulled onto a float and towed to another location.

Steam donkeys, which had replaced the use of horses and oxen in the logging industry, were themselves replaced by diesel machinery. In 1948 our donkey met retirement when it was abandoned at the head of Knight Inlet. It lay there for nearly 40 years, until it was brought to Campbell River by a forest company at the urging of the Rotary Club. A few years later, it was brought to the grounds of the new museum building.

Not used for more than 50 years, rusting and missing many parts, the donkey was only a relic until a dedicated effort to restore it began four and a half years ago. Spearheaded by Museum president Norm Fair and exhibit technical manager George Murdoch, the project drew amazing support and generous contributions of time, service, knowledge and skill. At the Labour Day celebration, a thank you sign was posted naming 50 individuals and 30 companies that had a part in the steam donkey’s restoration.

The fully restored donkey is currently the only one known to be operational, and it will be fired up and steaming at the Museum at Campbell River every Canada Day and Labour Day.


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