Sawmills and ‘sawdust people’: Crusade to save history

A little-known saga in Cowichan Valley forestry history ‘celebrates’ its centennial this year.

A little-known saga in Cowichan Valley forestry history ‘celebrates’ its centennial this year. It was 100 years ago that Island Lumber Co., whose mill was situated on the western shore of Somenos Lake, passed into insolvency and into history.

I said it’s a little-known fact…so little that it didn’t trigger my radar, either. In fact, but for the years-long efforts of sawmills sleuth Neil Dirom, it likely would have been overlooked.

Neil, the descendant of a pioneer Cowichan family with a background of 40 years in the forest industry, has devoted much of the past seven years to researching Vancouver Island sawmills for a reference website he’s building to share with the world at large.

We’re talking thousands of hours of research to date, much of it, perhaps surprisingly, genealogical, in his quest to nail down anything and everything that he can about the hundreds — and there were hundreds — of sawmills, large and small. Many were one-man operations. But some were goliaths, even the largest in the entire province, that provided employment for thousands of workers and shipped their products around the world. All of these mega-mills of the past have followed Island Lumber Co. into history, a fact which makes Neil’s one-man crusade to unearth and to save whatever documentation he can all the more valuable for future historians.

For most of Neil’s four decades in the industry he worked for MacMillan Bloedel, the last five years at Timberwest’s Youbou sawmill. After retiring in 2001 he served for five years on the board of directors of the B.C. Forest Discovery Centre.

“My interest is to develop a web page that tells the story mainly about the sawmills and the ‘sawdust people’ who built and operated the mills on Vancouver Island from the Hudson’s Bay [Co.] days to current,” he says. “A web page rather than a book because it can be added to or corrected as information becomes available — always a work in progress.

“I started the project in 2009… I was very concerned that the forest industry — mainly the sawmill side and of the people that worked in the industry — was not documented and made public. Our community culture and society is changing and people moving to Vancouver Island have very limited knowledge about the forest industry and the role it has played and is playing today.”

So, back to Island Lumber Co. Originally the Quamichan Lumber Co., it began operations on Dodds Creek on the Weismiller farm, Sahtlam district. In 1909 it moved to the southwest side of Somenos Lake, then part of the McKinnon farm. As the ILC, it was, initially, owned by Charles H. Dickie, Frank Haycroft and legendary logger Joe Vipond.

Neil’s research shows that Ed Miller, an early mayor of Duncan, was the company secretary; Tom Van Norman, its sawyer and foreman; Bob Evans, its setter; Bill Dwyer, its steam engineer; Herbert Halpenny, its planerman; and Bill Richardson and Jack Windsor, its boommen, who were assisted by a young Chinese known as ‘Magpie.’

“The rest of the crew were Chinese. Jung Bing was the Chinese foreman and one day he brought his younger brother, Suey Lem, around for a job,” saying he wasn’t particularly savvy.

“Suey Lem Bing (aka Jung, Sue em Bing, Chung Mui Jung, Jung Jong Moy), after Island Lumber Co. closed, went on to be very savvy.

“He was the Chinese foreman at the Hillcrest Lumber Co. at Sahtlam and Mesachie Lake until it closed in 1968.”

A spur linked the mill to the E&N mainline and a cluster of shanties housed about two dozen Chinese living alongside Berkley Street gave it the local name, Chinaman’s Hill.

Initially, the mill processed trees logged from the Somenos slough, towed across the lake then moved up a narrow canal by teams of horses. Principle teamsters were George Lewis, Jessie Boak, Frank West, ‘Puggy’ Holmes, ‘Long Jim’ Evans and Johnny Williams.

Island Lumber Co. came into being with Gaylard Harrison Hadwen, president and Walter Marriott, managing director. The mill was enlarged to cut 50,000 feet of fir and cedar lumber daily and had a large dry kiln, planing mill and a woodworking shop.

With completion of the E&N’s Lake Cowichan Subdivision in 1911, the Jordan brothers logged along the right-of-way to Sahtlam, shipping their logs via rail car. Neil continues, “a number of new faces appeared… Frank Jacoby and Carlton Stone [the future owner/founder of Hillcrest Lumber Co.] were millwrights, Jimmy Pollock the bookkeeper, George Savage the shop man, and Jim Greig. In 1912 Carlton Stone was listed as mill superintendent.”

Walter Marriott left the firm in December 1914 and the mill shut down because Somenos Lake had flooded its lower workings. He was replaced by C.C. Muir, formerly secretary and general manager of the Imperial Laundry in Nanaimo who’d previously served as secretary of the New Ladysmith Lumber Co.

By this time, the company was struggling.

In 1916 the Lumberman reported that Muir hoped to be up and running by mid-April when it was “likely that some fresh capital will be put into the concern”. In a succeeding issue the mill was said to be cutting five to 10 carloads of logs and shipping a carload of finished lumber daily. It was the old story of feast and famine: so much more timber was being taken out of the company’s camps that the surplus was being shipped to the VL&M mill in Chemainus.

It was the company’s last hurrah; the ILC entered into voluntary receivership the following year, a victim of (among other things) the ongoing First World War as some of the leading shareholders were serving overseas, making it “difficult to finance the company”.

In 1917, the Western Lumberman recorded Island Lumber’s obituary: “The Mayo Lumber Co., a Hindu [sic] concern, is erecting a new sawmill on the Cowichan Lake branch of the E&N… The bulk of the machinery now being installed came out of the Island Lumber Co. Plant in Duncan, the equipment being disposed of recently by auction…”

Neil Dirom (at neno1963.shaw.ca) would be pleased to hear from any Chronicles readers who may be able to help him with his research.

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