Recalling BC pioneers

This item is recycled from the summer of 2010. I was reminded of it after a Twitter exchange about natural resource revenues and the lack of transparency surrounding them. This is not related but may give a sense of how my opinions have been influenced over time.

Blogs such as this are personal forums but conventional wisdom suggests writers should not wander far from a continuing theme. I cannot resist occasional urges to step sideways. However, even this piece follows my oft-stated belief that we in BC today, are stewards for future generations.

I blogged a few days ago about the arrival of my fifth grandchild. He comes into a modern world, far different from the one his great-great grandfather came to 108 years ago. Nature and my grandfather, Jim Mahood, born James Alexander Sharpe in Gravenhurst Ontario 1885, were inseparable throughout his life. He claimed, probably correctly, that he never went past Grade 4 and received his life education from an old Indian woman near Muskoka Lakes.

He came to British Columbia still a teenager, first working as a cook for a survey crew and soon climbing over mountains and through virgin forests in lands unseen by white people. He retired a respected Forest Ranger in 1950 and lived 26 years beyond, keeping strong and active until the last few years. When he was 75, he decided to build a new house, next door to the family home. He had a helper, an old friend who was 78. Neighbors trembled when the old buzzards were putting on the roof. My grandmother hated, hated, hated, the new house. There was no reason for it except that he wanted to build it.

An occasional hobby of mine is genealogy. At one point, I thought I would do something up to my own generation and then pass it on to my kids. However, the subject doesn’t interest many young folks so I’ve got a few decades before I need anything to turn over. Today, scouting the Internet, I came across this article, supposedly written by my Grandfather.

I saw him wield saws, hammers, shovels, rifles and other things but never a pen. I suspect his oldest son, Ian Mahood, actually wrote this. That uncle and his three brothers were involved in BC forestry throughout their working lives. They loved the timber business and had little patience for people who were bothered by logging. Ian Mahood said that loggers were farmers except the crop cycle was 75 years long.

I reprint this piece because it provides detail about our province and the industry that was its foundation. There is an addendum written by one of Grandfather’s associates, a person not known to me. I hope you enjoy.

Published by the Forest History Association of British Columbia

No. 79, Victoria, British Columbia, April 2006

(date unknown)

I came to the Chilliwack Valley in 1902 on a visit to my grandparents, who had homesteaded near the present site of the Abbotsford airport. Farming among stumps four and five feet in diameter was difficult and unrewarding. The debris from logging had to be cleared off, brush removed, and grass sown for cattle feed. Getting the ground broken for crops was back-breaking, frustrating work that few people today remember. Being Irish, my grandparents knew how to raise potatoes and pigs. Without this skill, the people would not have survived to clear the land.

As a young man I went to the Yukon in the late stages of the Gold Rush days. In 1910 I married Miss Patterson, a Glasgow girl visiting Burnaby. This proved to be the most beneficial decision of my life . After soldiering in 1914-1918, I returned to the Fraser Valley as a forest ranger for the B.C. Forest Service.

In those days the Chilliwack Ranger District started just south of Lytton, extended to New Westminster, and included all the land from the U.S. border to the headwaters of the Pitt, Stave, Harrison and other drainages flowing into the Fraser River. This vast area was virtually undeveloped and unknown as to its forest resources. Before 1920, there was almost no forestry activity east of Hope. Westward, along the C.P.R. line, near Ruby Creek, Harrison Mills, and the Mission area there were some small sawmills cutting mainly railway ties.

Logging was mainly by horse and just to supply local demand in the course of land clearing. In the Rosedale area and along the sloughs to New Westminster, long before 1921, oxen had been used to skid logs to the river to supply sawmills downriver. I remember many old skidroads with cross stringers of logs that loggers had to paint with grease to get their skidding done.

In those days stumps were cut ten or twelve feet above the ground so that the flared butts would not dig into the ground in the skidding process. There were no power saws and the fallers had to balance on springboards to chop their undercuts and pull their long handsaws back and forth. It was a grand sight to see two big “Swedes” stripped to the waist moving muscles in rhythm to fall a big tree. Men worked together, in pairs, in those days. Also, there were not many fat men. They worked too hard.

In the 1920s, operators on Harrison Lake began to open up railway logging shows . P.B. Anderson went into Green Point and ultimately had many miles of railway in that area. South of Cultus Lake the Campbell River Timber Company, that operated from White Rock, logged Columbia Valley using a logging railway and moved the logs to their mill near White Rock via the American side.

Near Abbotsford, the Abbotsford Timber and Trading Company, which had been developed by the pioneer Trethewey family, was winding up a railway show that covered a large area south and west of Abbotsford. The Pretty family were active near Harrison Mills and shortly after Chehalis began a railway show. It is still an active area, with trucks of Canadian Forest Products, Ltd., hauling logs out of the hills west of Harrison.

In the late 1920s the famous Green Timbers area west of Fry’s Corner was logged by the M.B. King Company. This was one of the last pieces of timber on the flatlands south of the Fraser in the area from Rosedale (in the east) to New Westminster (in the west). In those days, all over the valley, homesteaders were clearing land for agriculture and as rapidly as loggers completed a show the ranchers moved in. In the Langley area, chicken ranches replaced the forest. Near Chilliwack, formerly forested land near the natural farming areas was taken over for cattle grazing.

As a forest ranger, a great deal of my work was administering the Homestead Act. There were scores of small sawmills scattered throughout the valley that bought logs from the ranchers that cleared off the land that the big railway logging shows did not reach. Without a market for sawlogs the ranchers would not have had a cash income. Horse-drawn wagons moving the logs on crude dirt roads, mud up to the axles, were a steady event. In the twenties and early thirties, trucks, the forerunners of modern truck logging began operating. The early truck loggers used fore-and-aft plank roads – they were common in the Rosedale area up on Promontory Mountain.

Orion Bowman ran a sawmill at the foot of Promontory Road well before 1910. He provided a market for the ranchers’ logs and cut lumber for them. Without this mill a lot of farms would never have been cleared. His sons, including Oliver Bowman, and a daughter carry on the business and I understand they have a fine modern mill. It is one of the oldest continually operating sawmills in the province.

Before the 1920s, near Stave Lake, the shingle men had a method of logging that is now but a memory. They built a flume to carry shingle bolts from the steep ground down to shingle mills on the flatlands. These structures were engineered to wind down the contours and carry water that floated the bolts. The hard work to build the trestles that supported the flume was expensive and difficult to engineer. In the modern era I don’t think there are any men left that could build such flumes and not many fellows who would be willing to lift shingle bolts into a flume by hand.

Incidentally, the power saw was not yet invented and handsaws were used to cut the logs and wedges to split out the bolts. Chinese and Japanese workmen were used in the hills, and people used to joke that they never sent a payroll into the woods, just bags of rice. One of the big shows of the railway logging era was the Abernethy-Lougheed Company near Haney. Their log dump was at Kanaka Creek where it joins the Fraser River. The railway went north to what is now the Malcolm F. Knapp Research Forest of the University of British Columbia. The company finished its operations in Haney in 1928 and moved up the Coast, only to go out of business during the Depression of the 1930s.

That Depression set back all of the logging industry and for nearly five years almost nothing was done in the valley. The wheels began to roll again in about 1935 when B & K Logging opened up the Vedder River show. They built a railway that used the Vedder Canal dike and crossed the river at Vedder Crossing, then went up the south side of the Chilliwack/Vedder River nearly to Chilliwack Lake. Was a tough show in mountains and sidehills, but the bottom land turned out some of the best Douglas-fir peeler logs ever harvested.

Paul Jorgenson was the engineer that designed that railway location and the bridges. Albert Wells, one of the old-time loggers, was superintendent. In 1938, the year of the big fires, the Campbell River fire got all of the newspaper attention, but a much bigger and more costly fire raged up the Chilliwack River. It nearly wiped out the B & K operation and they withdrew from the valley to log the Vedder Mountain and Cultus Lake areas.

People will remember the big railway trestle that crossed the Cultus Lake road at Vedder Crossing. This was one of the last railway trestles ever built in B.C.

Also in the thirties, the Silver-Skagit operation flourished. This was one of the first really large truck logging shows. It was organized to clear out the areas in Canada to be flooded for the hydro development on the U.S. side of the border. The logs from the American side were moved to the Fraser River, west of Hope, over a high quality truck road. Huge specially designed trucks, with 20,000 board foot payloads, worked around the clock. Many of the methods, pioneered at great expense on that show, were transferred into practice that has evolved into the modern, efficient truck logging of today.

In the late 1930s and early 1940s Harrison Lake became a centre of operations and Earl Brett, the Clark brothers, and one or two other Chilliwack men developed logging operations on Harrison Lake. I remember flying in with Earl Brett in one of those early open cockpit machines he operated. Coming around a hillside we hit an air pocket that bounced a camera case out of the aircraft. It caught on the rudder and jammed the steering. Earl side slipped down the hill and manoeuvred to a hazardous landing on the lake. I had to swim to the tail and pull off the offending strap so we could take off again. Earl not only pioneered logging but flying as well.

During the war years (World War II), all through the valley ranchers and loggers were busy getting out birch, cottonwood, and Douglas-fir suitable for plywood manufacture. This material, particularly the birch, was used in the manufacture of Mosquito bombers, one of the planes that helped to win the war.

All through my time in the Forest Service, fire control was a big part of the job. In the land clearing days, the settlers had the fires going steadily, and they used to flare up. Some of that land around Abbotsford was burned so many times, year after year, that I wondered if we could ever get people educated to be careful with fire. Then there were the big fires south of Hope near what is now Manning Park. These fires were caused by lightning – by the time men got to them the fires were out of control.

All my life I fought fires, and somehow or other we controlled them with hand tools, guards, and backfires. Nowadays the bulldozer builds the guards, roads are everywhere, and aircraft are used to drop retardant. Fire control is so much easier now that we do not have these big fires anymore.

I retired from the Forest Service in 1950 and since that time forestry has changed. Logging is no longer cut-and-get-out. Foresters schedule the harvest to have cut equal growth. Chilliwack centres the Dewdney Public Sustained Yield Unit. The allowable annual cut is about 60,600 thousand cubic feet. This can go on forever, provided reforestation follows logging.

This sustained yield unit has over one million acres. I am told that each 250 acres under forest management provides work for three people directly and indirectly. This means that the one million acres of public forest in the trade area of Chilliwack provides about 12,000 jobs. These, in turn, provide purchasing power that helps support the storekeepers, garages, carpenters, and all the people who work in our society.

As I look around, I marvel at all the second-growth forests, including plantations that cover the forest lands I have seen logged in more than eighty years. I worked at Parksville in 1918 and on the highway from Alberni, looking over the Parksville flatlands there was a sea of snags and slash. It was all reseeded and now there is a fine young forest that is ready for logging again.

Behind Mission, up the Sylvester Road and on Sumas Mountain there are now forests better than the old. I remember Sumas Mountain in the 1920s when much of it was clearcut and fire-blackened. At that time I despaired of ever seeing forests there again. I am happy to say how wrong I was.

After watching this valley develop I think that the people have one treasure they must never destroy. That is the forest. Happily, British Columbia has one of the best forest management systems in the world. The land is owned by the public and they benefit by the income that goes to the government, the jobs that provide the economy and standard of living. It is no idle comment that about 50 cents out of every dollar transferred from person to person, even in Chilliwack, stems from the public forest.

There are people who call themselves conservationists, who would like to take public lands out of sustained yield forest production. These people may talk about the need for recreation. There are acres and acres of recreation lands available and just because lands are used for forestry does not mean that they cannot also be used to provide recreation, wildlife, and fish. Our greatest resource is our productive land and if I learned anything in my lifetime it was that we must farm our forests. That we are doing this makes me proud to have worked my lifetime for the Forest Service. – END –

From the reminiscences of Jack Ker

The Mahood family was to have a profound effect upon my life . It was headed by James (Jim), who was the forest ranger with headquarters in Chilliwack. With his Scottish wife, Bessie, he had five [seven] children: Isabel, Ian, [Vivian,] Brian, and twins Ernest (Ernie) and Ray and Shirley.

Jim Mahood was my initial contact in forestry, when I learned in early 1935 that there were two job opportunities in forestry available that summer, for forest ranger assistants. It was Jim who arranged for me to have an interview shortly afterwards with Mr. Joe Smith, the forestry supervisor. I met him in his car in front of the barber shop in Sardis for that initial interview. The one observation he made that remained forever with me was: “I don’t know your politics and I don’t want to know, though this job is with the government, it is apolitical!”

I was to remember that word of caution in the years ahead! I often accompanied Jim Mahood on his rounds; he confided in me and became almost a father figure to me. He taught me many things about forestry and the B.C. Forest Service that would stand me in good stead later.

Jim was employed by the federal forest service in the days before 1930 when the federal government had jurisdiction over the Railway Belt, a band of land through British Columbia which extended a distance of ten miles on both sides of the Canadian Pacific Railway, that had been granted to the federal government by the province in return for construction of the railway. After 1930, when the Railway Belt was returned to the jurisdiction of the province, Jim became a provincial forest ranger with headquarters in Chilliwack. He thus had a wealth of experience and was probably one of the most respected forest rangers in the province. I was indeed fortunate to have him as a teacher!

I was to work as a forest ranger assistant in Chilliwack for three summers: 1935, 1936 and 1937.

Categories: Forestry

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14 replies »

  1. It's a small province after all, Norman. I have a hardcover copy of Three Men and a Forester, by Ian Mahood and Ken Drushka, and a softcover copy of “never under the table”, by Joe Garner, who mentions crossing paths with your family. It must be fairly easy to find materials with such an illustrious family.

    I take an interest in my family tree too, Joseph Poirier, my great-great grandfather was a pioneer logger too, and in partnership with his native wife, spawned a dynasty of west coast loggers. I'm lucky also to have the resources readily available through the Sooke Regional museum. Good step sideways, refreshing.


  2. I have the Joe Garner book Never Fly Over an Eagles Nest but am not familiar with Never Under the Table. By the title, I can probably guess some of the subject matter.

    I don't think illustrious fits the family much, especially for Jim Mahood. He had little time for fancy folks and would be enraged by how the public service of today is directed by corrupt politicians and lobbyists. I laugh to think how he would have reacted if his public comments had to be vetted by ignorant flunkies such as those at today's PAB.

    The real fascinating story is that of my grandmother. A whip-smart young Glasgow woman, unhappy because higher education was denied, she sailed for Canada and took up temporary residence with the family of an uncle, Dugald Campbell Patterson, an early Burnaby pioneer who had found success. Her real goal was to meet an unschooled young Canadian man with whom she had been corresponding for years.

    My quest in family research has been an effort to understand this woman better. She was a feminist before that term was known, one of the first women in BC to drive her own car. This mother of seven, grandmother of 24, lived childhood in a working class city of Scotland and early adult years in the deep wilderness of BC. Yet, she was a thoroughly modern woman, for her day. Tough as nails too.

    She told me near the end that she had lived in the best times possible. She arrived from Scotland after a long journey by ship and rail but lived to enjoy frequent returns to the old country by jet liner. She loved Canada, was always a 'British Subject' but would have adapted fine in today's multicultural society.


  3. I think most of us are enraged by the corruption in this province. Very early on in his book, Mr. Garner reveals the under the table reference, I expect you guessed it was forest minister “Honest Bob”Sommers.

    There is a rich history of pioneer women in this province, my great grandmother would pack a rifle out to the vegetable garden in case she and the babies were approached by a cougar. The women hunted, dressed game, chopped wood and fetched water too.

    I think your grandmother was right, they had the best of times, as well as the worst. It made them people we can be justifiably proud of. And people we should measure ourselves by.


  4. Months have passed since this article but after re-reading today, I thought I would comment on the under the table reference in Kim's comments.

    Honest Bob Sommers indeed was convicted but that did not put an end to improper acts in BC forestry. Ian Mahood was angered by what he believed were “under the table” subsidies to large forest companies, achieved by “short scaling” agreed to at the highest political levels. Scalers calculated the quantity of logs produced and their numbers were used to assess 'stumpage' owing to government as the public share of the forest resource.

    American producers were already complaining that BC stumpage charges were too low and therefore an improper subsidy. They wanted punitive tariffs applied. However, the BC companies were complaining that stumpage was too high and depressing their profitability. The BC government dared not reduce stumpage rates because that would add fuel to the American arguments. Instead, an under the table agreement led to keeping the stumpage rates as they were but artificially depressing the 'scale'.

    That reduced the amount payable to government by BC producers but avoided giving ammunition to Americans because it was hidden. However, some contracts between major forest companies and independents called for the actual working loggers to be paid according to the government scale. By artificially depressing the measurement, not just the stumpage was reduced, so was the payment for log production.

    In effect the small logging contractors subsidized the profits of the big guys, the forest license holders. Ian Mahood's company believed they were out large sums of money but Ian said terrific pressure was put on the loggers to keep quiet. Of course, the big companies and the government had significant leverage they could apply.


  5. “Under the table subsidies” to large forest companies are now over the tables subsidies. I just learned today that the stumpage for hemlock on the coast is 25 cents per cubic meter. A telephone pole is about a cubic meter of wood. I'm sure other species are going for just as cheap. Well, 25 cents can buy a piece of chewing gum….or a whole tree. No wonder the provincial “cupboard is bare”.


  6. I'm very fortunate being stuck with the neighbours I have: we actually talk about the different genres encompassed in forestry literature. John Sloboda can regale story upon tale from his life on the coast, an aspiring writer who has come to rethink forestry in a kind of truth and reconciliation commission between fishermen, which he is, and loggers. And we are most fortunate to have a published author, Hamish Kimmins, the high priest of forest ecology, to guide and encourage and, most importantly, recount personal stories of his esteemed career. Anybody's worked in the woods got plenty of stories, jaw-dropping, gut-splitting or engrossing.

    I came out to BC as a teenager, right near the end of chapter two of the history of BC forestry, everything from the end of the war, when chain-saws and high-lead logging replaced hand-saws, axes, oxen and steam-donkeys, up to the devastating 1981 recession, which marked the zenith from which the industry has retreated steadily ever since. All the old guys in camp had been working in the woods since war's end. The real old guys you used to see sitting together in the beer parlour, sipping their OAP-priced draft, were the characters of chapter one, the era of small, “gypo” loggers and remote lumber sawyers, hand-loggers, A-frame loggers from before the big integrated forest products companies—and big labour unions— took over (about which many remained bitter to their dying day). I was extremely fortunate to have jawed with many of these old fellers—now almost all gone. The lovely old gentleman Ken Reid, introduced to me by one of his contemporaries, impeccably dressed and coifed, twirling the old gals around the dance floor Sunday C&W jams at the Mex would be just one example of many I could give. When he was told I worked in the woods, he exclaimed enthusiastically, “I logged Savary Island!” And proceeds to discuss the fine points of steam engines as if I was as familiar with them as cell phones (he was at the time keeper of the steam tractor at the Fall Fair, seen for many years pulling the kids' hay ride around the grounds). The time to get these guys' stories at first hand is fast running out.

    History's kind of far-sighted—that is, things don't come into focus for 25 or 30 years— so that the mountain pine beetle devastation, for example, is only just now becoming discernible; but Clayoquot Sound, Meares Island, the Nitinat Triangle, the Stein Valley and other battles of the “War in the Woods” are now at a more objective, clearer distance. In this third chapter we'll read about environmentalism, land claims, Mike Harcourt's Forest Practices Code, the Softwood Lumber Agreement and the tree-planting counter-culture. The old fellas chatting at coffee shops (not the really old guys, the younger old guys) and old gals (characteristic of this chapter's gender liberation) are available to recount, if not record, the stories of their day.

    If such a history had only these three idealized chapters I would hope the epilogue would note the final chapter stands on the shoulders of the previous two but illuminates rather than obscures them, as was the habit when the opening chapters were penned. The sequel would tell, one day, how we arrived at the impoverishment of forest protection and abandonment of what used to be called socio-economic benefits that once flowed from the forest resource. The chroniclers of the approaching next chapter are barely working age yet.

    I always get a laugh out of Mahood's title: Three Men and a Forester. Makes it sound like foresters aren't real men—which, of course, many are not.


  7. As a former high lead logger on the north coast and Haida Gwaii, I enjoy reading this kind of stuff.

    I am puzzled by this though.

    “Jim Mahood, born James Alexander Sharpe in Gravenhurst Ontario 1885,”

    Did he take his wife's name or what?


  8. His father, my great-grandfather, Mr. Sharpe, departed, leaving mother and children on their own. The kids were cared for by her parents, Irish immigrants named Mahood. My great-grandmother worked, wandered to the USA and eventually to North Vancouver at the turn of the 20th century.

    The story told my generation was that Mr. Sharpe had died young. Doing genealogical research, I went through Ontario records, trying to learn more about him. I couldn't even locate a death record but then, after questioning, my mother admitted that he hadn't really died young, he had run off, or more likely, been run off with a shotgun at his back. Seems he was a farrier who grew too friendly with a farmer's wife or daughter. The fun of studying family histories is to discover that not everything is as it is first described.


  9. I just love this stuff Norm, thanks.
    Many a young lad picked up a lifetime of experience and knowledge under the Mahood tutelage through decades at Stillwater.

    My own Great Grandparents settled at Myrtle Point in 1895. Their only source of supplies was across Malaspina Straight, at Van Anda, a thriving iron ore and copper mine. They made the regular shopping run in a rowboat.

    I have a picture of my Grandfather perched atop the first Bloedel, Stuart & Welsh logging train to push through the old growth to a log dump at Myrtle Point in 1911.

    It saddens me when people today disbelieve any such life and it’s people existed.

    Thanks for the reminder.



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