Early forests in southwest BC

While clearing files from an old computer, I rediscovered one involving my maternal grandfather, long-time Chilliwack resident Jim Mahood (1885-1976). He recalled his career in the forests of southwest British Columbia in words published by the Forest History Association of British Columbia in 2006. When this was first written is unclear but I suspect it was done with assistance of his eldest son Ian Mahood (1915-2002). Like his three brothers, Ian spent his life working in the forest industry.

Southwest BC today would astonish my grandfather and probably surprise uncle Ian. As men of their time, they undervalued ancient forests and acceded to their destruction. I remember uncle Ian saying that woodlands were like farms, but with a longer crop cycle. Today, professional foresters know that established forests have far more value than as plantations to provide lumber every eighty years or so. UBC Forestry Professor Suzanne Simard explains:

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.

Categories: Forestry

Tagged as:

7 replies »

  1. What a wonderful, nostalgic read – especially hearing logging operations called shows. What BC was and what it’s become! I went to school with kids whose fathers were gypo loggers up the coast. My best friend in high school (in North Van) told potential employers that she could drive a D9 Cat. The marina in Comox used to be full of fish boats and now it’s full of sail boats. I guess the whole area has become a different kind of commodity, one that has no actual value.


  2. I’m sure that he’d roll over in his grave learning how BC Forests have been pillaged and banked since 1980! How mills have been shuttered, towns emptied for lack of fibre. 2nd growth plantations / farms in their 60 year rotations are not growing as expected due to soil depletion / starvation of nutrients, means the forest industry of BC might make it for another 10 years. The average age of Forests Trees in BC used to be 400 years. As mentioned, the plantations are on a harvest rotation of 60 years. 37% of logs cut are now raw log exported. 2020, we’re moving to a Pellet export product. 2019, the 5 major moved in excess of 400M$ to the US for their operations.


    • Rod, I agree with you totally. You have spelled out clearly how devastating the tree-harvesting system has been to British Columbia, and I am sure it is the same across the country wherever trees are cut to feed our desire for triple-thick toilet paper and other products which deplete the forests which support more life than human. Spraying of tree farms with glyphosate has contaminated so much soil and water and made forests not only fire-prone, but starves the animals which feed on them, including the hunters who depend on those animals to feed their families.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. In my younger days I got a job as a chokerman for the Mahood Logging Company in Powell River. The owner was Earnie Mahood, I knew he came from the Chilliwack area and is probably the grandson of Jim Mahood. Although reasonably athletic, my first day logging was totally exhausting – climbing up and down hills, lugging heavy blocks and spike bars over a mess of trees and branches – and tugging strawlines. It was dangerous work and hard work, As a bespectacled student, I had survived in a real man’s world. A few years later, I taught school in Powell River and had Earnie Mahood’s son, Jan, in my class. A small world..


    • Ernie and twin brother Ray were sons of Jim Mahood and younger brothers to Ian. From age five, I left Vancouver to spend summers with cousin Jan in Powell River. At age ten, my family moved out of the city and lived beside the Mahood Logging booming ground. Jan and I had free access to camp vehicles and as pre-teens were used to driving long distances on the company’s private forestry roads without adult supervision. We usually carried a .22 rifle and a .410 shotgun but never used them on anything but tin cans.

      As we grew older, we were assigned crappy temporary jobs: cutting and burning slash, hand carrying diesel fuel to road building machines, ditch digging, shop cleanup, etc.

      After grade 12, I worked the summer in a Mahood camp at the head of Powell Lake, I told people I was the Chief Engineer in Charge of Electrical Communications. Fellow loggers called me the Whistlepunk. That involved leaving the landing with 1,200 feet of heavy electrical wire draped off the shoulders and climbing to places where signals from the rigging crew could be relayed by electric whistle to the yarding machine operator. (Use of radio devices to signal began shortly after that summer.)

      I was either too smart or too lazy to set chokes regularly. That was tough work, often done in miserable weather.


  4. Jim Mahood’s article mentioned about the B&K logging company working in the Chilliwack area. They also worked at Powell River, from a bay on Powell Lake called B&K Bay. The other name for the bay was Haywire Bay; I don’t know if it was referring to the nature of the logging company or for some other reason. I can remember as a very young boy in 1942 seeing the last trucks abandoned there. They had solid rubber tires, about a foot across and and about 4 inches thick. Must have made a bumpy ride. Rather than having gravel roads, they drove on plank roads – at least in the stretch nearest to the lake. Perhaps it was swampy there. It all sounds like ancient history. It makes me feel old …. but I’m not …..


Leave a reply but be on topic and civil.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s