The Town That Vanished…And The One Hanging On

REPRINTED FROM:: “The Forest Around Us: Comment By Bill Moore” in the British Columbia Lumberman, July, 1974, article titled, “The Town That Vanished”

They named the town Swanson Bay. Why, I don’t know, possibly after a chap called Swanson, who enjoyed rain. Because you see, they nearly invented rain around Graham and Fraser Reach, where this pulp mill town was built just after the turn of the century.

Looking at a map of coastal B.C. and its beautiful inland Salt Water Mainstreet, you will find its location approximately just over a hundred miles south of Prince Rupert—and just under a hundred miles north of Ocean Falls. The fishing town of Butedale is about fifteen miles away and folks there speak of 200 – 250 inch rainfalls in a year!

It is nothing new for mining towns to disappear after their one shot resource is gone. Mining ghost towns we have plenty of. But for a substantial pulp mill town to vanish is a bit of an oddity. Let’s take a look back and see what happened—and why.

In 1901, the B.C. government passed “an Act to amend the ‘Land Act,’” in which was inserted a clause permitting any incorporated company empowered to manufacture pulp and paper to obtain a lease of crown timber for 21 years, on condition that the holder “shall erect within the province of B.C. and equip a pulp or paper mill with a capacity of not less than one ton of paper—for every square mile of timber limits.”

This bit of legislature seemed to cause a big stir in the financial circles from here to England—and apparently a number of companies were formed, but most met with lack of financing. By 1903, when the act was repealed only four companies held such rights. One of these was the Oriental Power and Pulp Co. Ltd. which held nearly eighty-five thousand acres near Swanson Bay.

It was not until 1906 when the Orien-tal’s lease was sold to the Canadian Pacific Sulphite Pulp Co. Ltd. that some actual building got under way.

A sawmill was built first, and the pulp mill soon followed and was producing by 1909. By the next year production was hitting the grand sum of twenty-five tons per day.

The town became a regular port of call for CPR and Union Steamships that plied the coast from Vancouver to Prince Rupert. These memorable ships took the same route then as does our modern Queen of Prince Rupert, that is filled with visitors to B.C., quite in awe of the scenic Salt Water Main-street of our coast.

But if the scenery was great, the timber was not. For the area around this pulp mill town contained some of the poorest grades of coastal timber in B.C.

I have walked through parts of its forest and talked with the few local loggers in the area, and apart from patches of fair timber the area is generally predominant with poor scrub. It seems the idea at the time was that logs would be brought in from the Queen Charlotte Islands and other areas.

In some ways it was a strange place to build a pulp mill when there were so many better areas of timber available at the time but remember that mapping, timber inventories and trans-portation were a far cry from today, particularly on this lonely part of our B.C. coast.

The Canadian Pacific Sulphite venture was not too successful and the mill closed down to be taken over by the Empire Pulp and Paper Mills Ltd. with a capital of $2,500,000. The plant was overhauled and refitted and work resumed with 250 men in December 1916.

According to the Victoria times of May 12, 1917, the company again changed hands to the Whalen Pulp and Paper Co. with a capitalization of $10 million and operations continued. By 1918, the population of Swanson Bay was up to 500 people with a 100,000 board feet of lumber cut per day and sulphite pulp being exported to Japan. There was also a shingle mill in operation.

This latest venture was the work of the Whalen family of brothers from Port Arthur, Ontario. They had been entre-preneurs in that area as they were to become in B.C. I recall last June when I visited Thunder Bay, the new name for Port Arthur, seeing inscribed over the archway of a tall building, the name Whalen Building.

The Whalens soon took over three companies—B.C. Sulphite & Fibre Co. of Swanson Bay, The Empire Pulp and Paper Co. of Swanson Bay and the Colonial Lumbering and Paper Mills of Quatsino on Northern Van-couver Island.

Financing was done on a world wide basis and for awhile it looked like the Whalens would make it. However the depression after the First World War, and the great earthquake in Japan of 1923 caused their markets to tumble.

By 1925, the B.C. Pulp and Paper Co. Ltd. was formed and took over all their enterprises.

Sometime later Swanson Bay, as a mill, was closed down forever, and the new company pro-ceeded with pulp plants at Woodfibre and Port Alice. The people moved away but a watchman stayed on for years. Then the rains set in and the forest started to reclaim its own.

What a history! The above facts I gathered from the archives in Victoria. My father had spent many years working for the Whalens at Swanson Bay around the early 20’s. It was a well-built, little town, as the pictures well testify. Just built in the wrong place, and beset by one financial problem after another.

About 10 years ago I spent a few days in the Swanson Bay area looking at the timber. My curiosity was such that I had to visit the old townsite and see what was there.

OLD TOWNSITE VISIT AND WHAT WAS THERE

Brush and more brush. That’s all one would see at first sight.

The great concrete walls of the mill lay scattered about where they had eventually fallen. Only a piece of the smokestack remained standing. The shingled roofs of the homes lay folded up on the ground like a collapsed deck of cards, with large alder trees growing up through them.

It was like some Mayan discovery of an old civilization. The pounding rains and snow had flattened it all out in the short span of forty years. The traveler going by in a boat or even a plane might miss the site if he were not watching with care.

You will notice on the picture of the houses, the wide boardwalk along the beach. It was most interesting, in my searching, to discover that quite large portions of a bulkhead were still in place along the shore.

This bulkhead was made of five-foot long slabs and edgings from the sawmill. They were stacked with great care, end on, to the salt water, and had survived since built, presumably about 1910. It was amazing to me that the pieces of wood had not rotted away by now. Some-one in the past apparently knew how to construct a bulkhead that would last.

It all seemed such a shame and such a waste. Here had been a thriving community and mill. Even though the forests of the area were not the best in most places there was still lots of low quality wood available.

What had happened to the people who lived and worked there?

COMPARISON TO OCEAN FALLS

To my mind it brings a comparison, of sorts, to the recent B.C. government take-over of Ocean Falls. Granted the timing is fifty years apart — but the backgrounds of Swanson Bay and Ocean Falls are similar in some ways:

  • Both mills were and are on the same coastal waters and both produced pulp.
  • Neither had road access to the outside world but depended on ships and in the case of Ocean Falls — aircraft.
  • Both companies stated it was unprofitable to continue producing any longer.
  • Both mills were built alongside or close to lake water, using huge amounts of water to wash the pulp with.
  • Both towns were totally dependent on the one industry with no alternate industry if markets or forest products failed.

In the case of Swanson Bay, I doubt if it ever entered the minds of the government in 1923 to “take over” or the individual family life in relocating to another job. A watch-man stayed on for years—but one could imagine the deterioration that would set in to the place with a rainfall so heavy—with looting, and no upkeep.

Slowly back to nature went Swanson Bay.

And now we have an opposite result of a company prepared to close down the pulp mill town of Ocean Falls.

With no one else to take over the town and the mill, the government of B.C. felt it must keep the place viable. To be sure the equity in Ocean Falls would be larger than that of Swanson Bay, but that is only relative to the times.

What does change the picture quite a bit is the fact that the pulp markets of 1923 were depressed and the 1973 markets were just fine, thank you.

Times change — so do people — Swanson Bay has vanished — swallowed by the alders, salmon berries and salal brush. Ocean Falls is hanging on and there are reasons and people that won’t let Mother Nature devour her. Which only proves that this forest around us is a very interesting place, that holds countless stories yet to be told.

Keep out of the bight,

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