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“Digging into History: The Early Loggers”, by John Mountain, Vol. 1 No. 10 (October, 2019)

These first few blog posts are backdated issues of John Mountain’s historical newsletter “Digging into History”. As of March 2020, John had been working on sorting the collection for over a year and a half, publishing a newsletter every month detailing his findings.

The Early Loggers – Myrtle Bergren wrote about Lake Cowichan’s early loggers in her book titled Tough Timber – The Loggers of British Columbia. In her book, Myrtle Bergren points out that her story is based on the Cowichan region – specifically Lake Cowichan because it was one of the vital areas for the establishment of the woodworkers’ union thus providing a historic link to the IWA.

In this deep dig, it’s Myrtle Bergren’s interview transcripts and notes that were used to compose her book manuscript that caught my interest. I discovered a cache of papers – interview transcripts and author’s notes – in an unmarked box and it immediately drew me in. It was a super find. And while her book was published in 1966 after many years of research and writing, I think it fascinating to examine her papers to get a sense of how Myrtle assembled her book mostly based on the interviews of Arne Johnson, Hjalmar Bergren (her husband), John McCuish, George Grafton, Edna Brown, and others who helps organize a woodworker’s in BC.

In among her papers, I found a letter from “M. Olsen” – a person only identified with an initial for a first name, and Olsen as the last name. M. Olsen offered Myrtle a history vignette in the letter – a essay of sorts on early logging in the Lake Cowichan area. If you get a chance to crack open the Tough Timbers book, you will find that Myrtle used some of M. Olsen’s letter as research to flesh out her chapter called The Early Loggers. On its own, M. Olsen’s story comes off the page. But the people and places mentioned in the story also provide any reader attracted to Lake Cowichan history an interesting chronicle of the times.

FROM BULL TEAM TO DONKEY

By: M. Olson

Mrs. M. Bergren,

Box 260,

Lake Cowichan, B.C.                         Approx. 800 words.

It is in the lifetime of one man that the Lake Cowichan area of Vancouver Island has progressed from the stone-age to Sputniks, figuratively speaking.

When we met Joe Morrison in the summer of 1957, he was in his 97th year, and he was already three years old when the first white explorer of whom we have record broke his way through the heavy timber into the Lake Cowichan area in 1864. Joe Morrison was a few years later to become one of the first loggers of the area.

The first white explorer, whose name was Brown, kept a diary in which he described the timber as being “of the most magnificent description. Within the area comprehended by our eyes lay an easy fortune for any man of most moderate means. Spars of Douglas fir and hemlock 100 to 200 feet in height and from two to six feet in diameter, without a twig for 100 feet, stood in every direction.”

From his home in Fort Langley Joe Morrison told me of this timber. He told me he recalled a dead cedar tree which stood on the north side of Lake Cowichan measuring by actual government records, eighty-seven feet, six inches in circumference, four feet above the ground.

The first timber lease in the Lake Cowichan area was taken out by a William Sutton of Ontario, in 1879. Angus Fraser contracted to log for him, and Joe Morrison of Fort Langley was one of his crew.

A letter from Joe Morrison describes the times. Angus Fraser brought his men, supplies, and five yoke of oxen across the Straights of Georgia by barge. Landing at Cowichan Bay, they rode over the stumpy trail to Lake Cowichan by a distance of over twenty miles, driving the oxen before them.

There was nothing at Lake Cowichan then but a body of water surrounded by dense trees as far as the eye could see, and very few settlers. “Strange as it may seem,” his letter states, “on arrival at the lake there was being built a log hotel. One would wonder at the time where the business was to come from”.

Angus Fraser and his men logged here from 1882 to 1891, so far as we know. “Fraser was under contract to log five million,” Joe Morrison explains. “This contract was fulfilled by August of the same year. The operation was completed by six yoke of bulls, with Phil McMahon as bull teamster and I as hooktender.”

In those days the logs were brought into the water by means of skidroads, the skids being 10-ft. long sections of logs half-buried in the ground, with a notch, or saddle, cut in the middle; or else a trail of two logs half-buried in the ground side by side, and heavily greased.

When the tremendous task of moving the logs from ground to water had been accomplished with the aid of ten or twelve straining bulls, they were boomed up and held until the water reached exactly the right height for river driving.

The river driver had to know his business to get logs down the 28 miles of twisting water to Cowichan Bay. The Cowichan River dropped 500 feet to the sea, and contained in its entire length some 130 rapids, and about 30 falls. Of these last, four or five were about six to 15 ft. high in those days, and in several places the banks were over 150 ft. high.

In any case, the river provided the only possible mode of transportation for the giant timbers. The desire for a railroad was constant, from William Sutton right on through, but many years were to pass and millions of feet of timber driven down the river — to the fortune of some, and bankruptcy of others — before the railroad came.

Joe Morrison was a young man and still logging when the donkey engines found their way to this province. “The first donkey I worked on was spool,” his letter states. “The next donkey I worked on was for Gilley Brothers. This donkey had drums, and was then considered to be a masterpiece of machinery. Emerson Gilley was the engineer.

“Whilst working as a hooktender for Gilley between New Westminster and Vancouver, I had to oversee the handling of a precious piece of timber which was to become the spar for the Shamrock, Sir Thomas Lipton’s yacht.

“I quit the woods in 1900 to farm, and have never returned to the woods since.”

He told me that his father worked at the Hudson’s Bay Company’s post at Fort Langley, the original Hudson’s Bay post on the mainland of British Columbia. Recalling the picture of olden days, when the old fort was surrounded by palisades, he described it vividly.

“In the enclosure there was a cooper shop, now the museum. There was one store full of guns and bear traps and beaver traps, where they used to trade with the Indians; another store filled with clothes, blankets, boots; and still another where such things as whiskey, molasses, copper kettles, tin plates, and stacks of beads and such items could be obtained.

“All game was plentiful: bear, elk, deer. At evening when the sun went down the sound of beaver clapping their tails on the water of the Fraser River filled the air.”

Within the lifetime of one man we have come from the “silences of God” so to speak, to the wonders of present day life. “I hooked for the first donkey that ever came across from the States,” Joe Morrison told me with pride.

And now today we have a lumbering industry that, according to official government records, annually produces sufficient wood to build a board walk 8 ft. wide, 1 ft. deep, and 25,000 miles long –- enough to girdle the earth at the equator:

A “SKOL!” to our pioneers.

-30-

************************************************************************************

The IWA Salutes the Past – Challenges the Future

BC Lumberworker Vol. XXXIV, No.1 – January 1971      Editor: Pat Kerr

The IWA Rebuilds –The year 1949 was a year of reorganization for the IWA. A magnificent effort was made by the officers and members to rebuild the organization, which had been all but wrecked by the Communists.

 The first convention after the October 1948 backstairs revolution was the Twelfth Annual District Convention, January 15-16, 1949.

The nature of the problems confronting the Union are indicated by the following excerpts from the report of the provisional officers to the convention:

“Your provisional officers, upon assuming office, faced overwhelming obstacles in their efforts to administer the affairs of the Union. The former officers, before surrendering office, carefully plotted to throw the affairs of the District Council into complete confusion. Without authorization from the membership, these individuals removed from the control of their successors, office records, furniture and equipment, funds and in some cases the use of office space. It was necessary to apply to the courts of British Columbia for permission to repossess this rightful property of the Union. At this time we are happy to report that approximately $15,000 of the funds, wrongfully removed, have been restored to our control. On several occasions, vague offers to return over $100,000 were made by representatives of this minority group, headed by the ex-officers of the District.”

 “We were faced, in addition to the many problems mentioned previously, with the gigantic task of rebuilding the framework of organization within the Locals. At the same time, this minority group was waging an aggressive campaign to smash our Union and to entice our members into their splinter group in an effort to replace our Union as the bargaining agent in the lumber industry.”

“From evidence now in our possession, it is apparent that negotiations in 1948 carried on by the ex-officers of the District were purposely sabotaged in several ways. In spite of the objections by our International president and the present Provisional president, the first offer of the operators was sent out on a ballot, unnecessarily delaying negotiations. The smear campaign conducted during the negotiations by the former District officers against those who objected to these delaying tactics, hampered the securing of a favorable agreement… the board question was left out of negotiations by the former officers… we are now engaged in settling the matter of board rates.”

The officers also reported that the B.C. Lumber Worker and the Green Gold radio program were returned to the Union, and would be continued under the direction of the District Council officers.

The Union demanded a wage increase of 15 cents an hour, but the state of the organization made it difficult to dispute the employers’ refusal. The base rate remained at $1.08 an hour. New contract clauses clarified such matters as board rates and the status of the Union as the bargaining agency for workers in the industry.

Next time in Digging Into History, I’ll cover off the 1950 and 1951 which has the IWA getting back on track with an Annual District Convention in Nanaimo and an Industry double-cross in negotiations. Thanks to the BC Lumber worker for this excerpts.

I’m so glad to be playing a part in preserving the history of the IWA. If my story on Myrtle Bergren’s Tough Timber research papers creates any further interest, I urge you to contact staff at the Kaatza Museum for more information. Next time in Digging Into History, I’ll take another deep dive into the archives and share some more interesting stories.

Until next time,    John

John Mountain is a retired United Steelworkers Canadian National Office Staff Representative and former IWA Local 1-80 Union Member. He lives in Chemainus and volunteers some of his time at the Kaatza Museum in Lake Cowichan.

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