Sawmill of the Otis Staples Lumber Company

June 9th, 2022 5 Minutes
Otis Staples Lumber Company sawmill was located adjacent to the St. Mary’s River – Image courtesy of the CBIRH

The Cranbrook Herald in 1904 stated that Otis Staples had secured “a large area of first-class timber on Perry Creek and as a result, he has now in the neighbourhood of 12,000 acres ranging from St. Mary’s river to a point two or three miles above Old Town.”

The article went on to say that Mr. Staples intended to construct a bridge over the St. Mary’s from the mouth of Perry Creek and build a logging railway up the creek as far as Old Town. Further, it indicates that Otis Staples’ negotiations with the C.P.R. regarding rates and a siding had been concluded. Staples was moving ahead to build a mill capable of producing 75,000 feet per day, with sufficient power to increase 150,000 feet per day when demand warrants. 

In 1906 the ­Cranbrook Herald credited Otis Staples with “a most remarkable improvement in milling and logging practices, and it cannot, by any means, be entirely attributed to the betterment of trade conditions.” 

They were quick in their praise of Otis Staples’ new methods and machinery. His new mill blatantly asked everyone to improve their game. Reduced production costs would provide a stimulus to the whole Easy Kootenay industry.

Although the Otis Staples Lumber Company sawmill was located right adjacent to the St. Mary’s River, the timber limits for the most were situated to the north along Cherry Creek and to the west along Perry Creek, so not well located for river driving. But more to the point, the founder of the sawmill was not a true believer in water conveyance as the most reliable way to transport logs. The Canadian Pacific Railway’s North Star line was immediately adjacent to the mill site, and a short spur gave access to the C.P.R. boxcars hauling the milled wood to market.

Otis Staples’ first audacious move, in 1903-1904, was to negotiate an agreement with the C.P.R., which allowed his own Staples Railroad to cross the C.P.R. tracks and use a short portion to tie his railway to his mill. This necessitated hiring a C.P.R. crew on the tail end to ensure that all was safe and secure when on C.P.R. property. Otis Staples had his crews build standard gauge tracks throughout his limits. Fitting a flatcar with a small donkey engine operating a windlass and derrick, the teams could load the flatcars and transport the logs directly to the sawmill log pond. A four-person train crew brought in about 40,000 feet on each trip.

Otis Staples’ Railroad to crosses the C.P.R. tracks c. 1903 Image courtesy of the Columbia Basin Institute of Regional History

Mr. Staples’ flatcars came west with much of the sawmill machinery loaded on them. The 14-inch double cut band saws were manufactured by the McDonough Manufacturing Company of Eau Claire, Wisconsin.The power source also came from McDonough, a 22X30, single-cylinder, piston valve engine controlled by a Gardner governor with automatic stop. 

The engine furnished 500 h.p. and ran day and night (Sundays excepted). The 12-foot diameter flywheel had a 32-inch face and gave steadiness to the running under all conditions of stress and load.

In the October 4, 1906 edition of the Cranbrook Herald the report indicated there were three boilers with automatic feed and that steam cost money. He credited Gus. J. Selk, mill superintendent and master mechanic, tuning the engines and valves so that the sawdust from the band-mill ad edgers was more than sufficient for all steam manufacturing purposes. In one set of adjustments, Mr. Selk was credited with saving 5 ½ pounds of steam per h.p. per hour, the equivalent of the energy extracted from 1/8th of a ton of coal per hour. Selk was so ingenious that, once the mill was tuned and running. He had raised the cut of the mill over 30 percent and built a new planning mill capable of milling 150,000 feet in ten hours; the Columbia River Lumber Company of Golden hired him right away to run their mill. By 1910 the mill was producing 40 million feet of lumber annually.

There were several other components to the Staples Lumber Company mill, including a saw-filing room in charge of A.D. Palmer with Abe Naslund assisting. This shop is constantly at work as it sharpens edger, trimmer slash, lath saws, and the very large band-saw blades. 

The average life of a band-saw was put at about eight months of actual use.

The repair shop was 60 by 40 feet and contained two big steel lathes, one of which could turn a piece of shafting 20 feet long, a larger drilling machine, a steel planer, shaper, grinding machines much more. A complete blacksmith shop was at one end, adjoining an attached hospital for all kinds of rolling stock. There is a power press for pressing on large locomotive wheels. This department was thought important as it affected the overall operation’s considerable savings. 

One reporter stated that “no appliance which can effectively deal with any condition likely to arise either on the railway or the mill, has been overlooked in the equipment.”

The planer mill had its building adjoining the shipping platform, and C.W. Carlson was in charge of the power plant here. It was carefully constructed of galvanized iron to reduce fire loss. The main engine house as well, according to the 1904 Cranbrook Herald Annual, was built of stone, 80 feet by 38, and 22 ½ feet to the eve plates. The galvanized roof was supported on steel girders. 

Otis Staples Co. Planer Mill c. 1900s – Image courtesy of the Columbia Basin Institute of Regional History

The entire building shell was fireproof. “An insurance man told the writer that the fire risk could be no further reduced than had been done in this case. Incidentally, he bewailed the low rate of insurance which Mr. Staples would pay.”

Mr. Staples, in the same article, was quoted as saying: “Frank McDonough of the McDonough Manufacturing Company, Eau Claire, Wis. gave it as his opinion that the plant I am installing will be, for its capacity, as perfect as any on the American continent. The mill will be able to handle timbers of 36 feet in length, and the edger is an 84-inch’ Pacific Coast’ machine, with a battery for an inch and another for one-inch lumber, the latter being designed for sawing vertical grained flooring.

The mill’s power plant is ample for an establishment of double its size, a fact you may not have noticed.

I shall be prepared, at the shortest notice, to get out stuff up to 36 feet in length, and I hope to make as good lumber as is being put on the market.”

Some sources estimate that the initial investment in the sawmill operation of 1903-04 was close to a quarter of a million dollars. However, with Otis Staples’ vision and energy, that investment earned many times that for his family.

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