Lumbering Basic Industry: 0051.0264


            The lumber industry has always been the mainstay basic industry in East Kootenay and continues so.  Currently the industry is having the best year of its existence and its largest recorded production with double shifts at some planers to keep up with demand from the open market supplying material for the construction wave all over the North American continent.

            In Cranbrook’s 50 years as a city and nearly 60 years as a community logging and milling have been the mainstay employment, while mining and railroading have fluctuated.

            The late Archie Leitch of Oak Lake, Man., was the first operator in Cranbrook vicinity.  He arrived in advance of the railway in 1897 and established a small sawmill at Fassifern, now first railway section west of the city, turning out the lumber for the first building, the Cranbrook Hotel.  In those days a sawmill could be set up almost anywhere with immediate log supply on the premises because there had been no cutting.  “Springboard” logged stumps three and four feet in diameter are apparent in every direction from Cranbrook within a five mile range challenging the imagination as to the parkland which must have existed around the townsite.

            In Cranbrook’s first decade a wave of sawmill enterprises followed Mr. Leitch and his East Kootenay Lumber Company.  Only brake on production was availability of labour.  There was little mechanization in the industry.  Company-operated railways of narrow gauge steel with small steam locomotives hauled logs to mill sites or mill ponds, and carried the finished lumber to commercial railway sidings.  Logging was by handsaw and skidding by teams of horses.  Shipping wasn’t much of a problem because it was a local market being met to house the influx of new people and new businesses.  Where a stream was available spring log drives were the order.  Employees worked ten hours a day six days a week.

            Timber resources receded from mill locations in the first decade and posed a log supply problem and many operations withdrew from production and pocketed their quick profits.  Where railroad logging had been the order right-of-way grades and rotted ties are still apparent among the scrubby second-growth which surrounds the big stumps on Cranbrook’s doorsteps on every side.

            Companies which stayed in business moved with the times, adopting new methods to meet their own particular needs.  Largest of these was B.C. Spruce Mills Ltd., an American firm which established the interior’s  largest producer following purchase of the A.E. Watts Company at what was then Wattsburg and is now the abandoned village of Lumberton.

            This company entered the field on a large-scale, long-term basis with its timber extending far up to the headwaters of the Moyie River.  Nineteen miles of flume was constructed from the top of its limits to the millpond at Lumberton to bring down logs in controlled flow and at its peak the big stationary concrete mill at the townsite could produce up to  180,000 f.b.m daily.  The company invested two million dollars in plant, timber and housing for employees which paid for itself many times over before operations closed during the depression years of the 1930’s when the lumber market practically disappeared.  B.C. Spruce’s product was sold almost entirely in the United States and buyers appeared to have become extinct.

            This world-wide economic disaster led directly to the next phase of district lumbering, which was probably unique in Canada.  During the depression orders for Canadian Pacific Railway ties, running into millions across the continent annually, were the white hope for survival of small-scale operators and timber suitable for ties was still available.  However, going prices for ties was such that production had to be stringently economical which didn’t warrant installation of costly equipment, or long log-hauling jaunts.  Operator ingenuity in East Kootenay in dreaming up a mill that could go to the site of the timber, cut its ties and move easily on to a new site, devised the portable mill which moved on skids.  At least three district lumbermen now dead, E.S. Home, P.A. McGrath and James Parkin are credited with this mobile approach  to spat in the eye of the depression.

            Cranbrook Foundry Ltd. was given specifications for this innovation and came up with an inexpensive small plant, compared with capital costs of a conventional producer, which moved easily hauled by teams, then trucks and finally tractors.

            Companies which dug in and adopted this economical way of staying in business survived the black years of depression and for a few years operating sawmills became practically non-existent.  The depression was weathered by the late 1930’s when there was even a cautious resumption of new building and lumber from the district, in addition to ties, began to flow to the open market instead of local consumption.

            Nobody expected a revival on the scale of the war-boom however and since 1941 the industry has been in process of adjustment to taking its place in a national and world picture which is still in process.  First reaction to the insatiable wartime demand for lumber, much of it for packaging material for shipment of armed forces supplies overseas, was a quantity of new portable mills set up any place where there was available timber with the rough lumber bought and shipped still damp and warm from the saw and paid for by a fiercely competitive buyers’ market.

            Tractors were the chief mechanical change of the late depression and wartime boom era of the industry.

            Postwar construction boom and continued and even accelerated demand for lumber strongly influenced facilities and methods of companies operating in this district.  Rough lumber, warm and damp from inexpensive portable mills was no longer acceptable and small-scale producers of this, whose facilities went no further, either dropped out, or continued their production on a contract basis for planning by the larger companies which were emerging as part of the provincial industry.

            In turn some of the larger companies able to finance improvements cautiously made a partial return to stationary sawmills but located as close as possible to a suitable large volume of timber and built planers as close as possible to railway shipping points for distant and export markets.  Fleets of trucks shuttled constantly between the two, and some is marketed by truck but in general most is still rail-hauled.

            Toward the end of the Second World War labor-management situation in the district also began to take its place in the whole picture.  Operators affiliated in the British Columbia Lumber Manufacturers’ Association to establish a solid front in dealing with lumber industry problems as a whole, and workers organized in the International Woodworkers of America.

            This began in 1944 and led to two restless years which concluded in district participation in a general strike in the industry through the province in 1946 which was concluded with the initial labor-management Master contract in the industry in the interior.

            It was not settled without acrimony and bitterness on both sides, but it did make district operators an integral part of their national organization.

0051.0264: Lumbering Basic Industry

Lumbering continues as main basic industry in East Kootenay. Detailing the industry from the beginning of Cranbrook, through the depression and wartime boom era.

Medium:  Newspaper - Text
Date:  September 1, 1955
Pages:  6
Publisher:  Cranbrook Courier
Collection:  Columbia Basin Institute (0051)


lumbering basic industry mainstay industry planers logging milling timber resources depression railway ties war-boom


People arrow Leitcharrow
People arrow Homearrow
People arrow McGratharrow
People arrow Milesarrow
People arrow Parkinarrow
Cities arrow Cranbrook arrow Firstsarrow
Cities arrow Cranbrook arrow Businesses arrow Hotels, Motels, Boarding Houses arrow Cranbrook Hotelarrow
Industry arrow Lumberingarrow
Industry arrow Lumbering arrow Companies and Mills arrow B.C. Spruce Millsarrow
Industry arrow Lumbering arrow Companies and Mills arrow East Kootenay Lumber Co.arrow
Industry arrow Lumbering arrow Companies and Mills arrow Wattsburg Lumber Co. Ltd.arrow
Industry arrow Lumbering arrow Flumesarrow
Industry arrow Lumbering arrow Logging Equipmentarrow
Industry arrow Lumbering arrow Railway Loggingarrow
Industry arrow Lumbering arrow Tiesarrow
Industry arrow Manufacturing arrow Cranbrook Foundry and Machine Shoparrow
Unions and Labour arrow Unemploymentarrow
Unions and Labour arrow Unions arrow International Woodworkers of Americaarrow
Cities arrow Fassifernearrow
Cities arrow Lumbertonarrow
Cities arrow Wattsburgarrow
Physical Features arrow Rivers arrow Moyie Riverarrow


For additional features, including access to full text resources, become a member.

Find out more about Memberships.

Share what you know

Share what you know

Do you have additional information about this resource?

Please share what you know.

This resource may be protected by copyright law and may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the written permission of the Columbia Basin Institute of Regional History.