Listen up, railroad lovers! There are only two steam trains on Vancouver Island, and Port Alberni has one of them. Not only that, Port Alberni also has the only commercially operating steam-driven sawmill in all of Canada. It was designated a National Historic Site in 1989.
At the picturesque harbour in Port Alberni, climb aboard the steam-driven 1929 Baldwin locomotive at the restored Canadian Pacific Railway train station. The 25-minute journey takes you to the McLean Mill, which sits on a 30-acre forested site. While there, explore the complex with its original buildings used by the people who lived and worked there. The sawmill has now been restored to full working conditions; the mill pond and dam have been reconstructed and some of the residences and service buildings have been preserved.
The R.B. McLean Lumber Company was a family-run business that operated from 1926 to 1965. Although small in scale, its logging, milling and marketing operations were similar to larger mills in the province. Much of the original machinery and buildings have survived, making it a rare example of a sawmill complex from the first half of the 20th century.
Kay Green, now 88 years old and a resident of Abbeyfield in Port Alberni, remembers going to school at the McLean Mill in 1930. Until age eight, she had attended school in the nearby community of Bainbridge where her family lived. When it closed, Kay, her two sisters and two brothers walked through the bush to the McLean Mill every morning from Bainbridge Farm, a distance of about three miles [4.8 km].
“We had to carry milk, which was packed into quart bottles and put in flour sacks by our mother,” Kay recalls.
It was an arduous task for the young children, but they did it in all kinds of weather. They didn’t have snow boots, so their mother put their father’s stout socks over their shoes, held up at the knee with elastic bands.
Kay recalls that, at age 14, she came to the end of her schooling at the one-room McLean Mill schoolhouse. She soon got a live-in job at the Mill’s cookhouse, earning $10 a month and went home to Bainbridge Farm on weekends. Occasionally, she cleaned the “Big House” where Mrs. Muriel McLean lived. It was hard work, but fairly paid; there were no luxuries.
While working at the Mill cookhouse, 16-year-old Kay met a young tail sawyer, Kermit Green. They fell in love and married three years later. Kermit had come from New Brunswick with his family, who were distant relatives of the McLean family. Kay says she was very proud that as soon as they were married, they had their own house. Close to the Mill, it sat opposite Muriel McLean’s house. It was a one-bedroom, one-story house with an outdoor privy. Kay and Kermit’s first daughter was born in 1941, and she slept in a crib at the side of their bed. They graduated to a two-bedroom house just around the corner, but by the time their second daughter was born, they had moved into town and Kermit commuted daily to the Mill in his Model T Ford. Kermit was a good worker and eventually became head sawyer at the Mill, where he worked until 1965, when the Mill closed. He then got a job at the Somass Sawmill in Port Alberni.
The two houses where Kay and her husband lived can still be seen at the Mill complex. Other buildings at the site include the bunkhouse, cookhouse, teacherage and blacksmith shop, as well as the homes of the boss R.B. McLean, and his son Arnold McLean.
Today, McLean Mill has only one full-time paid employee, General Manager Neil Malbon. There are several part-time paid employees in season, who work on steam machinery, the train, the buildings and the tracks. Many are seniors, as are the volunteers, most of whom are members of the Western Vancouver Industrial Heritage Society. These invaluable volunteers are expert, skilled and generous with their time. Many have spent a lifetime honing their skills, working in the same trades in which they now carry on as volunteers. More volunteers provide entertainment: the Old Time Fiddlers, and Phil’s Harmonics String Orchestra. Others work in the kitchen preparing lunches for cruise ship visitors.
In August 2009, a grand opening showcased the “newest” piece of working vintage equipment: a steam-powered donkey engine. Demonstrations by skilled sawyers include milling of specialty lumber, which has a steady market. Visitors can safely view the operation of the steam carriage, which powers the head saws, from a gallery running along the far side of the mill.
For wine connoisseurs, at certain times during the summer and even a couple of times in the “off” season, the steam train makes a stop half way up to the Mill at the Chase and Warren Estate Winery, Port Alberni’s own vineyard nestled on 10 gently sloping acres with outstanding views of the surrounding Beaufort Mountains. The Winter Wine train in November 2009 encouraged passengers to dress in heritage outfits and ride up to the vineyard for a wine-tasting event.
There is often an element of danger on the rail journey from Port Alberni to the Mill. The notorious Beaufort Gang, outlawed since at least 1935, have been known to burst out of the forest and hold up the train.
The Tin Pants Theatre Company provides entertainment during the season, some members drawn from the Canadian College of Performing Arts in Victoria and others from the local Performing Arts High School Program. From June 26th to September 6th, they act out the story of the Mill and do interpretive tours in between. “With our operating steam train, steam sawmill, steam donkey and Tin Pants Theatre Company, we offer an authentic and unique experience that is done nowhere else in North America,” says Neil Malbon. “While the focus is on the forest industry, it’s really all about our community and the people who live and work here.”
For more information on the Alberni Pacific Railway and McLean Mill and for reservations, call 250-723-1376 or visit http://www.alberniheritage.com
AUGUST 2010 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER ISLAND