#675 Stump to dump at Mesachie Lake
The Last Whistle: Hillcrest Lumber Company Ltd. 1917-2018
by Cecil Ashley
Reviewed by Robert Griffin
Cecil Ashley has produced an amazing book that is clearly a labour of love. The Hillcrest Lumber Company represents a major type of lumber producer in British Columbia. At one time numerous small to medium-sized sawmills dotted BC, with many on Vancouver Island. Hillcrest is one of the best examples. Family-owned and operating for 51 years in the most intensely logged area of Vancouver Island (the Cowichan Valley and Lake Cowichan area), its history presents an opportunity to see how such an industry created a community and contributed to BC’s economic welfare.
Hillcrest Lumber had two locations: from 1917 and 1947, it was at Sahtlam, near Duncan on the island’s east coast; and from 1942 to 1968, it was at Mesachie Lake in Vancouver Island’s interior. It closed when it could no longer secure an adequate timber supply. Its move into central Vancouver Island mirrors the general spatial pattern of logging activity on the island over the early and mid twentieth century. Although the focus of The Last Whistle is largely Mesachie Lake, there is a respectable amount of information on the earlier mill at Sahtlam.
This is a book about the people who worked at Hillcrest and to some extent their families. By the time the material for this book was collected many of the Sahtlam people were no longer around or able to contribute. By contrast, many from Mesachie Lake continue to meet regularly at reunions, often organized by the author. The final quarter of the book is primarily devoted to the stories of Hillcrest Lumber workers and their families, and by following these short biographies one acquires a sense of the complexity and the many tasks entailed in the operation of a logging-sawmill complex and how the elements of such a community interacted.
Ashley seeks to provide the reader with an abbreviated synopsis of racism (pp. 12-16) in British Columbia as background to later sections on Hillcrest’s different ethnic or cultural communities. Perhaps it would have been better to have left this section out and referred the reader to some of the many available books on the Chinese, Japanese, and South Asian communities in BC. However, apart from this introduction, Ashley’s discussions and descriptions of the various ethnic groups at Hillcrest contribute greatly to a much under-recorded aspect of forest industry life. It is unfortunate that Ashley was unable to pursue the life of Bing Sue Lim, the Chinese factor at Hillcrest because, while such Chinese intermediaries have been noted elsewhere in BC railway construction and fish canneries, they have rarely been documented in logging operations and sawmills.
The greatest strength of The Last Whistle is its impressive collection of photographs. Often, Ashley undertakes the seemingly impossible task of identifying the people shown in them. His short and general introductions to each section provide the reader with enough background to appreciate the images. His images and captions take the reader through the sawmill and logging operations and into the community. Often the captions of people at work contain additional snippets of information that build the story, increase the photographs’ significance, and add greatly to our understanding of the Hillcrest story. For example, when noting the installation of the large mechanical barker at Hillcrest, Ashley mentions that the chips subsequently manufactured were mainly sold to the BC Forest Products’ pulp mill at Crofton. How else would we know this? A second interesting example is when Ashley contrasts the gang saw at Sahtlam with the same saw following its installation at Mesachie Lake. Ashley notes that the same gang sawyer is standing beside the saw in both photos (p. 103).
Ashley does not leave us hanging about what finally happened to the abandoned sawmill site after 1968. The property was taken over by Camp Imadene, primarily a Christian youth camp, where a few of the original buildings still stand and have been put to new uses. Three original Hillcrest buildings still stand: the main office building, now a permanent home for the Camp Imadene caretakers; the garage, now the camp’s maintenance building; and the original dry shed, which has recently been completely renovated for use as a gymnasium and general purpose and meeting place (see photos below).
Nor does Ashley stop at the sawmill and logging operations. The fire department comes in for its share of attention, as do St. Christopher’s Church and the Sikh Temple.
The weakest part of the book concerns the Chinese communities. There were two of these, one at the sawmill and another at a railway camp in the Robertson River Valley, south of Mesachie Lake. It is unfortunate that these have not been documented because Chinese workers were probably the largest non-white group at the company, even though — unlike the Japanese and East Indians, as Ashley refers to them – they tended to be single men rather than families.
Ashley also tells us what has happened to some of Hillcrest Lumber’s machinery. The Goldie and McCulloch Corliss generator is at Fort Steele, while the three Locomotives, two Climaxes and one Pacific Coast Shay, are scattered. Climax No. 9 is at the Forest Discovery Centre in Duncan. Climax No. 10 is at Elbe, Washington, and operates in the summer on the Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad, while the company’s Pacific Coast Shay is now at Fort Steele.
The title Last Whistle refers to the last time the Hillcrest whistle was blown, a whistle the mill workers heard several times a day and a nostalgic sound for all those former employees. A recording of it is still played at the yearly Hillcrest reunions.
Dr. Robert Griffin has worked in museums for his entire career. His first employment was at the BC Forest History Museum in Duncan, now the BC Forest Discovery Centre, and between 1979 and his retirement in 2011 he worked at the Royal BC Museum. Bob obtained his MA and Ph.D. in history from the University of Victoria. His Master’s thesis was a history of the Shawnigan Lake Lumber Company; his Ph.D. Dissertation was a history of the British Columbia plywood industry. He has published several articles and co-authored three books.
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