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Mountain Timber: The Comox Logging Company in the Vancouver Island Mountains

By Richard Somerset Mackie

Review By Christopher Hanna

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 173 Spring 2012  | p. 156-57

Richard Mackie’s Mountain Timber is the second volume of a projected three-volume history of the Comox Logging and Railway Company’s operations on Vancouver Island. This volume begins c.1927 with the company’s expansion of its steam-powered high-lead skidder and railway logging operations into the mountainous terrain of central Vancouver Island to the west of Comox and ends c.1946 when operations were moved to the Ladysmith area on southern Vancouver Island.

While Mackie provides readers with an excellent survey of the scope and techniques of the company’s operations between c.1925 and c.1946 by tracing its “stump to dump” movement of trees from their harvesting to their dumping in the Strait of Georgia, the focus of his attention is upon on the lives of the people who were drawn into the orbit of the company. In the early 1920s the company’s managers in the Comox Valley, led by Robert “Bob” Filberg, decided to meet the company’s manpower needs by hiring local men for long terms of employment in place of the unskilled labour hired previously through Vancouver hiring halls. This policy transformed much of the company’s workforce into a “home guard” of long-service employees who lived in the Comox Valley. Through interviews with these former employees, their families, and their descendants, Mackie has produced a most informative and illuminating history of the community formed amongst the company’s long-term employees.

The author’s reliance upon oral history will probably leave in the minds of some readers a slight unease that the author’s assertions and conclusions are based upon the memories of only those Comox employees who remained in the Comox Valley and are not representative of the experiences of all employees. Throughout the period under study, the company continued to use the hiring halls of Vancouver for less-skilled labour, especially in the grading and track-laying gangs. It is clear from Mackie’s interviews that working conditions were harsh at the bottom of the company’s labour force and one must wonder how many of the less-skilled labourers remained in the Comox Valley to be interviewed decades later by Mackie and others.

Mackie has included, throughout his book, transcriptions of many of his interviews with Comox Logging employees and families. Coupled with Mackie’s own writing, these interviews provide the reader with a wealth of historical voices free of the anonymity and homogenization of sources found in most historical writing.

To illustrate his history, Mackie has tapped not only the usual collections and public archives, but also the photograph collections of Comox Logging families. Reproduced in a large format on glossy paper with informative and often extensive captions and, where necessary, enlargements to show details, the scores of hitherto unpublished photographs Mackie has located form the heart of his history and establish a new standard for the use of visual imagery in such histories.

Mackie places the operations of Comox Logging within the context of Canada’s extractive staple economy, but provides no information about the ownership of either Comox Logging or its owner, Canadian Western Lumber Co Ltd., after c.1920. Before the demise of their Canadian Northern Railway c.1918, Mackenzie and Mann appear to have controlled both Canadian Western Lumber and Canadian Collieries (Dunsmuir) Limited, Comox Logging’s neighbour and operational partner during the 1920s in hauling logs to tidewater. It would be interesting, in light of the earlier linkages between the firms, to know what linkages existed during the years under study.

The book contains a number of generally minor errors and omissions dealing with the technology of coastal logging: the highly-dangerous, manually-braked disconnected logging (railway) trucks are invariably confused with flatcars equipped with air brakes, while Hyster logging arches and Clyde track-laying machines are not identified as such. The maps and diagrams provided are informative, but not quite up to the standards of the previous volume in either detail or accuracy.

While not a definitive history of Comox Logging, Mackie has produced an insightful and visually impressive history of a steam-powered, high-lead skidder and geared locomotive logging operation on British Columbia’s coast. As a visual record of the coastal logging industry Mackie’s work ranks with the best efforts of Leonard Frank, Wilmer Gold or Darius Kinsey and should be required reading for anyone with an interest in the steam-powered coastal logging industry of the Pacific Northwest in the early twentieth century.

Mountain Timber: The Comox Logging Company in the Vancouver Island Mountains
By Richard Somerset Mackie
Winlaw, BC: Sono Nis Press, 2009. 320 pp. $42.95 paper