Slocan Valley logging in the 1940s — a guest column by George Doi

Because of the popularity of George Doi's recent Star column about Nelson in the 50s, we asked him for another historical piece...

The Passmore sawmill and planer mill in the Slocan Valley were both run by steam.

The Passmore sawmill and planer mill in the Slocan Valley were both run by steam.

by George Doi

During World War II, George Doi and his parents and siblings were imprisoned in an internment camp at Bay Farm in Slocan. After they were released, father and sons went into the logging business in the Slocan Valley. The family also ran Mae’s Snack Bar in Nelson. In 1961 Doi joined the BC Forest Service, serving in various locations in the Kootenays. Promotions eventually led him to management positions in Vancouver. He lives in Langley.

Doi’s previous article for the Star described Nelson in the 1950s.

The first coastal high-lead logging system ever to be used in the Interior was by Passmore Lumber Company in 1946. It was set up by a team of highly experienced Japanese Canadian loggers who were being interned in nearby wartime camps. These high-lead yarding and falling crews were mainly from Vancouver Island towns such as Duncan, Paldi, Youbou, Royston and Cumberland.

The forest companies in the Interior had gone from horse logging to A-frame jammer and tractor skidding. They by-passed the high-lead yarding system that had become the standard method at the coast because of the widely held belief that the Interior trees were too small and too scattered. They were afraid of the costs and the risks involved and did not have the expertise in high-lead logging.

But Passmore Lumber Company took the initiative, and the loggers modified the system (using lighter cables, blocks, etc) to adapt to the Interior timber and they showed that it could be done and be a viable operation.

These young loggers were all hard and dedicated workers. They didn’t walk, they ran to unhook or set the chokers, to fight the hang ups, to change the lines and the blocks. The fallers were the same, always running or moving briskly as they limbed, measured and bucked up the tree, constantly vigilant for widow-makers (limbs and other loose material dropping from trees above).

Passmore is situated on the highway between Slocan and Nelson. It was just a small isolated farming community until 1946, when it became the lively hub of logging activities. Many of the mill and bush workers came from the internment camps of Lemon Creek, Popoff, Bay Farm and even as far as the northernmost New Denver camp some 80 km away. (All internment camps closed by Oct. 1946, except New Denver.)

But Slocan Valley was home predominantly to the Russian Doukhobours, so they represented the majority of the workers.

The Passmore sawmill sometimes ran three shifts and used dry kilns all powered by steam. The company had a medium sized mill at Camp 10, sometimes operating two shifts and another smaller mill at Camp 5. I cannot remember the mill’s production but the total number of employees on the payroll must have been close to 500 at its peak.

The lumber and cedar poles were loaded in box cars and on flat cars by the railway siding in the Passmore mill compound. Logging trucks were constantly on the go and, if the mill’s log pond was full, the excessive loads were stock piled in other areas. It seemed there were logs and lumber piled everywhere.

In 1946 the Time Keeper/First Aid Attendant was a chubby young Japanese Canadian named Doug Nakano. He was fluent in both English and Japanese. One of his favourite quips was, “Mosquitoes stay away from me, they get diarrhea.”

He reminded me of Lou Costello from Abbott & Costello.

Here are a few names that I remember of those who were working in the initial years on the high-lead: George Yano (high rigger/top loader/foreman), Ty Sugimoto, Bud Akiyama, Tom Tagami. Buck Higashi, Satz (Kazuma) Yonemura, Mas Yamada. Of course there were many more, but at that time every worker also had his personal matters to cope with besides work, such as the closure of the internment camps and the government’s orders to go back to Japan or to settle in Eastern Canada, so the crew numbers were continuously changing and many didn’t stay too long.

Because of the high production of logs from cable skidding, there would be a huge build up around the spar and trucks were hauling from very early in the morning till late at night to the main Passmore mill 20 km away. Horse logging was still the conventional method of skidding but those logs went to the other two sawmills.

Keeping the high-lead operation supplied with felled and bucked logs required many pairs of experienced fallers. I don’t know who was there initially other than my Dad (Ken) and Johnny Inouye, who were both proud coast fallers. They were a breed all their own and no one would dare question their dedication to work and integrity. They worked in isolation in their own strips.

Coast fallers used spring boards (1.5 m plank with bolted steel ‘nose’). Spring boards were inserted into notches and used to get above flares and rots or used as a footing on the lower side of a steep ground.

While on my way to Camp 6, I saw the aftermath of a midnight mudslide at Camp 4 (shown at left, photo by George and Heather Burns). It had demolished most of the bunkhouses and took the lives of two Japanese Canadian loggers while they slept inside.

The bunkhouse I stayed in was an old one-room log cabin that squeezed in about 12 workers. I got up regularly at 5:30 in the morning. To wash up before breakfast, there was a pail of cold water and a pail of hot water sitting outside in the open on a long plank laid across two blocks of wood. There was a dipper in each pail with half a dozen wash basins and bars of soap. There was no place to shower. (As a matter of fact none of the camps other than camp 10 had shower facilities.)

What I hated most was sleeping in bunkhouses full of smokers. In those days most bunkhouses had low ceilings and very poor ventilation. It seemed that as a young kid I was always the unfortunate one to be bunking with chainsmokers. I used to cover my head with blankets whenever I went to sleep. The Europeans were moderate smokers and the older Doukhobours never smoked at all.

George Yano on the high-lead was a real hi-baller. I once saw him carry a coil of 1cm (3/8”) diameter strawline (cable) around his shoulder and he literally ran up the mountain with it. He was a big man.

I heard that in the prewar days, whenever the group of Vancouver Island loggers went to Vancouver, they always looked forward to frequenting the Chinatown restaurants on Pender Street where George Yano would dispose of nine bowls of noodles at one sitting.

One evening at Camp 7, George Yano came into the office with his eyes all puffed up and almost closed. His whole face, lips, neck and hands were red and swollen. He grinned and tried to look nonchalant. He looked like Joe Louis, the boxer. I was there in the office when he told Bob Burns the superintendent what had happened, that he had gone up to the operation and on his way back, running on a raised hemlock log, his pant leg got caught on a limb and he fell into a huge hornets nest.

He had difficulty getting out of the deep hole because it was full of branches and debris. He said he was feeling okay and didn’t want to go for treatment but Bob insisted and drove George down to the Nelson hospital. After counting 150 stings, they stopped.

I remember the brothers John and Alec Vereshagin worked at this camp. John was a military dispatcher in the motorcycle corp. He drove his motorbike to camp and once put on a show beside the bunkhouses on a gravel road. He stood on his head while on a fast moving bike.

I have written this by memory, relying on my 42 years of forestry background and familiarity of the area. Obviously there is much more, but I just concentrated on this part of the story. As many were much older than me they may not be around now but their children might be interested if they had heard their parents talking about Passmore Lumber Company.