First of two parts
The demolition of the Springer Creek Forest Products sawmill now underway closes the books on a plant that has been Slocan City’s lifeblood for nearly 50 years. But the circumstances and controversy that surrounded the mill’s lakefront location are now recalled by only a few old-timers.
The issue first surfaced in the Nelson Daily News on February 4, 1964 as Canadian Pacific Railway subsidiary Pacific Logging Co. eyed Slocan’s public beach as a possible mill site.
“Slocan City is a community divided,” the newspaper wrote, as the issue was causing “disruption in the even tenor” of the town.
The debate pitted conservationists against capitalists after Pacific Logging offered the village $10,000 and a new park site in exchange for its popular beach between Springer Creek and the then-highway. The company planned to build a planer, sawmill, chipper, dry kilns, and burner.
“There is a lot of opposition from non-taxpayers,” one village commissioner said, intimating that ratepayers were generally in favour of the sale.
Commissioner Ted Hicks framed the matter this way: “The company has told us if they didn’t get the park site they wouldn’t situate near Slocan City but would develop their mills at Passmore and Rosebery.” (Pacific Logging had existing operations at those sites.)
“We [the commissioners] will not let the property go without signing a contract, and the stipulation that the company would build another ball park and beach site would be in the contract,” Hicks said.
Another commissioner, Bert O’Neail, said he wanted the company to build in Slocan, but “I don’t want to see the park ruined.”
The company previously asked for a site on the west side of the creek, he said, but was now after the park on the east side.
According to the News, Agda Winje, who lived outside village limits in the suburb of Brandon, was circulating a petition protesting the park’s sale without a referendum. She said the first site was ideal for the company’s purposes.
However, two days later, Hazel O’Neail — Bert’s wife — disputed much of what the newspaper had reported, and pointed out there was a third possible location, on the Slocan River at the site of the old Lingle and Johnson mill, about one mile from the village, near the site of a gravel pit today. This, she said, was the site favoured by signatories to the petition.
She also said the petition was not protesting the sale of the park without a referendum, but trying to steer the mill to the river site; and further the company had issued no ultimatum — or at least the village commission had not received one.
In any case, the matter did go to referendum. If 60 per cent of ratepayers voted to rescind the 1953 bylaw that established the beach as a park, Pacific Logging would buy the land for $10,000 and build its sawmill and chipper there. It would also prepare a new beach area west of Springer Creek down to the railway area and build a new ball park and curling rink.
Ted Hicks’s nephew Bill, now 80, was eligible to vote, but didn’t bother.
“It didn’t really matter to me,” he says. “Some of my close friends didn’t want it on the ball park, but I didn’t want to get into any arguments. I just wanted the mill here because there was no work.”
And indeed, Agda Winje’s son Eric recalls the company “promised virtually everyone in town who wanted to work would be working.”
Given those incentives, would residents give up their beach to industry? They would. The vote wasn’t even close — 100 in favour to 25 against with one spoiled ballot, nearly an 80 per cent majority.
The company made good on its promises and the mill was built, providing steady employment for generations to come. But dissenters suggested the $10,000 payment — about $74,000 in today’s currency — was a pittance and the village should have driven a much harder bargain. They also lamented the beach’s loss.
“Pacific wanted [their mill] in Slocan because of the lake and railhead,” says former resident Bob Barkley. “But I remember my stepfather, Fred Lindstrom, was totally against it. He appreciated the lake.”
Barkley recalls the park, lined with cottonwood trees, ran from the old highway as far west as Springer Creek and as far south as Delaney Avenue. In all, he estimates it took in about 200 yards of lakefront and extended back 300 yards.
It had a ball diamond, a curling rink built around 1956 or ‘57 with wood from an old bridge, a concession booth, and ten cedar cabins that Ed and Agnes Clough rented out in summer for $3.50 per night. They sold their property to the mill as well. (Two cabins still stand at a different location in Slocan. Eric Winje’s father Albert bought them and added on extensively to one. He rented them out as houses.)
The old swimming area was known as Brandon Beach. At various times it had a concrete wading pool that no one can recall ever being filled with water, an old barge that served as a diving platform, an actual diving platform, a boat launch near the rock bluff, and a few boathouses.
The new park was in an area previously called Town Beach, a less desirable spot to sunbathe because it was mostly an industrial area, home to the railway slip. While it lacked amenities, kids enjoyed diving off its lake dolphins. (Bill Hicks says when he was a boy, both beaches were quite primitive and strictly segregated between Slocan and Brandon kids.)
Pacific Logging cleaned up Town Beach, removed all the rail infrastructure and some of the dolphins, built washrooms, and planted grass. It remains the public beach area today.
Oddly enough, the new mill was on the site of two earlier ones. One was on the west side of Springer Creek, due north of Harold Street, between Town and Brandon beaches. It was a modest operation, but had its own rail spur, planer, and burner. Owners included Anderson, Bjerg, Hicks, and Melburne before it went bankrupt. It burned down shortly before Pacific Logging built their mill.
The Ontario-Slocan Lumber Co. also had a mill on the east side of the creek in the early 1900s, but Bill Hicks says it was already long vanished by the time he was young.
Next: Re-imagining the mill site