Trees. Trees.
The Mill Story


Log Hauling



      A survey of Northern Saskatchewan, by the Department of the Interior, revealed that this land was of prime importance in the area of natural resources. Also at this time, the beginning of the nineteen hundreds, the Canadian National Railway was building many east-western lines through the southern part of Canada, and in particular, southern Saskatchewan. The Canadian Northern Railway saw the potential that could be developed in Northern Saskatchewan, and seriously considered building a northern spur from Shellbrook to Big River.
      Under the Companies Act 1902, the Secretary of State of Canada, may, by Letters Patent, under his Seal of Office, grant a Charter to any number of persons, not less than five, who have complied with the requirements of the Act.
      On May 4, 1903, Richard William Scott, Secretary of State of Canada, officially incorporated the Big River Lumber Company. Five men made application for the charter under the act, constituting them and such others that became Shareholders in the company, a Body Corporate and Politic under the name of the Big River Lumber Company. These five men were: Theodore Arthur Burrows, Land Commissioner of Winnipeg, Manitoba; William Cowan, lumberman of the Village of Prince Albert, District of Saskatchewan, in the North West Territories of Canada; Edward H. Moore, lumberman of the Village of Prince Albert; Horace Edgar Crawford, Barrister at Law, of Winnipeg; and George Arthur Mantle, accountant of Winnipeg. The capital stock was two hundred and fifty thousand dollars.
      Cowan, acting on behalf of the Big River Lumber Company, made a trip up north and applied for a timber berth from the Federal Government. He received the contract in 1903 with the stipulation that the Indians, because of a prior application, were to remove eight thousand saw logs from the same berth before Cowan could begin logging. It happened that, at this time, neither the Indians nor Cowan took out any logs and therefore, the contracts were cancelled. In 1904 and 1905 Cowan re-applied and got a license for the same timber berth, and again he did not produce. In 1906, a permit was applied for under the name of the Big River Lumber Company, and Cowan signed for the timber berth.

Timber berth granted to William Cowan 11 July, 1906

Timber berth granted to William Cowan 11 July, 1906.

      Cowan began logging in the Debden area, which at that time, was covered by a lake, known as Winslow Lake. He used this lake to dump the cut logs into. An agent from the Department of the Interior came and inspected Cowan's operation at this time and found everything in order.
      In 1908, Cowan moved further north into the future area of the town of Big River to continue logging. Simultaneously, the Canadian Northern Railway began construction of a northern spur from Shellbrook. This expansion of the railway was an indication of the seriousness of the Big River Lumber Company's plan to tap the timber source. The train would serve as a means of hauling out the processed lumber, and in addition, it would provide for passenger service and a means of communication with the southern prairies.
      In order to construct the large mill, it was necessary to build a small temporary unit that would provide the necessary lumber for the Big River Lumber Company mill. Therefore, in 1908, William Cowan built the first mill on the south-eastern tip of the shores of Big River. In 1909, William Cowan was President of the Company, D. H. Laird was Secretary, and John Henry Munson of Winnipeg was tested as a shareholder. The capital stock had increased to one million dollars.
      The equipment for the Big River Lumber Company mill was brought in by horse and wagon since the railway was not completed until 1910. Also used in the construction of the mill were bricks, prepared by the local Big River brick yard. Joe Nicholson, an early resident in Big River, was responsible for securing the clay and preparing the brick. E.C. Brownfield hauled stones from Stoney Lake that were used in the foundation of the mill.
      By 1911, the Big River Lumber Company was in full operation, under the superintendancy of Oscar Sharpe. The Directors of the Company were listed as follows: President - Colonel A.D. Davidson, Toronto; Secretary - George Luckhurst, Winnipeg, A.M Nanton, Winnipeg; J.H Munson K.C., Winnipeg; William Cowan, Prince Albert; R.J. of and Mann, Winnipeg.
      This new sawmill, was, at that time, the largest in the British Empire, with a capacity of producing one million board feet every twenty-four hours. The mill consisted of an engine room, sawmill, planing mill, dry shed, and piling yard. The planing mill was one hundred feet long and one hundred and twenty-five feet wide. Four hundred feet away was the drying and storage shed for finished lumber. This building measured approximately one hundred and seventy-five feet long and seventy-five feet wide. The sawmill building was two hundred and twenty-five feet long and seventy-five feet wide (lake side). A one hundred and twenty foot sorting shed extended from the sawmills south side, while the refuse was conveyed from the north side to the one hundred and forty-two foot tall burner. The mill was powered by three steam engines housed in the engine room to the immediate north of the saw mill building. The largest engine, rated at eighteen hundred horsepower, had one piston, sixty inches in diameter. A belt, one and a half inches thick and five feet wide, transferred the power from the engines thirty-four foot diameter flywheel to the sawmill.
      The burner was constructed with double walls and water was stored between these walls during the winter months. Heat from the burner would bring this water to near boiling point and then the hot water would be released around the boom logs to keep the lake open and the logs free. In this way the mill could continue operating into December. This method was used only once as the process was not very efficient.

William Cowan's mill - 1909

William Cowan's mill 1909.

      The building and operation of the mill as well as the bush work offered steady employment for more than one thousand men. Wages for a ten hour day ranged from one dollar and fifty cents to eight dollars, depending on the job.
      Before this exceptionally large mill could be used it was damaged by fire. A second mill was built immediately, but it had only half the capacity as the first.
      During the years of the early nineteen hundreds the government urged people west and into northern parts of Canada, with stories that their fortune could be found in the new land. Also, with erection of the Big River Lumber Company mill, employment could be readily attained. Newspapers in eastern Canada ran articles about the good jobs that could be secured around Big River, and the publicity excited many people, resulting in a mass migration into the Big River area. Overnight, Big River boomed to a population of three thousand to four thousand people.
      The Company owned the entire mill site, and when the workers and their families began moving in, the Lumber Company began constructing houses for accommodation. Row upon row of identical houses was the trademark of a company town. Nearly everything was owned by the company, even the school, and with the exception of the Roman Catholic Church, so were the churches. The Company can also be accredited with operating the first Post Office.

Mill Houses

Mill houses.

      Oldtimers often talk of those 'rip-roaring' mill days, when jostling, fighting, hard-working lumberjacks held sway in the streets. They also talk of the great two-day contests when log-rolling, and other sawing and lumbering feats were the source of keen competition between these expert lumbermen.
      On June 11, 1913, the Big River Lumber Company suffered a severe fire which resulted in the termination of the mill. It was also at this time that the Canadian Northern Railway was in financial straits, and since MacKenzie and Mann were involved in both operations, it was necessary for them to sell. They sold the 'town' in 1914 to an American Company from Minnesota, the Winton Brothers. The transaction was finalized and the Winton Brothers established the Ladder Lake Lumber Company. The Big River Lumber Company continued as a Company until December, 1922, at which time they were struck off the register of joint stock companies as they had ceased to carry on business in Saskatchewan.
      The Winton Brothers were set back temporarily the same year when lightning struck the planer, but they managed to rebuild the mill and have it in full operation by May, 1915. The opening of the sawmill retained the majority of the population and soon the town continued to develop.
      The Ladder Lake Lumber Company purchased two boats to help in the sawmill operation. One was named "Alice Mattes" while the other


Big River Lumber Company Destroyed by Fire, June 11, 1913 at 6 AM.

On June 11, 1913 at 6 a.m. The Big River Lumber Company is destroyed by fire.

Big River Lumber Company Destroyed by Fire, June 11, 1913 at 6 AM

On June 11, 1913 at 6 a.m. The Big River Lumber Company is destroyed by fire.

Sawmills, Ladder Lake Lumber Company, Big River, Saskatchewan.

Sawmills, Ladder Lake Lumber Company, Big River, Saskatchewan.

The Mill in Operation.

The mill in Operation.

Sawmill, Ladder Lake Lumber Company, Big River, Saskatchewan.

Sawmill, Ladder Lake Lumber Company, Big River, Saskatchewan.

was referred to as "The Alligator". The Alice Mattes had been used on the Saskatchewan River and when purchased by the Lumber Company, it was dismantled and moved to Big River. Mr. Mattes, who at this time , worked for the Winton Brothers, was responsible for getting the boat to Big River. The boat was thereafter, christened and named after his daughter, Alice.
      The Alice Mattes was responsible for hauling boom logs down Cowan Lake. The boat was a stern wheeler with a wood burning engine, and used a center pole anchor, drawing the log booms by winch.


The Alice Mattes owned by the Winton Brothers.

The Alice Mattes owned by the Winton Brothers.

The Alice Mattes owned by the Winton Brothers.

The Alice Mattes owned by the Winton Brothers.

      Then there was the Alligator, a somewhat antiquated version of the modern duck, which could move itself from one lake to another. Constructed on heavily shod iron skids, the crew would unreel its cable and fasten it to a 'dead man', an anchor buried some five or six feet in the ground. The Alligator then winched itself slowly over the ground to its anchor, during which time the crew was on ahead fixing another 'dead man'.

The Alligator.

The Alligator.

      In 1919, disaster struck the Big River area when a forest fire completely surrounded the town. It happened in the summer months of May and June and the fire ranged over upwards of fifty square miles in the dense northern bushland and hay meadow. The flames were so intense that not even Cowan Lake offered a means of protection. Mrs. E.C. Brownfield saw the flames jump across the river and sweep around the town. The fire was in such close proximity that it posed a severe threat to the town and its inhabitants. It was necessary to evacuate.
      A special train was provided to transport the women and children south, away from the danger of the fire. Two men responsible for organizing the evacuation were Billy Cornell, the policeman, and Doctor Fenton. Those who did not go out by train were taken by Ernest Gamache to his scow on Ladder Lake. Mr. Gamache used a large wooden horse-drawn grain tank and had to make several trips. He said the women and children had to stay on the scow for several days. They left the town with thoughts that nothing would be remaining when they returned. All available men stayed, refusing to be defeated.

People waiting to board train in 1919.

People waiting to board train in 1919.

      Recollections of those days are still etched vividly in the memories of the people who were involved.
      Mrs. John Swanson, realizing that the fire was getting too close to her homestead, began to bury some of the family's more valuable possessions, those that one could never afford to purchase again. Her next concern was leaving the homestead before the fury of the fire destroyed her home. She quickly hitched up the horses to the wagon and loaded herself and the children on it. Upon arrival at Big River, Mrs. Swanson discovered that the evacuation train had already departed. However, as a result of a major wind shift, Mrs. Swanson was able to return home.
      When Mrs. Gilbert found out about the evacuation of the town she also wanted to save some possessions. In her panic, however, she threw two bread pans and her husbands hat into the well, while more valuable items were left.
      Mrs Nicholson's two year old daughter observed the commotion of the fire. She ran to save something and when she returned from the house she held the strap that was used for punishing her, securely under her arm.
      One very prim and dignified English lady had to be properly dressed even though the fire was in the middle of the night. She brought her son to the train and was fully attired with gloves and hat. However, the heat in the boxcar was so intense that it caused the dye in her straw hat to run down her face. Later, it was found that she had dyed her hat with black shoe polish.
      During the evacuation, the Company had made a large lunch for the weary train travelers. Mr. Ernest Ethier remembers that this was the first time that he ate peanut butter. His brother, suffering from a broken leg, had to be transferred from the hospital to the evacuation train.
      Mrs. George McKnight had just arrived from England on April 24 with her husband and a sixteen month old baby daughter, Freda. Living in a tiny shack a little way down the railroad tracks, she saw the evacuation train pull slowly past but did not realize she should have been on it. Then she noticed her mother-in-law. Mrs. McKnight, leading a little boy, Joseph Gilbert, down the tracks. Her most vivid memory of the fire is a picture of her furniture being dumped into the swamp.
      In the absence of any proper fire fighting equipment, the men were forced to haul water with teams and try to control the fire with meager pails of water. When the fire got completely out of control, the men were forced to retreat from the bush. They returned to town and buried their most cherished possessions. They continued to fight the fire to prevent it from destroying the town. Miraculously, the fire was stopped before it reached the lumber yard, where reserves of lumber and cordwood were kept. The town, even though it was totally surrounded, managed to escape the fire's ravages.
      For several days the mill was closed and school did not meet. Those who had evacuated the town waited in tense anticipation, hoping, yet fearing the worst. They returned when the fire had eventually burnt itself out. The sight of the town, standing stark among the blackened timber was depressing, but even more so was facing the reality of the situation. Big River was a mill town, and without timber, the prospects for the future looked dangerously dark.
      The fire had burnt almost as far north as Green Lake. It had left small patches of trees, and it was this surviving timber that allowed the mill to continue operating until 1920. After this source was depleted the Winton Brothers began to dismantle the Ladder Lake Lumber Company Mill. In 1921, the machinery from the mill was divided up among the Winton Brothers and was used in sawmills at The Pas, Manitoba, Giscolme, B.C., and Lumberton, B.C. All that remained was the burner, a landmark that was to last many more years.
      The loss of the mill left most of Big River's population unemployed. Many of the people followed the mill to it's new location while some took the chance and remained. Without a source of income, the people had to find an alternate source of providing for their families. They turned to homesteading, fishing, freighting, and trapping, and in the absence of a major sawmill, small privately owned mills began operation. The Company sold the "town to the Big River Development Company, for the sum of twenty thousand dollars and took their departure, ending an era of relative prosperity and leaving the town in an economic slump.
      The lumbering industry continued, however not on such an elevated scale as when the Company owned the town. Small private mills sprang up, owned by men who still thought they could receive an adequate income from this business.


Portable Mill.

Portable mill.

      Some of these people who owned sawmills included: Oscar Eikel, George Anderson, Harry Boyd, Andy Sundby, Hank Mottes, Tom Michel, Jack Rae, J.K. Johnson, and the I.C. Fish Company which was owned by Rizer and O.P. Godin.
      Several of the mills were located near Delaronde Lake while J.K.Johnson's mill was located on Cowan Lake.
      The private mills received their permits from the D.N.R. and then they would seek out a profitable timber area and begin logging. These men were involved in making rough lumber that was later sold to planing mills or another person or company that wished to purchase it.
      Contracts were also taken out for cutting railway ties. The process of cutting ties was tedious and required much manual labour. First the felling of the trees commenced, then hewers were responsible for cutting two faces off of the trees. This was done manually with axes. The trees, now faced on two sides were cut into appropriate lengths. The ties were then hauled into Big River and were delivered to stock piles. They could be sold in this state of completion or, before being loaded on the train, could be squared, that is, being faced on the remaining two sides. The excess material that was hewed off the trees was used for many building purposes, such as slab fences and sheds.
      In 1945, there was a change in government and their policy was one of central control and therefore, the private sawmill business was gradually phased out.
      The government set up a Timber Board in 1945 and all timber contracts for spruce were under their authority.
      In 1946, the Saskatchewan Timber Board made plans to rebuild the lumber industry in the village of Big River.
      The mill that J.K. Johnson had built along the shore of Cowan Lake was the ideal place for the location of the planned future mill. This property was purchased from J.K. Johnson by the Saskatchewan Timber Board in the mid forties; however the burner was not included in this transaction. Mr. Johnson received an offer to have the burner dismantled for scrap-iron during the war years, but he declined the offer.
      In 1948, under the management of J.K. Johnson, the new planer mill began to produce. The official opening of the Saskatchewan Timber Board Mill was held June 22, 1950 with several public figures in attendance. The community of Big River, once again, felt the satisfaction of industry.
      Small private mills that were still in operation in the bush brought their log cuts into Big River and dumped them on the ice of Cowan Lake during the winter. In the spring and summer they were boomed down the lake and were prepared for the sawmill.
      In May, 1969, disaster struck the lumber mill industry once again. A spark from a welders torch ignited and the Saskatchewan Timber Board sawmill burned to the ground.
      The planer mill continued to operate during the rebuilding of a new mill. The new mill was relocated to Sixth Avenue North, at the end of the railway spur. It opened in 1970 and in 1971 the people of Big River witnessed a tragic event. The "old" burner, erected in 1909, was dismantled and sold for scrap iron. Many people thought this was a degradation of a landmark that had existed for so many years.
      In 1973, the mill was closed down and moved to Bodmin. Now under the name of Saskatchewan Forest Products, the mill provides the major source of employment in this area.
      Timber has always played a key role in the history of Big River and continues as an important element to this present day.


Second Mill Ladder Lake Lumber Company, 1917.

Second mill Ladder Lake Lumber Company, 1917.

Ladder Lake Lumber Company. The white blocks in foreground are where the second mill was before being dismantled.

Ladder Lake Lumber Company.
The white blocks in foreground are where the second mill was before being dismantled.

Unloading logs from sleighs, Big River.

Unloading logs from sleighs, Big River.

Booming logs.

Booming logs.

Big River Spruce.

Big River Spruce.

Loading logs.

Loading logs.

Hauling logs.

Hauling logs.

Lumber Piles.

Lumber piles.

Lumber Piling, Nels Edson and Ole Skivik.

Lumber piling, Nels Edson and Ole Skivik.

Fire Pump.

Fire pump.

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