Big River began as a mill town and was built and owned by the lumber company. It is interesting to note that the company was formed several years before any sign of settlement began. The Big River Lumber Company was incorporated in Winnipeg in 1903, and the first small settlement sprang up around Cowan's Mill in 1906. Serious settlement began in the next few years and by 1910, with the arrival of the railroad, Big River had boomed to a population of over three thousand. The Lumber Company looked after its employees, and one street after the other was filled with houses and tenement buildings. The Company built the school, post office, police station, hospital, and store. Most people seemed content with this arrangement until the disastrous fire of 1919. With the timber gone, the Company began to talk of moving out. The news affected everyone and personal decisions had to be made. The possibility of a ghost town became very real, and many decided to move - either following the lumber mill to its new location or some other destination.
1926 - July 1st Parade on Main Street, Big River.
View of the hill, showing the school, Brownfield's Store
and the R.C. Church.
Not everyone lost faith in Big River's future. Some were determined to stay and make the most of things. Five enterprising men, Anton Johnson, E.C. Brownfield, W.W. Turple, Peter Figeland and John Waite formed the Big River Development Company (sometimes known as the Settlement Committee). This small group negotiated with the Ladder Lake Lumber Company and offered to buy the entire town site for twenty thousand dollars. The offer was accepted and on January 1st, 1923, the Development Company took over the town. Each one of the five owners was in charge of and owned his section. New business was encouraged and land changed hands many times. New stores, cafes, and places of business were constructed as people began to find a place in this new system. It was a difficult task, picking up all the loose ends and making the community function as a whole, without the aid of the Company funds.
One important issue that had to be solved was how to finance the school. With little or no assessment or taxes to support it, the burden of the operating expenses fell on the businessmen of the district. Realizing that they couldn't shoulder this responsibility for very long, it was essential to incorporate into a Village as soon as possible. By doing so, more land could be surveyed and assessed, giving the district borrowing power, government grants and more tax dollars. Therefore, plans were made in haste to have Big River declared a Village. This came about in the summer of 1923 and the first council meeting was held on September 15th of that same year.
Third Avenue, looking North.
The first Overseer elected was Mr. E.C. Brownfield. The first Secretary Treasurer, W.M. Wakefield and the first councillors were Alexander G. McKinnon and Charles C. Cornell.
Big River continued to grow until it became the largest Village in Saskatchewan.
In 1964, a new dock was built on Cowan Lake by the Department of Public Works. 1965 was "biffy burning year" as sewer and water were installed in most homes and places of business. The contractors were Brown and Root. A new nurses residence and the post office were built in 1965 as well.
Big River was officially declared a Town on October 1st, 1966. Mr. Roland Barre was the first Mayor and councillors were Sam Miller, Charles McKenzie, Laura Wilson, and Sid Cookman.
Big River today is a modern town with natural gas and dial telephone service. The population is approximately nine hundred. The town is located in a scenic spot and noted for the beauty of its setting. We believe we are the only town in Saskatchewan where you can enjoy the sport of fishing from the end of Main Street.
There are eight stores, two restaurants, six garages, five churches, D.T.R.N., nursery, camp grounds, beverage room, hotel, library, theatre, post office, electrician, plumber, S.G.I.O., hospital, railway station, bus depot, four schools, R.C.M.P. Detachment, boat rentals, trucking, skating and curling rink and an industrial area which has just recently opened up.
The 'Company Town' - 1916, with mill and burner in background.
Local Improvement District.
The Local Improvement District (L.I.D.) No. 974 has had an office in Big River since the 1930s. Under the Northern Areas Branch of the Department of Municipal Affairs, it was responsible for the administration of the local areas as well as relief payments, land mapping and district roads.
L.I.D. business was first conducted by travelling agents from Prince Albert and then Reverend Smith became the first resident Inspector and a local office was opened here.
The second Inspector in this district was John Swanson, a local farmer. The office was located on the corner where Reimer's Garage is today. It was a small white and green building heated with an airtight heater and was much in keeping with the hard times, so boasted very little equipment or furnishings.
Harry McInnis was the next Inspector, coming from Meadow Lake in 1942. The trip over took all day as there was no northern route and the existing highway was so muddy the car would get stuck every few miles.
The duties of the Relief Officer (as they were called) in those days, were many and varied. They operated on a very limited budget and there was a lot more paper work involved in the job. Most families were having a terrible struggle to survive through the lean years and because of this, feelings ran high on the best way to spend every cent. Everyone had their own opinion and in a sense all were right but funds just didn't spread far enough to accommodate everyone and it fell to the Inspector to decide where and how the dollars could be stretched to the best advantage. Supplies to service all road camps were hauled by the Inspector in his own car and should anyone take ill it was generally the duty of the Inspector to take them to the city for medical attention. Often in time of accident or tragedy, it was the duty of the Inspector to offer assistance as best he could.
As economics improved during the war years, the L.I.D. provided a road building program and a machine shop was set up at Ladder Lake in the old air base hangar. Lyman Johnstone was in charge of this and many district roads were constructed at this time. The road to Green Lake was opened up as were new roads into homestead areas. It was a familiar sight in those days to see the yellow and black boxcar cabooses which marked the road crew camps.
Following the war years Hector Hartnett was the Inspector and later Tom Collins and then W.H. Burns were here. C.E. Wildman came in 1955 and the office was moved to a building across the street from Waite Fisheries Ltd. W.G. Zbitnew came in 1963 and was followed by Harry Stobbs. During his administration a new office building was constructed on Third Avenue. C.D. Belter was here in 1973 and the last Inspector was Pat Mallaghan.
The Local Improvement District came to an end in 1977 when it was phased out and replaced with a Rural Municipality.