The company town of Gordon River left a life-long mark on local man Bill Gibson.
Bill was 12-years-old when his family moved from Vancouver to the isolated forestry-based company town, located southwest of Honeymoon Bay.
“It was quite an upheaval in my life,” he said. “It was quite a life-altering experience, and it stuck with me.”
It was 1950, and the Gordon River community was at its peak. His family, including his father Ben Gibson, mother Nora Gibson, two brothers and a sister, lived in a Gordon River duplex. Although there was a school in Gordon River, it only went up to Grade 6, so Bill had to head out every school day to Lake Cowichan.
The trip was quite the feat. He had to wake up in time to take a 7 a.m. 45-minute speeder (a vehicle that travels on train tracks) trip to Honeymoon Bay, where he would catch a bus, which would transport him to school.
Heading back home from school also took a great deal of time.
“The speeder didn’t leave until 5 p.m., so it was a long day,” he said.
In 1953, things began to change at Gordon River.
The transition from railroad logging to truck logging had begun. Bill’s family was one of the first to leave Gordon River for Lake Cowichan, where they bought a house on Stone Avenue.
The trip to school was a lot shorter.
“Usually, I went to school when the school bell rang,” he said, of his family’s new home.
At this time, his father began commuting to Gordon River, where he worked as an engineer.
Upon Bill’s high school graduation in 1956, he went to the University of BC, then relocating to Trail, BC.
“So, I didn’t have much to do with Lake Cowichan after that,” he said.
Gordon River was a thing of the past. Or, so he thought.
His time spent at the forestry community stuck with him, and in 1989 he decided to pay the community a visit. Although the last permanent resident moved out in 1981, a number of buildings were still standing.
“The offices were still standing. Most of the other buildings had gone,” he said. “I didn’t believe my eyes, the change that had taken place.”
Bill retired and moved to Youbou in 1998.
An itching to learn more about Gordon River led him to visit to the Kaatza Station Museum in 2004.
“Then, I realized there was almost no information on Gordon River,” he said.
Whereas the Youbou Sawmill’s files were saved before the mill’s destruction, company files from Gordon River were burnt along with refuse.
He did manage to gather some information through the Kaatza Station Museum’s archive of newspapers. The BC Archives in Victoria, a London-based researcher, website searches, and in-person interviews filled out his project, which ended up materializing into a book he’s recently completed.
One key interview subject was his father, who is soon to be 94-years-old.
“My main focus on the book was when Western Forest Industries ran the compound, and that was from 1946 to 1981,” he said.
After truck logging began in 1953, the town slowly died.
“That would be the death of families living in Gordon River,” he said.
The elementary school ran until June of 1964, and the last permanent resident remained living in Gordon River until 1981.
Although he hasn’t visited Gordon River since 1989, Bill said that what he’s heard hasn’t been positive.
“They tell me now, everything’s gone – totally leveled – returned to its natural state,” he said.
His book, Rails to Roads and the Million Dollar Camp: The Story of Gordon River, includes over 200 pages, chronicling the life of Gordon River.
Of the 100 copies he had printed, Bill has kept half to hand out to family and friends, while the other half has been donated to the Kaatza Station Museum, which will sell them as a fund-raiser.
“The museum is a key part to me writing the book,” he said, adding that the 50-book gift is his way of thanking the museum.
Looking back, his four years spent working on the book have been worth it, he said.
“I feel very good about leaving a legacy at the museum, and I filled a void in local history,” he said.
Bill will also be giving a presentation on his book during the Kaatza Historical Society’s Tuesday, February 15, meeting.
The meeting will begin at 7 p.m. at the museum’s Bell Tower School building, and will be open to the public.