Suki Sanghera, right, and his brother Kamal, owners of San Group, explain to Port Alberni Mayor Sharie Minions and CAO Tim Pley where the new sawmill will be located at their present site on the shore of the Alberni Inlet. (SUSAN QUINN/Black Press)

British Columbia Chronicles: New Hope for B.C.’s most historic sawmill town

“New mill, new optimism after years of forestry decline in Port Alberni”—Megan Thomas, CBC News, March 2019

This spring, it was announced that “Construction is starting on $70-million sawmill and manufacturing facility for high value products that will add mill jobs in Port Alberni for the first time in years.”

The CBC report referred to the San Group building a $70-million sawmill and manufacturing facility for high value products. It was good news for a city that saw the shuttering of another mill, the Western Forest Products-owned Somass Sawmill, in 2017. The Somass mill once employed more than 1,000 people.

There was a time when no could have contemplated a Port Alberni without a sawmill; this was, after all, where British Columbia’s forestry industry began, 160 years ago, thanks to the enterprise of one of our most colourful pioneers of all time, Capt. Edward Stamp.

But times have changed and, two years ago, Western Forest Products announced it was indefinitely curtailing operations at the Somass Sawmill due to industry pressures such as the softwood lumber dispute. Something that Capt. Stamp didn’t have to contend with, in the 1860s.

So who was Capt. Edward Stamp? He was a man who had, in the words of historian James K. Nesbitt, ‘unshakable faith in the future of the new land. There were those who scoffed at him because he invested heavily in the future; he was told he was throwing his money away. He was laughed at each new venture he went into.

“He built sawmills in outrageous places, many of his fellow citizens said—in out-of-the-way places that would never, never possibly amount to anything—far away, isolated places like Alberni and a wilderness arm of the sea called Burrard’s Inlet… He built empires, small compared to those of today, but empires nonetheless, and to his initiative and vision must go in some measure much of the credit for the British Columbia we know today.”

Capt. Stamp was, in fact, a walking contradiction. He could be charming and ruthless; he made fortunes almost overnight and lost them almost as easily; he gained wide respect for his daring in business then proceeded to alienate many of those with whom he had dealings. He was, in short, irascible and vindictive, his portrait showing a mutton-chopped scowl which can only be interpreted as an indication of the nature which lurked within.

A British mariner and hero of the Crimean War, he landed in the Pacific Northwest and what’s today British Columbia in 1856 when he was commissioned to purchase ships’ spars in Puget Sound. When, two years later, the discovery of gold on a Fraser River sand bar prompted a human stampede to the uncharted interior of New Caledonia, Stamp threw all thought of his maritime career to the winds. It wasn’t the hope of finding his fortune on a riverbank, however, that inspired him. Rather, he had plans for developing the colony’s incredibly rich resources, having realized that gold comes in forms other than mineral.

He immediately demonstrated his flair for prophecy by attempting to form a company to pipe water into Victoria as the shack town’s supply at that time was delivered door to door by tank-wagons for 25 cents a gallon. However, his proposal to lay pipes through Victoria’s muddy streets met only with the approval of the House of Assembly, citizens apparently preferring the rustic horse-drawn ‘bucket brigade,’ and Stamp’s hope for a waterworks failed.

By 1859, having made Victoria his headquarters, he was manager of the Puget Sound Mill Co., of Port Gamble, Washington Territory which furnished ships’ spars ‘for the English markets’. Among the company’s shipments during this period was the delivery of the lower and topsail yards and two of the lower masts for the then-building mammoth steamship, Great Eastern.

By the following year, Stamp was involved in establishing a new sawmill on Alberni Canal. However, like most of his ventures, it didn’t hold his interest for long as, within three years, he sold his shares in Messrs. Edward Stamp & Co. In this instance, at least, Stamp’s reputed talent for making enemies apparently hadn’t come to the fore. In fact, it would appear that he’d been popular with his men, who held a testimonial for him. It was reported that they “unanimously resolved to present him with a gold watch and chain, with a suitable inscription, as a token of their respect and esteem.”

At today’s prices that timepiece would cost $5000!

Stamp next turned his attention to the wilds of Burrard’s Inlet. There, on the north shore, ‘Sue’ Moody had purchased the foundering J.G. Smith sawmill and transformed the quiet wilderness into a thriving industry. Capt. Stamp had the same hope for the inlet’s southern shore, having obtained a lease from the colonial government for 30,000 acres. To be good for 21 years and to cost his British Columbia and Vancouver Island, Spar, Lumber & Sawmill Co. all of a cent an acre, this sweetheart of a deal justified the faith Stamp’s backers had in him. Shortly before, he’d returned from England with 100,000 pounds capital and, with Gov. Seymour’s blessing, immediately set to work at carving a fortune from the wilderness.

Seymour had also thrown in permission for Stamp to import all equipment duty-free by granting his mill status as a port of entry. Thanks to this governmental largess, Stamp’s Mill blossomed, if modestly at the start, with a sawmill, a store and four acres of fallen trees, brush, shacks and saloons.

Business boomed immediately—so much so that Stamp ordered construction of his own steamboat, Isabel. Constructed of the “finest timber ever put into a vessel on this coast,” she was to enjoy one of the more illustrious chapters in provincial shipping history.

But when his hopes of the Isabel entering the profitable California trade fell through, he resigned the steamer, which had been opulently furnished to accommodate 50 passengers, as well as to carry freight, to local service. He then began investing in real estate by building a “fine block of stores” on Victoria’s Government Street. The three-storey edifice of stores and offices was built entirely upon speculation, Stamp being convinced that, despite critics’ denials, he’d be able to rent the premises. Even before completion the building was fully leased.

With the confidence of growing prosperity, Stamp turned his eye upon the political arena and was elected in Esquimalt. Unaccountably, with the union of the colonies of Vancouver Island and British Columbia, he changed his address to Lillooet where, by acclamation, he was elected to the B.C. Council. A Victoria journalist congratulated Lillooet upon its good fortune in having “secured a gentleman of wealth, respectability, talent and, above all, unflinching loyalty…[a] representative who will do all that lies in his power to advance the interest of the united colonies…”

Capt. Stamp, it seemed, had the touch of Midas. But not all begun under auspicious circumstances achieved financial success. His ambitious Hastings Mill folded despite an impressive 4 million feet of lumber and 100,000 shingles in a year, with sales as far distant as China and Hawaii. Across the inlet, Sue Moody not only topped those figures but prospered.

Perhaps it was this setback that prompted Stamp to embark upon a new and novel venture, salmon canning. Sailing to England on another quest for capital, he returned to Victoria 14 months later with contracts in hand and eager to begin exporting barrelled and canned salmon to Europe. He leased the former Royal Engineers barracks in New Westminster and set to work with his usual enthusiasm. The new plant was soon in production and a professed gourmet praised Stamp’s piscatorial product as being better than any preserved fish he’d ever tasted.

The delighted diner even recommended that the salmon be eaten cold—“or, as some prefer it, warmed up in the tin previous to being served. It constitutes a most convenient article of food for the bachelor who does his own housework, as all trouble in preparation is avoided.”

Another first for the dilettante Stamp: TV dinners!

Canning proved so successful that at a time in life when most men “seek repose from active business pursuits,” he felt compelled, in November 1871, to sail for England to personally promote his line of products. It was to be his last great adventure; two months later, word of his sudden death in London reached Victoria. The Colonist noted the passing of “a most enterprising and energetic citizen”.

Just six months later his son Edward, who’d inherited charge of the Royal City cannery, died at the age of 35, about the same time as, half a world away, his mother also passed away, aged 60. Adding to the family toll, Stamp’s brother had predeceased him by less than a month.

As for the latest development since Capt. Edward Stamp’s short-lived venture of long ago, Port Alberni Mayor Sharie Minions is getting ready to welcome the first new mill operation, and the jobs that come along with it, in years.

“We’ve always been a forestry town and we are,” she said.

www.twpaterson.com

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