Historic McLean Steam Mill

If you’re looking for a fun way to travel back in time you’ve only got a couple more weeks to take the old Alberni Pacific Steam Railway up to the McLean Steam Sawmill. It’s a great way to experience old time logging and get an idea of how the forests of Vancouver Island were logged and lumber milled just over 50 years ago.

Starting at the 1912 CPR station in downtown Port Alberni, we boarded the “No.7,” a 1929 Baldwin 2-8-2T for a thirty-five minute trip through Port Alberni and forests to the McLean Mill. There’s something about the slow pace of the steam engine that gives you an appreciation of how long it took to go from A to B. It also works to get you into the proper frame of mind to visit the mill.

A blacksmith works the forge at McLean Mill in Port Alberni, BC.

At the mill we had a brief orientation and then, rather than wait for the rest of the crowd, headed off on our own. A. and C. had scavenger sheets and had to hunt for stamps to complete them. We had about 20 minutes in the site mostly to ourselves and watched a blacksmith working at a forge and poked around in the old bunk houses.

McLean Sawmill
View of the McLean Sawmill from the holding pond.

We had enough time to find a few stamps and then joined the rest of the group to watch a demonstration of the steam mill. The mill was owned and operated by R.B. McLean and his sons between 1926 to 1965 and has been restored to its 1965 operating condition.

McLean Steam Mill
The inner workings of the McLean Steam Mill.

Watching the cables pulling up the logs from the holding pond, eyeing the spinning belts and blades, it was easy to imagine how a mill worker could lose a finger or a limb. Dangerous and noisy work.

The final demonstration of the day was high-lead yarding and loading of logs onto a truck by  the J.J. Logging crew. A. and I were volunteered to help out by showing the audience old-time logging gear and technique. I got A. into “caulk” boots and up onto a springboard to show how the trees were cut down by hand. We choked a small log with a cable and then we helped feed wood into the steam donkey that operates the yarder. Finally, A. got to pull the whistle cord to start the whole “logging show.” It was a bit overwhelming for a five year old but he did really well!

Jack James, a retired logger who started in the forests at age 14, is the man behind the high-lead yarding demonstration. He and a crew of retired loggers got the real “show” underway after we finished up. By this time, the steam donkey had built up enough steam and the crew swung into action. Men on the steam donkey communicated with those out by the logs using a series of blasts on the steam whistle.

Steam Donkey
The steam donkey builds up enough steam to begin the high-lead yarding demonstration.

Chokers flew out on the cables to the waiting chokermen out by the logs. Once a log was ready, it was dragged back to the spar. Again, with the choker cables flying back and forth and the huge logs being moved it was easy to imagine how dangerous the work could be.

After a couple of turns, there were enough logs to load onto a logging truck. A gas powered donkey was fired up and the crew used a boom on the spar to lift the logs up and drop them onto the truck. It was awesome to see these old-time loggers in action and get a real feel for how challenging it must have been to log the forests in old days.

A log is lifted by the boom loader onto a waiting truck.

Soon it was time to return to the No. 7 and head back to Port Alberni. We thoroughly enjoyed our afternoon at the McLean Mill and seeing the logging demonstrations. While I’m not particularly supportive of British Columbia’s logging industry, I must say that I’ve gained a lot of respect for the men that worked in the woods and an  appreciation of the difficulty of their work. They’re a tough bunch!

More pics on my Tumblr blog… and in the Historic McLean Steam Sawmill gallery.

Getting There:

Check the Alberni Valley Heritage Network website for train schedules and programs at the mill. There are a couple of runs left this fall. The CPR station that the No. 7 leaves from is at 3100 Kingsway Avenue in Port Alberni.