Lake Cowichan - History
The Village of Lake Cowichan was incorporated on August 19th, 1944 following its creation in 1886. Lake Cowichan is situated on the east end of Cowichan Lake, 27 kilometres west of Duncan. The Cowichan Lake region has been at the center of notable cross-country union movements and has played a major role in the development and expansion of the forest industry in Western Canada. This page will summarize the history of the region and the town.
Prior to the arrival of Europeans, Cowichan Lake had been settled by various indigenous groups for centuries. During his tenure as Governor of Vancouver Island (1851-1864), Sir James Douglas sought an expansion of the European presence on the island. Through a combination of land purchase treaties, railway construction, and political brute force under subsequent governments, the whole of Vancouver Island would fall under British rule upon its integration into the Colony of British Columbia in 1866.
As the population grew in the southern portion of the island, land surveys throughout Vancouver Island revealed a substantial amount of mineral wealth, including a large amount of prime lumber for harvest. By the 1880s, Lake Cowichan had been reached when William Forest and James Tolmie (older brother of Simon Fraser Tolmie, future 21st Premier of British Columbia) arrived in 1883 via the Cowichan River and subsequently surveyed the lake the following year with the help of the Ikilass brothers. Construction of a road soon followed as more settlers arrived in the area by 1886.
Railroads & Wars
Over the next couple decades settlement in the region was minimal, but growing, as people setup floating homes throughout the lake. By the turn of the century rail development in the form of the E&N Railway (Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway) had largely ended, however, as the forest industry began to appear lucrative, expansion efforts were made to add additional lines inward to
Arrival of the first passenger line in Lake Cowichan, 1913. From the Kaatza Historical Society Archives.
better reach the communities near these resources. By 1912 the E&N Railway had arrived at Lake Cowichan, with the CNoR (Canadian Northern Railway) company arriving in 1913 with a line on the opposite side of the lake (later to be bought and finished by CN). The train station that would eventually house the Kaatza Station Museum would be built at this time, although in a different location.
Various lumber companies sprang up over the decades, purchasing large swaths of land for harvest. Neighboring communities such as Youbou, Honeymoon Bay, Mesachie, Sahtlam, and Paldi, began as camps or industry towns. The forest industry had experienced a solid start, but a pause would come in the form of World War I beginning in the summer of 1914. Disruption of the workforce and lumber markets led to a temporary downturn until the end of the war in the fall of 1918. Despite the slowdown, Lake Cowichan continued to grow, receiving telephone service on April 1st, 1915, and the construction of many community buildings and road services.
The Turbulent 30s and 40s: War and Union comes to Lake Cowichan
I.W.A. Labor Day Float, Lake Cowichan BC. From the Wilmer Gold Collection, loaned to the Kaatza Station Museum and Archives by United Steelworkers Local 1937.
The industry boomed following the end of the war, however, once the Great Depression hit in October 1929, the industry nearly collapsed with multiple mill operations closing and the survivors being absorbed. In spite of these troubled early decades, the region was about to see its greatest growth yet. At the same time the town continued to expand and received more infrastructure upgrades including power in 1936.
Lake Cowichan was ground-zero for the enormous wave of labour union organizing that swept British Columbia in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1934, Lake Logging became the first unionized logging camp in the province under the Lumber Workers Industrial Union of Canada. When the International Woodworkers of America were founded in 1937, Cowichan Valley forest workers established the union’s first local as I.W.A. Local Union 1-80.
Cowichan residents Ernie Dalskog, Archie Greenwell, Fred Wilson, Owen Brown, Henry Lundgren and Hjalmar Bergren played key roles in the union at the local, district, and international level. Equally, the Lake Cowichan Women’s Auxiliary of the I.W.A. was one of the largest union auxiliaries in North America, and co-founder Edna Brown was elected President of the British Columbia District Auxiliary in 1938. These same organizers would eventually be blacklisted from the I.W.A. due to forming a rival union the Woodworkers Industrial Union of Canada in 1948.
As war loomed once again in the fall of 1939, the surrounding region, including Lake Cowichan, became more involved in external affairs. Throughout the 1940s, the Cowichan Lake region was home to many RCAF patrols and exercises in the event of an attack on the west coast of Canada, while on the ground, volunteers from the surrounding towns were organized into units of the Pacific Coast Militia Rangers. Lake Cowichan’s volunteers were placed in the No. 18 and No. 20 Company of the PCMR. By 1944 Lake Cowichan had grown in size to become officially incorporated, thus transitioning from a village to the Town of Lake Cowichan. Over the next decade, civil infrastructure improvements were made to better accommodate the increased population within its borders and the previous BCPP (British Columbia Provincial Police) were replaced by the new RCMP in 1951.
Edna Brown marching at the front of the Lake Cowichan I.W.A. Ladies Auxiliary during the 1946 Trek to Victoria. From the 1-80 Photo Collection at the Kaatza Station Museum and Archives
Great Heights and Low Lows: The Rise and Fall of the Forest Industry
Industrial Timber Mills in 1943, located in Youbou BC. From the Wilmer Gold Collection, loaned to the Kaatza Station Museum and Archives by United Steelworkers Local 1937.
Over the course of the next 34 years, over 400,000 cars and hundreds of millions of feet of lumber from the various mills passed through Lake Cowichan on their way to markets all over Canada, the United States, and across the world. Expansion of the industry towns such as Honeymoon Bay and Youbou continued throughout the 40s to the 80s, with Youbou reaching around 2000 residents at its peak. The mill at Youbou became the
largest mill in Western Canada, employing hundreds. However, changing practices in the lumber industry and some questionable business decisions led to a decline. In 1970, Hillcrest Lumber Company, located near Sahtlam, BC., had closed due to a lack of available logs. Western Forest Industries in Honeymoon Bay would close in 1981 due to a recession and instability among the parent company of WFI.
The situation would continue to worsen with the CP rail line being decommissioned and the stations closed or dismantled. The last nail in the forestry coffin came during the closure of British Columbia Forest Products (previously known as Industrial Timber Mills before various mergers in the 1940s). BCFP would be purchased and reorganized in 1988 by Fletcher Challenge Canada Ltd., a subsidiary of New Zealand based construction and forestry company Fletcher Challenge.
Fletcher Challenge Canada would oversee numerous restructuring and upgrading projects involving the mill through the 1990s. From 1993 to 2001, a new mill under the name TimberWest Forest Ltd., under Fletcher Challenge, operated in place of the now defunct BCFP. TimberWest engaged in business practices that were ultimately to the detriment of the local forest industry and led to its collapse upon the closure and dismantling of the mill in 2001. Logging operations would continue throughout the Cowichan Lake region; however, this would employ a small number of loggers and transport truck drivers from external companies, who would take the logs for processing elsewhere on Vancouver Island.
Lake Cowichan has since made a transition to a vacation town, appealing to a new generation of residents in the Cowichan Valley and beyond who come to see the lake and enjoy local activities, including the Kaatza Station Museum, located in the original 1913 CP rail station used by the mills in Lake Cowichan.