A Dime a Dozen: Mills on the Fraser

Credit: New Westminster Museum and Archives IHP9371

Until recently, lumber mills lined the banks of the Fraser River. In the 1960s, MacMillan Bloedel alone covered more than half of the Queensborough waterfront. Interfor, New Westminster’s last lumber mill, closed in 2007.

As a high school student in 1965, Antonio Barducci began working in the Westminster Shook Mill in Queensborough, cleaning out the beehive burners on weekends. Antonio’s career followed the changes in the Canadian forest products industry over the last 50 years: bigger companies had better access to annual allowable cut, and began to buy up all the smaller, niche product mills. When MacMillan Bloedel bought the Shook Mill, Antonio worked with niche products like poles, moldings, post caps, and fence panels. Later, he developed new products for the European market. Antonio retired in 2005 from Weyerhaeuser, a large American conglomerate, which had purchased MacMillan Bloedel in 1999.


Milling lumber produces a great deal of wood "by-product". Until the early 1970s, the solution for getting rid of the wood waste was to burn it in a beehive burner. The smoke and ash fouled the air, dirtied cars and windows, and laundry in New West. Eventually the industry developed new processes and composite wood products to use the waste.

A beehive burner burned scrap wood, bark, sawdust, shavings... it would start on midnight on Saturday... if they couldn't burn the wood fast enough, they'd have to shut the mill down... It would be about 80 feet across, and it had four foot tunnels underneath, and air forcing through those tunnels so the wood would burn. You would have to go and clean the grates because there would be cinders in them, and take any ash out. It was quite an exercise—really warm. 
-ANTONIO BARDUCCI, MacMillan Bloedel employee

Women also worked in New Westminster’s lumber mills, especially making plywood at Pacific Veneer. Plywood is composed of thin layers of wood, glued together. Alice LaRose worked in the plant for three years, where she smoothed knot-holes in the plywood layers with patches and glue. Joanna Zabinsky also worked at Pacific Veneer from 1939-1946, as the first aid attendant as well as on the shop floor.

You know how you get wax paper in a roll? [The glue paper] was about 50 inches wide, a big roll. You would wind it out onto a table and then you cut it. You would do that till you had a pile, then they'd take it over to where they put the plywood together... It was the glue in between... then the fellas came and they took it away and they pushed a button and squeezed it down. Then it was in the dryer... I enjoyed that too. 
-JOANNA ZABINSKY, employee at Pacific Veneer and Broder cannery

Credit: Canfor

Raw lumber was barged up the Fraser from Vancouver Island, the BC north coast, and Haida Gwaii, and often stored in the river’s fresh water. Once the logs arrived at the mill, the boom crew organized the logs out on the water, and helped get them up the “green chain,” and into the mill. Once inside, workers used large machines to cut the logs into dimensional lumber, for export. Jack Singh, who later became a longshoreman, worked the green chain at Fraser Mills.

I put in 6 years on the green chain at Fraser Mills before I went longshoring. That was a never-ending job. I lied [to get] my job then. I was a big boy, but I was only 14. You had to be 15 to get the job. We went by the personnel office every time I went home from school, down King Edward Avenue and into the mill. I stopped in there every day without fail. There was two people there, asking how old are you and what do you weigh, are you 15? [I’d say] Yep!… What an endless job. Brutal. No roller chains, nothing… I’d come home and just be aching. 
-JACK SINGH, retired Local 502 longshoreman