Sunday, December 30, 2012

Steady growth of the town of Port McNeill

This article was originally published in the North Island Gazette August 30, 2006.
The bay that is home to Port McNeill has always been a busy place.
Port McNeill lies within the traditional territory of the Kwakiutl First Nation.  The Kwakiutl traditionally used the area at the head of the bay called Pulkhukglalis (meaning thin beach at hind end) as a village site and fishing station.
In the late 1830s this location was an important strategic trading place between the Hudson's Bay Company and local First Nations. In 1837 and 1838 the Steamship Beaver obtained over 500 beaver pelts from First Nations in McNeill Harbour. It is also believed that while anchored in the harbour the crew went ashore to cut firewood.
McNeill Harbour and Port McNeill are named for Captain William Henry McNeill, who was the captain of the Beaver, and who served for a time as Chief Factor at Fort Rupert.
The harbour was surveyed by the Royal Navy's ship Plumper in 1860.
During the latter part of the 1800s and early 1900s McNeill Harbour was used by local people as a prime location to hunt deer and fowl.  By the 1920s a number of small loggers were operating in the area.
In the 1930s McNeill Harbour began to attract the attention of larger forestry interests.  By 1936 a camp had been set up on the beach by three partners: Storey, Hoy, and Chisnall.
In 1937 Pioneer Timber Company established a logging camp near the present site of the Port McNeill waterfront.  Pioneer Timber had started on Malcolm Island in 1933 and logged at Rough Bay.  The camp was floated to McNeill from Malcolm Island and included bunk houses for 250 single men and a few families, a washhouse and a cookhouse.  About the time Pioneer Timber was moving to Port McNeill, the N.S. McNeil Trading Company, a subsidiary of a Japanese firm, bought up private land to the West of Port McNeill and began to log.
By 1939 this company had contracted its logging operations to C&A Logging (owned by Phelan Cyr and Bob Allan).  Situated on the southwest side of the bay, C&A Logging established a camp for about 60 loggers and other associated staff.  In 1941 the Canadian Government's Custodian of Alien Property seized the assets of the N.S. McNeil Trading Company, and the rights to the local timber changed hands.
As the camp grew, so did its services: a poker shack, pool hall and barber shop, community hall (which also served as a library and for a time a coffee shop), and Guide/Scout Hall were all constructed. By the 1950s the community was transformed from a camp housing mostly transient single men to one which was more family oriented.
An initial one-room school served the community until 1954 when a larger facility was constructed in which grades 1 to 8 were taught in two rooms.  There as also a gravel baseball and playing field, and in 1957 a swimming pool was constructed behind the community hall.
In the early days travel in the local area was by boat or float plane.  Residents would shop at the Co-op in Sointula or in Alert Bay.  A water taxi service started in 1951 which ran between Beaver Cove, Sointula, Alert Bay, and Port McNeill.  Port McNeill and Port Hardy were connected by a gravel road in 1959.
In the 1950s the Empire Development Mining Company started an open pit iron mine at Merry widow Mountain.  In 1961 the Cominco Mining and Smelting Company Ltd. developed a copper mine at Benson Lake.  The development of these mines helped to diversify the economy of Port McNeill.
Over the years the interests controlling the forestry industry in the local community have changed many times, but Port McNeill has always retained a strong attachment to the forestry industry.
In 1961 local businesses that served the 400 residents began to work together on issues of common community interest.  They formed the Port McNeill Chamber of Commerce in 1963 which eventually led to the incorporation of the Town of Port McNeill on February 18, 1966.  In is early days, the town fathers had the foresight to set aside 25 acres of land in the centre of town for the development of municipal facilities.  As the town expanded up the hill this municipal land was developed, and now houses a park, high school, track, curling rink, and swimming pool.  A local hospital was constructed even further up the hill in 1979.
Port McNeill has continued to grow and diversify.  In addition to logging and mining, the community today houses a number of government offices and plays an important role in the tourism and aquaculture industries.
It is also an important transportation hub for the North Island.

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