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Highway spells end of the Arboretum – but could it be revived?

By ROB JOHNSON

As you turn off the highway or cross the highway at Roberts Street to go down to Transfer Beach Park, you will see the remnants of what was one of Ladysmith’s greatest treasures: the Ladysmith Arboretum. The arboretum was a park that contained thousands of flowers as well as displays of steam trains, heritage logging equipment and over 50 species of trees, both native to the area and exotic. In its prime, visitors from across Canada and from around the world would stop and admire the beauty that was exhibited.

The idea of creating this garden and arboretum to include not only flowers but also a collection of logging equipment goes to Fred Mulholland. Mr. Mulholland was the first Chief Forester of Comox Logging and Railway Company Limited  and a leader in forest management in the province.

The park started taking shape in 1948 and 1949 when Jesse Swetnam, the head gardener, started landscaping the site. He and a number of other gardeners planted the thousands of plants and trees. The new garden had extensive rockery beds containing a number of mixed annuals and perennials. A pergola or trellis, running parallel to the E&N railway tracks, was covered in climbing roses and silver fleece vines, creating a glorious backdrop to the rest of the gardens. Dozens of different types of flowers burst out from all areas of these flower beds, extending over 320 feet. Many of these beds set off the numerous displays of trains and logging equipment along the museum grounds.

The star in the logging display was the steam locomotive Shay No. 12. Along with other historic logging equipment, it was “permanently” placed in the gardens. Most of the annuals in the garden were raised in the company-owned greenhouse at the back of the office building. In the front of the office, the garden was planted with geraniums in summer and wallflowers in late winter. The highlight, though, was the creation of the parent company, Forest Products, logo — a “CIRCLE F” outlined with seasonal flowers.

Swetnam was also entrusted with the planting of over 30 different species of trees in the arboretum. These trees were to help reflect the value of merchantable forest to our economy and to showcase some unique species of trees from different parts of the world, including trees from South America, Central China, Scandinavian, England, Palestine and various states in the US, including California and Colorado. The site also contained many native trees to our area. In 1987, Crown Zellerbach, along with representatives of the Native Sons and Daughters of B.C., who were instrumental in having the Pacific dogwood named the provincial flower, planted a dogwood to the site.

Recognizing the uniqueness of the arboretum, Crown Zellerbach officially dedicated the site to preservation of early logging equipment from 1962. It was an outdoor museum containing most of the artefacts we presently see around town: the steam donkey on the way to Transfer Beach Park, the Fordson tractor by Aggie Hall and the ship’s anchor in the middle of the roundabout.

By 1986, Crown Zellerbach ceased operation in the area, and the Town took the opportunity to secure the company’s waterfront lands, including the arboretum and company office building for future economic development. Unfortunately little has been achieved over the years. These lands are still an opportunity for future development in our community.

In 1986, Mayor Alex Stewart and his council managed to get an Expo 86 Legacy grant for the restoration of the old Comox maintenance buildings. The plan was to convert the building into small business incubator spaces. Work was done at that time to prevent the buildings from rotting away. One part of the plan to capitalize on this Expo Legacy grant was to expand the original arboretum and museum. Design plans were drawn up by the University of B.C.’s Landscape Architecture program in 1986. This plan would make the arboretum one of the nicest tourist attractions on the Island. The arboretum already saw the 50 or so families  a day and new designs could increase this number to hundreds a day, if not thousands per month.

The plan for the arboretum space was to convert the office into a tourism office, a lounge and restaurant with a pub below the building. The grounds would contain an interpretative forest with a pond and a separate museum dedicated to early days of logging. There would be a covered picnic area around the showcase piece, Loci No. 11 and a civic platform for community events.

This was all part of the master plan to help make this area an economic stimulator for the Town. In addition the Expo Legacy, the cost of this project now climbed up to $750,000. The plan was to be a tri-party development process, with the province and the federal governments and private developers working together to ensure that the wishes of the residents were included — much like the present day charette plan addressing the waterfront.

Unfortunately, the B.C. Department of Highways was looking into widening the highway with plans to put in a new entrance to Transfer Beach Park. The result was that a large swath of the arboretum was lost, leaving little of the original arboretum.

While the dreams of yesteryear may have evaporated, we have not lost the opportunity to revive some of the ideas that were part of the 1986 plan. During the review of the latest waterfront plans, there has been little or no discussion of revitalizing the arboretum. If the plans were to include an updated arboretum, it could become both a great gateway to the new development along the waterfront and a major tourist attraction that could do wonders for the economy and reputation of the Town.

About the author: Angie

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