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Saving our waterfront heritage buildings

In 1933, the City of Ladysmith was on the verge of becoming a ghost town. The coal mines had closed, and the country was in ”The Great Depression”. There were very limited prospects for those that had become unemployed as a result of the mine closing and the collapse of other related jobs. People were leaving in droves. The population of the City had dropped from about 5,000 in its heyday to less than a thousand. Homes were being forfeited to the City for unpaid taxes. Prospects for the City of Ladysmith looked bleak.

Then in the fall of 1933 a freak storm felled thousands of trees in behind Ladysmith. These trees were on land that the JD Rockefeller Foundation had purchased from the E&N Railway years before. The trees needed to be harvested or they would soon rot and become a fire hazard.

It was then that an upstart logging company came to be the salvation of the City of Ladysmith. That company was Comox Logging out of the Courtney area. They seized the opportunity to convince the Rockefeller Foundation that they should sell their land to them. They would harvest the fallen trees and move to Ladysmith to set up their operations. Within three years they had started logging and shipping logs from the harbour to Vancouver. Now with a new employer in the area creating hundreds of new jobs, the City started new life as a logging town. Families were moving into the City rather than moving out. Comox offered many of the unemployed miners an opportunity to switch occupations to now work above ground rather than thousands of feet below it, but best of all it allowed them to bring a paycheck to their families.

With the arrival of Comox Logging more and more people moved to the City. Many of them taking advantage of the abandoned homes, while others started building new ones. The City welcomed all these new arrivals and soon the schools were filling with young children, and the merchants of the city soon saw profits after many years of hardship.

Comox Logging set up their offices and living quarters for many of the single loggers in the old Abbotsford Hotel. It wasn’t long before they started construction on a new and modern office complex. This action assured that they were here to stay, along with the jobs they provided.

A further indication of their commitment to the City was the construction of their state of the art machine shop and warehouse down by the waterfront. This building is the last our logging heritage. The building today is known by many different names reflecting how long you have lived in Ladysmith. For many who were here during the Comox and then Crown Zellerbach years know it as the Comox shops. To others who came after, it was decided by the owners of the day to call it the Expo Legacy building because of the Expo Legacy Grants the Town received to fix it up in 1986. Those who have become residents recently often just refer to it as the Big Blue Building.

This building, when it was first built in 1943, was the finest in the industry and the subject of numerous articles. It was constructed of massive 14 inch timbers and its unique engineering ensured that it would stand the test of time. Today it is on our heritage register as well as the Provincial and Federal registers. In the Statement of Significance commissioned by the Town it says “The Comox Logging and Railway Shops Building is valued as a very rare, intact remnant of the community’s industrial past.” Today the building and the adjacent buildings house many community related organizations. Part of the machine shop is home to the Ladysmith Martitime Society and the space is used for a Heritage Culture Centre and offices for the Society. Much of the top floor has been converted into an Art Gallery that is maintained and run by the Ladysmith Arts Council, while a large portion of the ground floor is home to many of our local artisans as their working studios.

Other buildings on the site are being used by the Ladysmith and District Historical Society in an ongoing effort to preserve our Industrial Heritage. Volunteers are working in one of the buildings to preserve the steam train Loci #11. Another outer building is being used by the Ladysmith Maritime Society to restore classic heritage boats.

The Town of Ladysmith, in conjunction with many representatives from the community, are presently working on a design charrette in a process to determine what the community wishes to do with the waterfront property that the Town owns including this area. These historic buildings and their adjacent lands are worth a lot money in today’s real estate market.

These lands could be developed and many homes could be built on this site generating a lot of money for the Town. Fortunately, the consensus of those attending the charrette meetings want to see these buildings and its adjacent lands kept for the preservation of our local Industrial Heritage.They recognize that this is one of, if not the last, intact logging maintenance complexes in the country, and as a result it makes this site worth efforts to preserve it intact.

Preserving these buildings will cost a significant amount of money. Hopefully, the Town and various organizations would be able to get grants that would drastically reduce these costs.

The question is how important is it to the community to preserve these buildings and the heritage they represent? To me it is well worth the time effort and money to preserve this site and it’s buildings for public use, and to save this important aspect of our Town’s and our Province’s rich history, but, I am biased.

At least that’s as i see it.

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Special thanks to Harald Cowie of Ladysmiuth & District Historical Society for assistance with images for this article.

About the author: Angie

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