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Cathedral of wood ingrained with history

Kelley Spruce buildings exemplify Powell River’s great contributions
by Paul Galinski |
Published: Wednesday, May 6, 2015 8:50 AM PDT

 de havilland mosquito cf hml
SPRUCE AIRPLANE: This de Havilland Mosquito, CF-HML, operated by Spartan Air Services for aerial photography in the Canadian north, underwent a decades-long restoration to become the second flying Mosquito in the world, and is now in a hangar in Vancouver. Spruce milled in Powell River went into a large number of these airplanes, which fulfilled fighter, bomber, photographic and pathfinder roles for the Royal Air Force during World War II.

While the prospect of Island Timberlands dropping trees in the PRSC Limited Partnership lands is generating controversy, a huge structure on those lands that milled trees for decades might be allowed to stand, at least in part.

For more than 40 years, Kelley Spruce processed mighty conifers, some so enormous that the logs had to be sawn in the millpond before the wood could be brought ashore for milling into dimension lumber. Some of the most magnificent wood, brought from the Kelley Spruce timber holdings on Haida Gwaii, contributed greatly to the World War II effort. A substantial portion of the spruce making its way through the Kelley Spruce milling complex was used for de Havilland Mosquito aircraft manufacture. These all-wood airplanes made significant contributions to the Allies during the war years, leading to victory in Europe in 1945.

There are only two flyable Mosquito aircraft in the world because the elements are far less kind to wooden aircraft than metal ones, which can remain flyable for decades. So, too, the wooden structure of Kelley Spruce has been diminished by decades of exposure to the damp climate of BC’s West Coast. The deteriorating building is now off limits to the public because it is hazardous.

There are many people in this community with fond memories of the Kelley Spruce operation and there are concerns the Kelley Spruce complex will have to be torn down because it is hazardous in its current state.

The foreshore on which Kelley Spruce sits would make an ideal site for a log dump if the building was torn down. One of the reasons why Tla’amin (Sliammon) First Nation entered into an agreement with Catalyst Paper Corporation and City of Powell River to create the PRSC (Powell River – Sliammon – Catalyst) Limited Partnership was to situate a log dump adjacent to the millpond.

Tla’amin Chief Clint Williams is aware of the historical significance of the old mill. He said it’s appropriate to have an expert walk through the structure to see what parts can be saved and what parts need to be demolished.

“I think the birth concept of PRSC was having the log dump down at the Powell River millpond,” Williams said. “That’s what started it and that’s what we are looking at doing. We have a design for the area and we are waiting for some surveys to be done. We want to get started and have that Sliammon-owned log dump down there.”

Williams said, however, if there were use for the old Kelley Spruce mill buildings, the intention would be to squeeze as much use as possible.

“We don’t want to just rip something down,” he said. “We want to bring structural engineers in to review this and if there still is use in those buildings, we absolutely want to try to make use of them.

“They are massive. Just the covered area, the dry storage, it would be so expensive to try and build something like that today. To build anything close to that now, I wouldn’t even want to see the price tag.”

Enterprising entrepreneurs have taken note of materials used to build the giant cathedral of wood known as Kelley Spruce. There have been enquiries, for example, about the massive beams that support the gigantic roof.

“People are really after those,” Williams said. “We’ve had many offers. People have said they’d take it down for us and it’s like, uh…no. If there’s any use left in those buildings without breaking the bank, we don’t want to tear them down. If we don’t have to, we are not going to remove Kelley Spruce.”

In a June 1942 feature in the Powell River Company’s Digester newsletter, Harold Foley, the company’s president, wrote about the 1,000-airplane raid on Cologne, Germany. He stated that not only were 1,000 Canadians reported to be in the raid, but also probably many of the aircraft were manufactured from the spruce lumber cut here. The Powell River Company, with Kelley Spruce Ltd., was cutting more airplane spruce lumber than any other plant on the Pacific Coast.

According to the Digester, in August 1943, Flight Lt. Harry Donkersley, DFC, had returned to Powell River and gave high praise for the war effort in this community. Donkersley was told his hometown was in “the Mosquito business,” and that Powell River was one of the largest manufacturers in Canada of airplane spruce timber. The Mosquito, also known as the Wooden Wonder, was being mass-produced in Canada, and shipments of the vital spruce used in its construction were leaving Powell River regularly.

Exacting timber grading was employed in the Kelley Spruce plant for aircraft-grade lumber according to the Digester. Even today, Sitka spruce is revered. Acoustic musical instrument manufacturers highly prize the wood because of its strength, lightness and clear grain. New acoustic guitars with spruce tops can command thousands of dollars from some of the leading instrument manufacturers such as Taylor, Martin, Gibson and Collings.

Because Allied aircrew were being sent to battle in aircraft, in some cases, entirely made of wood, timber grading for aircraft grade lumber in Powell River was even more stringent than for instrument-grade spruce. According to the Digester, the slightest blemish, the slightest doubt, and the spruce was rejected for airplane manufacture.

“The graders know that the lives of thousands of Canadian boys, among them fellow employees, may pay the penalty of faulty or careless grading,” the Digester story stated. “Nothing but the finest and most perfectly grained ‘stick’ is allowed through.”

Bill Thompson’s Powell River Mill Story, outlines that during 1934, Tom Kelley had extensive holdings of Sitka spruce in the Queen Charlotte Islands and arranged with the Powell River Company to have his high-grade logs sawn into rough-cut lumber, which he then had re-sawn and sold as Kelley Spruce. Powell River Company eventually purchased Kelley Spruce in 1944 and expanded the operation into all grades of lumber and also began milling other species. The operation remained known as Kelley Spruce after the Powell River Company acquisition because of its excellent reputation. The mill produced about 25,000 board feet of lumber in 1934, according to Thompson’s mill story, and its capacity had increased to nearly 10 times that in 1979.

Dave Barrett, a 92-year-old former Mosquito pilot, now living in Chilliwack, has great appreciation for the Mosquito, known during the war as the Wooden Wonder.

“It was like bullfighting,” he said. “You had to hang on with everything you’ve got. I’d love to do it again. If they’d let me get in that aircraft…”

After the victory in Europe, Barrett was asked if he wanted to fight in the war in the Pacific. He asked if the Mosquitos were going and was told they were not.

“I said, then, that I’m not going.” He could not countenance going into armed conflict in anything else.

When asked if spruce aircraft were easy to maintain, Barrett thinks so, but he admits he can’t remember seeing a lot of battle damage.

“They were too damned fast,” he said.

He knows, however, the spruce construction was incredibly tough. A control tower mix-up put a taxiing Mosquito on the runway from which Barrett had permission to begin a nighttime take off.

“I cracked open the throttles and we were rolling down the runway at about 100 miles an hour,” he said. “A Mosquito crosses right in front of me. We bash into it, come into the air, bash down on the runway again, and I haul it back into the air.”

Barrett said he flew for the best part of half an hour. The control tower said he couldn’t land on the runway he’d taken off from because there was wood all over it.

He was given another runway to land on and was told to land “hot,” so he flew over the fence well over 150 miles an hour. When Barrett landed he cut the throttle, heard a nice little squeak when he touched, and then he went into a gigantic ground loop. He and his navigator walked away from the wreck and all Barrett did was “rip the ass out of his pants.”

When Barrett was able to examine the aircraft, he’d knocked a foot off the propeller blade on the starboard side, he took the whole wheel nacelle off and there was no tail plane on the right-hand side. While keeping the Mosquito aloft after the collision was anything but a milk run, the toughness of its spruce manufacturing saved his life and the life of his navigator.

Here’s hoping that Kelley Spruce, unlike Barrett’s Mosquito, does not become a write-off.