From Whistle Punk to Steampunk

A column about the past by the Maple Ridge Historical Society

Albin Gustafson and friends posed with a logging steam donkey in the 1920s.

Albin Gustafson and friends posed with a logging steam donkey in the 1920s.

Steampunk is the future as written from the past, and probably no writer of the past has so frequently educated and entertained his future than William Shakespeare.

This summer’s Bard on the Bandstand performance of Love’s Labour’s Lost will feature costumes and sets inspired by steampunk fiction and movies.

For the uninitiated, you have to put yourself back into the age of steam and consider its implications.  It was the beginning of the industrial revolution when steam-powered engines first replaced man and horse power to work tirelessly on our behalf.  It must have been an exciting time for the imaginative, and by the 1870s, there were science fiction writers like Jules Verne, who were predicting the expanded capacities of the future based on the steam technology of their day.

Imagine your cell phone or laptop as the Victorians would have built them. Of course, the Victorians had no idea such things were possible so it is necessary to re-invent that past in terms of today’s machines and devices. We have seen essential steampunk, with its characteristic riveted sheet metal and multitude of gears, incorporated into  television and movies since Disney made 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

In more recent times, Dune, Wild Wild West and Sherlock Holmes have done high-tech Victorian.

In Maple Ridge, the most game-changing steam-based technology was the steam donkey used for logging. Not only could it pull a greater load than horses or oxen, it could be mounted on a railway car to aid in the loading of logs directly onto rail cars, which opened up our forest resources that were not immediately adjacent to water. Those railways were also operating with steam locomotives.

The characteristic look of steampunk can easily be seen in the steam donkeys – the big riveted boiler, large gears, and steam whistles for communication. That’s where the term ‘punk’ first appears in relation to steam. The ‘whistle punk’ was the person who operated a steam whistle as a means of signalling to the man running the donkey engine to let him know that the next log was prepared for hauling.

Steam-powered engines were versatile and, while heavy, could be moved around to where they were needed. Steam engines powered the Haney Brick and Tile plant, fixed and mobile lumber mills, silage machines and much more. An entire milling operation could be set up and run off a steam donkey until the easily accessible timber was all cut,  then the whole works could be moved to a new location.

In 1975, an old Brown and Kirkland steam donkey was rescued from the woods and set in place at the UBC Research Forest. The people there are about to embark on a restoration project on the old engine and are looking for volunteers to help. If you’re keen on revisiting the age of steam in a more substantial way, contact Paul Lawson at

Val Patenaude is director of the Maple Ridge Museum.