LOOKING BACK: The fire that wasn’t

LOOKING BACK: The fire that wasn’t

Allco gave Maple Ridge a spot on the world stage.

In this season of fire and the threat of it, we go back to the most notable one in Maple Ridge history – the one that never happened.

As legend has it – a legend that has been published six or seven times – in the summer of 1929, a fire sparked by a logging cable rubbing on a rock spread across the western shore of Alouette Lake and beyond, destroying the Abernethy and Lougheed Logging Company operation.

The company – generally known as Allco – had been a huge local operator during the booming 1920s as the largest local employer and a cutting edge example of logging by rail.

The company had moved the focus of its operation from the Stave system to the Alouette during preparations for the dam and tunnel that would link the two watersheds for power production.

A railway line was built that crossed the CR main line near Kanaka Creek and ran through the Cottonwood cut to what is now the north end of 248th Street.

Allco Camp, or Camp 1, was located where the women’s prison is today.

The Allco operation drew people from all over the world to view railway logging first hand by riding specially adapted rail cars. In addition to politicians and British Lords and Ladies, the New Zealand All-Blacks visited as a team in 1927.

Allco gave Maple Ridge a spot on the world stage.

It is no surprise, then, that a demise by fire would be a tragic and dramatic end to this local asset.

In 1996, the community archives gained access to a set of Gazette newspapers that included 1929, so one of the first pieces of research was to collect all the references to that horrific event.

Imagine our surprise when we discovered that in 1929, it rained from May to October and one would have needed a blowtorch to set anything on fire.

Instead of reading about brave firefighters, we read of a series of summer events – starting with May Day – that were cancelled due to the wet weather.

Clearly, our legend had some holes. That is when the real research started.

We contacted the B.C. Forest Service and got a map of local forest fires and discovered that our likely culprit was a fire that occurred during a very hot and dry summer in 1931. But by then, Abernethy and Lougheed were no longer the operators at Alouette – it was a company called B and K Logging.

The fire was fought for 44 days, employing 2,500 men at its peak.

It became clear that something had happened in 1929 even if it was not a fire. The true story was that the Abernethy and Lougheed Logging Company had become over-extended and cash-poor. Many of the dignitaries and industrialists who toured during 1928-29 had been invited as potential investors. As it was, most of the company was being carried by an American cotton company until Oct. 29, when the stock market crash took down the cotton company and Allco with it.

Once this research was done and the real story found, an old-timer named Don Merkley was consulted.

In a time of available newspapers and other sources of information, how had such a big story come to be so misremembered?

“Well”, he said, “going out in a Blaze of Glory makes a better story, doesn’t it?”

Val Patenaude is director of the Maple Ridge Museum.