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Powell River: Company Town

For the week of Monday April 8, 2002

On April 12, 1912, the first paper rolled off the line at the Powell River paper mill. To accommodate the mill workers and their families the Powell River Company built homes and community facilities for them. Improving on the unplanned towns typically created in Canada, the Powell River Company created a planned community, demonstrating the beginning of a new phase in the construction of single-industry towns.

Powell River Pulp and Paper Mill

Powell River Pulp and Paper Mill
© Library and Archives Canada / PA 30931

In 1909, the Powell River Paper Company (as it was originally known) was incorporated by the Minnesota lumber firm Brooks-Scanlon. Seeing the possibilities of a large supply of wood and a large hydro power potential nearby, Brooks-Scanlon decided Powell River was a wise location for a pulp and paper mill. The sheltered port offered easy shipping links with world markets. Also, there was no other newsprint or pulp mill operating in Western Canada, so they began construction of the newsprint plant.

In 1910, a portable sawmill was set up to supply lumber to construct a town. The town was designed with a gridiron plan that began at the mill's gate and climbed up the hill. The streets were lined with standardized company-owned houses that reflected the occupants' positions at the mill — the house of a labourer was quite distinct from that of a manager. Over the years the mill continued to expand — as did the town. The Powell River Company not only built more houses, it also created soccer and baseball fields, tennis courts, a gymnasium, and a golf course for its employees. A hotel, hospital and community hall were among the other facilities that the company provided for the social well-being of its employees. By 1930, the townsite reached the borders that it maintains today.

A typical streetscape in Powell River

A typical streetscape in Powell River
© Parks Canada / Gordon Fulton

Between 1912 and 1957, the mill increased its capacity from 36 000 tons per year to more than 500 000 tons per year, and for a time, the Powell River mill was the world's largest single producer of newsprint. The company, which merged with MacMillan and Bloedel and is now Pacifica Papers, is still an important world producer of newsprint.

After 1955 Powell River ceased to be a company town. Homes and businesses became privately owned and the town became part of a municipality, but some 400 (or about 97%) of the original townsite houses and commercial buildings still stand. In 1995, the Powell River Townsite Historic District became a national historic site of Canada.

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