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Timberland Lumber Company – A Fresh Start for JG Robson

May 12, 2012
T Timberland Lumber Company was formed in 1909, taking its name from the densely forested district of Timberland, on the heights  above Brownsville.

Timberland Lumber operated first at Craig Station,  logging and milling, then from 1918 until 1985 as a sawmill on Fraser River at South Westminster.  The company was a major employer in the district for 75 years, providing work for successive generations of immigrants and local settlers, adapting to changing conditions of demand and supply, through two world wars and the depression.

Timberland Lumber map The map at left shows the location of Timberland Lumber Company operations in Surrey at Craig’s and at South Westminster.
With the development of Port Mann in 1911, and the opening up of the new highway route from the New Westminster Bridge, the highway junction at Timberland restyled itself ‘South Port Mann.’ Now it is Surrey City Centre.
This annotated map from the Geological Survey of Canada, 1923, mislocates the Indian Reserve, but is valuable nonetheless.

James Goodfellow Robson

The Timberland mill was closely identified with pioneer lumberman James Goodfellow Robson, the company’s first manager, and later owner.  On his death in 1959 Robson was eulogized as a ‘timber baron,’ ‘lumber magnate,’ the ‘leading industrialist’ of New Westminster.  A prominent philanthropist and ever active in his community—he served on the New Westminster school board and parks board—he was also throughout his career a popular leader in lumber associations, industrial and fraternal, local and national. He promoted British Columbia forest products in trade delegations overseas. His employees respected him for fair-dealing and steady employment.

It is hard to imagine this JG Robson as the young man who in 1910 hurried along the dockside at New Westminster,   taking the lower road for fear of being spotted by his friends on Columbia Street.

Yet the story of Timberland begins with JG Robson at age 23,  broke and out of work, his first venture in the lumber business having collapsed in bankruptcy after just two years.

Robson was born in 1887 in Ontario. He came to British Columbia in 1906, still in his teens, working first at Nelson, before signing on as a millhand at a sawmill in Haney operated by JA Gibson. At age 21 he was able to engage in a partnership with Gibson at Tynehead running a shingle mill on the Townline Road (96 Ave).  Swamped with debts of more than $17,000 he was unable to pay, Robson absorbed an early and hard lesson in business.

In a bleak November 1910, with cold prospects ahead after the failure of his first venture, JG Robson got a lucky break.  A new mill starting up across the river was in need of a manager, and at age 23 JG Robson was hired on.

Craig Station,  Surrey

The Timberland Lumber Company Limited had been incorporated in September 1909 with a capital of $25,000, divided into 250 shares of $100 each.  The company built a sawmill at Craig Station on the British Columbia Electric Railway’s new Fraser Valley line,  about 4 miles from Brownsville.

Logging with oxen South Westminster -NWPL The first sawmill at New Westminster was built by Thomas Donahue in 1859, where he also commenced logging. On the south side of the Fraser River, trees were first cut on the flats and on the hillsides. Logs were dragged to the river with teams of oxen, or floated along a network of sluices and ditches. The advent of the railway across the uplands opened up large tracts of forest that had been inaccessible to large-scale logging.
Logging with oxen – South Westminster 1890’s

– New Westminster Public Library photo


North Surrey Timber Berths map North Surrey Timber Berths
At left, a portion of a Dominion government map showing lands disposed of within the railway belt. The sections shown in beige were old-growth forest. The old hatchery reserve in the north (section  “7”)  was razed for the Port Mann townsite in 1911. Timberland operated in the extensive blocks marked H and R. The last  forest in these blocks  cut down was the ‘Green Timbers,’  logged by the MB King company in the late 1920’s.

Timberland Lumber Company built rail extensions from Craig’s  into the forests of the Bear Creek-Serpentine River watershed. The trees cut were 80% Douglas Fir, with the rest mainly spruce and cedar.

The mill was capable of cutting 40,000 feet of lumber over a ten hour period. From the start the mill specialized in large timbers, 16 or 18 inches by 2 feet, with a length of up to 100 feet. Such timbers were used in heavy construction, such as for mines, bridges and wharves, posts and beams for large buildings, as spuds for dredges, and for the manufacture of masts and spars.

Running at capacity, the mill employed 75 men. The mill had good access via the BCER to Chilliwack where it connected with the Canadian Northern Railway to points east, and across the Westminster Bridge to the docks of the Fraser River, or to connect with the Canadian Pacific Railway.

In 1911, the business offices of the Timberland Lumber Company were located at 520 Columbia Street in New Westminster, JG Robson, Mgr.   The office moved to  the Westminster Trust Building,   opened in 1912 at Columbia and Begbie Street.

Timberland office in 1914 city directory

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