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Distilling alder wood – the start of a chemical industry on Fraser River

August 30, 2014

In November 1920 Acetate Products Limited announced  plans to use native alder wood of the Fraser Valley to  manufacture wood alcohol, acetate of lime, charcoal and tar at the premises of the old Liverpool cannery. Company Secretary Norman Ross stated that the enterprise “was the beginning of an important chemical industry for the Pacific Coast.”

google map location of Acetate Products LtdThe Liverpool Cannery on Fraser River, about a half mile above the Westminster Bridge, had been shut down for some years. It was owned by HP Peterson, now better known for his road-building.  (Location on Google Map.)

In August of 1918 the Peterson Construction Company was awarded a contract to open up the Liverpool Road (124 St) north from the Pacific Highway to the Canadian National Railway tracks on the banks of the Fraser River. At this spot HP Peterson had operated the fish and vegetable canning plant. In November 1920, with Peterson busy with the contract to pave the first section of the Pacific Highway, the Liverpool cannery property – buildings and acreage – was sold to Acetate Products Limited.

The raw material for the Acetate Products plant was to be alder wood, which grew in great abundance locally,  notably along the reaches of the Pitt River. Plant superintendent and chemical engineer Philip A Carleton explained the process of distilling wood to extract the acids used to produce alcohol, acetate of lime and pitch. Acetone derived from acetate of lime was used in the manufacture of cordite. Charcoal was a useful byproduct. These products previously had to be freighted in from Ontario and Quebec.

JA Fletcher of Vancouver was chairman of a board of directors composed mainly of New Westminster men, including TJ Trapp.

In December, analytical chemist AL Davidson, formerly with the Bass Brewery of Burton-on-Trent, England, invited the public to look over the machinery installed in the facility, and to observe the production of methanol, acetate of lime and charcoal. The plant equipment and machinery was extensive. Seven retorts were yet to be installed.

“The ground has already been laid out for these retorts which will be encased in brick and will be located on the south side of the buildings, alongside the tracks of the Canadian National railways. From the wharf to the drying room and then on to the retorts, a tramway is to be constructed which will allow steel cars, each holding one cord of alder wood, being run direct from the scows [on the Fraser].”

The establishment of this facility, the first on the west coast of Canada, attracted observers from throughout the region, including a visit by the head of the department of chemistry at the University of Washington. It took a year for the plant to become fully equipped and operational.

In  December 1921 the Vancouver Sun reported:

“The plant at South Westminster is complete with dry kiln and woodhouse, retort, charcoal and still houses. It modern machinery necessitates the employment of only 10 or 12 men in the plant.”

The bulk of the company’s output was expected to be exported to Europe and Japan. Ocean-going vessels began calling at the company wharf a half mile above the Fraser River bridge.
Acetate Products was in business only a few years. In 1924 its lease of a water lot on the Fraser River shore was cancelled.  The company name  last appeared in the city directory in 1926.

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