A Walk in McLean Mill Historic Park
By REBECCA BOLLWITT (aka Miss604)
The bulbs of market lights twinkling above were strung between cedar boughs, and Perry Como played on an outdoor loudspeaker.
“It’s 1953 Day at the Mill today!” said Deanna Beaudoin, executive director of McLean Mill Historic Park as she walked up to me with root beer floats in hand.
Classic cars parked out front, families playing board games on picnic tables and hamburgers served up with a side of fries. This was far different than the type of history I thought I was stepping into when I passed the giant timber sign for McLean Mill in Port Alberni. I was thinking more along the lines of its bunkhouses, blacksmith shop, steam tractors and machinery.
The lush forest walk is dazzling with twinkling market lights that guide you through this trail network at the Mill park.
Located on 12.5 hectares, with 35 buildings and structures, you can tour inside the belly of the original steam sawmill, experiencing life as it once was for the many generations that worked at McLean Mill. Take a walk around the mill pond, catch a fish, have a picnic or join a guided tour to learn about the R.B. McLean Lumber Company that operated from 1925 to 1965. The Mill was acquired by the City of Port Alberni in 1988 from the McLean family and MacMillan Bloedel, and with assistance from Parks Canada and Forest Renewal BC the sawmill and surrounding site has been completely restored.
Stroll around the Mill Pond to watch logging demos on the other side.
The tours which operate several times during the day welcome you to step back in time, off the platform or from the main gate, restaurant, and gift shop area through a Forest Walk, and out to the historic site where you can pop into the cookhouse, bunkhouse, blacksmith shop and check out machinery like the head rig that contains 50-inch and 54-inch circular saws.
The old 1892 Chattanooga steam engine which was directly involved in producing beautiful lumber up until 2016 and the remnants of the heyday of steam power draws a niche crowd to the park each year.
The head rig’s 50 inch and 54 inch circular saws in the sawmill building.
Inside the sawmill, you’ll also find “live edge” pieces of timber that was in it's final days of opporating the McLean Mill’s signature style. People in Port Alberni are proud to share the fact that they have McLean Mill countertops and pieces in their homes to this day. In fact, many homes in town used to be powered using sawdust. Mill life overflowed into the everyday for Port Alberni.
“You’ll notice a lot of debris. I always say that people who lived in the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s were the ultimate up-cyclers, and we are just catching on now," Deanna said as we walked past some old gas station pumps on our way to the steam donkey and logging demo area.
"At McLean Mill Historic Park, we are home to the only operational Steam Powered Donkey and Logging show in all of North America. The guys that put on the attraction are real characters," said Deanna. "It's a family fun, interactive steam show that runs all summer." We had already visited an old caboose in a shed by the railway tracks that is one of many restoration projects; in fact the whole site looked a little like that 20 years ago. It's amazing what can be accomplished with heart!
Old cars, new growth, some of the really cool photo ops around the Mill site.
Spend the afternoon wanderlusting through a park that intertwines past and present, stroll foot bridges and rest upon worn natural benches that await. Cross Kitsukis Creek and you’ll find logging demos, gas and oil sheds, and make sure you have your camera as there are some feature shots, rusted out classic cars that are perfect for photo walks.
This national historic site and the surrounding park offers much more than an abundance of logging and timber history. In recent years, the park has begun a series of programs that invite locals and visitors alike to enjoy its lush landscape.
“Enjoy a day of low tech with your family. It’s an opportunity to come and reconnect,” Deanna told me after she shared that she has been biking to work all week – taking her just over 20 minutes from Port Alberni's city centre. “We’re really trying to open up the venue, all these gems – so much to explore."
On top of weddings and corporate events, they now host Yoga in the Park, Music in the Park, the old Alberni Pacific Railway steam train you can take directly from town (fare includes admission to the park and programming that day), and there are seasonal events for Halloween, Christmas, and more.
Pop in and do the forest walk and bring your dog! Go on a photo walk around the lumber yard and mill pond. Stay awhile and enjoy the daily specials in the 100-mile Steam Pot Café or book a camping spot and stay even longer on these beautiful tranquil grounds. Who knows, maybe you’ll even find the missing McLean treasure, which is rumoured to be a jar full of coins buried decades ago by one of the family’s children. Enjoy the past, present, and future of McLean Mill with every visit.
If You Go
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Start planning your adventures in Port Alberni at Alberni Valley Tourism.
Start exploring your Port Alberni region options with Destination BC.
Find out more at the City of Port Alberni’s website.
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Rebecca Bollwitt is a Seekers' correspondent and award-winning blogger based in Vancouver. Follow her travels on Instagram and Twitter @Miss604.