The City of Port Alberni is considering the future of the McLean Mill National Historic Site—and the possibility that operation of this site will look different moving forward.
A committee of the whole meeting on Monday, Jan. 21 drew dozens of residents, including retired loggers, railway engineers and volunteers who offered their support for the site which preserves the past of the Alberni Valley. A few neighbours who lived downstream expressed their disapproval, especially concerning the contamination of the site. The city is currently taking on further testing of the water and the soil to ensure there is no health risk to the public.
Others simply wanted the city to “stop bleeding cash” and shut the mill down.
But both the McLean Mill Society (MMS) and the Western Industrial Heritage Society (IHS) agreed that the mill cannot operate successfully on volunteer efforts alone.
Mill society president Sheena Falconer said that the MMS’s plan for the next three years is to focus on infrastructure, with a long-term plan being developed to implement repairs now that safety concerns have been addressed. Most of the annual budget, however, has not gone to the mill site, but to rail operations.
Last year, the popular No. 7 “Baldwin” steam locomotive was taken out of service. Falconer confirmed on Monday that the No. 7 steam engine will be out of service for the rest of this year.
The Alco diesel locomotive was also taken out of service last year after failing a safety inspection, and it will cost between $30,000 to $40,000 to repair. The larger No. 11 diesel locomotive can still be used, but Falconer said there are “concerns” about using it long-term.
“It’s not meant to be taking people up the Kitsuksis grade,” she said.
Volunteers replaced approximately 400 railway ties last year, but the tracks continue to require replacements. Railway signals have also been experiencing malfunctions.
The repair work, said Falconer, is a “significant” task for volunteers to take on. During her presentation on Monday, she recommended that the city operate the McLean Mill Historic site through a contractor, instead of the McLean Mill Society. MMS could act as more of a “Friends of Society,” supporting the McLean Mill with fundraising and marketing.
“The site should operate as a park and event site with live interpretation and providing benefit to the city and residents,” she offered.
The railway, meanwhile, could function as an independent identity.
The IHS operated the McLean Mill National Historic Site from 2000-2016, before the MMS was established. Industrial Heritage Society president Kevin Hunter said he believed the mill could be a successful endeavour if the IHS, the city and the MMS worked together.
“All three groups have to cooperatively and actively support each other and fully utilize everyone’s valuable talents and professional skills,” he said.
He also agreed with Falconer that it is “virtually impossible” for volunteers to operate McLean Mill, due to increasing regulatory policies from provincial and federal agencies, as well as the “overwhelming” administrative responsibilities of the mill and the train, coupled with a minimal budget.
“We are convinced the city has to get more involved with the mill,” he said.
Dr. Jamie Morton, the former Alberni Valley Museum manager and temporary Alberni Pacific Railway manager, said that McLean Mill was first established as a National Historic Site in 2000 not only because it had a working sawmill, but because it also had the associated “village” leftover from a community of people working there. Morton described it as “a perfect microcosm” of the forest industry’s booming years.
The mill’s original management plan in the late 90s promised a full-on working historic sawmill village—a $7.4 million dollar initiative. “People were very ambitious about what they wanted to see done,” said Morton. “There were good reasons for doing it—they were economic reasons. We all know it didn’t quite work that way. The revenues never approached that kind of level.”
Moving forward, Morton endorsed the idea of community events, like weddings, and fun initiatives like Jeepers Creepers that don’t impact the historic site and the “commemorative integrity” of the site. History, said Morton, should be both “preserved and presented” to the public.
“If you don’t have both parts of that, it’s kind of meaningless,” he said.
He also suggested the separation of the railway and McLean Mill.
“Since 2001, the two have been treated as a unit,” he pointed out. “The status as a national historic site does not include the APR. It’s strictly the mill itself.”
Ellie Hadley, the officer manager for McLean Mill, said she heard feedback from tourists who found the train “too expensive” or difficult timing-wise. “A high-number of them actually preferred having their own transport,” she said.
During the meeting on Monday, many other residents offered comments through the city’s social media platforms. Owls Path Tourism, a First Nations-focused tour business in the Alberni Valley, said that a partnership between the McLean Mill and local First Nations would offer an “amazing opportunity” for tourism. Another commentor said the city has a responsibility to address the “historic pollution” that took place at the site.
Throughout the two-hour-long meeting, Port Alberni city councillors listened, asked questions and took notes. Although no decisions were made on Monday, the conversation about McLean Mill is far from over. Mayor Sharie Minions said that council will continue the discussion at a future meeting, although a date has not been determined yet.