SAWMILLING began at various locations on the coast around the middle of the 19th century. Small steam- or water-powered mills at ESQUIMALT, VICTORIA, SOOKE, NANAIMO, YALE, NEW WESTMINSTER and PORT DOUGLAS sold most of their lumber to local markets, though small amounts were exported. The first export mill, the ANDERSON MILL, organized by Capt Edward STAMP, began operating at PORT ALBERNI in 1861. It ceased operating in 1865; in 1867 Stamp opened another mill, the HASTINGS MILL, at the site of what later became VANCOUVER. It and another mill at the present site of N VANCOUVER, Pioneer Sawmill, were the first successful large export mills, with most of their production going to various world markets. By 1900 large export mills had also opened in New Westminster, Victoria and CHEMAINUS. The first Interior sawmill began near BARKERVILLE in 1860 and small mills started at KAMLOOPS in the late 1860s. Numerous mills were established during CPR construction in the 1880s, and by the early 1900s several Interior mills were shipping lumber east to prairie markets.

In the early years of the 20th century, BC was invaded by an influx of US lumbermen, who had exhausted timber supplies in the northeastern states and were lured to BC by new leases offered by the provincial government. By the outbreak of WWI, several large new mills had opened in and around Vancouver, on VANCOUVER ISLAND and in the southeastern Interior. US lumber brokers quickly dominated the lumber export business. On the coast, the mills were designed to cut large-diameter logs, primarily CEDAR and FIR, for export abroad. In the Interior, smaller BUSH MILLS, with a few larger mills on some of the major LAKES and RIVERS, cut smaller-diameter species into lumber for railway construction and sale to prairie settlers. The BC lumber industry collapsed at the beginning of WWI because US brokers were reluctant to ship BC products past German naval vessels on the north Pacific. The province's chief forester, H.R. MacMILLAN, was sent on a round-the-world trip to drum up lumber sales. His success in selling orders to British Empire markets revived the industry and put control of its sales in local hands. During the 1920s the lumber industry expanded steadily, mostly on the coast, with Interior mills devoted primarily to local markets. Throughout WWII BC was the largest single supplier of lumber to the UK. Most production was transported across Canada by rail and then shipped across the Atlantic. After the war many of the large coastal mills became part of large integrated FOREST INDUSTRY operations, which also included LOGGING divisions, PULP AND PAPER mills and plywood plants. In the Interior a pulp industry was built around the use of sawmill wastes. Several hundred small Interior sawmills were replaced during the 1960s and 1970s by relatively few large mills concentrated in centres such as PRINCE GEORGE, Kamloops, WILLIAMS LAKE, MACKENZIE, REVELSTOKE and GOLDEN. Gradually the major market shifted from the UK to the US, to such an extent that American lumber producers retaliated with attempts to have tariffs imposed on Canadian lumber imports (see SOFTWOOD LUMBER AGREEMENT). In the late 1990s considerable attention was paid to the production of higher-value FOREST PRODUCTS to replace export shipments of low-value dimensional lumber and raw pulp. Numerous small companies and some new mills built by the large integrated companies have been established to produce higher grades of lumber, manufactured products and fine papers for export. However, the large forest companies had had control of about 85% of the provincial timber supply since the late 1980s, and it was difficult for the value-added forest producers to obtain raw materials.

In 1997 BC sawmills produced 13.9 billion board ft of lumber, almost double the production of 20 years previously, and close to half of the Canadian total. That year, 7.5 billion board ft were sold in the US, 3.5 billion in Canada and 2 billion in Japan. Lumber sales were worth $7.9 billion. Sawmills in the province employed almost 23,000 people in 1997.
by Ken Drushka