History of Holberg
(University of Metropolis)
, 31 Dec 69
Need a history paper? Plagerize me!
The story of Holberg is one of geography, transportation and transient employment. Prior to settlement, Holberg Inlet was simply an inland transportation corridor that allowed European exploration and prospecting into the north-central Island. The first influx of settlers occurred around 1900 as immigrants began to pre-empt plots of land for agricultural purposes in Holberg and surrounding townships. The success of these early settlements was largely hampered by the lack of quality agricultural land, inclement weather, and rugged topography which made road-building a laborious task. Attempts to develop farming communities at Cape Scott, San Josef Bay, and Sea Otter Cove proved to be dependent on overland connections to Holberg, which would serve as the primary point of entry to these communities from the south. The township of Holberg grew in population during the 1900?s up until the time of the Great War. Many settlers left to enlist in 1914 and Holberg?s growth stalled.
The town would not grow again until 1938, when forestry finally brought employment to the region. Soon after the first logging camp was established the Canadian military selected Holberg as the sight of a new radar base. As the westernmost link of the RCAF?s ?Pinetree Line,? Holberg supported a military base with over 1000 residents at its peak in the 1950?s. Both forestry and military needs would combine to finally justify large-scale road building in the region. By the 1970?s a paved road linked Holberg with Port Hardy. But the road came too late for those North Island settlers who were forced to endure seventy years of isolation. Cape Scott, San Josef Bay, and Sea Otter Cove had ceased to exist as viable communities. All that remained was the lonely logging and military town of Holberg, which itself was on the decline. Technological advancements had reduced the need for manned radar stations and in 1991 the RCAF base was finally closed down. The 1990?s were also hard on the logging industry and the scale of forestry operations around Holberg has shrunk substantially. Today, Holberg is little more then a gas station and general store on the road to Cape Scott Provincial Park.
As described here, Holberg includes sections 1 through 36 in Township 37 and sections 5 through 8 of Township 32 in the Alberni Range. The west arm of Holberg Inlet terminates in section 5 of Township 32. This is the location of Holberg?s port, logging camp, and post office. About 5 kms west lies the sight of Canadian Forces Station Holberg in sections 14 and 15 of Township 37 (see appendix 1)
Vancouver Island North of Nanaimo remained unsettled by white immigrants up until the time of BC?s first census in 1881. As identified by Cole Harris in his analysis of the 1881 census, white settlement had ?not expended far from the southwestern corner of the province and a few lines of transportation to mining areas.? The same census data shows a native population of roughly 300 occupied a semi-permanent village near the convergence of Quatsino Sound and Holberg Inlet. Though this village lay some 30kms east of present day Holberg, undoubtedly the natives there had thoroughly explored the Holberg region. Fishing in the western reaches of the inlet is not particularly good, which may be a reason why no permanent native settlement existed closer to the sight of present day Holberg.
After the 1884 Land Titles Act, optimistic immigrants began to stake preemption claims over plots in various regions of the North Island. The settlers could choose any vacant 160 acre plot within a section, within a township, as outlined by government officials. The first preemptions in the Holberg district were staked by Danes in 1895. The sight was named after Baron Ludwig Holberg ? a figure from Danish literature. It was situated in section 5 of township 32. Four other townships to the Northwest were set aside for settlement as well. These sites would turn into the communities of Cape Scott, Sea Otter Cove and San Josef Bay.
The original Danish settlers had hoped to make a living from fishing Holberg Inlet and farming land at the western head of the inlet. Official preemption documents from this time show that virtually all settlers claimed to be ?farmers? by occupation. They soon discovered that the fishing was no good and the great effort which went into clearing land reaped little reward. As with many areas of BC, the soil proved to be a gravely, rocky nightmare, unsuited for growing fruits and vegetables. In search of more productive soil, settlers began to move north and west into the San Josef valley and towards Cape Scott.
Pre-emption records also provide us with an idea of the ethnic origins of many of the settlers. A sampling of 23 pre-emption claims in township 37 lists 8 Surnames of Scandinavian decent, 10 surnames of English origin and 3 surnames of indeterminable origin.
At the time of initial settlement, Holberg was extremely isolated. Local travel was limited to short distances on forest footpaths. Longer journeys could be made by sea but the west coast of Vancouver Island is notable for its dangerous sea going environment. Centres of commerce and trade lay many kms to the south in Nanaimo and Victoria. Though roads were under construction in many parts of the province, the region surrounding Holberg lacked any government funded roadwork until 1896. IN this year, the government completed a road connecting Port Hardy to the southern island. After 1896 Settlers could sail down Holberg Inlet to Coal Harbour and then clamber 30 miles over a rugged pack trail to reach Port Hardy on the east coast. Holberg actually sat at about the halfway point on the longer route which connected Cape Scott with Port Hardy. The coastal communities of Cape Scott, Sea Otter Cove and San Josef Bay lacked quality harbours accessible by cargo vessels. Thus the flow of goods was primarily overland from Townships 41-44 to Holberg then by ship to Coal Harbour and finally overland again to Port Hardy. At the turn of the century, the trails connecting these settlements were roughly hewn from the mountainous countryside, making them impassable by wagon.
Farmers who produced excess crops were unable to sell them abroad... The rugged bush trail that connected settlers in the San Josef valley and Cape Scott area with Holberg to the south was unable to transport wagonloads of goods to southern markets in Port Hardy and Comox. The limited success of the early settlements in townships 41-44 can be partially traced to the lack of an overland road connecting the sources of agricultural production with markets and cities to the south. ?Dissatisfaction crept in, progress of these energetic people was being retarded, a road connection with the outside was badly needed.?
The Promise of a Road
During the summer of 1909 a wagon road from Holberg to Cape Scott was started. A steam donkey engine was off-loaded at the new Holberg wharf and was used to clear logs from the roadway over the following years. In the fall of 1908 the first post office was established at Holberg. In 1910 the government began to install telegraph lines along the trails connecting Holberg, Cape Scott, San Josef Bay, Sea Otter Cove and Shushtartie.
H.H. Browne?s report on surveys in Quatsino district, December 21, 1912 says that ?little by little the settlement at Cape Scott dwindled?then Holberg was started?Holberg must be the port for Cape Scott, hence the tremendous value of the road now under construction.?
The road building, telegraph installation and creation of post offices created jobs and brought an influx of hopeful settlers to the region. Settlement spread outwards form the roadway into the valleys surrounding Holberg and San Josef Bay. The list of pre-emption records in BC Archives for the Alberni district show that nearly all land applications for township 37 were filed in 1910. Population is said to have peaked at roughly 1000 in the years preceding WW?. Unfortunately, the majority of land preemptions proved to be unsuitable for agriculture. ?During 1914 the wagon road building ceased, the war started and many residents left to enlist or obtain higher wages elsewhere due to the lack of local work.? After the war, some previous residents returned and road building recommenced. But by 1926 only ten miles of road had been completed west of Holberg and the depression effectively ended any chance of the roads completion. The road was only completed to the Western edge of township 37, leaving most residents of townships 41 ? 44 with no means of transporting their goods to market.
The idyllic dream of an agricultural Eden at the northern tip of Vancouver Island never materialized. Immigrants were faced with too many obstacles from Mother Nature. Average rainfall is over 167 inches per year and winter storms frequently pound the coast with winds up to 120 mph. Already cursed with poor soil, crops also had to contend with nasty weather. A road connection may not have been enough to support agricultural settlements in such a poorly suited landscape. But the lack of a road effectively killed any chance of the farmers dream becoming a reality. Holberg?s population would not begin to grow again until forestry operations came to town near the end of the depression.
Large Scale logging operations began in the Holberg area in 1938 under the BC Pulp & Paper Co. Ltd. out of Vancouver. Hemlock, Spruce and Balsam were harvested from company land surrounding Holberg Inlet and transported by boom to a large BC Pulp & Paper sulphite mill at Port Alice, on the southeast arm of Quatsino Sound. Here the wood was converted into fibres used to make Rayon. In 1942 the first floating housing and storage buildings were towed into camp. At this time Holberg had only a combined post office/general store that serviced the handful of trappers and settlers who still populated the region.
The company camp was built entirely on floating wooden structures. This construction method allowed segments of ?town? to be constructed elsewhere and towed by tugboat into Holberg Inlet. Sections could be easily added or removed in response to the changing needs of this remote logging community. It may not have been standard practice to build a floating logging camp but it also wasn?t unheard of. The versatility of a floating structure was realized decades earlier, as noted in Martin A. Grainger?s Woodsmen of the West.
By 1948, over 250 men, women and children lived in the Holberg camp, which at the time made it the largest floating town in the world. The camp was over a quarter of a mile long with 50 detached buildings (see appendix 2). Electricity, hot water, fire hall, pool hall, store, blacksmith, carpenter, warehouse, cold-storage and a large community hall with seating for 260 were all provided to residents courtesy of BC Pulp & paper. A camp superintendent took the place of a major. The nearest police detachment was two hours away in Port Hardy. Although devoid of a permanent church, the community received occasional church service courtesy of ?gospel mission boats that go into remote logging camps, Indian villages and other settlements that do not have churches.?
Gradually the floating structures became dilapidated as the weather took its toll. Camp operations began to move ashore in the 1960?s with the building of new warehouses and bunkhouses for workers. The site of these structures was chosen near the post office on a tree farm license where little flat land existed. ?The townsite did not even exist. We had to make that out of the side of the mountain.? Over one and a half million dollars was spent upgrading facilities in 1972 by Rayonier Canada, who acquired operation in 1959.
Western Forest Products took over Rayioner in 1980. It then applied to have the private camp designated a municipality in 1981. The application was successful and the town switched from company control to municipal government. No longer would rents be paid to the forest company, from then on residents could own their own homes and pay property taxes. Logging Operations continue today with Doman Industries as the primary employer in the community.
The cold war threat of air attack from the USSR prompted the federal government to invest in air defences. Construction of a radar installation began at Holberg in 1950. The station was declared operational on 25 April 1954 and formed the western anchor of the Pinetree Line, a chain of 44 radar stations across Canada. These stations were a major part of Canada?s commitment to NORAD, the air defence of North America.
The operations site at Holberg was perched atop the 2,000 foot Mount Brandes, while the domestic area was located at the base of the 2,000 foot Mount Hansen. Building the Radar installation atop Mount Brandes was no easy task. An 8 km road had to be carved out of its side and then the top dynamited till flat. General Electric ?Minimally Attended Solid State Radar? was the technology of choice in the early years (see appendix 3).
Up until the time of road completion to Port Hardy in the 1970?s, the station was only accessible by Navy ship. Various small navy vessels plied the waters up and down Holberg Inlet, transferring supplies and passengers to this military outpost. Still, the base managed to support a population of 850 people at its peek. This small community was tight-knit. As many amenities as the government could justify were provided to residents, from a large community hall to a small library.
The base remained an integral part of air defence throughout the cold war. Soldiers and their families served an average of two years at the base. Many referred to it as the ?end of the line,? where airmen would spend their days on the ground, working as watchdogs over the sky. As an article from 1962 notes, ?It isn?t a popular posting with air crew but Holberg is a vital link in defence.?
With the ending of the cold war in the 1990?s and technological improvements in automated radar, Holberg ceased to be a valuable component of Canada?s air defence. The station wound down over the 1980?s and was finally closed in 1991. The Military offered the remaining domestic facilities first to the Federal Government, then provincial and municipal governments and finally to the private sector, but there were no takers. The buildings could not be given away so the domestic site was dismantled. Today, overgrown roads are all that remain of this military base (see appendix 4).
The early promise of an agricultural Eden was never realized in Holberg or the surrounding areas. The climate, soil and isolation combined to kill this dream. Many adventurous men set out to build farmsteads on land preempted around 1900 in townships 41-44 and in 1910 under the Holberg Township. The evidence of their endeavors continues to be reclaimed by nature. An occasional fencepost, foundation or footpath can still be found around Holberg but these markers are fast receding into the bush. Cape Scott Park to the North West maintains a network of trails that was originally started by these settlers in the absence of real roads. This park is the most obvious legacy left by the 1000?s of hearty souls who braved the extremes of the North Island.
Although a permanent settler society never fully blossomed around Holberg, the 20th century brought semi-permanent settlement to the region courtesy of forestry and the military. Transient workers have moved in and out of the region based on the growth of forestry and military needs. Together the RCAF and the logging camp succeeded in finally opening up the Northern tip of Vancouver Island. Roads were built linking Cape Scott and the San Josef Valley with Port Hardy through Holberg. The settlers wish for an overland connection has been realized but not due to the needs of agriculture. As has been the case with much of BC, resource extraction and the staple trade proved to be the impetus for road building. Though the road now exists, the area remains sparsely populated. There are no new settlers heading to Holberg in the hopes of building an idyllic lifestyle.
1. Galois, Robert and Cole Harris, ?Recalibrating Society: The Population Geography of British Columbia in 1881,? The Canadian Geographer, vol. 38, no. 1: 39.
2. British Columbia Archives, Vertical Files, Holberg:
Holberg, Town That Rides the Tides,? The Vancouver Sun, 19 June 1948.
British Columbia Attorney-General, GR112, Vol.1, Alberni District, Pre-emption Records, 1910 ? 1913
End of the Road, The Daily Colonist, 7 August 1958
The Cape Scott Story, The Daily Colonist, 30 May 1971.
Holberg ? Cape Scott Road, unidentified correspondence, 14 June 1962
$1.5 Million Facelift Gives Community New Look, The North Island Gazette, 19 October 1972.
End of the Line, The Daily Colonist, 18 March 1962
3. Martin A. Grainger?s Woodsmen of the West.
4. Ingram, Jim, ?Holberg BC - Photos,? Pinetree Line, n.d., (7th August 2003)
Rating: 7/10 (1 votes)