Timber, tourism, and tall tales: How Mill Bay got its settler name

And how the small logging town grew into the destination community it is today.

Acknowledgement: This colonial history is just a blip in the long story of occupation and use of this land by Coast Salish peoples, in the place known today as “Mill Bay.” Specifically, it is the unceded land of the Málexeł (Malahat), W̱SÁNEĆ (Saanich) and Quw’utsun (Cowichan) Peoples. 

Had Henry Sheppard not established a small sawmill on the estuary in 1859, Mill Bay might instead be known by settlers today as Whalers’ Bay. 

In 1866, two Scotsmen established the province’s first commercial whaling business out of the bay. But before the businessmen started contracting Hawaiian migrant whalers to hunt grey whales and process them on the shores, another business had already given its name to the bourgeoning settler community: the mill. 

This article is a snapshot of some of Mill Bay’s settler history, in response to questions sent to The Discourse by its readers.  

Before settlers came to this land, there was a significant Málexeł village, called Keya, at what is now known as Mill Bay, near the mouth of Shawnigan Creek, according to the Malahat Nation Comprehensive Community Plan. The territory around this village was used for hunting, fishing and gathering, as well as cultural and ceremonial purposes. 

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The word Malahat is related to the SENĆOŦEN word MÁLEXEȽ and Hulqumínum word Ma’le-‘h’xe’l’ which are both derived from the words for “caterpillars.”

The Discourse reached out to Malahat Nation for more information, and a representative said that it would have information to share publicly once a historical archiving project has been completed. 

From modest mill to lumber boom

Before the mill, the shores around the Saanich Inlet were deemed too inhospitable for settlement and farming by Europeans, says Maureen Alexander, president of the Mill Bay / Malahat Historical Society. Alexander says Henry Sheppard’s mill gave the town its colonial start.

“Mill Bay was settled by French Canadians to start with  … the land is not great for farming. And so when the mill opened a lot of the ‘farmers’ got employment at the mill,” says Alexander.

Henry Sheppard was responsible for establishing the original mill in 1859 but sold it only two years later to an American entrepreneur named W.P. Sayward. Sayward, who saw the mill’s potential to feed Victoria’s growing timber market, quickly expanded the operation by replacing the mill’s water wheel with a turbine.

This sepia-toned archive photo depicts a corduroy road near Mill Bay. Horses haul a load of lumber through the forest.
A corduroy road near Mill Bay in the 1870s. Photos courtesy of Mill Bay / Malahat Historical Society.

Sayward’s vision for exporting lumber through Victoria soon became reality. The once-modest mill exploded into a major industry: the first recorded shipment out of Sayward’s mill was over 14,000 feet of lumber. It was shipped out on a scow — a large flat-bottomed boat used for transporting bulk materials — named Hannah in 1863.

While Alexander explained that by today’s standards the shipment might not seem large, it represented an intensive logging effort at the time.

“Because. of course, they were cutting the trees with cross cut saws … so they could only cut trees of a certain size,” says Alexander. “To get them from the hillside down to the mill, they used what were called corduroy roads.” 

These roads were made up of smaller logs placed alongside each other to create a less resistant surface. Oxen would then drag the newly felled trees along the corduroy down to the mill.

Hannah’s cargo on that maiden trip was one of the first international exports of Vancouver Island lumber through the port of Victoria. 

But the boom was short-lived. By 1878, all of the accessible timber that the loggers could extract had been felled and processed by Sayward’s company, and the mill was dismantled. 

By then, though, the name had already stuck. And so too would the small town’s logging roots. 

Mill Bay in the 20th century: a growing town

Mill Bay’s distance from the railroad meant the town remained relatively small and disconnected from the rest of the island in the early 20th century.

“Shawnigan and Cobble Hill were the commercial centres [in the early 1900s],” says Alexander. “They had the big hotels. If you wanted to go to Mill Bay, you walked. Or it was a trek by wagon.” 

However, the advent of the automobile soon changed things. The wagon road leading into town was paved in 1911, becoming what we know today as Malahat Drive, a section of Highway 1 that can still be relatively treacherous. 

Eventually, “Mill Bay overtook Shawnigan and Cobble Hill because the train died out,” explains Alexander. “Mill Bay had gas stations and we had stores and we had auto courts, as [motels] were called in those days.”

In the 1920s, the town became part of illicit rum-running routes. Scofflaw entrepreneurs turned Cowichan Valley grains into liquor bound for thirsty markets in Victoria and Washington State. G.F. Scollard, an infamous alleged rum runner, made his home in Mill Bay.

Related article: What were the rum-running days like in Mill Bay?

In 1927, the Queen Alexandra Solarium for Crippled Children opened its doors on the waterfront site that now holds Brentwood College School. For decades, that hospital cared for children with tuberculosis, polio and other afflictions who could not receive adequate treatment and support at home. It was the first hospital for children established in British Columbia.

Related article: What’s the history of the Brentwood College site?

In the 1920s and 1930s, the stunning view from Malahat Drive drew visitors from around the world — much as it does today. 

“That’s when Mill Bay really really boomed, and so a lot of the land that was farming land was subdivided and sold for houses,” said Alexander.

A colour photo of a twelve-foot-tall statue of Mill Bay Jack. It depicts a white man with a black beard wearing a red hat, red shirt and pants.
The statue of Mill Bay Jack was moved from its location in the town centre to a nearby private residence. Photos courtesy of Mill Bay / Malahat Historical Society

Mill Bay Jack, the Sasquatch logger

As the community grew, so too did the folklore surrounding its beginnings. Roughly 120 years after Sheppard first opened the original sawmill, some residents conjured the myth of a local man who paid homage to the town’s logging roots. This figure was known as Mill Bay Jack. 

In his self-titled autobiography, local author and businessman Clifford Clark describes how he began imagining a legendary figure who could help drum up tourism:

“I was busy writing the … mythological story of a man of gigantic stature. Born in the wilds of Shawnigan many many years ago to a happily married Sasquatch couple, Jack became the first Sasquatch logger in the area. And to the best of my knowledge, probably the last.”

The legend of Mill Bay Jack gained traction and, in 1985, the Mill Bay Chamber of Commerce commissioned a young artist by the name of Julien Oullet to carve a twelve-foot statue of the logger. The carving was then placed at the front of the Pioneer Square shopping mall, immediately adjacent to the highway, in the hopes of drawing more tourists to the town.

 “Once positioned in the square,” recalled Clark, “[the carving] attracted a lot of attention.”

The following year, to further promote the town, Clark and his friends began organizing the Mill Bay Country Music Festival. The first festival came together in 1987, and Mill Bay Jack became its official presenter. 

“Every bit of advertising we employed [for the festival] carried a caricature of good old Jack with his trusty axe,” wrote Clark. 

Much like the mill itself, though, the statue of Mill Bay Jack disappeared almost as quickly as it had appeared. By the mid-1990s, the annual Country Music Fest had run out of funding — 1996 was the original festival’s final year. Meanwhile, according to Alexander, the road in front of Pioneer Square had been widened, and Mill Bay Jack’s carving was moved. 

“It’s actually at a private residence on Chapman Road. And when we opened our museum, we looked at possibly bringing it back to Mill Bay,” said Alexander. 

The team behind the historical society visited the private site and drilled into the carving to test the wood. Unfortunately, according to Alexander, the carving had rotted from within and thus was not safe to move.

“It’s kind of going to rot away on its base at this person’s house,” said Alexander. “I’m assuming it’s still there.”

Mill Bay today

While Mill Bay Jack will spend the rest of his days away from the public eye, his legacy lives on. Jack can rest easy knowing his namesake remains a popular destination for visitors seeking to soak up stunning views of the Southern Gulf Islands and enjoy the dense forests that helped to build the town.

The Mill Bay / Malahat Historical Society’s Heritage Museum welcomes guests who would like to learn more on Sundays, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at 2851 Church Way in Mill Bay. [end]

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