Matt Hemmingsen (1876-1967) Memoirs: Family Leave circa 1907 and Epic Tsolum River Logjam

As our last post closed, Matt Hemmingsen was mourning the death of his young wife of two years, the lovely Caroline Dybedal.1 The couple had made their way to Chemainus on Vancouver Island by June 1906, to relocate and for Matt to apply his technical expertise to an intractable logging debacle. But an emerging illness that would prove fatal, overcame Caroline upon arrival and intervened, such that they returned right back home to northwestern Wisconsin.


It was the Humbird-Weyerhaeuser concern that sent Matt west. Corporate family leave was certainly not an expected benefit in those days, and when Matt left his job there, he had no idea if, and when he might return. However, over the last few posts, he told us how he had positively impressed John Alexander Humbird (1836-1911) by bringing his projects to efficient and effective conclusion. As it was, Caroline passed in 1907 and Matt returned to Vancouver Island to Humbird employ. No one else had been able to address that logging situation and it continued to worsen.

Here is Matt Hemmingsen in 1907 with a logging crew, in the woods of Vancouver Island.2

Matt turned 31 in August of that year; the same month he was contemplating the logjam.

They look a little tuckered out.


Matt continued his memoirs, first by telling us of the cons of returning to work under such favor and then gives a glimpse of the logjam. Remarks from “Family History” of 1999 by his son, John, will be used to amplify Matt’s narrative.

TSOLUM RIVER, Vancouver Island, BC

The photo, left, “The Tsolum During Peak Run-off in Winter” was taken with permission from

A century separates that logjam on the Tsolum and this photo of the river in its recently restored state. It is a narrow river with many bends. Even though the water flow is healthy, it was woefully insufficient for the purpose of river driving. We can appreciate Matt’s task by imagining a mess of gigantic Vancouver Island logs navigating the upcoming “island” and turn.

  1. Part X of Matt’s Memoirs, Including the Tsolum River Logjam
  2. “Humbird” Operation and the British Columbia Timber Resource
  3. Tsolum River Now: Industrial Devastation and Volunteer Reclamation
  4. Descendant Reflection: We must learn from history

1. Part X of Matt’s Memoirs, Including the Tsolum River Logjam

From Matt Hemmingsen’s Memoirs

“This over I returned to the Coast and continued on as Camp Foreman under the guidance of the Superintendent, who was not overly appreciative of my being there at all. One could not blame him much for his attitude towards a potential rival, as he probably knew the contents of the letter of introduction sent to the Manager by J. A. Humbird, President and owner, and it is a question in my mind how welcome I was in the mind of the Manager at that time, because he had not hired me. The operation was on a very large scale as logging went in those days, and I was up against the real thing without someone to consult in regard to certain moves.

Descendant Notes

“This over” was Caroline’s funeral and the “Coast” was Vancouver Island, British Columbia.

It was not in my makeup to go to the Manager, E.J., for advice, but the old timber cruiser, an old time character, gave me lots of hints which helped wonderfully.

E.J. was identified in the Daily Colonist of 2 OCT 1966 as E.J. Palmer, manager of VL & M 3

The Company was carrying on smaller operations 150 miles up the coast. One of these operations landed the logs in the “Little River”, a distance of 10 miles from the booming ground. This river had not been cleared out for or made ready for driving – consequently 15 million feet of logs were jammed in the river for a period of three years. So in August the Manager asked me to ascertain what changes if any existed to get these logs out. This task was accomplished by clearing the river bed of huge rocks and debris for a distance of three miles. At the same time I had charge of a small logging operation on the “Big River” which brought the logs down with very little trouble. Having finished clearing logs on Little River we worked a channel through most of the large jams, as or when, sufficient water permitted. Now we were all set for the flood or freshet which never failed to come sooner or later in the fall. This time it came on December 4th. In 48 hours the logs were in the booming ground with the exception of a very few which were stranded on sand bars, but came in later on. I take no credit for the short time in which the logs came out – that must go to the Almighty for supplying the proper amount of water for the purpose.

Of a crew of 20 men only one could be counted on as a river driver. There were lighter sides, however, to the conclusion of the river drive. One of the crew, an old man – could brag in the bar about the boss being a good log man – but he would finish “I can make his ears float like pond lilies any time”

From son John: “It was at Courtenay where an ill-advised river driving system had been adopted. Fifteen million board feet of very large Vancouver Island logs had been decked on the banks of the Tsolum River for river driving to salt water at Courtenay all efforts, over a three year period, to drive even one log had failed.

After Matt’s second arrival in Chemainus, he travelled by horse and buggy to Courtenay to study the situation. In due course he took these actions… cleared the Tsolum River of all obstructions which might impede the log drive … erected temporary dams on all the smaller creeks flowing into the Tsolum. When the water runoffs started, Matt released all the temporary dams and at the same time released logs into the Tsolum – and with this very large flow of water from the tributaries and the Tsolum …logs were successfully driven to salt water for towing to the Chemainus sawmill.”

Pond Lily? Maybe.

Neither Matt’s narrative, nor John’s used the term “blasting” for clearing the river of obstruction in these, their unpublished pieces. It was understood practice. That, plus tremendous volumes of water released in a giant rush to move the pile forward, would create a path of erosion.

This was an isolated incident for Matt, but consequences of such industrial use would be seen over time. Of course, a wholly different problem would have emerged had the river not been cleared.


2.“Humbird” Operation and the British Columbia Timber Resource

John outlined the “Humbird” operation in our Family History. It reveals not only its scope and relationship to the British Columbia timber resource, but also, the enormous untouched public B. C. forest land. The Tsolum would clearly be within Humbird embrace.

The Humbirds of Wisconsin owned a very extensive and valuable forest resource on Vancouver Island, B. C. In addition, they operated a large sawmill at Chemainus, B. C. on Vancouver Island. The Company was named V. L. & M (Victoria Lumber & Manufacturing Company).

The timber resource was a tenure called Crown Grant where the owner owned the land and the timber on the land. In B.C. this type of tenure is limited. The public owns 90% of all the timber in B.C.

The resource was located in the Courtenay area of Vancouver Island. (Courtenay is about half way up Vancouver Island) and at various locations south of Courtenay: Fanny Bay, Nanaimo River, Copper Canyon, and then at Cowichan Lake where they owned most of the timber bordering the shores of the lake plus the vast area covering the Robertson River flowing into Cowichan Lake.

See notes and sources item 2.

3. Tsolum River Now: Industrial Devastation – Volunteer Reclamation

The unspoiled Tsolum River shone with British Columbia glory; spectacular scenery and abundant fish, surrounded by lush forest and plentiful minerals. More trout and salmon swam its current than river stones lined its bed; that is but an ounce of hyperbole. Over recent decades, it was designated the most endangered of B.C. rivers for devastation of its fish population.

Today’s fish-happy Tsolum of its picture’s beauty, is largely due to keen dedication of volunteer drive. Indefatigable, their remedial efforts were greatly frustrated because harm from a century of multi-industrial use was compounded by one copper mine, for along with copper, it acidified the river. Lots of that overcoming love resides in the folks at the Tsolum River Restoration Society.

We have been asked “where on the Tsolum River?” The historic size and nature of Matt’s challenge has been attributed to him without naming the river more than once, such as in Jack Valliant’s book “The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed”.4 Of timber lore back in the day, Matt and the event were the story with “on which particular too small river” it happened, insignificant talk. Jams were many on the streams of B.C. No one suspected that one day this small river would become an epic story; that of the special needs Tsolum. Matt spoke of “Little River” and at the same time of operations on “Big River”. The latter makes sense as the wider Puntledge, for it and the Tsolum join to flow into Courtenay River.

As to Matt’s acuity, we noticed that he, as an 80-year-old in 1956, reflected on his life events as if in the moment of actuality and the Tsolum was not officially named until the 1920s. He was quite the keen old man – an unbiased opinion; on an interview at 87 for “The Cowichan Leader, April 18, 1963” it was said “his mind is as clear as a spring morning and his deep rolling voice retains much of its remarkable vigor, fit occupant for a frame as large as his.”2 For that matter, John was 86 when he finalized his piece, and our dear old dad, was still a wise old owl.

It was John who assigned this episode to the Tsolum, here, and that would have been based on a lifetime of father-son talk, often during onsite jaunts, deep in the woods. Matt said the jam was 10 miles from the booming ground – but where was that? While John said that the logs were driven to salt water in Courtenay, above, he specified Comox Harbour to Joe Garner for the book “never chop your rope”.5 The Valliant account suggested that the mass extended about 5 miles. The problem apparently started 10 miles from Comox Harbour, via the Courtenay River, into the Tsolum; from there, 5 miles backward, in a pile heaped high enough to contain 15 million board feet of timber.

Years in the making, the obstacle was apparently cleared between December 4-6, 1907 after many months of difficult preparation.

A phone call to a randomly selected local waterway person was made to check if our recall of the short rivers, Courtenay and Tsolum, were long enough to make 10 to 15 miles feasible. The answer was yes, but this was offered: Royston was the prominent dumping ground for Tsolum logs in the early 1900s. Their destination sawmill was New Westminster, while that for VM & L was Chemainus. This is brought up, only to show other similar activity on this river then, with the likelihood of increased blasting for logjams, large and small. One could wonder how ownership was maintained against pilferage of such stranded expensive inventory.

4. Descendant Reflection: We must learn from history

Most progress requires later remedial. Extraordinary hard work felled the forest and hauled it to river, then cleared the river and milled the wood. It was a labor of love. The same effort was put to mining ore, bucketing it to daylight, then making it useful. Also, a labor of love. But these activities were not benign such that the same hard work and human endeavor is needed now, to reclaim the environment against harm done. A labor of love, too.

One of our line of immediate ancestors picked black stuff out of the dank mining walls of Scotland and secured his mates’ safety through regulating, as Chief Inspector of Mines for British Columbia. A dangerous and polluting venture, mining of its many ores has been a top B.C. industry, including, of course, copper. When we hate them for say, mining coal, well, they wanted to generate electricity and be warm. So do we, today. We will find a better way.

Our other line came from impoverished farms of Norway and felled old forest around the Great Lakes and Pacific Northwest. But then, there were no new forests to take. They wanted building materials and paper products. So do we, today. The toll began to be realized; we presented our father’s scrapbook on “Forest Regeneration” in our series “From The Logging Camps”. We replanted our logging operations at Port Renfrew B.C. in the first half of the 20th Century.

In a huge array of facts and figures in address to the Western Forestry and Conservation Association, on December 3, 1970, entitled” Forestry and the total environment” John gave us perspective in the vast remaining protected forests of B.C. and said this:

“It is a fact of our material existence, however, that our requirements must be met by the harvest of trees, and a tree in its natural surroundings, is a beautiful and noble thing which arouses a strong emotional response in sensitive beings. The difficulty lies in finding a balance between the production and economic pressures we work under and man’s unquestioned need for the natural beauty of his surroundings”2

notes and sources item 2

Our youngest generation is engaged in a plethora of admirable pursuits and is currently grooming a Hydrologist. Understanding and harnessing the dynamics of underground and surface waters is key to addressing problems created by nature that are exacerbated by our farmers, miners, foresters and now, including developers.

The descendant opines: we must not be smug, for we all exist on the supply or demand side of life equations.  We are gifted with forethought and have experience as a great primer, but humans are prompted to act before experience comes in. Our descendants might lambaste us for our insistence on things that provide us no necessity, as say, in 4G, and our rush to 5G. Did we selfishly ignore potential radiant effect on birds, bats and insect pollinators that we otherwise send to slaughter at our supposed great new remedy –  those windmill farms that we strategically place in their paths? Such the double whammy might treble the terrible impact. Therefore, as we exercise dominion, we must always remember that logs don’t bend; rivers do. And so, it goes.

Left: Hemmingsen Logging at Cowichan Lake B.C., ca. 1912. Matt emigrated from Norway in 1887, was logging in the Wisconsin woods at twelve and migrated to Vancouver Island in 1906. Our woods pioneer retired in 1946 after significant innovation. CLICK for our broader genealogy and Memoirs of Matt Hemmingsen (1867-1976).

Notes and Sources

1 The “Memoirs of Mathias Hemmingsen – Victoria B.C.” is a 25-page volume dictated to his daughter Margaret Henrietta circa 1956. It is unedited and unpublished, and graciously provided by Mathias’ grandson, Matt via the Matt Hemmingsen Family Collection. This post covers pages 18 to 19a. The work is protected here and published at copyright © 2018-2019. All rights reserved.

2 The Hemmingsen Family Collection including “John O Hemmingsen/Mary Margaret Hemmingsen (Dickson)” authored 1999 by John Oliver Hemmingsen. All materials posthumously published here are copyright © Marilee Wein 2018-2019. All rights reserved.  The collection also holds related material such as the newspaper articles, pictures, etc.

3. The Daily Colonist (1966-10-02) “Pioneer Logger Matt Hemmingsen Brought New Ideas” by J. F. Cameron. Found at The British Colonist Online Edition 1858-1980, University of Victoria Libraries.

4. The Golden Spruce: A true story of myth, madness and greed” by Jack Valliant. Page 94. Published in Canada by Vintage Canada a division of Random House of Canada copyright © 2005

5. “never chop your rope” A story of British Columbia logging and the people who logged by Joe Garner Cinnibar Press Nanaimo British Columbia 1988.

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