People miss a lot in their headlong rush to get ‘there’ when they are travelling, not realizing that sometimes the journey is as good as, if not better, than the final destination. That certainly holds true for the folks who go barrelling through Port Alberni on their way to the Long Beach area on the west coast of Vancouver Island – they bypass what to my mind is one of the best travel experiences on the Island. The Alberni Pacific Railway steam train and the journey it takes to the National Historic Site McLean Steam Sawmill are not only a delightful step back in time – they are also a fun-filled and captivating living history lesson about an industry that built and sustained many Island communities for more than a century.
The history of the Alberni Pacific Railway dates back more than three decades, when a group of train enthusiasts got together to restore Two Spot, a retired logging steam engine built in 1912. Thousands of volunteer hours combined with the support of the community culminated in the creation of the APR, which initially ran steam train rides just along the Port Alberni waterfront. When the McLean mill opened as a National Historic Site 11 miles out the valley it seemed only logical for the two attractions to link and create the enjoyable experience available today.
The steam train ride commences at the beautifully-restored historic train station in downtown Port Alberni, just off the waterfront. Passengers of all ages wait with great anticipation to board the rail cars that will transport them through working industrial areas, verdant fields and luxuriant forest. The travellers disembark 35 minutes later at the mill site to continue their journey back in time.
The 32-acre (13 hectare) mill site dates back to 1926, when it developed into a full-blown community of 65, complete with a school. The great delight of the place is that so much of it remains intact or has been restored to original condition (apparently the McLean family never discarded anything, so it wasn’t difficult to recreate certain aspects of the site that needed work). Visitors can wander along on their own, or they can take in a comprehensive guided tour that will give them much insight into the life of the camp in the early 20th century. The mill site boasts the only operating steam donkey in North America that is hooked up to a spar tree. The sawmill still runs on steam-powered engines built in the late 1800s, and visitors can get close-up views of the engines and milling process in action. There is access to the cottages, bunkhouses, cookhouse and blacksmith shop. Overall, it is a fascinating and fun way to spend a few hours. And, if you are still bent on getting over to the west coast of the Island on the same day it’s more than do-able – a 90-minute drive will get you ‘there’.