Back in 1912, there was nothing at Usk except the slashing through, clearing and construction on the right of way of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway.
When the construction of the railroad past Kitselas Canyon and east to Hazelton was completed, the people of the old town site of Kitselas and vicinity found themselves cut off from obtaining freight and mail service with the cessation of their old standby, the riverboats, and taking on of the mail contracts by the railroad. Those who did not completely desert the district moved on to Usk, the nearest station.
The name Usk, how come? The origin of this name has never been ascertained but it was thought to have been given by one of the railroad engineers who might have had his birthplace near the river Usk in England or Wales.
The earliest residents around Usk station were Dick Lowrie, who took up a 160-acre pre-emption of land surrounding the station, and his brother-in-law Harry Daniels, who with their families, made their homes there. This pre-emption was later subdivided into approximately one-acre lots becoming the nucleus of the village.
The Dominion Government had moved the Kitselas telegraph office to a site opposite the station on the south side of the track and here, also, Lee Bethurem built a general store. This was eventually enlarged with an upstairs that was used for public entertainment, meetings, etc. Adding to his business as merchant, he took on the jobs of postmaster and mining recorder.
J.D (Jimmy) Well and Eli Hamblett prospected on Kitselas Mountain. They were the discoverers of the Cordeliera Group of mining claims that showed fine samples of free gold. So the next thing was a great influx of prospectors into the vicinity.
Jim Darby and A. Snodgrass from Portland, Ore. became partners in this venture and were instrumental in getting a number of people from the states interested. There was prospecting and development work going on until about 1923 or 24. However, the ore was found to be too spotty for profitable output.
The Lucky Luke, adjoining The Cordeliera, was staked by Loyal Moodie and Dick Lowrie. Their claims were bonded to a Mr. Seeley who had Sheldon Glover, M.E. from Seattle in charge but as with the Cordeliera, the operation of this mine did not turn out to be a success.
During this period, until the discouragement of prospectors by the geologists and engineers of big mining companies scouring the mountainsides around the 30’s, there was great activity in prospecting, with numerous claims being staked during the summer seasons on Kitselas, Bonite and adjacent mountains.
Some of the early people who settled here about this time were Arthur and Fred Stewart, who both enlisted and served in World War I, Jim Larkin and James Gall, who became Usk’s first and only Justice of the Peace, Eli and Joe Hamblett, Louis and Magus Edgar with families, Dan McClarty and family, Ole Berg, Andrew Pete, Fred Forrest, Gus Nyberg and J. McDonnell to name a few.
Captain Madden, who became a partner of M. Kendal, was one of the early prospectors. Around 1914 when the first small ferry was installed across the 750 foot wide, at this point, Skeena River, Madden became the first ferryman.
Henry Weismiller had arrived with wife and family and by 1915 or 16, had constructed Usk’s first sawmill at the west of what was later called ‘town’.
A large proportion of the population up to 1918, besides the above were Americans, drawn here probably by the lure of the mining prospects or just the romance of new country opening up. Among these people were Mr. and Mrs. Earl Hayes who built a small hotel or boarding house with rooms for transient guests.
In the winter of 1917-18, Charles Durham, following his discharge from war service overseas, on returning to his ranch at Kitselas, bought this hotel property from the Hayes, who were now anxious to return to the States, and brought in his family who ran the place for a number of years.
The year or two after cessation of the war brought many of the Canadians back, among who might be mentioned, Joe Bell, the Alger family, Roy Fredrickson, Allen Rutherford, Joel Trulson, W.R. Adams, Jeff Gagne, Irwin Lougheed, J. Smith, J. Colburn and C. Bunn.
A second sawmill was set up by Lee Bethurem and about the same time, E.T. Kenney and brother Bert, with O.T. Sundal of Terrace started up the 3rd sawmill.
Percy Skinner dissolved his partnership with his brother L.G. Skinner in their store business at Copper City and went into the boarding house business.
About this time, Capt. J.W. Willman arrived in Usk and was instrumental in bringing American capitol into the place with the formation of the Skeena Lumber Co. and built and operated a first class sawmill on the south side of the Skeena River. This mill closed down due to the depression in the later 1920’s and difficulties caused by strikes.
With a number of the families having school age children it was soon apparent something would quickly have to be done about a school. It was found that if the community would provide a building, the government would provide a teacher. With fund raising events and volunteer labour, a school was soon completed. Under the charge of Usk’s first teacher, DeForest Nelson from Ponoka, Alberta, the school opened in 1918 with the Durham, McClarty, Sather and Lowrie children as the first pupils.
As prohibition days were over, there came to Usk, Thomas Shackleton, who built the Shackleton Hotel complete with beer parlour.
Church services were generally held during the early years in the hall above the store. The services were led mostly by the Rev. Thomas Marsh who regularly made the trip up from Terrace. Mr. Willman, who had bought up a number of lots in Dick Lowrie’s subdivision, donated one of these to the Anglican Church. With donations of lumber from the Skeena Lumber Co., public subscriptions and many fund raising activities by the community and with some of the work by volunteer labour again, the church was built. This church, for the use of any Christian denomination, was named ‘The Marsh Memorial’ in honour of Rev. Marsh.
About the time the church was built, Usk, looking as if it would be a successful permanent town, decided a proper school was needed. Steps were taken and a plot was chosen on the bench back of the town site, with the Government then building the up to standard two room school. With enrolment up to 45, the two rooms were used from 1921 to 1925. Two teachers were employed in those years to teach Grades 1 to 8. Other years, there was only one teacher teaching Grades 1 to 8.
Besides the Skeena Lumber Co., Mr. Willman had also become interested in mining and formed the Kleanza Mountain Co. with a group of claims on Kleanza Mountain. This was later re-organized as Columario Gold Mines Ltd. and was put into production but ore did not prove of high enough value to be profitable.
During these years other sawmills, such as R.S Wright & Co., Hayward’s and the Hanall Mill operated about the neighbourhood, but closed down as the depression struck and the easy to get at timber was used up.
1936 was a sad year for Usk. First, the Columario ceased operations. Then in the spring, an unusual event occurred with the previously unknown extreme rapid rise and flooding of the river. With the fine, hot weather during the month of May, the water began to rise and by the morning of the 29th people looked at the river in shock. All day the river continued to rise and by evening had entered the floor of the store and Post office. By evening everyone living on this level had deserted, some to the homes of the Varner’s and Stewart’s on the bench behind the Shackleton Hotel, some to the ranch of Jimmy Gall and the rest of the population to the school where people spread their blankets and camped as best they could. Only the upper part of the station was visible with about seven feet of water over the track. Snags and debris floating down the swollen river snapped the ferry cable, breaking loose the ferry, which drifted, down to strand somewhere near the head of the canyon.
Needless to say, flood conditions were bad all along the river but Usk, being so close to the upper end of the canyon, was the most severely damaged on account of the raging torrent of water not being able to escape quickly enough though this narrow channel. Since this flood there has been a constant apprehension each spring of this occurring again and indeed in the year 1948 the town flooded again although not to such a wicked extent as in 1936.
Some mining still continued with development work being done on the Nicholson Creek mine – a property about three miles east of Usk, staked first by a man named Breckinridge. He turned the claims over to Buck Shannon who brought in capital and carried on exploratory work until the 1940’s.
In 1941 W.R. Adams and J. Lee Bethurem formed a partnership and erected a sawmill on the southern bank of the river approximately one mile from the Usk ferry. In 1942, this mill had only run a short while when it burned down. A new mill was built and operated as Adams & Bethurem until the death of Lee in 1947, then as Adams Sawmill until 1951 when Adams Lumber Co. Ltd. was formed. Due to the reconstruction of Highway 16 in 1959, it was necessary to dismantle the mill for the improved highway so operations ceased and timber rights sold to Skeena Lumber Co. in Terrace.
This mill, along with a smaller portable mill also on the south side of the river, owned by Henry Therrien who also had a gas station on the roadside and Harry Varner in the logging business provided the main means of livelihood until the end of the wood industry at Usk.
In 1961, the school closed its doors and children were taken daily by bus to Terrace. It was later torn down. The Marsh Memorial Church also met its demise.
The young people of the former days have all grown up and moved off to other parts and to the credit of Usk, it can be said they have been a very good example of Canadian citizenship.
As to the future of Usk – how can one tell? That is in the lap of time.
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