Take a step back in time at the historic McLean Steam Sawmill

The McLean Mill, still operating on steam

When I lived in the Alberni Valley in the 1970s, I used to take my Irish Setters for runs along the old trails that wended their way through miles of forest. One of the most intriguing spots on our adventures was an abandoned lumber camp and mill, which in those days was still pretty much intact. I used to wonder about the lives of the people who worked and lived there, and think to myself how neat it would be to see the place brought back to life as an historic attraction. Well, someone must have read my mind, because that very place is now a National Historic Site, and a wonderful one at that!
The McLean Mill National Historic Site is located 11 miles out the Alberni Valley, and is easily accessible via car, bicycle or steam train (see affiliated story about the Alberni Pacific Railway in this same category). The camp and mill were operated by R.B. McLean and his three sons from 1926 to 1965, and during its heyday served as home to 65 residents. The 32 acre site was pretty dilapidated by the time it came into the hands of the City of Port

Steam engines from the late 1800s continue to drive the mill equipment

Alberni in 1988, but the determination and dreams of a host of organizations and volunteers has brought the site back to life. The steam-powered sawmill is up and running again, powered by two steam engines built in 1870 and 1890. The site also boasts the only operating steam donkey in North America that is hooked up to a spar tree. Many of the original buildings have been carefully restored and house exhibits that bring back to life the era of a logging camp in the early 20th century.
The mill and camp are an enduring example of an industry that built and sustained life in the Alberni Valley for decades. It is a fascinating, enchanting glance backwards at another world, where being 11 miles from ‘town’ meant you were essentially in the middle of nowhere, and self-sufficiency was the order of day.
There are many special activities offered at the mill year-round for all ages, but one of my favourite things to do there is spend time inside the old homes and bunkhouse imagining what life was like then, or to watch the blacksmith at work, or to be mesmerized by the operating steam engines – you can get pretty ‘up close and personal’ with them, thanks to the layout of the mill. The many volunteers who make this place work will take you right

Nothing was ever thrown away at the McLean Mill...

from choosing logs on the mill pond to the final milling process.
There is a small gift shop and café at the entrance to the site, along with a visitor centre. All of these structures are relatively new but a short walk through second-growth forest will transport you back to yesteryear, and an absorbing couple of hours. Guided tours are available, which are great for those visiting for the first time.
The McLean Mill National Historic Site is located at 5633 Smith Road in the Beaver Creek area. GPS co-ordinates are: Lat. 49.30866544272342 Long. -124.82910633087158
                                                             N 49 18.520   W 124 49.746

Further information about seasonal openings and the mill’s many special events can be obtained by going to the McLean Mill website at:


or go to:




About Shirley

More years ago than I like to remember, I completed the Journalism program at Vancouver Community College and launched straight into a career as a newspaper reporter (thanks to my journalism professor Nick Russell and an opening at the venerable daily Alberni Valley Times.) My work as a news reporter/feature writer/columnist and ultimately, newspaper and magazine editor, took me to many interesting places and introduced me to hundreds of interesting characters over the years. I loved every minute of it, but burnout caught up with me while I was trying to juggle the simultaneous editing of five trade magazines, and for 27 years I abandoned my keyboard (on a professional basis, at least) and followed my heart in a variety of other careers. In 2010 I returned to the journalistic fold, thanks to the encouragement (nay – nagging!) of my husband. I feel no regret – only great joy to be back at the keyboard, and to be spending time interviewing interesting folks and discovering great places.
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