Matthias Hemmingsen was born in Wisconsin in 1876 and came to British Columbia in 1906, where, according to subsequent accounts of his life, he worked in the logging industry at Chemainus, B.C.
We think it is possible that he first settled in Courtenay, B.C. before moving to Chemainus. A Brother Mattias Hemmingsen appears in the records of Hiram Lodge, No. 14 in Courtenay in 1914. We will try to establish whether this is, in fact, the same Matthias Hemmingsen who later joined Temple Lodge, No. 33 and Chemainus Lodge, No. 114.
Matthias Hemmingsen first appears in Temple Lodge, No. 33 membership records in 1923. He was a charter member of Chemainus Lodge, No. 114 in 1926.
At present we are not sure of Brother Hemmingsen’s activities in Courtenay. We know he lived in Chemainus, where he worked in the logging industry, and it is quite possible he was logging in Courtenay (assuming the Matthias Hemmingsen in Courtenay is the same Matthias Hemmingsen who later lived in Chemainus). We will do more research and add information as we find it.
Here is a brief biographical sketch of Matthias Hemmingsen taken from a short biography in a history of the Chemainus Valley:
” PIONEER LOGGER BROUGHT NEW IDEAS
Matthias Hemmingsen was born in northern Wisconsin in July 1876, from where he came to British Columbia in 1906. From earliest days he has been known as Matt.
His father was of Norwegian birth and a civil engineer by profession. On his arrival in Wisconsin he took up farming and there Matt spent his first 16 years doing the normal chores of a farm boy. When school was in session he received that degree of Education available in those times.
Later on Hemmingsen, senior, contracted to build roads, at which job Matt had to help. The hours of work were from daylight to dark and of such nature that it necessitated a rugged constitution to stand up to it. After two winters of that work Matt took his first job in the woods; that started him on a career that lasted for more than half a century.
Work before winter really set in was construction of sleigh roads over the designated cutting area. During that period, logs were cut into lengths of 12 to 14 feet and were pulled to the skidways by horses. From there they were hauled to the river bank by sleigh after snow and ice had laid the necessary foundation.
At the river bank logs were rolled up (piled) into massive decks, sometimes 30 feet high and 100 feet long, by a team of two cant-hook men and horses. Matt was a cant-hook man on that work for three winters 1894, 1895 and 1896 and it was a test of human endurance. The pay was $16 a month and board, with the day starting with breakfast at 3:45 a.m. and supper long after dark.
By the spring of 1900 Matt decided to seek something different. He went to the headwaters of the Clearwater River where he obtained employment with a crew which was clearing logs stranded on sand bars. By riding a log down the river through the white water of Hell’s Rapids, instead of walking, Matt established a reputation as a skilled riverman.
In the spring of 1902 he was offered the job of running a crew on the river, by the Humbird logging and lumbering interests. His record there was such that he was later transferred to the largest operation of the company where his work attracted the notice of J.A. Humbird, affectionately known as The Old Man. That was the beginning of a Humbird-Hemmingsen bond of friendship that lasted over three generations.
The Humbird firm, in addition to Wisconsin and Idaho interests, had acquired vast timber stands in British Columbia, with a mill site at Chemainus. Matt was sent to the West Coast in 1906 to be superintendent of their logging operations on Vancouver Island. Matt met Miss Margaret Alexander in Courtenay. They were married in 1910. The Humbird firm was known as Victoria Lumber and Manufacturing Company, with E.J. Palmer as manager.
During the period 1906 to 1912 the V.L. and M Co. operated principally a railroad show with the line engineered through a designated stand of timber. Cross skidroads wre run out to yarding settings and logs were pulled into the landing by a donkey at the loading point on the railroad. Difficulty of getting logs up on skids at the track was solved by jump-up skids which were designed and placed by Matt on the spot. Another improvement inaugurated by him was to start laying spur tracks into the yarding areas instead of the skid roads. That resulted in a material saving owing to the elimination of one handling of logs.
At one time swampy ground near the landing overcame every effort to bring logs in. A large hemlock tree in the right place caught Matt’s attention. “Put some guy lines on that hemlock,” he said to the foreman. “Make it high enough and we should have lift on the log which will bring it across.”
At the time nothing was known of belt, safety ropes or climbing spurs. The way that first tree was rigged, the man doing it took enough spikes, with a hammer, and drove them one after the other until he was as high as one could go without topping the tree. The block was hung, line passed through it and the logs were easily brought in. That first high lead tree was so successful that high lead logging was rapidly adopted by the whole logging industry.
By 1911 practically all loggers were using the high lead system. At the time Matt began using donkeys such as the 11 x 13 Willamette and 10 x 12 Washington. The V.L. and M. Co. had commenced logging at Cowichan Lake where Matt was called upon to take charge. He went to that lake in 1912 and soon had things going as he wished.
Fore and aft skid roads built of logs were in general use at that time. On long distances matt at times would have as many as five donkeys strung out along the road to keep the logs moving to the lake.
In 1913 Matt left the V.L. and M. Co for personal reasons, but soon accepted a position with the Empire Lumber Company as logging superintendent with headquarters at Cottonwood. In 1914 he was offered a contract to log the Cowichan Lake timber of the V.L. and M. Co. Even with the use of their rigging, the price was low, but conditions being what they were, Matt took the contract. As lumber prices improved the contract price was raised so it was not long before he returned the firm rigging and bought his own. Before the contract was finished Matt had logged into the lake more than 400 million board feet of logs.
In 1923, the sawmill at Chemainus burned, after which E.J. Palmer was semi-retired and the vice-presidency and general managership was taken over by J.A. Humbird. Construction of what was to be the largest sawmill on the coast at the time, soon got under way. The same year, E.J. Palmer suffered a fatal stroke.
Destruction of the mill gave Matt some leisure time which wasn’t wasted. His logging outfit was in use until the depression of 1930 left no chance for a logger, so he went mining for about five years.
In 1936 he looked into a proposition at Port Renfrew and liked what he saw, well enough to interest J.O. Cameron of the Cameron Lumber Company of Victoria. That resulted in the formation of the Hemmingsen Cameron Company, with object to log at Port Renfrew, and brought together three men who had been friends of long standing, Matt Hemmingsen, J.O. Cameron and D.O. Cameron.
Previous operators at Port Renfrew had built a railroad, bridged the San Juan River and had taken out the cream of the timber. Through disuse for a number of years, the railroad had to be renewed from end to end with bridges, culverts and ties having to be replaced. Several miles of new track had to be built with all the costly rock work that entailed.
It became a struggle for survival, but Matt brought it to a successful conclusion and the whole outfit was sold to a large eastern corporation in 1946.
Thus Matt Hemmingsen was able to retire at the age of 70, after experiencing almost all types of logging. That includes working behind bull teams and horses during his early years. He was no stranger to the use of ice roads upon which logs were hauled to mill or river; he was a cant-man who helped to deck logs, a riverman with peavy who took second place to no one, a pioneer in the use of steam, donkeys, railroads and high lead logging.
Most of Matt’s contemporaries have passed on, but he lives Victoria in retirement. At 90 years of age in July, he has complete use of all his faculties and likes to reminisce about logging in the early days. He is fortunately able to keep up to date on latest developments as two of his three sons have inherited their father’s absorption in the primary industry of British Columbia. John, who is in charge of logging and forestry for McMillan-Bloedel and Bill, with Pacific Logging.”
(Source: Memories of the Chemainus Valley, Chemainus Valley Historical Society, 1978, page 254-57, credited as reprint from Victoria Daily Colonist, 1956)
Note: in September 2018 we were contacted by Marilee Wein, a descendant of Matthias Heemingsen, who advised us that some of the above information is inaccurate and that more information can be obtained at her website here. We have contacted her and will post any further information she is willing to share with us.
At present we have no further information on Matthias Hemmingsen.
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