Autumn 1938 – Northern Wood Preservers Begins Operations

Originally published in the Prince Albert Daily Herald on October 5, 2017

A 97 - Freshly treated power poles at Northern Wood Preservers ca 1955 005
Freshly treated power poles at Northern Wood Preservers, ca 1955. Photo courtesy Bill Smiley Archives, PA Historical Society

Creosote pressure-treated wood from a Prince Albert business played an enormous role in the development of Saskatchewan’s infrastructure. It was the very foundation of the railways, bridges, drainage systems, telephone communications, and especially – electrical power delivery in the province.

Saskatchewan’s first commercial wood preserving plant was constructed in Prince Albert in 1938 by Northern Wood Preservers of Port Arthur (now Thunder Bay), Ontario. The company built its wood treating facilities on 65 acres of land at 15th Street East and 7th Avenue East, adjacent to the railway line, for the production and treatment of railway ties, fence posts, telephone poles, power poles, bridges, and culverts.

Northern Wood Preservers started operating in the fall of 1938. The plant included a brick boiler house, two pressure retort treating tanks, storage tanks for creosote oil, a saw and woodworking mill, framing yards and seasoning yards. The company started with 30 employees, and averaged about 60 per year after that. Its pressure-treating system used creosote, a coal tar distillate, as the wood preservative. Creosote is the oldest and one of the most effective industrial preservatives for protecting wood from deterioration and decay caused by water and wood-destroying organisms.

The first products treated by Northern Wood Preservers were fence posts for the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA) – 500,000 of them in 1939 alone – to establish community pastures. The PFRA operated community pastures to rehabilitate and conserve marginal farmland that had been subject to drought and erosion during the 1930s. Saskatchewan had 60 community pastures, totalling 729,000 hectares (1.8 million acres), all of them fenced for livestock grazing.

During the Second World War, Northern Wood Preservers produced and treated millions of feet of timber for the British Commonwealth Air Training Program’s airplane hangars throughout Saskatchewan, as well as many miles of culverts for airport drainage. The number of employees at the wood preserving plant peaked at 130 in 1943-1944, with 40 of those employees being women.

Northern Wood Preserver’s biggest – and arguably most significant – job by far, however, was the production and treatment of hundreds of thousands of power poles for Saskatchewan Power Corporation’s rural electrification program. Prior to 1949, only about one percent of the province’s farms had electricity. The Great Depression of the 1930s, combined with the long distance between farms, had prevented Saskatchewan from hooking up its farms to electrical power before the 1950s.

The Power Corporation erected 50,000 to 60,000 transmission line poles per year throughout the 1950s – each one creosote-treated by Northern Wood Preservers of Prince Albert. (Many of the original power poles from Northern Wood Preservers are still standing thanks to SaskPower’s annual wood pole maintenance program, which, the corporation claims, can extend the life span of a pole more than 65 years.) The peak year for rural electrification in Saskatchewan was 1956, with the connection of 7,800 farms. By the end of that year, 40,000 Saskatchewan farms (roughly 47 percent) were being served by electrical power. During the 1960s, Saskatchewan farms continued to connect to power at a rate of about 1,000 to 2,000 per year, finally stabilizing at a total of 66,000 connected farms by 1966.

By 1958, the processing of poles alone at Northern Wood Preservers had grown to five times its 1950 volume, with the total amounting to about 650,000 pieces. This figure includes 350,000 poles to Saskatchewan Power Corporation, 110,000 to the Saskatchewan Government Telephones, and about 190,000 smaller poles other purposes.

The benefits of Northern Wood Preservers went beyond its contributions to the construction of the province’s infrastructure. On March 31, 1958, the company reported to the Prince Albert Daily Herald that 95 percent of the wood treated at its facilities came from Saskatchewan, contributing to employment in the bush, in transport, as well as in the plant. “The fact that pressure-treating is a considerable forest conservation measure in itself should not be overlooked,” the company continued. “Poles, bridges, and posts thus treated have had their untreated service life extended at least six times. This means the drain on the forest is cut to one-sixth.”

Northern Wood Preservers operated in Prince Albert for about 45 years, closing in the late 1970s. During those years, there were no reports or complaints of spills or leaks of dangerous goods on or near the property. According to an engineering study conducted in 2011, remediation of the plant site was conducted in 1994, with approximately 65,563 metres of creosote-impacted soil excavated and taken off site for disposal. The former Northern Wood Preservers’ property is now considered to have a low environmental hazard potential and has been redeveloped for the Cornerstone shopping district.