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A community effort: The museum’s Empire steam donkey

By Erika Anderson
The fully restored Empire Steam Donkey can be seen on the grounds of the Museum at Campbell River. Photo by Lee Simmons, Island Life Photographics.

By Erika Anderson

Museum at Campbell River

There are remnants of old steam donkeys scattered throughout Coastal British Columbia. In far flung corners of the dense rainforests lie the rusted out shells of what were once commanding machines.

Steam donkeys were used by coastal logging operations. The large boilers were fired up and drums pulled steel cables that dragged old growth trees, such as red cedar, Douglas fir, and hemlock, out of the brush and slash so that they could be transported and then sold.

One particular Empire brand steam donkey was built in 1916 in False Creek, B.C., and purchased by P.B. Anderson for his logging operation in Knox Bay on West Thurlow Island. It was sold in 1932 to Clarence Boardman, and worked in locations such as Kelsey Bay, Hardwicke Island, Boughey Bay, Minstrel Island, Lull Bay and Glendale Cove, before finally being abandoned at the head of Knight Inlet as the logging industry moved away from using steam power.

We have old photos of it working in the woods, but to imagine taking this rusted out old piece of machinery and bringing it back to life takes a lot of vision. In 1988, its heritage value was established, and a plan was hatched between Fletcher Challenge and the Campbell River Rotary Club to extract the donkey from its resting place. In 1994, they worked together to transport this steam donkey from Knight Inlet to the location of the new Museum.

From there, led by Norm Fair and George Murdoch, the restoration process began.

The eight-ton boiler needed to be removed and repaired, parts needed to be fabricated, a new roof and skids were needed. The list of work that was required was long, but many individuals and organizations pitched in to help.

It was an astounding show of generosity, which not only brought this machine back to life, but has continued to provide expertise, labour and parts when work has been needed. The culmination of all of the hard work and dedication to this project was Labour Day 2004 when, for the first time in over 50 years, the steam donkey was brought up to steam.

One of the people present on this day was Doug Boardman. At the age of eleven, he had worked on this particular donkey blowing whistles for the company. He was able to provide the Museum with photos of the donkey working in its heyday. Most years since 2004, the steam donkey has been brought to steam for Labour Day, attracting large crowds to reminisce about the old days of logging.

In honour of the 75th Anniversary of the Campbell River Rotary Club we wanted to share this story about a project that relied on Rotary support and brought the community together, and continues to bring the community together, to celebrate our heritage.

To find out more about the Steam Donkey at the Museum and to see a video of it running, go to