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Spilsbury evokes nostalgia for vanished life
Photos and Reminiscences of the BC Coast, by Jim Spilsbury, Harbour Publishing.

Coastal BC once spawned a way of life unlike anything else anywhere in the world. Tucked away in every bay and cove from Vancouver to the Alaska border were tiny clusters of houses perched on massive log floats, and on the shore nearby, a few hardy men, using a steam donkey and an A frame, gilchrist jacks and peavees, wrestled massive logs to the water.

Floating fish camps bought the plentiful ocean harvest from thousands of small fish, boats whose owners did not guess then that some day the plenty would peter out and complex electronic devices would be the only way to find fish.

Jim Spilsbury was part of this era. His two earlier books, Spilsbury's Coast and The Accidental Airline chronicled this story, and of the newest, Spilsbury's Album he says, "people got a big kick out of the photographs that went along with the stories first as they did and it wasn't long before I found myself talking to my publisher about a third book... that would give the photograph collection the kind of prominence it seemed to crave."

A talented amateur photographer, Spilsbury started taking pictures in 1922 when he went to work at a shingle bolt camp in Hofray Channel, using his father's old Brownie camera.

In the years since then he kept a photographic record of his own varied activities. "The great discovery of my later years has been that so many things which caught my eye along the long and meandering path which has been my life also strike a spark of interest in others."

Spilsbury's 'meandering path' sampled, and in man cases, created the Coast lifestyle. As a logger, he started as a 'knotter' and 'swamper' for 25 cents an hour and worked his way up to being a 'donkey puncher' at seven dollars a day for a nine hour day.

Introduced to radio by the radio operator when he worked on the steamship Robert Dollar in 1919, Spilsbury returned home to Savary Island and built one of the first crystal radio sets. His passion for radio grew, and over the years developed the familiar radio equipment that every fisherman and tugboat operator now takes for granted.

He saw radio as a solution to the isolation of the gyppo logging camps of the Coast. To better reach his customers in the camp, he moved his wife and young family aboard his first boat, the Five B R and traveled into all the bays and inlets, selling and servicing, the radios and other electronic equipment produced by Spilsbury and Hepburn (later Spilsbury and Tindall), his Vancouver company.

During the war, gas rationing prompted him to buy a plane.

"I could go much farther on a gallon of gas with a plane than I could with the boat," he said. The number of planes grew, and ultimately became Queen Charlotte Airlines, one of the first commercial airlines in BC.

Spilsbury was in Sechelt bookstores last week to autograph his books. As old acquaintances came by to reminisce, almost forgotton stories came to light. Airline pilot Ken Soroko was one of the first, followed by Muriel Daly, niece of Tom Fenner, the original owner of Spilsbury's boat Blithe Spirit, and then Reve Farish, fellow ham radio operator, and many other who had known Spilsbury, or the events he writes about.

Later, in an exclusive interview with the Coast News, this reporter, Howard White of Harbour Publishing, and Spilsbury continued to reminisce about the Coast of the 40's and 50's.

"Did you know Terry O'Connor?"...Ah yes, he married Bess Miller, and they lives in Port Neville...We spent a winter logging with their son Ken on Nigei Island in the early 50's"

"The old Indian village at Blunden Harbour has almost disappeared...When we were there in the late 60's, the carved posts of the long house were still standing."

"Do you remember the Lansdownes and the Hallidays in Kingcome Inlet?" And so on. Stories were swapped of remittance men, scions of England's finest families; the backbreaking toil of hopeful immigrants who tried (and often failed) to carve farms from BC's unforgiving wilderness; the ubiquitous loggers and their families who endured and thrived in appalling isolation; fishermen who harvested from open boats the still plentiful salmon but received a few cents each for their catch.

Spilsbury's books evoke nostalgia for a unique chapter of BC history. Fortunately, he was there with his camera to record it, and his memory is sharp and clear.

For those of us who were a part of that era, the memories evoked by Spilsbury's books are bittersweet. For those who know nothing of that time, there is the prospect of an intriguing glimpse into a lifestyle that has all but disappeared.
-Rose Nicholson, Coast News

Canadian Book Review Association
This is Spilsbury's third book dealing with his many years of living on the B.C. coast. This one covers the gamut of his colorful life from his youth around the time of World War I right up to the present. Unlike his earlier books, this one is lavishly illustrated with black-and-white photographs taken by him during his long life on the "frontier." These pictures serve all as almost a family album of his eventful sojourns as a pioneering spirit out west. Spilsbury first worked in lumber industry, then established a radio repair service (which he developed by the 1920s into Canada's leading exporter of radiotelephones). In 1943 he started Queen Charlotte Airlines, which by 1955 had become the third largest airline in Canada, and has since then been active mainly in tourist charter and pleasure cruising in the Interior Passage between Vancouver Island and the B.C. mainland.

As is checkered and successful career indicates, Spilsbury is a remarkable man: self-reliant, energetic, and not afraid of taking risks. His text reflects this somewhat roguish, buccaneering approach to life, a life that in many ways closely parallels the growth and development of British Columbia since World War I (many of the photographs also underline this connection).

Yet there is also a certain innocence about the text and the pictures. Both seem to reflect a simpler age ? an age when natural resources were seemingly unlimited, when the sky was the limit, when dynamic men like Spilsbury could build thriving businesses from extremely meagre initial financial resources.

Spilsbury has permitted the reader an intimate look at life on the B.C. coast through his eyes from the 1920s to the present. In doing so he has served up a genuine slice of Canadiana.
-Hans B. Neumann


Out of the Past, Into the Future
BOOKS LIKE An Enterprising Life and Spilsbury's Album are "a-dime-a-dozen" this time of year. Usually this cliché refers to both quantity and quality; after all, it's Christmas and photo collections are deservedly popular. Closed, these two books look much like all the similar books in Victoria's bookstores, but open either and all ties vanish.

Both books prove the "dime" cliché wrong m very different ways. Cyril E. Leonoff, "a professional engineer and historian," has gathered more than 200 photos by Leonard Frank, one of British Columbia's foremost pioneer photographers, added a long introduction, and produced what his publisher is calling a first. "More than a biography of one of the world's most important industrial photographers, and more than simply a stunning collection of Frank's photos, the book "is a historical record of the age, seen through the eyes of a photographic pioneer without equal."

Strong talk and I won't deny a word of it. There isn't a photo in this book that isn't world class, nor is there one that isn't historically valuable. The publisher is also correct in saying that "in moving from small town to big city, and in tracking the exploding industrial 'progress' of the day, Frank's images reflect a change from the personal to the impersonal.

"In the isolated villages and work camps of Vancouver island, the towns people, native Indians, loggers, surveyors, miners and early entrepreneurs stand next to their work, an unconscious sense of individual accomplishment in their faces. But in the corporate and industrial photographs taken in Vancouver during the latter part of Frank's career, these faces are rarely to be seen."

This is all perfectly true, but when the publisher says, "Frank had an innate sense of 'history in the making,' and he was relentless in its pursuit," I beg to differ. Captions such as "Native Indian figures, northern B.C., undated," and "Picnic, Alberni, B.C., ca. 1909" suggest a rather cavalier attitude toward his subjects.

The photographs are important, artistically and historically, but they'd be much more important if we knew who the people in these pictures were, exactly where the photos were taken (Where is "Canoe Pass" in Barkley Sound?) and

One of Spilsbury's many pictures: Beached sealing schooner when they were taken. Circa igoo or 1905 or whenever is hardly concrete documentation.

When I read: "Earliest track-trailer unit, for use on railway tracks and planked roads, ca. 1920," or "Earliest chainsaw action - Bloedel, Stewart and Welch Ltd., Franklin River operation -Vancouver Island, 1941," I know Frank could not possibly have understood the importance of what he was photographing.

And I wonder, too, about the author's credentials as a historian. Of course the men are using an early version of what we now refer to as a "chain saw," but what did Frank call it in 1941? The phrase "chain saw" only dates back to 1944. Details make history interesting and books important.

An Enterprising Life is a dazzling gallery of photographs; too bad their historical testimony has yet to be recorded. For testimony and a sense of history, we must turn to Spilsbury's Album, a book that may be B.C.'s Book of the Year.

This book also offers up more than 200 photos, but instead of g about history and doing nothing about it, Jim Spilsbury gives us a guided tour of his world. And there are no "circas" or unidentified shots on this tour. Spilsbury, as will be guessed by anyone familiar with Spilsbury's Coast and Accidental Airline (both written with Howard White), is an intelligent and affable host.

Remembering his experience with a "very high-brow, avant-garde photographer," Spilsbury writes: "He had me photographing stepped-on crab shells, dead tree branches, and all kinds of strange stuff I never would have given a second thought. I couldn't see what he was getting at. I was more interested in making a record of what I saw, taking pictures to show people where I'd been. When I saw something new, or different, the first thing I would think was gee, better get a picture of that."

The Spilsbury family story begins in England and continues at Whonnock, on the Fraser, but the book's beginning is upcoast near Powell river. "Savary Island became my home in 1914, when I was nine years old. This was where I grew up, went to school, worked with my dad, learned to use tools, learned to hunt and fish, had my introduction to logging. In the process I met and got to know the motley collection of people who inhabited the coast in those days, ranging all the way from loggers, fishermen, and beachcombers to hermits, remittance men, stump ranchers, Greek scholars, writers, poets, artists, and, downright crooks.

"It was a community of people that surely was unique in the history of man, I had the good fortune to spend the next thirty years of my life with them." The hyperbole is quickly forgotten as image after unique image appears. Here's a true chronicle of a gone world - Rivers Inlet Cannery, the plank road leading out from Masset, Indians gambling during a potlatch at Quathiaski Cove, Gwayasdums, and more. All the phases of Spilsbury's long and fascinating career (leading exporter of radiotelephones, founder of Queen Charlotte Airlines, painter and photographer) are covering some , some of it hard to believe. The man's bigger than life. It's too bad that toward the end of the book the chapters grow choppy.

Some readers are liable to start jumping from photo to photo.

Those who do skip will miss some hilarious characters - Bill Baker the solitary logger tight-lining his donkey from hilltop to hilltop is pure coast and equally coastal experiences, such as fishing with dynamite. This is history, no cliches here; the past is alive and well in every one of these photos.
-Charles Lillard, Victoria-Times Colonist


Photo album makes trilogy
Jim Spilsbury has led a wonderful life.

Not idyllic by any means, but the kind of life that spawns adventure, yarns, or maybe a family TV series.

It has already filled two best-selling books, and now comes a third volume of reminiscences and photographs called Spilsbury's Album.

Born in 1905, Spilsbury spent his childhood on a Fraser River homestead and later a remote island in the Strait of Georgia 120 kilometres northwest of Vancouver.

He worked as a donkeyman, or steam-engine operator, in coastal logging camps before turning his radio hobby into a business that helped pioneer radio-telephone communication on the B.C. coast.

Plying coastal waters in a boat converted into a floating shop, Spilsbury sold radios in villages and small logging camps.

In 1944, Spilsbury bought a small plane to help him reach customers. By 1950 his Queen Charlotte Airlines was the third-largest carrier in Canada, but he was forced to sell out in 1955.

Spilsbury's radio manufacturing and sales business flourished until he retired, and along the way he helped set up a marine rescue service that predated the Canadian Coast Guard.

The thread that ties Spilsbury's full life together is a love of the B.C. coast and the people who've lived on it.

Great figures don't populate his first two books ? Spilsbury's Coast and The Accidental Airline - and they're absent from Spilsbury's Album. He writes about ordinary people living in what he still considers an extraordinary place.

The new book is a collection of Spilsbury's photographs another lifelong hobby - punctuated by bite-sized stories left over from the first two volumes.

But these leftovers make a succulent hash.

There's the story about how Spilsbury's parents honeymooned in an island cabin whose previous owner was murdered, or about Bill Baker who ran a one-man mechanized logging operation because "he said he was too miserable for anyone to live with, and that included women."

Or the time a logger friend found himself dangling upside-down near the top of a 53-metre tree while the fuse burned on a dynamite charge set to lop the top off.

The stories add dimension to the Spilsbury's radio manufacturing photos that range from prosaic family snaps to spectacular vistas and scenes of coastal life.

Spilsbury, who now lives in West Vancouver writes with some irony that his air transport and radio businesses helped erode life in the small communities he loved.

"It turned out I was simply part of a process that saw the coast slowly depopulated as people moved awake make their living in the cities," he writes.

Spilsbury writes lovingly of the past but he doesn't sugarcoat it.

His mother an early feminist, became stern and humorless after his father's gentry-class relatives in England felt the elder Spilsbury had married beneath his class.

Ashton Wilmot Spilsbury failed as a homesteader and the family moved to Savary Island, near Powell River. The Spilsburys lived in a big tent for 10 years, eating fish and game when it was available, hardtack biscuits when it wasn't.

"It was hard as plywood, impossible to bite through, but you could split it with a double-bitted axe," writes Spilsbury. "Once you'd split it you had to turn it over and tap the weevils out."

Spilsbury's story-telling style is matter-of-fact - some of it was spoken into a tape recorder. It has an honest, unembellished feel, yet his memory for detail, however mundane, brings the photo images richly to life.
-STEVE MERTL, The Canadian Press


Coastal travels, travails captured with quick clicks
All the while Jim Spilsbury was fishing and boating up and down the B.C. coast these past 70 years and, of course, building Queen Charlotte Airlines and a couple or three other businesses, he had a camera hanging around his neck and was snapping pictures.

Like a lot of other amateur photographers, Spilsbury would look at the pictures when they came back from the developer, then stick the negatives in a drawer. Unlike most amateurs, however, he put the negatives in an envelope first and carefully catalogued what he had photographed. They were all there when he wanted them for the books he got around to writing after he retired.

Spilsbury has culled some 200 black-and-White photos from 70 years of picture-taking for his third book, Spilsbury?s Album

His family's interest in photography began with his birth in England in 1905, Spilsbury said in an interview. His mother and father had emigrated to Canada before his birth, but headed home when his mother was pregnant "so I wouldn't be born in the colonies."

When his parents returned to Canada with him, they were given a Kodak folding bellows camera, a rather good instrument for the time, to record the growing up of the newborn.

When Spilsbury was 15, his father gave him the camera when he got his first job at a shingle-bolt camp (producing "bolts" of cedar shingles) on Homfray Channel, northwest of Powell River.

"I still have every picture I ever took," Spilsbury says. He used the photos to refresh his memory while writing his other books, Spilsbury's Coast and The Accidental Airline.

His publishers would not use all the photos he wanted to in the earlier books, so he asked them to publish the latest 'Album.'

It is a well-mixed collection running from early pictures of himself in his first bathtub, a converted horse trough, to the 38-kilogram halibut he caught fishing off Polkinghorne Island last summer.

Along with the pictures are more Spilsbury stories, because many of the photos reminded him of something, he says.

On page 149 is picture of a lineup of seventh Isetta automobiles. He and a friend bought the Western Canada franchise for the funny little cars with motorcycle engines that would run from Vancouver to New Westmister on a single litre of gas. They never quite caught on and he lost $65,000 on the venture, about half his profit for the sale of Queen Charlotte Airlines to Pacific Western Airlines.

There are also several photos of 'unorthodox landings' (which other airline presidents might refer to as crashes, it they referred to them at all.)

Crashes happen in the airline business, Spilsbury says. There were always investigations, so he made certain he got to them with his camera as quickly as possible, The old Kodak was a good camera, but it was unable to survive high tide after being left on a beach. Over the years, he's used a Zeiss Ikonta B, and a couple of Canons. Now he has a Canon AEl with a Kiron zoom lens and he is shooting mainly color.

The next book, which will include the result of another hobby begun in childhood, painting with pastels, is tentatively titled: Spilsbury's Coast of many Colors.
-Douglas Sagi, Vancouver Sun

Spilsbury's Album: A last glimpse of worlds gone by
Lucky Jim Spilsbury. His father saved every letter his son wrote home.

"We found them when we cleaned out Dad's attic, in the last house he had in North Vancouver," author Spilsbury says.

"Years and years of my letters were all there, organized by date, bundled by year."

They were immensely helpful in writing his books. Business correspondence also helped.

"Jim writes the best business letters I've ever seen," says his wife Win.

Spilsbury and Hepburn later Spilsbury and Tindall, was located first at the foot of Cardero Street in Vancouver, then on Water Street. They manufactured the famous SBX-11 portable radio telephones and sold them all over the world.

The radio factories grew from Spilsbury's early efforts to make a living selling radio parts up and down the coast. 1922 marked the start of broadcasting, in the region. With a homebuilt set, the 17-year old Spilsbury picked up KPO in San Francisco. Word got around and everyone wanted a radio.

"People were so isolated. The demand just boomed."

Soon Spilsbury was selling and servicing radios and parts from a boat up and down the coast from Seymour Inlet to Howe Sound. He did it for 20 years, all the time writing letters to his father and his partners about the people and the villages, fisheries, logging camps and mining operations he visited regularly.

After radios came airplanes. Before lie quite knew what had happened, Spilsbury was running Queen Charlotte Airlines. Soon QCA was the third largest air transporter in Canada. In 1955, QCA was sold to Pacific Western for $1.4 million. Spilsbury returned to the radio business. He bought a boat, Blithe Spirit, and still travels a coast he calls "the best place in the world."

Today he lives with his wife Win on the cliffs near Horseshoe Bay.

The Spilsbury family is a historian's dream. Literate, artistic, adventurous and individualistic, the family wrote letters, photographed one another and their surroundings, sketched and painted, all with the casual aplomb of the dedicated hobbyist just as important, they saved it all.

Spilsbury's Album is a splendid record, through family photographs and stories from Jim Spilsbury's life, of a time on the coast when thousands of people lived in tiny settlements between Howe Sound and the north end of Vancouver Island.

Spilsbury's Album gives us a view of worlds gone by. The coast is now depopulated. The demise of the gyppo logger and the overfishing of the Strait of Georgia have ended a way of life that endured little more than 50 years. Another, more ancient, civilization disappeared with it. It's unlikely either will revive.
-Leslie Savage, The Independent Senior