The Port of Kelsey Bay, the Village of Sayward and the Salmon River Valley have a shared history, yet each has its own unique past.
The story of white settlement began in 1894, when a trading ship stopped at the native village of H’Kusam near the mouth of Vancouver Island’s Salmon River. Aboard as the trader’s partner was a young German immigrant, Hans Otto Sacht, who was much impressed by the grassy flats beside the river and the fine stands of timber beyond. A year later, Sacht returned to pre-empt land a short distance up the river.
The young man’s instincts and hard work served him well. The number of settlers increased in the fertile valley and logging operators began harvesting the prime timber. Sacht had started a small store and as business expanded he built a larger one and added a post office.
The post office needed a name, so members of the little community were asked to give suggestions by ballot. ‘Sayward’ already the name of the Land District, won the day.
Union Steamships called with freight, mail and passengers at a government wharf built in a small bay north of the river mouth. Boat day was all important to the area residents, whose only link with the outside world was by water. To connect the bay to their homesteads the settlers labouriously created a road with pick and shovel, blasting out an awesome ‘Rock Cut’ that wound treacherously around a steep bluff.
William and Imogene Kelsey operated a store and telegraph office at the wharf and added a post office to serve the bay area and outlying settlements. As a result, the bay was officially named Kelsey Bay.
Among the valley homesteaders were Arthur Henry and his family. Arthur Henry was a versatile man who turned his hand to many things, and he kept detailed journals of life in Sayward for 17 years. The journals are now in the Archives of the Museum at Campbell River, giving a priceless record of events large and small, from devastating floods and fires to farming and social life.
The home Sacht built for his growing family was destroyed by fire in 1919. Only the kitchen stove survived. Sayward historian Frances Duncan, the Sachts’ granddaughter, has related a popular story that when the excitement abated, the oven was opened to reveal a batch of perfectly baked cream puffs.
The agricultural community badly needed a road connecting them to markets on the south island. While they campaigned and waited, logging activity grew and when trucks succeeded railways a network of roads and bridges developed. Finally a road to Campbell River was completed by connecting old logging grades.
Salmon River Logging’s ‘beach camp’ between Kelsey Bay and the river mouth included family homes for its employees. When forest giant MacMillan Bloedel acquired the camp, it became Kelsey Bay Division and the company built a townsite of modern homes and amenities for its employees. In 1968 the Village of Sayward was incorporated as a self-governing community.
Kelsey Bay remained a busy port even after the Union Boats stopped calling. It became the link to the North Island with a ferry service to Beaver Cove, Alert Bay and Sointula. The Island Princess loaded cars by hoist and vehicles being lifted into the air were a familiar sight.
A university student, Bruce Bendickson, parked his car at Kelsey Bay while spending holidays at home on nearby Hardwicke Island. When it was time to go back, he found his car missing. It was on its way north, mistaken for a parked car that was arranged to be picked up.
Borrowing his dad’s car, he carried on with several student passengers, and his own car eventually returned from its travels.
When the rough gravel road to Campbell River was finally upgraded and paved, the old rock cut was improved and a dock built for a large passenger ferry connecting Vancouver Island to Prince Rupert.
The Queen of Prince Rupert operated from Kelsey Bay for more than 10 years, until the Island Highway was extended to Port Hardy and the terminal moved there.
Like most communities, the area has its controversies. Frances Duncan described one that was ‘almost feudlike’ in its intensity. “In the 1940s I recall two signs on our government wharf at the same time: one read SAYWARD WHARF while the other read KELSEY BAY (FOR SAYWARD). Feelings ran high and eventually the SAYWARD WHARF sign went mysteriously missing.”
In 1970 emotions again erupted when the Kelsey Bay and Sayward post offices were combined into one Sayward Post Office. These days Sayward and Kelsey Bay share the honours on several Heritage Trail signs that celebrate in words and pictures many people and events that have shaped their history.