Colourful Characters — E G ‘Duke’ McDonald

 

THE CONTRARIAN

Before world war two, university-educated people were generally from well-off families, often with university-educated parents. A degree generally meant a more classical education than now, even scientists and engineers could not graduate without some training in Latin, English grammar and literature, a second language, philosophy, music and art.

A frontier place like Dryden would attract people of an independent spirit, and we did in fact have some real characters. One who comes to mind is E. G. “Duke” MacDonald, engineer, musician, and ‘renaissance man’.

The story is told that Duke first came to this district to run one of the highway construction camps set up to provide a living for young men during the Great Depression. It is fashionable now to characterize these as ‘slave labour’ camps, although in the context of the day, that is unfair – it gave men unable to find work and support themselves an opportunity to earn a living, just as the program to subsidize farmers hiring help created an opportunity for people to earn a living.

Duke’s camp was reputedly between Dryden and Ignace, and he approached the matter in the proper spirit, first life, then work. It is said that the first order of business after constructing the camp itself was construction of a ball playing field, then a 3 – hole golf course, upon which Duke was reputed to spend considerable time pursuing his passion for that game. If that is true, I expect it endeared him to his crew, shows he understands what is important.  After the important stuff looking after the crew, we can proceed with the order in hand, constructing a highway.

He spent most of his career as an engineer at the Dryden mill, rising to Chief, and was one of Dryden’s most dedicated golfers and musicians.

When I got to know him, he was near retirement, working as “Special Projects Engineer”, investigating all kinds of new development and bright ideas as to what the company might do next. We young engineers thought he got to do all the really interesting work, and would engage him in conversation when we could.  Duke was notoriously laconic, never using two words when one would do, and did not tolerate fools – he would stonewall silly young engineers and even top bosses if he considered them unfit.

Much of his work was confidential, but some not. Perennially among these was a lumber mill, the price of lumber goes up, Duke does a whole lot of planning for a sawmill, then the price goes down, and the plans are shelved.  The price goes up, and the cycle repeats, management apparently could not comprehend the notion of a commodity cycle.

I was assigned to work in a peripheral way on one of Duke’s most interesting and comprehensive projects. The company had acquired the big new limits north of Lac Seul, and begun to develop them in a limited way, trucking the wood across Lac Seul on ice roads.  Duke’s job was to investigate how to most economically get this wood to the mill on a high volume, sustainable year-round basis.  One obvious solution would be a rail line from Amesdale to Dryden, so wood could come by rail down the line then under construction from Ear Falls to Amesdale, and carry on down to the Dryden mill.  The problem with this seemed to be reluctance on the part of the railways to pursue it – we surmised that as this would connect the CN at Amesdale to the CP at Dryden, both disliked the opportunity this would give users to make them compete.  Woodlands management did not seem to like this idea either, perhaps it chipped away too much of their empire.

Duke spent a lot of time on a second possibility, which was rafting the wood across Lac Seul in summer, and trucking it on the ice in winter, to a barking and chipping plant on the south shore of Lac Seul somewhere near Vaughan bay.  A chip pipeline, where the chips are carried in water in a pipe, would run from there to the Dryden mill.  On paper this was an economical choice, however, there were problems.  Hydro was not happy with the idea of rafting wood on Lac Seul, as stray logs would eventually end up at their Ear Falls plant.  The decentralizing effect of putting a major part of the mill, the chipping plant, some 30 miles away carried all kinds of problems.  The clincher was that nobody was actually pipelining chips that far, in a cold climate like ours.  The nightmare scenario was the line shutting down for any reason long enough for large parts of the pipeline to freeze – the plant would be down till spring!

Another promising idea was to load the wood tree-length on trucks in the woods, and strap the entire load into a big bundle with steel straps. In summer, these would be dumped into Lac Seul, being strapped there should be no stray logs drifting around the lake.  The bundles would be tied together end to end, like a string of sausages, and pulled across the lake to the neighbourhood of Vaughan bay by tug.  Here a giant crane would pick up each bundle and place it on a truck to be hauled to Dryden.  The bundle would be cut to pulpwood length by a giant chainsaw at the mill.

While all this study was going on, wood was being trucked down the highways. All these ideas were in the end rejected, and the non-decision by default was merely to truck the wood on public highways from its point of origin all the way to the mill.  It is interesting to speculate on how our area might have developed had another choice been made.

 

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