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Big River

Town, pop 741, located approximately 135 km NW of Prince Albert, just W of Prince Albert National Park. The community is situated overlooking the southern end of the long and narrow Cowan Lake, which was created in 1914 by the damming of the Big River, from which the community derives its name. In 1908, William Cowan built there the first sawmill. By 1911, the Big River Lumber Company was operating what was reportedly the largest sawmill in the British Empire, with the capacity to produce one million board feet of lumber every 24 hours. The mill, as well as the work in the bush, provided employment for over 1,000 men. Big River soon became a boomtown with a population estimated at over 3,000. In 1914, the Big River Lumber Company sold the entire “town” to American interests, and in the summer of 1919 an enormous forest fire swept through the area, eventually completely surrounding the town. Women and children were evacuated, while the men remained behind to battle the flames. The fire eventually burnt itself out; even though the countryside was blackened and scorched almost as far north as Green Lake, the townsite remained unscathed. However, with most of the area’s timber gone, the community’s future looked bleak. Faced with unemployment, many people moved on; those who remained turned to homesteading, fishing, freighting, and trapping. The community entered an economic slump which was to last for years. By the 1940s, as roads improved to areas of forest that the fire had spared, the Saskatchewan Timber Board decided to rebuild the lumber industry in the village. The population of Big River nearly doubled in five years: from 502 in 1946 to 901 in 1951. Today, Big River is a dynamic community with a diverse array of businesses and services. The Canadian Northern Railway Station, built in 1910, has been designated a heritage property. Tourism is a developing industry; the area has become home to a significant artistic community; and the Ness Creek Music Festival features musicians from across North America and draws audiences from across western Canada.

David McLennan

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