Historic photos of Corner Brook's paper mill — saved from the trash — see the light of day

·5 min read
Corner Brook Museum and Archives
Corner Brook Museum and Archives

Sometimes, it's a split-second decision that changes the course of history — or, in the case of Alec Snelgrove, changes our view of history.

Thanks to Snelgrove and his family, 843 photos depicting the early years of Corner Brook and its paper mill are now in the safe keeping of the Corner Brook Museum and Archives.

Snelgrove was a mill supervisor at the newsprint mill in Corner Brook in 1984 when the mill was sold by the Bowater Corporation to Kruger, the current owner.

Snelgrove came across a pile of photos and mementos set aside to go in the trash and, instead of letting them end up in a landfill, he gathered up some of the photos to rescue them from that fate.

After he died in 2001, his family donated the photos to the museum, which has been sharing some of the images recently on its Facebook and Instagram accounts.

"He would be so proud. He would be so happy right now," said Snelgrove's daughter, Catherine Cooke, in an interview for CBC Newfoundland Morning.

Submitted by Kaitlin Cooke
Submitted by Kaitlin Cooke

Disbelief over discards

Cooke said her father loved history and would often take her to the Corner Brook waterfront to watch the log booms coming down the Humber River.

She believes it was his love for the mill and for the community that made him want to take the photos home with him.

The Corner Brook newsprint mill was built in the early 1920s and first produced paper in 1925. The photos rescued by Snelgrove show the mill under construction and in its early years of operation, as well as logging operations in an era when horses were used to haul logs out of the woods.

Corner Brook Museum and Archives
Corner Brook Museum and Archives

Cooke said her father couldn't believe the photos were being discarded.

But Cooke's husband, Mark, who also happens to work at the paper mill, said he can understand why the mill's new owner didn't have the same appreciation for the history of the mill as Bowater did.

"For a new company coming in, there's no nostalgia to the area. There's no connection with the building of the power plant or the horse-drawn log hauling of the past. But this is all the history of Corner Brook," said Mark Cooke.

Bernice Hillier/CBC
Bernice Hillier/CBC

Treated like trash

The disposal of items that may have historical significance is not as uncommon as one might hope, according to George French, archivist and manager at the Corner Brook Museum and Archives.

French knows of other instances when businesses have been sold or shut down and people have rescued materials from being thrown out, but he is resigned to the fact that not everything gets saved.

"Things are lost every day, unfortunately, that I would see value in. But not everybody sees the same value," said French.

Corner Brook Museum and Archives
Corner Brook Museum and Archives

One-of-a-kind photos

French said, thanks to the photos donated by the Cookes, the Corner Brook Museum and Archives now has one of the largest collections of photos of the mill that exist anywhere.

"I think they're very important. Every time we get more documentary evidence of life in Corner Brook through its past, I think it adds to the local culture, the heritage, and also a sense of community memory," said French.

Corner Brook Museum and Archives
Corner Brook Museum and Archives

While some of the 843 photos are duplicates that exist elsewhere, French said some of them offer a completely new perspective on the mill, based on the vantage point from which the photos were taken.

"I've seen a lot of photographs of the mill over the past 20 years here at the museum, and it's the first time I've ever seen this portion of the mill being built and near what was called the acid plant," French said, with reference to one of the photos.

"This is the first time I've seen when it was the train tracks going along there and they were using the area as a parking lot as opposed to where the road is now for the [Lewin] Parkway. So I have not seen the image of that perspective before. And sometimes that different perspective and context can bring new light to information," said French.

Colleen Connors/CBC
Colleen Connors/CBC

Pandemic photo sharing

The photos donated by the Cookes were posted publicly just recently, following years of museum staff worked with them, adding descriptions to catalog them properly and, last summer, scanning them to create digital images.

Then, due to the pandemic, the museum did not open up to visitors so staff weren't busy with the usual tours and programming. As a result, French directed staff to spend time digitizing the photos, which are now being shared on social media.

French said it's been a way to stay connected with the public despite COVID-19 restrictions.

"It's really been an outlet, a way of still providing services to the public during the pandemic and still being there in the public sphere," said French.

Corner Brook Museum and Archives
Corner Brook Museum and Archives

As for Snelgrove's family, they're delighted to see the photos popping up on their social media feeds.

"I mean these were not something you'd want to tuck away and look at every now and then, like wedding photos," said Mark Cooke.

"This is not just pictures of us and our family, but pictures that everybody in the city should have access to."

Thanks to Alec Snelgrove's quick action more than 35 years ago and the Cookes' donation to the museum, city residents and history buffs far and wide will be able to see and appreciate the photos well into the future.

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