Skeletons; sawmills; gold; hydro-electricity and conservation? The brilliant, colourful life of a once-famous Ucluelet Pioneer

Will Sutton: Timberman, Geologist, Mineralogist, Lecturer, Conservationist; and Promoter of Vancouver Island; he also robbed graves and collected skulls.

In 1891 Will Sutton and his younger brother James claimed preemption land on the northeast side of Ucluelet Inlet. The Sutton brothers were well-educated, ambitious and arrived in Ucluelet with substantial financial backing. Together they built a large wharf, general store and sawmill.



Sutton Lumber and Trading Company Limited

1874 the first Sutton sawmill on Vancouver Island located in the Cowichan area

Will’s father accumulated extensive land holdings in Ontario including a sawmill and gristmill. Not satisfied, William Sutton’s ambition drove him to Vancouver Island where he schemed of becoming a lumber baron. Sutton, along with his two young sons, established the Sutton Lumber Trading Company Limited with a capital of $100,000 (two point five million in today’s value). Sutton obtained timber leases for over 7,000 acres of prime Vancouver Island old growth timber. In 1874 they built the first sawmill on Vancouver Island located in the Cowichan area.

It appears that Will and James, now age 18 and 15, did not share their father’s passion for the lumber trade. As soon as the boys arrived on Vancouver Island, they walked away from their father and struck out on their own.

1877 – Will’s First Assaying Attempts and entering
the timber business

Sutton Children, c. 1871, Will Sutton upper left and brother James on the right

Will Sutton was born into an affluent family in 1859 at Bruce County, Ontario. In 1872 at age 14 Will left home to study at Trinity College School. In 1874 Will continued his studies at Sibley College of the Mechanic Arts, (now Cornell University) studying Mechanical Engineering specializing in mining and geology.

Will set up an assay shop in Victoria when he was 18-years-old. There appeared to be no demand for assaying on Vancouver Island at that time and as Will pointed out in a public lecture reported in the Victoria Colonist Newspaper:

“… I was educated for the mining profession, but when I came here, I found very little doing. I opened an assay office on Langley Street and charged $5 an assay, but I had very few assays to make. I joined my father in the timber business, and that is how I come to know something about timber. “I am a lumberman by inheritance, rather than by choice or profession.”

1891 the Cowichan sawmill at Genoa Bay expanded quickly and later sold to American interest.

1879 Will, at age 20, took over the operation of the Cowichan sawmill and ran it for ten years while his father remained in Ontario. In 1896 and after the sudden death of his father, Will inherited controlling share of Sutton Lumber. Will immediately began selling off the sawmill operations. Will, however, retained control of the timber leases now cover many thousands of acres of Vancouver Island. In 1891 and after selling the sawmill at Genoa Bay in the Cowichan area, the brothers redirected their interest onto their family holdings in Ucluelet and Clayoquot area.


1893 Ucluelet Saw & Shingle Mill and Mercantile Store

Will built a saw and shingle mill as well as pursuing mining interests on other parts of Vancouver Island. James built a large store and home on the hill behind the newly-built Ucluelet East Government wharf. James and wife Ada ran the store and James became the local Justice of the Peace. The Ucluelet Mercantile store and post office became the nerve centre of Ucluelet, Port Albion and the Barkley Sound. James learned to speak the native language and actively traded with the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation. James and Ada became important members of the turn-of-the-century Ucluelet community.


1895 Ucluelet Hydro Power, a first in British Columbia

Will was on the cutting edge of many scientific ideas and was keenly interested in water as a form of generating electric power to run his sawmills. Electric power drove the saw blades as well as powered winches to move logs from the beach. In all probability Will Sutton’s hydro plant generated electricity for his sawmill, the store, the big house and eventually a fish plant for well over 100 years.

Colonist 11th September 1895:

“A complete electric plant in operation in the immense forest of West Coast will before many days be one of the wonders of British Columbia, and this new application of electricity bids fair to prove equally in its financial results. …… It is to be established on the limits of William Sutton, in Euculet (SP) district, Barclay Sound.”

Evidence of miles of water channels that would have brought immense water pressure into a 24-inch wood stave pipe driving a Pelton wheel electric power generator, exist in the hills behind Port Albion to this day.


1899 Wreck Bay Gold and Lost Shoe Creek

James, together with many other Ucluelet residents, became an investor in the Wreck Bay Placer Gold. The placer mine was located just out of Ucluelet at the east end of what is now known as Florencia Bay.

Will, speaking to a Victoria audience and recorded in the Colonist said,

“…I might state another experience I had on the West Coast in the neighborhood of Wreck Bay, where black sand containing gold occurs. My brother has been interested down there, and they have taken out in the neighborhood of $20,000 in gold.

I named it Lost Shoe Creek, because I lost my shoe there. The salal was so thick that I had to roll over it, instead of forcing through it. That is the only way I could get through the thicket, so I rolled down to Wreck Bay, …. And lost my shoe.”

Mosquito Harbour, Meares Island near Tofino

1907 Sutton Lumber and Trading Company, Mosquito Harbour, Meares Island

New majority shareholders of Sutton Lumber acquired further timber leases. Will, still a minor shareholder, directed the building of a large sawmill on Meares Island near Tofino. The Mosquito Harbour Sawmill was one of the largest operations in British Columbia, employing hundreds of workers.

The Sutton family and a glimpse into Ucluelet’s Colonial past

The Sutton legend began in England’s Yorkshire Dales with Will’s grandfather, Richard Sutton. Richard Sutton’s scandal-driven inheritance was built upon several farm holdings as well as Jamaican sugar and slaves. In 1851 at age 21, Will’s father William followed many sons of wealthy British families and emigrated to Canada.

Phrenology, skulls and skeletons

“Will and James, still in their late teens, were keen phrenologists. Phrenology is a pseudoscience developed in the late 1700’s involving the measurement of bumps on the skull to predict mental traits. Will’s interest in Phrenology led to an extensive skull collection included plaster casts of many famous men.

Will was also a popular lecturer on Phrenology. An article appearing in the Victoria Colonist in 1887: “The phrenology exhibition and lecture on main in the Victoria Theatre last night by W.J. Sutton, was well attended. A large collection of busts and casts of remarkable men from all parts of the world were on exhibition; also a murderers’ gallery, with numerous illustrations. The lecturer discoursed most pleasantly on this popular subject and it is needless to say delighted his audience…”

Grave robbing, collecting sculls and selling
First Nation artifacts.

The heyday of anthropological collecting on the North West Coast of Canada took place during the half-century after 1875. This was spurred on by the development of museums across Europe and North America.

Will and James, now in their early twenties jumped on a lucrative opportunity to supply North American and European museums with artifacts and human skeletons — by robbing the graves of First Nation people on Vancouver Island.

The prevailing thought held little regard for the right of indigenous people but the boys knew they were on shaky moral and legal ground. They managed to keep one step ahead of angry natives and unsympathetic authority. Will and James eventually felt pressure from both native and local authority and decided to leave the Cowichan area to expand their family holdings in Ucluelet.

1903-1912 – Promoting Vancouver Island

Will Sutton gave several public lectures on the natural wealth of Vancouver Island, including delivering a paper, The Geology and Mining of Vancouver Island, to the Geological Society in Manchester, England in 1903. He became a leader in the movement to promote the Island to the rest of the world and was instrumental in the establishment of the Vancouver Island Development League in 1911 and 1912.






1914 Will Sutton’s death and the naming of Sutton Pass

Front page notice of death of Will Sutton, The Victoria Daily Colonist

Will continued to own the saw and shingle mill in Ucluelet up until his premature death on 9th May 1914. Will died from a stroke whilst running a survey crew building a road near Ucluelet.

Additional information gleaned from Will Sutton’s 1914 frontpage obituary in the Victoria Colonist and the Victoria Times newspapers:

Will Sutton, left. Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, First Executive Committee

Will was an “energetic member of the Natural History Society of British Columbia being president of the Society in 1912 and 1913. Will twice ran for election in the BC legislature chiefly on a platform of road building, forestry regulation and its conservation.

He was also a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, the Canadian Mining Institute, and the American Institute of Mining Engineers.

His influence through the Natural History Society, Vancouver Island Development League and Board of Trade helped promote Vancouver Island to the world. His support for a provincial park helped to secure the natural beauty of Strathcona Park.

He was known all over the continent and in Europe as an authority of Western Canada. He was a member of the American Institute of Mining Engineers, vice-president of the Canadian Mining Institute and chairman of the Western branch, a Fellow of the Royal Geological Society of London.

Recent quote from Victoria’s Old Cemeteries Society summer tours:

“…They named a stretch of roadway Sutton Pass in honor of Will Sutton, Vancouver Island’s (and Ucluelet’s) Forgotten Trailblazer” (1859-1914), who is commemorated by Sutton Creek and Mount Sutton, southwest of Cowichan Lake; Sutton Pass and the Sutton Pass Boulders, on a scenic stretch of Highway 4 to Ucluelet; and the Sutton Range, including Sutton Peak, in the north-central region of Vancouver Island. During his lifetime, this lumberman, mining engineer, and geologist was the internationally respected authority on the geology of Vancouver Island but today few Victorians know his name.”

Thank You Jan Bridget!

1This article written by Phil Hood, is gleaned from the recently published book entitled Will Sutton: Vancouver Island’s Forgotten Trailblazer.” researched and written by Jan Bridget and published in limited edition by Phil Hood and the Ucluelet & Area Historical Society.

Images courtesy:

Royal BC Museum and archives;

Ucluelet and Area Historical Society;

Archives of Ken Gibson and Phil Hood.

Permissions were paid for and granted for use in the book.