by Bill Barry, Saskatchewan place name expert
I first came across the name 'Bitulithic' about a decade ago and
I have to admit it blew my mind. What a marvellous name! I just
love the way it trips off your tongue.
Bitulithic & Contracting Ltd. was incorporated at Winnipeg in 1907
and was chartered to do business in Saskatchewan a few weeks later.
It was set up by an engineer named William Matheson Macphail and
half a dozen associates, and it was authorized to do all manner
of contracting work.
Within weeks of incorporation the company purchased a site on the
southeastern outskirts of the Village of Aylesbury. They built a
plant the same year to produce a crushed stone material used for
paving streets. The Canadian Northern Railway installed a siding
(but misspelled the name as Bithulithic!), and the company shipped
out the first loads of product before the snow flew.
main section of the Watkins' home is the former office of Bitulithic.
The rock used by the plant came from a large bank of glacial boulders
just east of the site (now largely covered by Highway 11). Smaller
glacial erratics from the Arm River Valley (visible just east of
the highway) were also used, and farmers within wagon-hauling distance
frequently brought in loads of fieldstone. Apparently these glacial
rocks were prized by road builders because of their hardness - the
crushed rock was mixed with gravel and cement to make a very hard
and durable road surface.
One of the most fascinating parts of the Bitulithic story involves
the youngsters who used to collect small wagon loads of stones and
haul them to the crusher, receiving a few cents from the manager.
Kind of puts you in mind of kids collecting beer bottles or pop
cans today, doesn't it?
The plant was destroyed by fire in 1919, a year and a day after
the armistice ending World War I. It must have been quite a shock
to Mr. Macphail and the other principals of the company, because
the plant had undergone phenomenal expansion. From its beginnings
with an office in Winnipeg and the plant at Aylesbury, it had expanded
to include major offices at St. Boniface, Regina, Saskatoon, Lethbridge,
Calgary, Strathcona and Edmonton. Its flagship product was sold
under the trade name of Bitulithic Pavement and sales to the foregoing
cities (among others) were brisk.
Watkins is pleased the Bitulithic safe is back home again.
The plant was rebuilt and ran for a few more years beginning in
1922. However, records at the Saskatchewan Archives show that the
Great Depression devastated the operation. By 1931 it was a shell
company only, existing merely to collect rent on its small property
holdings. Indeed, after 1934 its minor business affairs were conducted
out of a lawyer's office at Boston, Massachusetts. Bitulithic &
Contracting was finally struck off the Saskatchewan companies register
Interestingly, though, W. M. Macphail's name was still on the company's
masthead when the last annual report was filed. He founded the company
at Winnipeg, and was shown as residing at Portland, Oregon, from
1922 until returning to Winnipeg in 1934. But his name was the first
one listed among the company's officers for every one of the 33
annual reports that they filed. It would be fascinating to know
how well Mr. Macphail did financially with his 'baby', over the
system fed the mule trough.
Cliff Watkins is the farmer who currently owns the crushing plant
site. His grandfather bought the property shortly after World War
II, and Cliff purchased it from his father. Most of his stone house,
remarkably enough, is the original crushing plant office, and some
of the outbuildings on his farm also date back to the plant, including
a shed which provided a garage of sorts for the wagons used to haul
the glacial erratics up from the valley. There is also a cement
trough for watering mules with 'B&C Co.' emblazoned on one end and
'1923' on the other.
If you know where to look, the footings for the crushing plant
are still visible, as is the CN siding that was used to haul the
company's product to market. Evidence of blasting to break up the
huge glacial boulders can also be found.
Bitulithic & Contracting's company safe still exists. After the
crushing plant finally shut down, Frank Rider, the last foreman,
lived at the site until Cliff Watkin's grandfather bought it. His
son, Harry Rider, became the Imperial Oil dealer at Aylesbury, and
used the safe for his business. Harry later gave it to a farmer
friend in whose barn Cliff spotted it. Cliff bought it back in 1985.
I mustn't forget that fascinating name! The Bitu part is a derivative
of the Latin 'bitumen', meaning 'asphalt', while 'lithic' is the
Greek for 'of stone'. Bitulithic is thus an imaginative descriptor
of the company and its function, and I like to think that it was
dreamed up by William Matheson Macphail.
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