First Nations people have lived on Haida Gwaii for thousands of years. Before contact with Europeans, thousands of Haida lived in dozens of communities throughout the islands. Their complex culture included carving totem poles and canoes from giant red cedar trees and building large longhouses. They had a strong seafaring tradition, oral histories passed on through many generations, and firm roots in the land and ocean of their home. Some aspects of Haida culture, including the impressive feasts called potlaches, were supressed at one time by colonial governments, but in modern times the Haida are still practising these traditions.
The Haida chose the most desirable beaches and bays for their village sites, so it's no suprise that these was once a village located near the site of present-day Sandspit. The curve of Shingle Bay protected the site from harsh weather while allowing access to fishing and gathering grounds. This site was called Kil Village.
Various European explorers visited the islands in the late 1700's, including British Captain George Dixon , who in 1787 named the islands after his ship, the Queen Charlotte. As the 18th century drew to a close, European and American ships flocked to the islands to trade with the Haida for sea otter pelts, which they then took to Asia to trade for silks and other valuable goods to take back to Europe. The Haida gladly exchanged pelts for valuable tools, metals, blankets and ornaments. The population of sea otters on Haida Gwaii was extripated (locally extinct) within decades of the beginning of this trade.
As the fur trading ships became a thing of the past, the Haida began to travel to major centres such as Victoria to work and trade for the European goods they had learned to use and value. This closer contact exposed them to European diseases such as tuberculosis, small pox and influenza, and a series of epidemics resulted. Increased European traffic to the islands by prospectors and adventurers also contibuted to the spread of disease. We have no way of knowing the original population of the islands—estimates cover a broad range from 6,000 to 30,000. What we do know is that the epidemics took a huge toll on the Haida population, reducing it to about 700 people. These people congregated in the two Haida villages that still exist today –Skidegate and Old Massett.
Some of the first Europeans to spend any length of time on the islands were the missionaries that began to establish churches on the islands in the 1870s and 1880s. The Anglicans had their mission in Massett, while the Methodists set up their main mission in Skidegate. Methodist missionaries also spend time at Haina, a Haida site on Maude Island just west of Sandspit, and at New Kloo on Louise Island south of Sandspit. The people of these villages were reluctant to move into Skidegate due to long-standing fueds and a sense of pride in their own village, but eventually the pressures of population reduction and missionary pressure forced the move.
Around the turn of the century, the first settlers built homes and small enterprises in various areas of Graham and Moresby Islands. Some of the original pioneers were lured to the area by fanciful advertisements for rich farm land, and spent many years clearing land and attempting the drain the swamps of central Graham Island. Other settlers started the first wave of resource-based industries, including copper mines, coal mines, fish-oil refineries and canneries.
Sandspit, with its relatively dry climate and flat land, was home to a cattle ranch, a sheep farm and even a chicken ranch in the early days of settlement. We tend to think that Sandspit started out as a logging town, but in fact the first industry here was a refinery for dog-fish oil, which opened in 1910 and operated for about five years. Oil from dog-fish, a small shark that is very plentiful in the waters around Sandspit, was used in the production of lamp oil, machine lubricant, and Vitamin A. In fact there were several refineries on the islands even earlier than the one in Sandspit, including a large co-operatively run plant in the village of Skidegate, and a smaller plant at the mission of New Kloo on Louise Island.
Alliford Bay, the present day terminal for the ferry from Graham Island, became the next industrial base in the Sandspit area when a large cannery opened there in 1912, built on an ambitious scale by Sir George Doughty of B.C. Fisheries. By 1913 the cannery was in receivership. However, other companies took over and ran the plant on a smaller scale until the main section of the cannery collapsed into the water in the mid-20s. Another cannery was operated by B.C. Packers in South Bay, another 7 km west of Alliford Bay.
WWII to Present Day
The Second World War was a time of substantial growth for the islands, and had long-term impacts on Sandspit. The Sandspit airport began with an airstrip put in by the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1943. Alliford Bay became a seaplane base in 1940, the second RCAF station on the west coast of Canada (after Vancouver). This base was dismantled in 1945, but at one time was home to 700 airforce and infantry personnel. Many building from Alliford Bay were moved into Sandspit after the base was shut down.
The first logging company to start operations in Sandspit was Crown Zellerbach in 1940. During the war years the giant Sitka spruce found on the islands was the preferred material for building certain war planes, and logging camps sprang up all over the islands. Some of these camps were shut down directly after the war but others are still active today. South of Sandspit, important camps included Moresby Camp and Aero Camp at the head of Cumshewa Inlet, and Beatty Anchorage on Louise Island.
The logging industry based in Sandspit suffered a blow with the formation of Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve in the south of the islands, which protected the area from timber harvesting. Changes to government policies and the fact that much of the most valuable timber has already been harvested contributed to a slowing of the logging economy. The population of Sandspit has declined significantly as logging jobs have been lost in recent years.