Sweeney Cooperage of Vancouver, Canada

A fine visual, documentary, and auditory record at City of Vancouver Archives details the history of the Sweeney Cooperage in British Columbia. It was founded by Michael Sweeney who was originally from Newfoundland, a hand cooper.

In British Columbia he started in Victoria, and the business expanded by stages to Vancouver and other locations including in Washington State.  The business originally was a barrel assembly plant, supplemented from 1946 by an adjacent stave manufacturing operation.

The operations in their final phase were concentrated at False Creek in the shadow of the Cambie Street Bridge at Vancouver. The business closed in 1982, and the land was expropriated by the government to create B.C. Place and the site of Expo ’86.

A descendant of the Sweeney family, Jennifer Sweeney, contributed the archival material, some of which have has been posted to YouTube.

A series of documentary films can be viewed, from 1955, 1962 (colour, no sound), 1972 and 1981 documenting the operations of the company.

The 1972 record is a lively onsite report from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Its hosts conclude with a rousing shanty-style song, which the world of barrelage seemed to encourage!

Stave-making at Sweeney ended about 1975, after which staves were imported from Europe for assembly. Historically, Sweeney made staves from B.C. Douglas Fir. The giant sections were split along the grain using wedges driven by steam-hammer, then sawn, then joined, assembled, steamed, and hooped.

White oak for whiskey barrels also was assembled, with staves imported from the United States due to their special hardness and suitability for flavouring whiskey after charring.

As noted in the films, B.C. oak was not considered suitable for distilleries as it grew too fast, hence did not exhibit the right hardness and porosity.

Customers for white oak barrels clearly included Canadian distilleries, as the 1955 film mentions “Waterloo” (Ontario). Seagram long had a distillery there, and at Lasalle, Quebec. Understandably beer is not mentioned in the films, as by this time metal barrels had largely taken over.

However, pre-1920 coopering trade journals mention Sweeney supplying barrels for the brewing trade. See e.g. this page in the 1916 Canadian Trade Index. It seems likely this activity continued until the time metal barrels replaced wood kegs.*

British Columbia had an active brewing industry before the era of national consolidation of brewing. The striking ad below (via newspapers.com, labeled a free view) attests to it, and pride in using local resources.

 

 

In the days when cooperages dotted the North American landscape, barrels had a wide range of uses. The Sweeney films, and other sources I consulted, stated its barrels and vats were used to store soft fruits (cherries, strawberries), pickles, petroleum products, and in winemaking and fishing and fish processing industries.

A wide-screen colour image at Vancouver City Archives depicts Sweeney Cooperage as still prospering in its latter days. It looks as permanent as Metro Vancouver’s Grouse Mountain, yet in a few years would be no more.

The Sweeney Cooperage at one time claimed the honour of being the largest in the British Empire (as termed in the older films). It lasted long enough, still using some machinery from the 1890s, to be regarded as an instance of industrial archeology.

Among numerous lessons of the film record is the degree of manual work still evident in operations. Machinery there was, in its day revolutionary and a distance from the purely hand-coopering days.

Yet, viewing the labour today – muscle power bending logs and antique machines to human will – one has the impression of a near-Dickensian time.

In 2022, perhaps a part of the facility would have been retained as a cultural and educational resource. Fortunately, the Vancouver City archive exists from which the Sweeney past can be divined, and appreciated.

Note re image: Source of image is identified and linked in the text. Intellectual property in source is sole property of lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.

*The move to metal barrels gathered pace in the 1930s and after World War II in particular. When wood was used for beer kegs, the practice in the United States and presumably Canada was to use the finest white oak, or quercus alba. See e.g. the discussion in a 1932 U.S. Department of Agriculture publication. Therefore, Sweeney probably had long imported white oak staves from the U.S., or perhaps Eastern Canada, when producing beer barrels. In any case it is documented that it did so to produce whisky barrels.

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Sweeney Cooperage of Vancouver, Canada”

  1. Thanks for the trip back in time. I worked in the family cooperage for a number of years in the 70’s.

    Reply

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