A Window into Yilan’s Past as an Important Logging Center
Text: Joe Henley, Photos: Maggie Song
Yilan County, situated in the northeastern corner of Taiwan, is today known by many visitors for its agricultural and leisure/recreation resources. Far fewer travelers, however, are aware of the fact that the county was home to a thriving logging industry in the first half of the last century. If you want to find out more about this fascinating chapter of the local history, head to the town of Luodong!The townships located on Yilan County’s Lanyang Plain, an alluvial fan formed by the Lanyang River and other waterways in northeastern Taiwan, provide a quick country getaway for urbanites living in the western half of northern Taiwan looking to escape the city. The town of Luodong was once an important base for the local logging industry but had to find ways to adapt when the area’s forestry resources, once abundant, became too sparse to provide an attractive return on capital investment. Changes in central government policy also led to adjustments.
Luodong Forestry Culture Park
For those seeking a window into Luodong’s history and a rewarding “window showcase” of remnants from the logging era, the Luodong Forestry Culture Park is a perfect day-trip choice. The park is located about a kilometer north of Luodong Railway Station. You can either walk (about 20 minutes) or take a taxi (NT$100).
Opened in 2009, the park is centered on a former timber-processing center dating back to the early part of the Japanese colonial era (1895~1945). The Forestry Bureau of Japan set up the infrastructure to facilitate the harvesting of valuable trees, including red cypress, Taiwan cypress, and Japanese cedar, in the Taipingshan region in the southern part of today’s Yilan County. The timber was transported from the mountains to the Lanyang Plain via a network of cableways and a narrow-gauge railway line. After processing in Luodong, the lumber was then shipped to other parts of Taiwan and abroad.
By 1924, after the completion of the forestry railway, the number of workers employed in Luodong’s timber-processing industry, combined with their family members, was around 3,000. Operations grew further after Japanese colonial rule ended following World War II. By the 1960s, the number of workers alone had swelled to 10,000, a full third of Luodong’s total population.
Over the decades, the widespread deforestation of the Taipingshan region went on relatively unchecked. At the height of the boom, no fewer than 17 sawmills were in operation in Luodong. Starting with new government policies in 1982, however, the industry declined and the sawmills fell silent. The site of today’s Luodong Forestry Culture Park was preserved, but it would take years before it was reborn as a park dedicated to leisure and educational purposes.
Luodong Forestry Culture Park is spacious and green, ideal for visits by families with kids. Strolling through the 1.5-acre grounds, you are presented with a wide variety of attractions, including old steam locomotives that were once used in the transport of logs.
The locomotives stand stoically next to the Wood Sculpture Square, where a number of tall works of wood art are on display. One, entitled Ethnicity Merging, is a creation carved from Taiwan cypress that is meant to convey a sense of the varied peoples that shaped the land and gave birth to the town of Luodong.
To the east of the square is the old Log Pond, where you’ll see trunks still preserved in various states of submersion near the former Unloading Platform, as well as tracks of the forestry railway that were once used to bring the timber from the mountains to the mills.
Surrounding the pond is a boardwalk, along which you will pass info boards providing historical facts regarding the logging industry. When the sun is shining and the birds are singing, a walk around the pond is highly recommended for all visitors, young and old.
Speaking of birds, the pond also serves as a small sanctuary for waterfowl species such as white-breasted waterhens, little egrets, kingfishers, and eastern spot-billed ducks. Birdwatchers often gather here for a glimpse of the feathered visitors that can be seen here during the different seasons as they feed, nest, and rear their young.
Many of the old dorms, offices, and other buildings inside the park that were once used by workers and for housing heavy machinery have been converted into mini museums, with plenty of information in English and Chinese provided. At the Forestry Exhibition Hall, for example, you can go on a quick tour through the history of the logging industry in Luodong. There is also a locomotive repair shop where you have the chance to see how the steam engines were tuned up and fixed, and where examples of products made with the wood processed on site, from chessboards to furniture to musical instruments, are on display.
At the Lanyang Trails Exhibition Hall you are presented with information about the many hiking trails in the mountainous south of Yilan County. Routes in the Taipingshan area take trekkers along old forest roads, past high-mountain lakes (including magical Jialuo Lake), and areas with transplanted forest – reforestation became a high priority for the local government in the years after the mills fell quiet.
On the grounds of the park, there are also snack bars, restaurants, and an ice-cream shop, which is located near the Trestle Bridge at the northern entrance. The shop is a nice spot to cool off on a hot day. Close by is a souvenir store with a variety of food products, wooden children’s toys, books, and other items on offer.
Luodong Cultural Working House
If, after visiting the Luodong Forestry Culture Park, you still have an appetite for learning about Yilan’s history and culture, consider visiting the Luodong Cultural Working House. It’s about a kilometer from the park as the crow flies, in the southern part of central Luodong. The uniquely shaped building, loosely resembling an airplane or spaceship, is worth stopping at for its whimsical, airy design alone. The open concept of the facility means that, even when one is inside, the sky above is rarely out of view.
Make your way up to the viewing deck on the top floor for panoramic views of Luodong and the mountains in the distance. Cultural exhibitions, changed from season to season and featuring the works of local artists and writers, can be visited in the Sky Gallery. At ground level is a plaza and open space for events and live theatrical, dance, and musical performances.
Luodong Farmers’ Association
While in Luodong, also pay the Luodong Farmers’ Association retail facility a visit. There you can stock up on local produce – Yilan is well-known for its agriculture – and you can take part in a variety of DIY activities to learn how to create local specialties, such as tofu. Instructors will take you through the process of tofu making, from the mixing of the various ingredients to the hand-pressing of the final product, using a wooden press and a thin cloth to get rid of any excess water.
Those who want something a bit sweeter can try their hands at the making of douhua (tofu pudding). It’s a simple process, more educational than physically or mentally challenging, involving the adding of soy paste to water, followed by hot soy milk, then leaving the mixture to set for 15 minutes. After that, all that’s left to do is enjoy the treat, augmented with some sweet adzuki beans.
During the DIY sessions, the instructors play games with the do-it-yourselfers, asking questions based on an introductory video, and giving out prizes such as complimentary soy milk and decks of playing cards decorated with the association’s mascot. The DIY experiences are especially fun for children.
About the author
Joe Henley is a Taipei-based freelance writer, journalist, author, and musician. Originally from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, he moved to Taiwan fresh out of journalism school in 2005. After a seven-year stint as an editor at a Taipei publishing firm, he decided to dedicate himself to freelancing full-time in 2012.