My neighbors in Kolkata had this small folding table in their home which caught my fascination as a child. That shining piece of sturdy wood was their prized possession which was made in Chatham and gifted to them. I would often touch it with my bare hands secretly hoping to possess one, a little lower may be which would be the ideal writing table for me and my poetry. I was ten years old and with my limited geography knowledge all I knew was that Chatham was somewhere in Andaman deep in the Ocean where I could not reach easily. Several years later, I was finally visiting Andaman and Chatham Saw Mill figured high on my list. I could not find that writing table etched in my memory but I did see the place where they are made.
Chatham Saw Mill was established in 1883 and more than a century later it is still functioning as Asia’s Oldest Saw Mill under the aegis of the government. The saw mill is named after the island Chatham where it is located. Chatham is like an extension of Port Blair connected by a wooden bridge made in the saw mill which was later replaced by a concrete one. It is the gateway to Mt Harriet and other smaller islands.
The Saw Mill and the museum inside is open to the Public all through the year from Tuesday to Sunday from 8am to 14.30 hours in the afternoon. The saw mill is closed for production between 1st to 15th April every year for annual stock taking, budgeting and planning. I visited during this period, could move around but not witness the actual wood processing in the mill.
History of the Saw Mill:
The saw mill was established in 1883 to cater to the growing need for wood in the area as the island settlement in Port Blair slowly expanded. The Bristish also used the mill to process huge amount of timber for London, New York and various other Europen cities. It is interesting to know that the crimson walls of Buckingham Palace in London is made from the Padouk wood of the Andaman Islands processed in Chatham Saw Mill.
The Japanese attacked the Mill in March 1942 which led to the mass killing of unsuspecting workers. The Japanese made bunkers inside the saw mill for 3 years between 1942 and 1945 using it as a base during World War II. One of the bunkers can still be seen just after the memorial monument.
Around the Saw Mill:
I opted for a guided tour of the Mill. We walked past the wagon which was used in the early years to carry wood from one workshop to another. I could imagine the yester-year scene of the wagon chugging past.
After a brief visit to the museum we walked through the Padouk Wood Storage area to the far corner where the logs were brought in from the jetty by boat into the mill.
They are soaked in sea water for several days before processing in the mill.
Then they are sorted and finally cut in different sizes in the different machines within the mill and given finishing touches on the assembly line. One of the machines imported from US was more than a hundred years old.
Museum and Souvenir Shop
The small museum within the mill complex has an interesting collection of artefacts about the island, flora, fauna as well as pictoral information on how the mill was built more than a hundred years ago. There was a preserved dolphin, old mariner’s compass and the skull of a sea cow among samples of wood. There were several intricately carved and aesthetically designed items made from Padouk Wood on display. Right next is a small area with trees (Pillar of the Planet) and a lifelike wooden elephant and crocodile on display with the message of living in harmony with nature with due respect and regard.
I would strongly recommend a guided visit which would not take more than 45 minutes. Ganesh my guide was enthusiastic and knowledgeable and made it interesting for me with tit bits specially since the mill was not functioning that day.
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