The camp at Montreal River, near Sault St. Marie, Ontario, was one of the first alternative service camps. Their primary task was to clear bush and build roads. Their efforts contributed to the building of the Trans-Canada Highway, which today stretches across Canada from coast to coast. They chopped down trees and hauled away brush. They blasted rocks and leveled the roadbed.
After their day of work was done, they returned to camp. After only a short time in the camp, a number of men had the idea to start a newsletter about camp life. They called it The Northern Beacon. When John Fretz wrote an early history of the paper in 1943, he listed the purpose of the paper in seven points.
“First, to furnish a worthwhile enterprise for the Conchie [CO] boys, whereby their leisure time may be spent profitably; second, for the convenience of the Conchie boys mailing a newsletter home or to some friends; third, to enlighten the outside world with the activities of Camp Montreal River; fourth, to help the boys of the camp to become acquainted with one another; fifth, to deepen the spirit of friendship already manifest in the camp; sixth, to promote enthusiasm for new projects through which the camp may benefit; and seventh, to meet the demand by interested parties concerned in the camp.” [Vol. 4, no. 1]
The paper sold for five cents a copy. The first issue came out on 3 January 1942. In July, after only six months of existence, The Northern Beacon published its last issue. The editor, Wesley Brown, and many of the other men in the camp, had been transferred to other alternative service camps in British Columbia.
Soon after arriving, the Northern Beacon was reborn as The Beacon. British Columbia had 25 camps in total. The camps were often in isolated locations, and The Beacon soon became a popular form of inter-camp communication. They had articles like.
“Kewthree Krumms,” from Camp Q3
“Q7 Roundup,” from Camp Q7
“Bits from Bowser,” from Camp Q5 at Bowser, BC
“Who's Who at Q6,” from Camp Q6
“Horne Lake High Spots,” from Horne Lake
“Koksilah Crumbs,” from Camp C-3
“Nanaimo Narrator,” from Nanaimo Camp, C-5
Men from each of these camps would write a short article, often a humourous one, telling what had happened in the past month. The COs wrote, edited, and printed the paper in their spare time because they found it enjoyable and rewarding. For the friends and families of COs, the newspaper was a good way of staying in touch.
Since there were men from all different backgrounds in the CO camps, not just Mennonites, the paper's approach was interdenominational. It also stayed away from political issues.
By the 1943, the Beacon had a circulation of 1,250, and prices had gone up to ten cents per issue. It continued to report on CO news and events until the end of the war.