JB's first industry - a steam sawmill

Jalan Meldrum, Jalan Bukit Meldrum and Jalan Sawmill are familiar old roads in the heart of Johor Baru but do you know the history and origin of these road names?

James Meldrum, the Scotsman who
started a steam sawmill in Johor Baru
Photo Credit: National Archives Singapore
Meldrum was the name of Scotsman, James Meldrum, who came to seek his fortune in Johor in the 1800s.  When Meldrum arrived in Iskandar Puteri, the early name of Johor Baru, the shore was jungle and marshy ground and a Malay hut stood on the site of the present-day Istana Besar or Grand Palace.  After a close study of the coast, he decided that Tanjung Puteri was an ideal spot to set up his steam sawmill.

Tanjung Puteri was the site of the state capital while the political centre of Johor was then in Singapore where the founder, Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim, was based in Telok Blangah.  The location of Tanjung Puteri, which overlooks the Johor Straits, was not only scenic and tranquil but its potential for growth was quickly recognised. 

Iskandar Puteri was conveniently situated about midpoint of the Straits, opposite the Kranji end of Bukit Timah Road in Singapore.  The road was completed by 1845 and provided easy access for produce to be transported to Singapore which was then a busy entrepot. 

Temenggong Ibrahim is regarded as the ruler who established modern Johor and the founder of his family’s political and material fortunes.  By placing Johor’s economy on a firm footing with the widespread cultivation of pepper and gambier, he made it possible for the newly established state to progress and flourish.  With Europe as a major market, the peak of the gambier trade lasted from the 1830s to 1850s when Johor became the world’s largest producer of gambier.  This industry put Johor on the world map and brought wealth to the local community.

Road sign for Jalan Bukit Meldum on Bukit Meldrum
It was left to his son and successor, Sultan Abu Bakar, to build on the foundations he laid, and eventually become known as the Father of Modern Johor.  In his book, History of Johor, Sir Richard Windstedt described Temenggong Ibrahim as courageous, wise and energetic.

The virgin jungles of Johor were the state’s earliest resource.  The rainforest provided many kinds of jungle produce such as dammar, rattan, wood oil, camphor, ebony, wax, sandalwood and other types of wood, that were traditionally collected by the jungle people.

In the 1840s, gutta-percha was discovered to be the only material suitable for protecting submarine cables and a demand for this rigid natural latex produced from the sap of Payena and Palaquiun gutta trees, resulted in an enthusiastic search for this tough substance in the Johor jungles.  The word, gutta-percha comes from the plant name in Malay, getah perca, which translates as percha sap.

Another valuable resource from the Johor jungles was timber.  In 1860, Meldrum set up the Johor Steam Sawmill – Johor Baru’s first industry – at the mouth of Sungai Segget.  He had a system where trees were cut in the jungles and the logs tied into large rafts and floated down to the steam sawmill.  It could take as long as six months for this process to skillfully tie together up to 2,000 logs by rattan, to make the rafts..

These rafts were then floated down the straits to the water’s edge at Iskandar Puteri and hauled up to the saw-mill to be cut by steam engines.  Sawn timber was then exported through Singapore to China, Mauritius, Java and other countries.  Timber from Johor was particularly important to India because this saw-mill supplied sleepers for the Indian Railways!

Road sign for Jalan Sawmill, a one-way street near the
Central Police Station in Johor Baru
Timber from this sawmill was also used to build the first railway in Johor.  Meldrum was the engineer for a proposed 20-mile wooden railway track through dense jungles to Gunung Pulai, which could potentially be developed into a hill resort for the Europeans in Singapore.  By 1874, about 10 miles of the track was laid but the project, however, literally collapsed because they could not battle the ferocious appetite of termites which simply ate up the track!

Meldrum was the son-in-law of Reverend Benjamin Keasberry, a tutor of Sultan Abu Bakar, and through his help, land at Jalan Gertak Merah was obtained from the sultan to build the Holy Light Church.  The original church, completed in 1886, was constructed from timber supplied by this sawmill.  While the church has expanded with various buildings, this sturdy original church is still being used as the Youth Hall.

The wisdom of choosing Tanjung Puteri as the site for the new state capital resulted in the continuous growth of Iskandar Puteri.  The harbour at the mouth of Sungai Segget was small but adequate and the river was deep enough for the entry of tongkangs and boats of island traders.  Sea-going vessels could dock at the jetty by the sawmill.

For a long time, this sawmill was the only industrial enterprise in JB and the largest business concern in the state.  After it was demolished, the site was used for the former Customs and Immigration checkpoint to Singapore.

A 19th century view of the steam sawmill at the mouth of Sungai Segget with Iskandar Hall behind the sawmill,
on Bukit Meldrum;  Photo Credit: Peter Lee

Meldrum and his family lived in Iskandar Hall, a mansion built on the hill behind the saw-mill.  The hill, Bukit Meldrum, was named after him and its main road is Jalan Bukit Meldrum.

At that time, Jalan Meldrum, which runs parallel to Jalan Wong Ah Fook – a main road named after one of JB’s Chinese pioneers – led straight into the steam sawmill.  Jalan Sawmill was the road which bordered the steam sawmill and remains to this day as a small road under the highway ramp for Jalan Bukit Meldrum, close to the central Police Station.

Meldrum passed away in 1904 and was buried in a family plot in Bukit Meldrum. However, in 1971 his remains were transferred to his church cemetery at Jalan Kebun Teh when the site on this hill was turned into the Customs checkpoint for heavy vehicles.

Roads and a hill named after James Meldrum is a lasting legacy of a Scotsman who made Johor his home, ran the Johor Steam Sawmill and made valuable contributions to the state and beyond.

A version of this was published in the April 2016 issue of The Iskandarian

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