ABOUT KITSAULT »
At no time in the history of British Columbia was there
anything even close in size and scale as what would occur
in Observatory Inlet of Northern BC. The year was 1979.
U.S.-based mining conglomerate Phelps Dodge needed a town
built and they needed it built overnight. They had calculated
there were 109 million tons of an obscure but ubiquitous
metal called molybdenum lying beneath the old growth forest
in the remote BC fiord. More importantly, the people who
ran the company figured that the time was right to haul
it out of the ground and mill it.
This area of BC had been a treasure chest of minerals
for some time. Silver, lead, zinc, and copper had been mined
at the end of the inlet for close to a century at the boom
town of Alice Arm. But in 1979 it was the molybdenum (also known as "molly")
that everyone wanted. The metal was used in alloys to provide
hardness and corrosion resistance. In fact, molly was so
hard it was commonly used in the nose cones of rockets in
the arms race. The existence of molly in the area was old
news. In fact, between 1967 and 1972, a total of 10 million
tons had already been mined. However, mining had stopped
in the early seventies when prices softened. But by the end
of the decade prices were going back up on news that many
of the known molybdenum deposits in Alaska, British Columbia
and the western United States were depleted.
Thus, in 1979, the folks at Phelps Dodge figured the time
was right to go into full blown production. However, there
was a big logistical problem in opening up the mine; there
were no workers. In fact, the only living things in the
area were silver foxes and grizzly bears. Kitsault laid
at the end of Observatory Inlet in a remote unpopulated
region of BC tucked behind the Alaska Panhandle.
In the late sixties, the last time the mine operated, workers
commuted by boat from the little town of Alice Arm that
lay just a couple of kilometres across the fiord. But this
time there would be a major mining boom involving hundreds
Almost everyone had moved out of Alice Arm, which by the
eighties had become a decaying and forgotten ghost town,
so the notion was to bring in workers from the south. What
was needed was an instant town, so plans were hastily drawn
to build Kitsault. It was a construction project on a scale
that had never been seen in Northern British Columbia. The
site selected for the town was a broad, fairly level table
of land of several hundred acres with a mixed boreal forest
of deciduous and evergreen trees.
The site was perfect because it was elevated and dry with
a broad south-western exposure. This would not only give
the homes sun exposure for most of the day but almost every
neighborhood had a clear vista of the stunning azure green
fiord. The architects and engineers were told to design
an environment identical to what a worker would expect in
Southern Canada 800 kilometres away. The idea was not only
to house the workers but also to create a complete social
economic environment for their families.
There was to be more than 100 single-family homes and duplexes,
seven apartment buildings with a total of 202 suites. Because
they would not be able to build homes fast enough, there
were plans for permanent foundations that could be used
for mobile homes. There was a modern hospital and a shopping
centre, restaurants, banks, a theatre and a post office.
All the services were underground, including cablevision
and phone lines. There was a state-of-the-art sewage treatment
plant and the cleanest running water in the province. For
entertainment, there was a pub, a pool, a library and two
recreation centres with jacuzzis, saunas and a theatre.
In 1978 the building boom began. Ships arrived with building
supplies into Kitsault’s deep water fiord. A road
was hastily built through the mountains to link Terrace
from 3 ½ hours away. Engineers and construction workers
poured in from all over North America, drawn by high-paying
construction jobs. Everything was needed at the same time;
foundations were laid while the sewers and underground services
were installed. Finally, in 1980, just as the paint was drying
on fresh drywall, the first families started to move in.
Life had begun in this pristine Shangri-La nestled in the
mountain inlet. Families settled into the single-family
homes and singles moved into the apartments. The Knight
& Day restaurant opened up and people started to open
up accounts at the Royal Bank. The school opened its doors
and the kids made giant cardboard cutouts depicting swimmers
clad in goggles and fins to be hung from the ceiling of
the swimming pool. Somebody even started a ledger to record
each load of popcorn that was popped in the recreation centre.
Unfortunately for the company and its workers, as the
people began to settle into their new lives, something far
more sinister was happening a thousand miles to the south.
Prices collapsed under the pressures of the 1982 recession
and there was the arrival of molybdenum by-product production
from copper mines.
The same radical shifts in molybdenum supply and demand
that had sent prices soaring were now causing prices to
crash. The Kitsault dream was over and the mine was suddenly
closed down just 18 months after it opened. People were
out of work, and convoys of moving vans began to work their
way in from Terrace. The brand new shiny town where people
had just moved in full of hope and excitement was a ghost
town and the big gates at the entrance to the town were padlocked.
Nobody knows for sure what the cost of the town was. Some
say $50 million in 1980 dollars, or about $50,000 dollars
a month to house a worker and his family in 1980. Estimates
to replace the town in today’s costs run as high as
$250 million. For almost a quarter of a century, the town
has laid empty behind these locked gates, shut off from the
rest of the world as if it was in a giant time capsule.
During this period, the owners of the mine took an "out
of sight, out of mind" approach. No one was allowed
in, especially the media, and Kitsault became the town that
There is 2.4 kilometres of waterfront teaming with fish
and crab, and along the manicured boulevards apple trees
hang low with fruit that no one has ever picked. The town
is surrounded by snow-capped mountains that have never been
skied and there are eight glacier-fed streams that support
salmon within a 20-minute walk of the town centre. There
is a town dock that juts out into the fiord. Today, the
only inhabitants are a caretaker, who looks after cutting
the lawns, a family of foxes and an occasional grizzly bear
that wanders in to scavenge fallen fruit. Up the valley
under a lush green old growth forest still lies 110 million
tons of molybdenum.
In 2005, the town was put up for sale. It was bought by
a single investor and the new company, Kitsault Resorts
Limited, was formed. What happens to the town will be the
ongoing work of a dedicated team of business people and
environmentalists who will work in conjunction with government
and aboriginal interests to preserve the rich heritage of
this unique chapter in Canadian history.
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