A Town Forgotten: Kitsault, BC, 1968-72

It was mid-November 1969.  I found myself, a newly-wed, aboard a Goose float plane, a remnant of World War II, heading from Prince Rupert, B.C. north and eastward up Observatory Inlet and along the Alice Arm fjord to the remote mining town of Kitsault.  The skilled "North Coast Airways" pilot manoeuvred the small twelve-passenger craft below a ceiling of fog and drizzle typical of this coastal area.  The plane hop-scotched its way along the route, pontoons lowered over the inlet, ready at a moment's notice to touch down on the water's surface, then rising up into the belly of the craft as it skimmed the interspersed Coastal Mountain ridges.  The raising and lowering of the pontoons fostered the sense of being carried by a large bird, wings in synchronized motion, keeping the plane and me aloft.  Though the pilots negotiated the territory regularly, the roar of the twin engines propelling the Goose forward and the incessant trembling of the fuselage gave reason for trepidation.  With one loud quavering upon the reverse of the engines, the Goose touched down at the head of Alice Arm and taxied to the dock that led to the beach area beyond.  Sticky mud on all sides hinted of what the rainy inlet weather left in its wake, not just on the beach, but in the town site as well, as our ill-fated mobile home was destined to encounter.

Kitsault town was originally built in 1968 by B.C. Molybdenum Corporation, a subsidiary of Kennco Exploration Limited, after the discovery of molybdenum by Kennecott Copper in 1957 and the completion of the B.C. Molybdenum ("B.C. Molly") milling operation in January, 1968.  Between January 1968 and April 1972, approximately 9.3 million tonnes of ore were produced with about 22.9 million pounds of Molybdenum recovered.  Mine manager was Charles Penney.  The town was located 100km north east of Prince Rupert.  In 1968, there were, initially, 40 houses in town inhabited by staff and some of the early employees with families.  Second and third phases of growth in 1969 brought the total to about 140 houses.  Bunkhouses above the town housed the single men.  At completion of the building, the population of Kitsault was around 500, with 350 employed at the mine.

As the operation grew, two temporary mobile home areas were created.  One was located along the beach front below the main town and the second was set up in the upper town site.  When I arrived the new mobile home belonging to my husband of two months and me was parked in the upper one.  The back corner of it, where many of our wedding gifts were stored in a closet, had been smashed in and a piece of plywood nailed over the gaping hole blemishing the newness of our home.  In the attempt to park the mobile, the truck handling it had become stuck in mud similar to that on the beach.  A Caterpillar tractor had been hooked to the rear of the trailer to help pull it into place and when the truck's mired wheels unexpectedly caught solid ground the trailer was forced into the assisting Cat.  Ouch!

The mobile homes were parked so closely in the temporary area that we could hear our neighbors moving around next door.  There were no telephone lines in place so when my neighbour, Dianne Mayoh, and I wanted to communicate we stomped on the floor and went to our adjacent windows to chat.  In the earliest stage of the town the only connection with the world outside was by radiophone from the mine office and walkie-talkies were used between workers in different areas.  In September 1969 telephone lines were run to the mine operations and to a single public pay phone in the centre of town; you did not want to be in a line-up during a downpour.  Television consisted of a single snowy channel with limited programming.  No radio station signals were available.

The location of the mobile homes was in limbo as we awaited the development of a permanent setting.  Due to a blatant misjudgement in assessing the viability of the location, a previous site for such purpose met with disaster.  In mid-September, 1969 at 2:15 p.m. the plateau created overlooking the fjord disappeared with the afternoon tide, taking with it the nine inhabited mobile homes that had been moved into place.  All but one ended up floating in the inlet with only their uppermost twelve inches visible above the water.  The ninth one stood bogged down in the mud at the bottom of the gaping hole that had just minutes before been the park setting.  Fortunately most of those living in them were gone at that time of day to town, work or school.  A Cat driver working on the site was the first to notice the ground shifting and ran about yelling for everyone to get out.  One woman reported a power pole going past her window as she did the dishes.  Others with pre-schoolers ran for safety while the land moved beneath their feet.  Another couple related the strange sensation of driving their car, carrying the schoolteacher's wife and three toddlers, on a road leading out, as the road itself slid sideways.  After the incident reporters wishing to cover the story were refused exit from the planes in which they arrived.  I still have a memento of the occasion given to me by the 10 year old son of the Fahl family whom I had befriended on my arrival in Kitsault.  In his exploration of the gully left by the washout, he discovered a broiler pan from one of the mobiles.  I have found it most handy for various purposes through the years.  Eventually, in 1971, a second permanent mobile home location was located on the lower west side of the town in the Lime Creek area.

The residents of Kitsault came from diverse locations in Canada and the world.  The Irishmen kept the bunkhouses jumping with their nightly singing of folk songs from the homeland and voices whetted with an ample supply of ale and beer.  Many hailed from other parts of Europe, the Ukraine, Australia, India, China and Indonesia.  All came with their unique traits and skills to blend into one community sharing common and ambiguous circumstances.  One lone employee Al Neilson came across the inlet by motor-boat from the small town of Alice Arm to work each day.  His father was among the founders of Alice Arm, a thriving community in the 1930s to 1940, built in conjunction with the Dolly Vardin silver mine.  Mrs. Neilson came from Alice Arm to the Kitsault commissary with the arrival of each North Coast Airways flight, as ticket agent for Pacific Western Airlines and their subsidiary, North Coast Airways, serving Kitsault.  P.W.A. in Prince George was the connection point for Vancouver and the southern mainland.

In November 1968 my future husband Nelson had preceded me to Kitsault as an apprentice heavy-duty mechanic for B.C. Moly.  Aside from his duties fixing equipment in the shop, he helped at times to maintain the mill equipment and at other times undertook maintenance on the decrepit company tugboat used to manipulate the company barges and to access Alice Arm.  From Nelson's point of view, work on the tugboat presented some unique challenges in mechanical wizardry.  On one occasion, before he could repair it, he had to assist in raising it from its watery berth beside the dock, where it had sunk.

Movement of large goods, mobiles, equipment, vehicles etc. into town was through weekly trips by the company barge.  There was no road access.  The small commissary housed in a company portable was our shopping source for food, some of it tasting of diesel, and household supplies, which also came in on the barge.  It was not uncommon for some of the perishables to become rather repugnant by the time the next shipment arrived.  Everyone new to town learned to bake bread, as the bread brought in was frequently mouldy before it arrived.

Food and personal provisions from the commissary were signed for at the time of purchase and the amount subsequently deducted through the company payroll.  Company cheques could also be cashed.  Due to the limited amount of cash on site and no bank in town, it was not unusual for currency to be issued in the form of personal cheques received at the commissary from townspeople and co-signed multiple times in their use as change and again as tender for future purchases.  Eva Hopland, bless her heart, provided a shopping oasis in the midst of a consumer desert.  Her insight and resourcefulness inspired her to operate a novelty business out of an eight-by-ten-foot trailer.  She crammed as large a variety of miscellaneous items as possible into an incredibly small space, just to give us the pleasure of the only hands on shopping in town.  A trip to Eva's was considered an outing.  She ordered her stock in from the outside world.  Mail order, mainly from the Sears catalogue, was the only other source of merchandise.

Maratine McFarlane, wife of a first aid attendant at the mine, handled regular mail services from a postal outlet in the commissary.  The Alice Arm post office was run by notary republic Ben Gunn.  He was the only person qualified to handle registered mail and other special mail services.  Those from Kitsault requiring such services had to cross the inlet to be served by Mr. Gunn.  He also served as legal witness to signatures for name changes and other legal business within his scope of qualification.  Mail delivery was by plane and it was not uncommon in inclement weather to receive no mail for a week or more.  Newspapers and emergency supplies for the hospital and mine also came on the planes.

A small company deduction through payroll paid for home electricity, fuel, water and other community services made us, unbelievably, a society with no monthly bills.  Water for the town was from a small lake above the mine.  During the first cold spell in 1969 the unanticipated freezing of the pipe leading from the reservoir resulted in three days of no available water.  Dishes piled high in the sink and coffee was made from snow.  Water-filled conveyers moving finely crushed ore from the crusher to the refinery also began to freeze.  In an attempt to re-establish a water line to the mine site, crews hastily laid a large hose along the roadside leading from the reservoir.  Restoration of water to the town-site was secondary.  On the fourth day the company brought 45-gallon plastic-lined molly drums of water to each home.  When placed in the narrow hallways of our single-wide mobiles, the intrusive barrels became awkward partners in dancing the straddle step to get past them.  Water had to be heated on the stove for the simplest of household chores and bucketed to toilets for flushing purposes.

Human transportation in and out of Kitsault was via the Goose and Beaver float planes that flew sporadically at best.  Some adventurous residents would occasionally navigate their own boats out to Prince Rupert.  Twice a month the 88 passenger Northland Prince, a passenger/freighter out of Vancouver, arrived in Kitsault.  It also brought some grocery items and had full cargo rigging to handle larger items.  American tourists on a venture to set foot in their northern state of Alaska were often passengers on the Northland Prince.  The ship's first stop south from Kitsault was at Stewart, B.C., only a short stroll to the B.C./Alaska border.  Hyder was a miniscule settlement located on the Alaska panhandle adjacent to the head of the Portland Canal, branching from Observatory Inlet.  This was the tourists' destination.  On approaching the border, the sole visible structure and main draw in Hyder was a small rustic but intriguing log pub, the walls papered in money that had been hung as souvenirs by visitors.  Tourists had barely enough time, while cargo was handled at Stewart, to down a draught or two before boarding for the trip back south.

Occasionally Kitsault residents would also board the ship to experience a luxurious three-day cruise down B.C.'s West Coast.  My husband and I indulged ourselves in this luxury on our final trip out of Kitsault.  We enjoyed a private state room, full service meals, the vastness of the open sea and visiting remote coastal communities serviced by the ship on its 2-day trip south.  The Northland Prince was taken out of service in the mid-1970s after B.C. Molly closed and many of the coastal towns it served suffered economic collapse.  It was sold to a British shipping line and, after refitting, was renamed the St. Helena and put into service as a passenger-cargo ship in South Africa.

In the beginning, our medical aid consisted of first aid workers from the mine and a registered nurse, Irene Janzen, wife of the mine electrical supervisor Phil Janzen.  A doctor came in by plane or in his private boat from Prince Rupert once a week.  The nearest hospital services were in Prince Rupert, 90 miles away, and serious injuries depended on the planes to fly them out.  Pregnant mothers had to leave Kitsault three months before their due date to avoid possible complications during their last trimester.  A resident doctor joined the medical ranks in 1970.

Children from grades one to six attended school in a one-room portable trailer.  Older students were billeted in Prince Rupert to pursue their studies, and flown home on the weekends.  In 1971, a high school was constructed in town to counter this inconvenience.

Leisure entertainment in Kitsault was home grown.  The women indulged in learning to bake bread, do handicrafts, play board games and cards and even share household chores.  Some put together a Kitsault Community Cook Book.  I still have and use mine over 40 years later.  A few men and women got together in the mine office to produce a community newspaper using the typewriter and Gestetner copier.  Occasional larger gatherings were arranged in the modest wood frame community hall furnished with collapsible wooden tables and chairs.  At Christmas 1969, the company sponsored a sit-down roast pig dinner complete with a gourmet repast for all the employees.  Each household also received a complimentary turkey well over 20 lb. in size.  In a household of two like our own, turkey was prepared in an extensive assortment of recipes, ending with the traditional large pot of turkey soup.  Monthly beer socials, when newly ordered beer arrived on the barge, were a regular hit.  Tickets were purchased for the beer and, since alcohol was not allowed outside the hall, bottles were opened before arrival at the table.  Inevitably, some always managed to "slip out", resulting in lively house parties following the social.  Sports activities and a May Day celebration including a parade and May pole took place on a flat area below the town-site.  Due to a lack of ready material, I decorated our truck for the parade with toilet paper streamers and local wild flowers.  Walks around town and in the surrounding area were a frequent pursuit and, at Christmas, included searching for a tree to be decorated for the season. Because of the scrub quality of the trees that grew in the region, a "Charlie Brown" tree usually filled the bill.  Fishing excursions down the inlet and boat trips across the fjord to explore the almost-deserted mining town of Alice Arm were a common activity.

Life in Kitsault 1967-1972 was exciting at times and generally satisfying.  We enjoyed the sense of pioneering a new area, forming our new town and getting to know people like ourselves who had come from many locations and backgrounds.  The remoteness of the area held an intrigue of its own.

Many fond memories were made and many stories evolved during the short existence of our fledgling town.  Like several former residents, with whom I continue to interact over 40 years later, I do not wish it to become a town forgotten.

Written by: Beverley Sloboda
Kitsault resident, 1968-1972

With gratitude to friends Dianne & John Mayoh, Inez & Al Smith, and Shelley Labelle, also former residents of the early Kitsault, for information and support supplied in writing this presentation.

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