From 1908 until 1980, Ocean Falls was one of the largest communities and industrial facilities on the coast of British Columbia. Throughout its life it was a company town dedicated to the production of pulp and paper. Almost all activities in the place were governed by the mill whistle. At its peak, from the mid-1940’s until the mid-1960’s it was the home to three thousand relatively prosperous people, a thousand of which worked in the mill. It had the highest annual rainfall (170 inches or 430 centimetres) of any community in North America. It was isolated and accessible only by boat or floatplane. Over the course of its life over seventy thousand people lived in Ocean Falls, some for only a few hours. For those that stayed, Ocean Falls left an indelible and usually positive imprint.
Most of the town and all of the mill are now gone. Only about twenty permanent residents remain. Memories of a way of life that no longer exists become stronger as the physical infrastructure disappears. The remaining “Rain People”, those that called Ocean Falls “home”, have a clan-like bond.
Brian McDaniel lived in Ocean Falls from 1953 to until 1968, between the ages of five and twenty-the golden years for both Brian and the town. As the son of one of the town’s two doctors and later as a student returning from boarding school and university, his perspective of the place was that of both an insider and an outsider As an insider, he was the resident of a house at the centre of the town, an inquisitive student, a boater, a lover of the outdoors, an athlete and a member of the town’s famous swim team. As an outsider, making periodic visits from “downtown” to work in the mill he developed an appreciation that the place he called home was unique and its stories were worth preserving.
With a sense of history that is deeply personal, Brian traces the trajectory of Ocean Falls from its unlikely gestation at the beginning of the twentieth century to its sad, bizarre and even comical demise at the end of the same century. Drawing on archival material, personal histories, local newspapers, various “studies” and interviews with his fellow Rain People and others who had a significant impact on Ocean Falls, he captures the spirit of the town and the historical context in which it briefly thrived. Supplementing the text are many photographs, maps, plans and sketches that graphically depict a way of life in a remote coastal company town that has all but disappeared but which represents an important part of British Columbia’s heritage that must not be forgotten.
Read the Latest Reviews:
By Howard Stewart in BC Booklook
The story of a town that no longer exists is destined to be poignant, at least in places. The fact that it’s a story about a coastal pulp and paper community turned ghost town makes it doubly sensitive. Here in British Columbia, we’re used to the ephemeral nature of our mining towns: booming today then naught but ruins and memories tomorrow. The disappearance of a town built to transform our super abundant coastal forests into paper is more daunting. Didn’t we devise our vaunted “sustained yield” forestry system to prevent that kind of thing?
I mean, if Ocean Falls was vulnerable, then what about Campbell River? Powell River? Crofton? The most obvious answer is that the fate of Ocean Falls was also sealed by far more rain than they get in those other places, at least a hundred inches more each year. Indeed, the residents called themselves the Rain People.
by Geoff Johnson in the Times Colonist
“When Duncan lawyer Brian McDaniel first mentioned to friends and acquaintances that he was researching and writing a book about Ocean Falls, I responded with a graceless and obtuse question: “Good idea, but who will read it?
Now I know the answer to that question: Everybody should.
Studying history to most of us means grinding our way through history on a grand scale: the rise and fall of great civilizations, the foundations of major social and economic changes, revolutions and wars that affect entire nations and their peoples.
In approaching history that way, we lose sight of the extraordinary individuals, families and communities that all played their part in shaping our world and our lives.”
Ocean Falls: Themes and Memories
presented at the Ocean Falls Reunion, August 24, 2019
Click the titles below to read a sneak peek of each section…
In late 1953, just before Christmas, the McDaniel family: my father Bernard, my mother Gwen, my sister Anne, and I arrived in Ocean Falls in the rain on board the Canadian Pacific’s Princess Norah with a cargo of “Jap oranges” and a boatload of millworkers. Norah sounded a welcoming whistle as she approached the wharf. At the time I was five years old. Our arrival at this rain soaked outpost on the northwest coast of British Columbia is one of the first and most indelible memories of my life….
Any person who has spent a significant portion of his formative years there will always be both from Ocean Falls and of Ocean Falls. Its special qualities brand you for life. I realized this as I grew older and had children. As I told my children tales of my childhood in Ocean Falls, tales that involved constant torrents of rain, elevated roads made of wood, no cars, no TV, no computers, I might as well have been telling them that I came from a different planet….
I arrived in Ocean Falls as a five year-old boy in the fall of 1953. I left as a twenty year-old university student in 1968. I returned for the first time almost sixty years later, on July 26, 2013, on my sixty-fifth birthday. I made my first contribution to my pension entitlement as a sixteen year-old roll bucker in the finishing room of the mill, and I became entitled to that pension on my return forty-nine years later. Ocean Falls will always be special to me, and I hope that this collection of recollections, impressions, reminiscences, photographs, paintings, cartoons, and poems will resonate with a few of the thousands of people who at one time called Ocean Falls home….
The industrial whistle, the most important and symbolic icon of a way of life on the coast of British Columbia, has all but disappeared. On the rugged coastline — all 27,000 kilometres (17,000 miles) of it that stretches from Victoria in the south to Stewart in the north — the whistle governed the passage of ships from the small gillnetters powered by the putt-putt of their Easthope engines to the stately and beloved liners of Union Steamships, Canadian Pacific, Canadian National, and Northland Navigation. Whistle signals were essential to the safety of the tugs, their tows, and the men who plied the straits and inlets of the coast. These waters were often covered in a blanket of fog or mist and were exposed to the harsh and unpredictable winds that challenged coastal navigation. Whistle navigation — blasting a signal that would echo off the steep hillsides — was an invaluable and all but forgotten skill of coastal mariners….
Three whistles meant a fire in the mill. Four whistles meant a townsite fire. Everything in the townsite with the exception of a few buildings, and including the roads, was made of wood, and fire was a constant threat despite the wet weather. Road fires were not unknown and were potentially very serious….
The town is now gone, most likely forever. Its inhabitants are dispersed throughout coastal BC and further afield. The whistle sounds are mere memories and echoes, but many rich and compelling stories and photographs — the subject of this book – remain….
The most striking feature of Ocean Falls was, and still remains, its setting. As you approach it from the south, down the seven-mile channel of Cousins Inlet, the town is hidden from view until you round Pecker Point, the site of the notorious house of ill repute until 1942, and there it is, cradled unexpectedly by the immense surrounding mountains….
Vancouver and his men were obliged by his order from the Admiralty to follow every nook and cranny of the rugged coastline. Judging by his journal entries in 1792 and 1793, Vancouver was not enamoured by what he saw – a response not unlike some later inhabitants of Ocean Falls. For example, at a point midway down Burke Channel on August 14, 1792, he provided his opinion of the Ocean Falls neighbourhood:
This rendezvous was about thirty-seven miles from the station of the vessels, in as desolate, inhospitable country as the melancholy creature could be desirous of inhabiting. The eagle, crow and raven that occasionally had borne us company in our lonely research visited not these dreary shores. The common shellfish such as mussels, clams and cockels and the nettle samphire, and other course vegetables that had been so highly essential to our health and maintenance in all our former excursions were scarcely found to exist here; and the ruins of one miserable hut, near where we had lodged the previous night was the only indication we saw that human beings ever resorted to the country before us, which appeared to be entirely devoted to the amphibious race….
Over a century after Alexander Mackenzie’s 1793 visit to Dean Channel, another emissary of Scotland’s Clan Mackenzie came to assess the commercial potential of this remote inlet on BC’s central coast. In 1901, one hundred and twelve years after the famous Northwester, Simon Mackenzie laid claim to the land and water rights surrounding the Liak River at the head of Cousins Inlet in what was the first step in the industrial development of Ocean Falls….
It was out of a curious convergence of people, place, and politics that the first pulp and paper company at Ocean Falls emerged. Oddly enough, it was not conceived on the mainland coast of BC. Its conception was even further west. In 1902, soon after Simon Mackenzie staked his claims at the head of Cousins Inlet, a German adventurer named F. Fillips Jacobson had a conversation over the counter of the store at the village of Clayoquot on Stubbs Island, a small island near present day Tofino off the west coast of Vancouver Island….
Paper production always depended on a fibre supply, and fibre sources to fuel the mill had been identified by Jacobson, Thompson, and Smaby. Much of the early supply came from cordwood logged around the recently flooded Link Lake Valley. Cut by hand loggers like Jack Clozza, these logs were gathered around the considerable shoreline of Link Lake, floated down the lake, and sent down a log flume to Cousins Inlet and the mill….
Alf Harvey, who arrived at Ocean Falls in 1932, recalled the tenor of the town in the Depression:
During the Depression years, everyone was on short shifts. However, we all kept working and we all had money. Times were pretty good in Ocean Falls, considering what was happening in the rest of the world.
There were always clubs and activities in Ocean Falls to keep you active. One of my favourite activities was tap dancing. One of the teachers in the school was a Scottish lass who started a tap-dancing club. She convinced some of the bachelors to join. We soon learned how to tap dance to “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” and “Glow Little Glow Worm.” The guys in the machine shop at the mill made little metal taps that we screwed on to our shoes.
Boat trips downtown [to Vancouver] were always a good experience. In the summer months when the weather was good, we would take the mattresses out of the cabins and put them on the top deck. We would party all night long. There wasn’t a great deal that the ship’s officers could do as we generally out numbered them….
An early attempt to unionize the mill workforce in 1918 was unsuccessful. Nothing more colourfully describes the people than the words of Louis Boivin, a radical union organizer who arrived in 1918:
I wish you was here to see this hole. I cannot make out how they found this place. The mill is full of Indian, Jap, Hindoo and there is some other kind here that I can’t figure out what they are. I believe they are cannibal or white man haters….
It takes a man with a lot of nerve to stay in a place like this. I never saw the sun shine once since I been here. I got to pay $5.00 poll tax, $3.00 for war fund and $2.00 for hospital every month. I don’t think I will have much money left to go back….
Nestled in its mountain setting, Ocean Falls was both very remote and very photogenic. The town offered a postcard scene, with the townsite on the left, the mill on the right, both of them framed by Mt. Caro Marion and Sawmill Mountain and back-dropped by Mt. Baldy. The town and mill were divided by a river, linked by a bridge, and protected by a dam from the waters of Link Lake. The dam, the largest manmade structure in the community, held back the waters of the lake, technically a reservoir, which stretched back sixteen miles from the base of Baldy. The rain and snow for which Ocean Falls was famous were essential to the level of Link Lake, and the dam was the town’s most important piece of infrastructure. The lake’s pure waters provided the massive amounts of water needed in the papermaking process as well as hydroelectric power to the mill and raw material for the steam that ran many of the machines and heated the homes. The fresh water fed the grinders and paper machines at the mill. Indeed water, in all its forms, was vital to the survival of Ocean Falls. The salt chuck in front of the town was not only the principal highway – the only means of access or egress — but also the town’s major playground for boaters….
Over Ocean Falls’ lifespan, roughly seventy thousand people arrived by boat or float plane. They came from every corner of the world. Almost all came with nothing, or virtually nothing, in search of economic opportunity. Poverty was the common denominator of most arrivals, and relative prosperity accompanied many departures. For so many of the Rain People, this remote rain-drenched location was the foundation upon which a rewarding life was constructed – but for the Japanese workers and their families, the dreams of belonging and prosperity would be cruelly shattered or shortened….
Emilio Clozza: Depression and War.
At the time of writing this, Emilio Clozza is 92, still living on his own, a little hard of hearing, but with barely a grey hair on his head. He is the oldest person still alive who was born in Ocean Falls. As the town’s barber for many years, he probably knew more secrets that anyone else with a connection to the place:
In my opinion, the best years in Ocean Falls were during the Depression. Everyone had work, although some people had to cut back their hours and share their time with others. Around 1935, I was on the first swim team that made a trip out of Ocean Falls.
In 1942 when I turned eighteen, I signed up for the war. I was in the army and eventually became a Sergeant in the Signal Corps servicing teletype machines that were used to break the Japanese codes and relay the messages to Ottawa and Washington D.C….
Although I was of Italian heritage, I was born in Canada and I had no problems with the authorities. My Dad [Jack Clozza] was Italian from the Old Country and just to be safe, the government confiscated his hunting rifles. My Dad then joined the Pacific Coast Militia and was given a machine gun. So much for homeland security!
The mill ran at full capacity during the Second World War; demand for paper products was high. Three machines in Ocean Falls made newsprint while the other two produced kraft and specialty paper such as butcher wrap, wrapping paper, wax paper and, for a need that would never go away, toilet tissue. In 1928, No. 5 paper machine had been rebuilt to produce these specialty papers. Unbleached kraft paper was also used for corrugated products. During the war, a sixth machine, cobbled together from spare parts, made pulp that was converted to gun wadding for artillery shells, and in 1944, a bleach plant for sulphite pulp was installed. These six paper machines ran at full capacity to produce every type of paper for Canada’s economic demands….
The early groundwood mill in Ocean Falls made the dark satanic textile mills of the Industrial Revolution look pristine. In the massive room, adjacent to the foot of the Link River Falls known as the Dam Rocks, thirty large grinding stones about six feet in diameter and about two feet wide, turned constantly. These stones began life as part of the sandstone bedrock of Newcastle Island in Nanaimo Harbour. They were cut into rounds, placed on barges and shipped to Ocean Falls where they turned constantly until they were worn out to be replaced by neighbouring pieces of Newcastle Island. Even today, campers at what has become a provincial park, can dip their feet into the perfectly round pools created by the extraction of these essential tools in the early papermaking process….
The papermakers’ skill engaged all of the senses; sight, touch, sound and even smell. It was a skill that could only be acquired on the job through years of experience. It could not be taught and not everyone could acquire it. It is one of the reasons why papermakers were amongst the highest paid wage earners in Canada. A slight misadjustment in these machines produced a “break” when the paper would “hay out” and all hell would break loose. The job of everyone on the machine, from the machine tender to the lowliest sixth hand, was to get the paper flowing again through the stacks. A break meant lost production, which resulted in lost money. When it occurred, everyone had to move quickly and think clearly in dangerous confines. A common wound of honour amongst papermakers was the loss of fingertips caught in the nip of the stacks during these occasions. The waste paper caused by the break was directed below the machine to the broke beaters where it was again mixed with water, recycled and put through the entire process again….
In 1945, after six years of war production, most of the manufacturing facilities of North America were devoted to satisfying pent up consumer demand. Ocean Falls was no exception. Its machines were going flat-out supplying newsprint which, in turn, advertised newly available luxuries like automobiles, washing machines, and furniture. It also produced cardboard for packaging and shipping the consumer products and tissues that were essential human daily needs. The twenty years from 1945 to 1965 were the golden years for the company, the town, and the people of Ocean Falls. It is a sheer but happy coincidence that my family’s sojourn in Ocean Falls, 1953-68, coincided with these golden years…
Perhaps it was an accident, perhaps it was planned, but the establishments along Marine Drive were perfectly placed to serve their purpose. Next to the morgue was the greenhouse that contained Maughan’s Florist Shop. It was no trouble for Alice or Jack Maughan to walk to the morgue next door to discuss floral arrangements for a funeral. Jack, an Englishman and gardener with a green thumb, exemplified the finest qualities of that breed. He was a gentleman and always well dressed while mucking about in dirt. He had a pleasant word for everybody. While Jack’s skills were focused on the cultivation and propagation of plants and flowers, Alice’s were devoted to the marketing of them. She did most of the arranging, packaging, and selling. It was not unusual for a mill worker who had spent too much time and money in the beer parlour, the Legion, or the Yacht Club, to give Alice a call to open the shop so that he could pop by to pick up a floral arrangement to placate the wife for his tardiness and transgressions. Fortunately, the Maughan’s home was located just a few doors from their shop…
In the 1950s and 1960s Ocean Falls was truly a melting pot for the displaced and dispossessed people of Europe. An astonishing diversity and convergence of birthplace and heritage characterized the town in the postwar era, when the mill attracted many “DPs” (Displaced Persons), particularly recent immigrants from Italy, Eastern Europe, Poland, and Hungary. We only vaguely believed that DP was a derogatory term. They found themselves in a setting that was as isolated and remote as their European homelands had been congested and cosmopolitan. They shared a common quality with all other new arrivals in Ocean Falls: they were desperately poor…
While the predominant language was English, other languages were regularly used in homes, churches, on the street, in the bunkhouses and on the mill floor. At various stages of the town’s existence, large cohorts spoke Japanese, Chinese, Punjabi, Italian, Polish, Hungarian and virtually every European, particularly Scandinavian language. Many new arrivals spoke no English at all and communicated through the clamour of the ground wood mill or the scream and screech of the sawmill or the din of the machine room, with hand signals, head motions, and other body language. So common were foreign accents in Ocean Falls that any accent other than “Canadian” was simply an “Ocean Falls accent.”…
It was into this setting that my family arrived in Ocean Falls in late 1953. For the next fifteen years the town was at its peak. It was the economic and urban centre of the mid-coast with a population of 3,000 with a high standard of living fuelled by the good wages of the paper mill. Its swimmers were setting world records, its mill was producing a range of useful paper products for world markets, and its workers – many of whom were immigrants from every corner of war-torn Europe — were creating a secure foothold in the new world. These were the “golden years” of Ocean Falls, but like all things associated with resource extraction, they would not last forever…
For an isolated company town to survive and prosper its social infrastructure must be deeper than in most communities. The lure of well paying jobs was not enough to keep people in Ocean Falls. The institutions essential to health, spiritual wellbeing, political stability, and even law and order were critical to the existence and success of the town. From its beginning during the First World War, the management of Pacific Mills recognized that for Ocean Falls to succeed economically it must also cater to the non-financial necessities of life….
A well-staffed hospital and medical clinic ensured that injury, sickness, and trauma were appropriately treated. The Ocean Falls Hospital, built in 1917, was similar in design and duty to the many hospitals that served the people of coastal BC throughout the twentieth century. The care and security offered by this comfortable building were known and appreciated by many. Michael Dean’s sketch shows a friendly and inviting building. The scale was just right. The exterior design made it look more like a large bungalow than an institution. The windows, dormers, slope of the roof, and even the colour scheme — green on white – made it a welcoming place….
We were Anglicans. Our family’s association with the Anglican Church of Canada was a classic example of the art of compromise. My father was raised as a Roman Catholic in Saskatchewan; he attended Catholic schools and served as an alter boy. His Roman Catholic heritage could be traced back to County Cork and the arrival of St. Patrick. The Catholic faith provided strength to his ancestors who, fortunately, left Ireland in the 1820s, before the potato famine, and immigrated to Cape Breton Island in what is now Nova Scotia….
For several years, St. Margaret’s operated its own school — St. Margaret’s Catholic School. In 2012, Father Fagan recalled its genesis:
I loved the independence that Ocean Falls gave me. I operated completely on my own. Archbishop Duke gave me permission to open the school. The parish and the school were completely self-sustaining. Around 1956, a number of the European families who were familiar with the Catholic school system asked me to start a school. I thought it was a good idea. The fathers who worked in the mill made all of the school desks. I lived in the Rectory behind the church and I gave up some of my space for a classroom…..
The only local elections in Ocean Falls were for the school board, hospital board, and the executive positions in various clubs. The right people were usually asked to run for office and the results of the elections were usually foregone conclusions. A Community Council was created by the company to give the community some input into town issues. Members were appointed and not elected. They dealt with such pressing matters as barking dogs, street lighting, and the Dominion Day parade…..
LAW AND JUSTICE
When I look back at my childhood, I am amazed at how poorly it prepared me for a life as a lawyer. Ocean Falls had no need of lawyers, judges, or legal rules and regulations. Laws are intended to regulate relations in a civilized society. We had little need for formal law because our society tended to regulate itself. Certain conditions promote the need for lawyers and we had few of these. Anyone who needed a lawyer for a property transaction, estate matter, family dispute, or the other legal detritus of everyday life, waited for a trip downtown to consult with a lawyer in Vancouver….
On the heels of A Bitta Ditta Datta in popularity was the Advertiser’s “Police Court News.” Much of Mrs. Vanatter’s information came from her husband, Roy Vanatter, the stipendiary magistrate of Ocean Falls Police Court. The names of the participants in Police Court, both the guilty and the not guilty, along with the sentences given out by Mr. Vanatter, set tongues wagging in the coffee shop after they had finished discussing Mrs. Vanatter’s gossip. A short-lived attempt to stifle the Police Court News was rebuffed by John and Dorothy Buchanan, the publishers of the Advertiser with this succinct and effective response:
We will no longer refrain from publishing the names of people who appear in Police Court. If you want your name to stay out of “Police Court News,” stay out of Police Court.
This admonition had more of a deterrent effect on illegal and antisocial behaviour than any law passed by any government or any sentence imposed by any judge. It speaks volumes about what works and what does not work in our criminal justice system….
The Curfew Act was the most important piece of legislation in our little north coast pocket of legal irrelevance and one of the only laws that seemed to affect our daily lives. To the children of the town, no sound was more memorable, distinctive, and ominous than the curfew siren. The Curfew Act described this regulation in 1951 as follows:
Except by reasons of an unavoidable cause, no child shall, without being accompanied by his or her parent or guardian, be in any street or public place during night-time in the area hereafter described.
The area to which these regulations shall apply shall be the territory within a radius of two miles of the Courthouse in Ocean Falls….
Ocean Falls was a young town and Charleson School, which was at the geographical and social centre of the town, was the most important institution in the town. The teachers, who were a beneficial mix of transient rookies and hardened veterans, were a respected and integral component of the community. The school buildings were appropriately located at the bottom of the School Hill. Other than the students who lived in Martin Valley who were chauffeured on a one-mile trip to the school on the Johnson Terminals Bus, everyone in town could walk to school over the wooden roads and staircases in five minutes….
Although I did not graduate with them because of my forced exile at boarding school, my previous classmates were called a “Small League of Nations” by the Ocean Falls Advertiser when they graduated in June, 1966. They were that and more. They represented the best of Ocean Falls. The 34 graduates were by far the largest graduating class in the history of the town. By comparison, in 1965, there were twenty, and in 1967, fourteen….
By the late 1960s the world was changing and so was Ocean Falls. In 1968, only two years after the thirty-four students of the class of ’66 graduated, only thirteen graduated from Charleson high school. The numbers would hover around the low teens until 1974 when the number fell to single digits. They would never recover. By 1981 there were none and that had been the case ever since….
Ocean Falls never needed much of an excuse for a party, and celebrations and entertainment tended to be frequent and enthusiastic. The harsher the climate and the more isolated the locale, the more sociable the people — or so the saying goes. Like almost everything else in the town, our entertainment was homemade and home grown. For the adults, the house party was the most popular and predominant form of entertainment. Doors were never locked, and every weekend and special occasions such as Labour Day, Remembrance Day, Christmas, and New Years meant celebration. Card parties, usually bridge but also whist, crib, or poker, were regular pastimes…..
Participation in organizations was not only a hallmark of life in Ocean Falls, it was encouraged and celebrated publicly in ways that could not be imagined in larger and less isolated communities. The exploits and successes of bowlers, shooters, dart players, toastmasters, first aid providers, basketball players, Little League ball players, hospital auxiliary volunteers, synchronized swimmers, Cubs, Brownies, Scouts, and Guides were all reported in detail in the town’s weekly publications, The Advertiser and Informer, or in the company publication, Crown Zellerbach News. The Union newspaper, The Western Pulp and Paper Worker, also celebrated the social, cultural, and athletic activities of its members in Ocean Falls…..
If there was one ritual that characterized the social life of Ocean Falls, especially at Christmas, it was the house party. Everyone seemed to have an open house. Every house overflowed with Christmas baking; every house was stocked with extra supplies of Old Style or Black Label beer, Lamb’s Navy Rum, or Canadian Club Whiskey. For special guests, Crown Royal Whiskey was released from its purple flannel bag and its crystal-like bottle. The liquid contents were always appreciated by the adults and the bags made perfect containers when marble season arrived in the spring. Doors were never locked and people wandered from house to house, sampling each other’s hospitality, liquor, and food. An extra place was always set at the town’s dining room tables on Sunday evenings and holidays for a single male acquaintance stranded in the hotel or bunkhouses….
In the late 1960s, the culture of participation and volunteerism changed. The whole world changed. The prosperity that had characterized North America since the end of the war was slowing down. The innocence that had characterized life was fading and was replaced by political or social revolution. The town’s single men spent more time in their hotel rooms drinking and watching TV and less time in the pool hall, the card room, or the rifle range. The population began to dwindle and move away, and leagues that once boasted six teams were lucky to get two teams to play against each other. Church congregations were decimated, and with the congregations went the choirs, the accompanists, the Toastmasters, the Masons, and even the bingo players who had met or practiced in church halls. All of these changes were apparent and even exaggerated in the town’s small and intimate footprint. Like all things in Ocean Falls, the occurrence and spontaneity of these social and service clubs, festivals, and local newspaper reporting of them faded in the 1970s and disappeared forever as the decade drew to a close….
Like many who look back after the passage of fifty years, my childhood is Ocean Falls was very idealistic and fulfilling. I do not remember the rain and isolation as negative influences. I recognize them as positive forces that contributed to the security and sense of community that were the central themes of life in the town. Rain People all remember a smell unique to Ocean Falls, and probably unknown anywhere else in the world: the aroma of a mixture of drying lignum and creosote. When the sun was warm and the roads were wet, the wooden planks of the roads gave off a pleasant odour, not so much for its olfactory qualities as for what it signalled – a respite from the cold rain. Despite the weather, there was never a lack of things to do or friends to do them with. Ocean Falls was quite simply a children’s paradise. The town’s precipitous topography and distinctive raised wooden infrastructure contributed to our pleasure and activities. The elevated steam pipes provided plenty of opportunity to practice climbing and hone our balance skills as we attempted to walk along this overhead corridor. The surrounding mountains, forests, cliffs, lakes, river, ocean were also integral parts of a massive playground….
Booze, or rather the liquor delivery business, was another source of my childhood wealth, particularly during the herring season in the spring and salmon season in the summer. In the 1950s, during the summer months, the mid coast fishing fleet used Ocean Falls as a supply depot. From the closings on Thursdays to the openings on Sundays, the seiners, gillnetters, and packers — who did not have fish to deliver to the cannery at Namu — headed for Ocean Falls. There they stocked up on groceries and other supplies at the Hudson’s Bay Company store, caroused in the beer parlour at the Martin Inn, and most importantly for the crews and me, replenished their stock of alcohol at the government liquor store, the only one on the coast of British Columbia between Kitimat and Port Hardy on Vancouver Island…
Communities on the coast of BC were notorious for their transient populations. Of many logging camps, it was said that there were three crews; one working, one coming and one going. With the exception of the single, transient men who worked in the paper mill, this was not the case in Ocean Falls. The town’s stability was due in large part to its excellent recreational facilities, which provided residents, particularly families, with activities to help forget the isolation and the long wet winters. In the mid twentieth century, the most famous recreational facility on the BC Coast, if not in BC as a whole, was the Ocean Falls swimming pool. Other coastal mill towns had their own recreational specialties: Powell River had soccer, hockey and choirs; Port Alberni had basketball and its Canadian champions, the Alberni Athletics, but none of them reached the national and international stature of the swimmers and other athletes of Ocean Falls….
If there wasn’t a ball game of some sort in progress at the school, it never took us kids more than five minutes to get one going. In the spring, scrub baseball and the odd game of “500-Up” occupied the school field from dawn till dusk. Summer produced massive games of British Bulldog and Kick the Can frequently involving more than 100 kids. The boundaries of the game included most of the “flats” which occupied only about six acres of space. The asphalt surface of the school grounds, a great place to play Crack the Whip, also made for a natural rink for roller skating, which was a favourite pastime for the girls. Attempts to roller-skate with metal wheels over wooden plank roads while clamped loosely to penny loafers made for a very rough ride. Girls also participated in synchronized swimming, basketball, archery, and badminton….
Known as George to every kid in town, George Gate was quite simply one of the best coaches in the world and arguably one of the best ever. His achievements are recognized by his induction into the BC Sports Hall of Fame, the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame, the International Aquatic Hall of Fame, and the Order of Canada. Although he was not the first coach to take the swimmers of Ocean Falls to international prominence, he established the legend. After working in a logging camp on Vancouver Island, this mild mannered northern Englishman from Carlisle in the Border Country ended up in Ocean Falls in 1950. Despite, or perhaps because of his isolation from other coaches, he created a competitive swimming culture that was like no other in the country, if not the world. He was only satisfied with the best. George always set the bar high and he would be the first to admit that his charges in Ocean Falls usually rose to its height….
The definitive story of the Ocean Falls Swimming Club has been told by one of its most famous alumni, Jack Kelso, in Ocean Falls: Canada’s Reservoir of Swimming Excellence. Jack’s personal story is one shared by many post-war European immigrants to Ocean Falls. The Kelso family left Ireland for Ocean Falls for economic opportunity in 1952 when Jack, the eldest of three children, arrived unable to swim at the age of 12. He learned quickly and made swimming his life. In the early 1960s, he was one of the best all-round swimmers in the world, briefly holding the world record for the 200-yard individual medley. He represented Canada on numerous international teams but narrowly missed being an Olympian in both 1960 and 1964. In those years, the 200-yard individual medley, his specialty, was not yet an Olympic event. He became an accomplished swimming coach and coached at UBC for many years. The competitive fires first lit in Ocean Falls in the early 1950s still burn and Jack is a multiple world record holder in master’s swimming….
One young crew-cut boy was an anomaly to the Ocean Falls pattern of swimmers coming from family groupings. His name is Richard Pound. He was the only member of his family who swam competitively. The Pound family arrived in Ocean Falls in 1948, when Dick was six and unable to swim. His father, Bill, was an engineer who had been hired from a paper mill in Quebec as the plant engineer in Ocean Falls. Like many of the town’s children, his outdoor activities soon involved water. A favorite haunt was the collection of logs behind the dam, a great place for catching trout. Being able to swim was essential for of any boisterous child growing up in a town surrounded by water….
Few communities have been better situated to take advantage of their setting and natural environment than Ocean Falls. Clubs and activities associated with the outdoors flourished. Everyone lived within a five-minute walk of Cousins Inlet or Link Lake. Families who did not take advantage of the “chuck” — short for saltchuck, or salt water in the Chinook jargon — used the lake for recreation. If you stayed for any length of time, you either had a boat, were getting one, or were trying to sell one….
In 1960, at the age of twelve, I was the deckhand on the motor yacht Leeward, the former company boat of Pacific Mills, which had been purchased from the company by the local dentist, Dr Richard Muscat, as a floating dental office. He did so when Crown Zellerbach replaced the vessel with the Leeward II. Based at Ocean Falls, the Leewards were meant to take big shots – senior management and Crown Zellerbach executives from San Francisco, good customers, and paper buyers from the lucrative newsprint markets of North America – on fishing and hunting excursions to the waters and hillsides of the mid coast….
With the exception of the Thomas Crosby IV (now the Argonaut) and the MP78 (now the Poplar III), all of the boats depicted in Michael Dean’s iconic painting are now gone. In the 1960s, whether they were for work or pleasure, boats were everywhere on the coast and particularly in Ocean Falls. Those that are sighted now are frequently massive cruise ships or comfortable yachts. The likelihood of spotting a Catholic priest in a sixteen-foot clinker boat powered by a 35 horsepower Johnson outboard is nil….
For a century, from the 1860s to the 1970s, the inside passage of the coast of British Columbia between Burrard Inlet and the Skeena River was the busiest and most valuable commercial thoroughfare in the province. Hundreds of boats carrying millions of dollars’ worth of cargo regularly plied these waters. From the inception of Ocean Falls in the first decade of the twentieth century, coastal steamships were essential to travel on this maritime passage. In 1953, when my family arrived, little did we know that the glory days of British Columbia coastal steamship fleet were almost over….
The vessel that, in the same year, replaced the Norah, Prince Rupert, and Catala was as utilitarian as its predecessors were genteel. The Northland Prince, built by Burrard Dry Dock Company, was Terry’s flagship, a typical freighter with most of her hull and deck space devoted to freight. Accommodation on “the Prince” was confined to the rear of the vessel. Consigned to memory were promenade decks where ladies in cashmere overcoats and men in tailored suits strolled, played shuffleboard, or leaned casually over the rail while smoking filtered Sportsman cigarettes; corridors where children played under the watchful eye of pursers in blue uniforms or stewards in white starched tunics; dining rooms where stewards with xylophones called for first and second sittings. In short, the Prince was a comfortable but Spartan vessel. Its job was to get its passengers and freight from Vancouver to Ocean Falls, Prince Rupert, or Stewart as economically as possible. She provided a reliable service to Ocean Falls between 1963 and 1976, at a time when air travel was still somewhat unpredictable and catered to passengers, not freight….
Ocean Falls residents never lacked money or ideas. In the 1930s the two came together to form Pioneer Airways, a classic example of the bravado that characterized the BC coast in the twentieth century. Pacific Mills provided some financial and moral support, but it was financed by a group of papermakers in Ocean Falls who were among the highest paid wage earners in the province. In one of the first share offerings in BC history — before securities regulation and investment bankers with suspenders — the papermakers who founded Pioneer Airways sold shares in their company to their fellow millworkers. What is even more remarkable is that this successful stock offering dated to the depths of the depression in 1933. While the rest of North America was dealing with bread lines and relief camps, the relatively well-off citizens of Ocean Falls were floating stock.
The people of Ocean Falls were savers. There was little on which to spend the very good wages from the paper mill. Most Rain People had been poor when they arrived. What reason, other than economic security and the opportunity to make a grub stake, would compel anyone to move to this isolated and rain soaked place? Most residences were owned by the company — the manager’s house, bungalows, duplexes, apartments, and the Martin Inn, the hotel for single men. Rent was nominal. House furnishings were rudimentary but utilitarian. For a comfortable four-bedroom home that came with modern appliances, our family paid $53 a month. That also included steam heat, electricity, telephone service, and general home repair provided by the tradesman of the townsite crew. All the utilities were, of course, owned and operated by Crown Zellerbach. Only residents at Martin Valley, a mile from the townsite, owned their own houses and paid mortgages. No one, except the residents of Martin Valley, owned a car. This meant that many residents, without having to pay mortgages, excessive rents, or car payments, had money to spend on the businesses in town — and, of course, on their boats and cruisers….
People in Ocean Falls always dressed well and businesses that catered to this characteristic prospered. Richards and Farrish Men’s Wear, which sent a sales representative to Ocean Falls several times a year to measure men for custom suits and sports jackets, did very well by catering to the sartorial needs of the town. Women found the latest fashions at Millie’s Fashions or at the Style Shoppe, a ladies’ dress shop that operated out of Ethel Cadorins’s living room on Second Street with the assistance of Marg Anderson, the Fire Chief’s wife. Clothes from any source that didn’t fit perfectly could be altered by Elsie Peterson who, in addition to raising eight children, had the time and the initiative to work as a seamstress out of her home at the bottom of the school hill….
The most precocious young businessman in Ocean Falls of the late 1950s and 1960s was Billy Barker, teenage entrepreneur. Everyone knew Billy, later known as Bill Barker, a small dynamo with a huge laugh. In high school, he was regularly on the Student Council and edited the yearbook, the Charleson Torch, in the banner year of 1966, but severe asthma prevented him from playing sports other than bowling. His greatest strength was his business acumen. As a teenager he understood his market and catered to it with a surprising number of businesses, most of which were successful. Now a successful accountant, Bill Barker recalls his early years at Ocean Falls:
Across the bridge from the town, on the far side of a river channel usually clogged with floating mill refuse, Crown Zellerbach ran one of the largest industrial enterprises in BC. The dominant smell in Ocean Falls was the aroma of cooking pulp sulphate. On a bad day it smelled like rotten eggs. As inhabitants of the town we got used to it. In pulp mill towns in BC, it was known as the “smell of money.” The dominant sound also came from across the Link River: the constant hum of the paper machines interrupted by the clunk of the wood blocks in the groundwood mill, the groans of dozers and tugboats that pushed the logs around the harbour, up the jackladder, and into the sawmill where the wood began its journey to be cut and ground and cooked into fibre to provide the raw material for the finished products of pulp and paper….
Early on I saw that the lure of the mill and its well-paying jobs could be a trap. Why stay in school or learn a trade when you could quit school in Grade 10 and get a job that paid good wages and benefits, and allow you to buy a boat or a car after only three months of work? Many young men fell into this seductive trap, and many of my friends who stayed in Ocean Falls found their reliability and skill appreciated and rewarded. For those of us destined for university, millwork was a source of security and mobility. After graduating from the beer bottle business, Ralph Leverton found regular employment on weekends and holidays in the machine room. By the time he graduated from high school he had saved enough money to comfortably put himself through Simon Fraser University….
Alex Riley, who arrived in 1958, recalled the 68-day strike that started in November 1957:
The Company was really good to us. In 1958 during the strike, we would regularly get hot meals delivered from the hotel to the picket line on the bridge. Coming from Scotland where labour management relations were pretty confrontational and the Unions were very militant, I couldn’t believe that we were treated so well while we were on strike. After the strike was over, the Company gave us a break on the rent that we had not been able to pay during the strike…..
Death and disaster rarely came quietly in Ocean Falls. The relative absence of older people meant that the usual ebb and flow of life and death took place elsewhere. The company’s policy of providing homes for active workers meant that retired personnel always moved away from the town. Deaths were rarely, if ever, mentioned in the Ocean Falls Advertiser, and when they were, they were tragic and accidental. The graveyard between Highland Drive and Garden Drive at Martin Valley, which is one of the few areas of the community still cared for, is the final resting place of between five and six hundred people, few of whom were over sixty when they passed away. When death occurred, it was usually sudden unexpected, caused by fire, falls, drowning, and landslide. The rugged physical environment contributed to this phenomenon. The town was surrounded by massive unstable mountains and cold and unforgiving bodies of water, including Link Lake, Twin Lakes, the Martin River, and Cousins Inlet. Five members of the McKellar family had drowned on Link Lake in 1923, and the drowning of a little girl at the beach at the foot of the dam rocks in 1926 had been the impetus to the building of Ocean Falls’ world famous swimming pool….
University student Harold Corbin, who lived in Ocean Falls from 1944 to 1968, recalled the events of that dramatic night as follows:
I was back from college in California to make some money to continue with my education. I recall how bitterly cold it was over that Christmas season of 1964. Unlike many winters when the snow was quickly washed away by the rain, the snow had stayed. There were huge mounds of the stuff everywhere and the bobsleighs were in great use….
Crown Zellerbach Canada continued to make money from Ocean Falls until the late 1960s, but the worm turned in 1965 when, following the deadly landslide, a planned revitalization of the kraft mill was put on hold. Instead, the company started shutting down its antiquated paper machines. The kraft and sulphate departments of the mill were shut down permanently in 1967 and the town’s population began to decline precipitously from its 1965 population of 3,000. By April 1968, membership in Local 312 was down to 550 from a peak of 1,000. The burning of some older homes began. Crown Zellerbach realized that Ocean Falls was coming to the end of its productive life and began making plans to shut the operation down. People, including our family, began the exodus….
Then, on August 30, 1972 — although they did not know it at the time — a lifeline was thrown to the town by the people of British Columbia in the form of the election of an NDP government. After twenty years, the Social Credit government of W.A.C. Bennett was out and the social democrats, represented by the NDP and led by Dave Barrett, were the new governing party. After Barrett’s victory, the BC government, guided by Bob Williams, the Minister of Lands, Forests, and Water Resources, embarked on an ambitious program to acquire companies and assets involved in the extraction and processing of the province’s natural resources. Ocean Falls would become one of the laboratories where Williams and Barrett could experiment with “peoples’ capitalism.”….
While the mill struggled to keep going in the 1970s, the townsite suffered drastically. No dedicated townsite crew attended to the incessant requirements of 500 residences in a rain soaked environment. Many of the houses and apartments for which there had been a waiting list only ten years earlier, sat empty. Attempts by management to promote pride of ownership by supplying paint and other building materials were largely unsuccessful. Packs of inbred mongrel dogs roamed the streets (there was not much choice of partners even amongst the dogs). Live television kept people in their houses rather than on the streets, at the swimming pool or in the bowling alley, or out at club meetings. Stereo systems worth thousands of dollars kept some happily entertained at home. Drugs, particularly marijuana, hashish, and LSD, joined alcohol as sources of social activity and causes of social dysfunction; all were used by an increasing proportion of the population to survive the long wet winters. Turnover of personnel remained very high. Indeed, many of the employees in the mill were less than desirable. This was the Age of Aquarius and at times, the smell of marijuana in the sawmill was stronger than the smell of cut, wet hemlock….
Just as the bizarre politics of British Columbia had thrown the town a lifeline in August of 1972, political developments in 1975 would be the anchor that eventually sunk the town. In the summer of that year, just as Ocean Falls was getting back on its feet, the entire coastal pulp and paper industry went on strike. The cyclical pulp and paper market was in one of its periods of decline. The radical elements within the pulp and paper unions became more entrenched in spite of the minimal economic impact their intransigence was having on employers. Other union workers throughout the province were walking picket lines. The NDP government, traditionally the friend of the union movement, ordered a cooling off period of ninety days to get people back to work and back to the bargaining table. The unions, particularly the Canadian Papermakers Union led by Art Gruntman, were apoplectic but the members, including those in Ocean Falls, reluctantly went back to work, but the strike had done serious economic damage to OFC….
In 1978, the iconic wooden roads that were such an essential part of the unique infrastructure of the town were destroyed. Contractors took chainsaws to the centres of these structures and simply cut them in half. Bulldozers and gravel trucks followed the chainsaws. Houses that could no longer be accessed from the new roads were left to rot and in some cases mercifully burned. No more did the screams of children rattling down the School Hill, the Dam Hill, the Show Hill, or Burma Road on homemade bobsleds pierce the winter air. Also gone were the hiding places under the wooden roads where kids could have a smoke, steal their first kiss, eat a box of chips from the coffee shop, or hide from the police after curfew….
The British Columbia forest industry priced itself out of the market. In 1973, when Crown Zellerbach got out of Ocean Falls, there were nine paper mills on the BC coast and most of them generated considerable profits. By 2015, there were three, generally producing massive losses and clinging desperately to life. By then, each mill employed less than half the contingent of workers it employed in 1973. High wages, a labour-management climate stuck in the class struggles of the early twentieth century, high energy costs, and increasing costs associated with environmental and regulatory compliance, together with digital technology, all contributed to the downfall of an industry whose workers and profits had been the most important catalysts in the development of British Columbia….
Between June 1, 1980, when the Ocean Falls pulp and paper mill shut down, and 1985, the town and the mill were in suspended animation. Less than fifty diehard residents remained, including some long-term Rain People. Flo and Nick Danshin, Sandy McDonald, and Ken Kennedy stayed on the payroll of OFC to babysit the town and the mill assets and equipment. The steam plant had shut down but electricity was still supplied by the hydroelectric power plant. Periodically the skeleton crew, which included Nick Danshin and Sandy McDonald, fired up a piece of machinery to prevent it from seizing up as it awaited an unknown fate and while its government owners dithered about its future. It was costing the government owners half a million dollars a year to maintain what was left of the physical infrastructure of Ocean Falls. Unlike most places in the townsite, the mill hardware was portable and had some value that could be realized in an industrial auction….
And so it ended on the morning of September 15, 1983. Bill 30, the Ocean Falls Corporation Repeal Act, was referred to the committee of the House, read a third time, and passed. It would receive Royal Assent and become effective three years later, on March 31, 1986. The government could now permit the excavators to destroy the large apartment buildings, to authorize the deliberate burning of the houses in the townsite, and to put the mill machines and equipment under the hammer of Maynard’s Auctioneers on April 14, 1986….
The only successful business based in Ocean Falls was the work of Tony Knott, an electrical engineer from Victoria who in 1983 proposed to use the clean and relatively inexpensive waterpower of Ocean Falls to replace the burning of diesel to bring electricity to the villages of Shearwater and Bella Bella. After the last roll of newsprint came off No. 2 paper machine, on March 31, 1980, the town’s most valuable assets were power and water. The mill was silent except for the hum of the turbines and generators in the power plant at the base of the dam rocks where Link River met Cousins Inlet. Enough electric power to run a small city went practically unused. What power was generated heated and lit the few remaining homes and businesses and protected millions of dollars worth of mill machinery from the ravages of the damp climate. In 1983, Knott was working for BC Hydro, the government-owned monopoly that controlled virtually all electrical power production and distribution in the province. He was familiar with the plant at Ocean Falls and with the fact that Bella Bella and Shearwater, the nearest communities, relied on expensive diesel generation for their power needs. He saw an opportunity to marry the idle capacity at Ocean Falls to the needs of Shearwater and Bella Bella….
In the 1980s, the town became a dumping ground for hair-brained commercial schemes with one thing in common — the use of other people’s money, sometimes the money of the people of British Columbia entrusted to the provincial government. Most economic proposals set in Ocean Falls in the 1980s, both before and after “normalization,” were doomed to failure. In 1980, Imperial Pacific Lumber (Impac) proposed a “flitch mill” for export to Asia. In 1982, an outfit called Westerly Fish Farms hatched a plan to propagate and process Alaskan Black Cod (sable fish) for the Japanese market with a plant at Ocean Falls. This is the same fish we caught from the dock behind the store that we called “sewer cod.” No farmed cod from Ocean Falls ever found its way to the plates of diners elsewhere. In 1985, Robert Kaplan, the Federal Solicitor General, mused about using Ocean Falls, or Tasu in the Queen Charlotte Islands, as a penal colony. In the same year, a Korean group expressed an interest in the mill and wanted $144,000 of government money for a feasibility study. The funds were not forthcoming, the “study” was never done, and the Koreans were never heard from again…
Summer of 2013
In the summer of 2013, I returned for my sixty-fifth birthday to become a pensioner in the place that shaped me as a boy. I had been warned to be ready to be depressed by what I saw at Ocean Falls. Fortunately, I was not. As I entered the head of Cousins Inlet and gazed upon what was left of the town, after an absence of forty years, I felt a sense of peace. I had come home….
I also reflected on what would Ocean Falls might have been like if the internet and smart phones had been available. Would the social media have relieved the effect of isolation? Could it have made people more insular? Would it, like television, have detracted from the sense of community formed in this compact town and fostered by numerous teams, sports, social, and service clubs, its pubs, churches, and parades? Today, travellers are immersed in their devices and possibly with someone connected to that device. They do not engage with their neighbours or fellow travellers. They do not even make eye contact with each other, to say nothing of contact through speech and physical gestures. Would this have happened on coastal steam ships like the Catala and the Northland Prince or on the BC Airlines Mallards? Would there have been regular gatherings and connections made on boat day?
I think not. I am grateful that I did not have to experience the possibility and that I lived at a time in a community when human connection was personal and commonplace….
I might never return to Ocean Falls, except perhaps in an urn to be emptied near the Dam Rocks where the Link River flows into Cousins Inlet. By then, what now remains of my hometown may well be gone as nature steadily reclaims it. In spite of promotional material to the contrary, Ocean Falls will never be visited by many tourists. Its isolation has always been an impediment, even for residents at its stirring and impressive prime. The few who come will be prosperous sports fisherman, boaters, and adventurers; but there will always be Rain People for whom Ocean Falls will remain home despite the obstacles created by distance, isolation, and the passage of time….