During the 1950s, ‘60s and 70s in British Columbia, the populist Social Credit government of WAC Bennett (followed in the mid-‘70s and early ‘80s by his more corporate-leaning son Bill) embarked on a massive infrastructural transformation of the mountainous province. Bennett’s goal was to not just make BC economically self-sufficient, but turn it into one of the most economically-buoyant jurisdictions on the planet. To accomplish this, he set out to exploit the abundant natural resources of the mountainous province and sell those resources to the highest bidder. Massive hydroelectric projects, pulp-paper mills, and mines were opened up throughout the BC interior, joined by thousands of kilometres of new highways and railways .While the advantages, disadvantages, and legacies of these projects could be posted upon ad infinitum-ad nauseam, this particular article is interested one legacy specifically: that of the company town, and one unique town in particular.
Prior to World War II, the modus operandi of the BC government when it came to community development around major resource projects in remote areas of the province was to let things happen organically (i.e., ignore things and let the company in charge worry about it). These were the days before the fly-in, fly-out work camps of today; workers lived where they worked, and they generally lived in small towns purpose-built by the company in charge. While the managers typically had it pretty well, workers lived in company-owned houses or were given beds in large company-owned bunkhouses in unplanned, impromptu communities. The company owned the store, the services, and the land. And if the company didn’t feel like paying for the cost of the town any longer, or decided to close the operation, it was ‘everyone out’. Eventually by the 1960s, the government realised that some amount of governance and stability was owed to workers in these types of company towns, and thus was ushered in the era of the modern ‘instant town’: towns that were extensively planned beforehand with full social and recreational services, permissive of private ownership, and granted immediate municipal status in order to create a flourishing permanent settlement above and beyond the fortunes of the primary industrial employer (to various degrees of success). Between 1965 and 1971, eleven communities were created in BC under this policy, while a twelfth, Tumbler Ridge, came in 1981.
Not all company towns during this era went the formal ‘instant town’ route, however, which would come back to bite them when the economic struggles of the 1980s came around. Such is the case of the town of Kitsault, in the remote northwest corner of BC at the head of Alice Arm. Mining had occurred off-and-on in the area for the entire 20th century for silver, lead, zinc, copper, and, finally, molybdenum. By 1972, however, mining had come to a standstill in the area. The rebirth of the area would come in 1979 when the depletion of North American molybdenum deposits drove prices back up and sent Amax of Canada Ltd. looking for a new large-scale deposit to mine. At Kitsault, they had a ready-made mine. They just had no workers. Nor did anyone who was to work at said mine have a place to live at Kitsault (the old Alice Arm ghost town across the fjord was too rundown to be worth rehabilitating). Thus, Amax decided to build a model company town for 1 200 residents, replete with all the modern amenities a family could want.
Kitsault townsite. The molybdenum mine is a short distance down the road to the southeast.
Taking over several hundred hectares of flat tableland above the shore of Alice Arm just northwest of the mine, Amax told its contracted planners to build a town that would be reminiscent of any town workers were used to in southern Canada, with the recreational and social infrastructure one would see in any other town (view a photo gallery of the construction phase here). Very similar to the instant town concept, only the company would still own the land and buildings. Families that moved to Kitsault arrived by a road punched through the wilderness to connect the new town with the outside world. There they would find a comprehensive set of amenities: a hospital, a library, a shopping mall, restaurants, banks, a theatre, a post office, a pub, a school and daycare, and a recreation centre with a gym, pool and Jacuzzi. In total, 92 family homes and seven apartment suites containing 200 units were built. Each home had large lots with attractive lawns that were constantly verdant green in the sunny-yet-moist northwest climate. All of the utilities ran underground, and the sewage treatment facility was state-of-the-art for its time. To its one detriment, in a true demonstration of 1970s urban planning, it was completely designed around the automobile: there were no sidewalks, no walking paths. Regardless, it was quite the happening spot in 1980-81. The people of Kitsault had it made – for eighteen whole months.
When the global recession hit Canada in 1982, molybdenum prices dropped five-fold. Amax would begin losing money hand-over-fist were it to keep Kitsault open. So it closed the mine and the town, and just like that, the life of a fully-functioning town was over almost as soon as it began. Even in the 1980s, the perils of living in a company town remained as high as ever. The houses were padlocked, and the town was gated off. Unlike other BC company towns like Giscome before it or Cassiar and Upper Fraser after it, Kitsault would not be torn up, however. Amax and its successor company Phelps Dodge would keep caretakers there for the next 23 years. The caretakers kept the town nicely frozen in time painting houses and cleaning roads, even keeping the lawns mowed and the furniture dusted). But the town had a ‘For Sale’ sign on it (there is a terrific photo gallery here). As time went on, the price of the town dropped. Eventually, the deal became too good to pass up for an enigmatic (that is to say, enigmatic to the point where you can’t find a biography of him that isn’t in a press release from one of the numerous companies he owns) medical equipment magnate and Washington, DC real estate developer raised in India but long a resident of Virginia named Krishnan Suthanthiran. Reading about the town in a newspaper, he bought it sight-unseen for CAN$5.7 million; a pretty good deal considering it took an estimated CAN$50 million to construct.
Suthanthiran’s plan for Kitsault is a rather interesting one: from the various pages on the Kitsault website, the goal is to create a resort community based upon wellness retreats, corporate health-care training and artist-colony-based eco-tourism: smoke-free, automobile-free, meat-free. A quick exploration of the site will quickly reveal a large amount of cross-promotion between Suthanthiran’s various business ventures and health care-related social activism. Frankly, it doesn’t provide any tangible information as to just what exactly said destination retreat will look like. Reportedly, 2011 will be the date of opening, but there is no indication one way or the other what is happening there as access to the town is restricted. When Kitsault does pop up in the news, it tends to be related to mining: current mining rights-holders Avanti recently fought the resort company and won the right to maintain the right-of-way into Kitsault for further mining exploration. Avanti announced last month that an Asian steel producer has committed to purchasing three million pounds of molybdenum annually should the mine reopen.
Below is a preview of an episode of the aviation travel television series Wings Over Canada on Kitsault that was taped in 2007. The full half-hour episode may be viewed here: it’s a decent look at Kitsault and its story and really lets the viewer explore the town in its current state and its incredibly scenic backdrop. The main focus of the episode from the 8:00 mark or so is the ongoing maintenance and renovation of the town in advance of its reopening (this shouldn’t be a surprise since Mr. Suthanthiran also bought the production company that produces and syndicates the series). From the footage, it is obvious that while there are many secrets yet to be revealed about what a future Kitsault shall look like, the people behind it are rather enthusiastic. Between the resort community and the mine, Kitsault might get its second chance after all.
Best Entertainment Corporation (2007). Kitsault: The Rebirth of a Dream. Wings Over Canada 905. Available at http://www.babelgum.com/129505/wings-over-canada-905-kitsault-the-rebirth-a-dream.html. Accessed 26 October 2010.
Duckworth, J. (2010). They Don’t Live Here Anymore. Soft Riot Journal, 18 August 2010. Available at http://softriot.com/2010/08/18/they-dont-live-here-anymore/. Accessed 26 October 2010.
Goudy, J. (2010). B.C. Court rules Ghost Town Resort must allow mining exploration. Law of the Lands, 28 August 2010. Available at http://landownerlaw.blogspot.com/2010/08/bc-court-rules-ghost-town-resort-must.html. Accessed 26 October 2010.
Hernadi, I. (2010). Kitsault & Alice Arm: Ghost towns coming back to life. Northword, August/September 2010. Available at http://northword.ca/august-2010/kitsault-alice-arm (associated Flickr album available at http://www.flickr.com/photos/xtremepeaks/sets/72157605961102109/). Accessed 26 October 2010.
Kitsault Resorts Ltd. (2009). About Kitsault – History. Chandra Krishnan Kitsault. Available at http://www.kitsault.com/about_hist.html. Accessed 26 October 2010.
McGillivray, B. (2000). Single-Resource Communities: Fragile Settlements. In Geography of British Columbia: People and Landscapes in Transition, 201-208. Available at http://books.google.ca/books?id=MWL_6b7dUrkC&pg;=PA203&dq;=%22instant+town%22&hl;=en&ei;=3qvHTLHEGYO0sAPn5qXbDQ&sa;=X&oi;=book_result&ct;=result&resnum;=5&ved;=0CDsQ6AEwBA#v=onepage&q;=%22instant%20town%22&f;=false. Accessed 26 October 2010.
McKay, J. (2010). Avanti and Asian partner resurrecting ghost town’s molybdenum mine. BIV Business Today, 19 October 2010. Available at http://www.bivinteractive.com/index.php?option=com_content&task;=view&id;=3236&Itemid;=46. Accessed 26 October 2010.
Northern BC Business (2010). What’s happening in Kitsault? Northern BC Business, 16 January 2010. Available at http://northernbcbusiness.com/2010/01/16/whats-happening-in-kitsault/. Accessed 26 October 2010.
Struck, D. (2005). Virginia Millionaire Buys Himself a Ghost Town: Businessman Has Big Plans for Canadian Mine Site. Washington Post, 30 July 2005: A01. Available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/07/29/AR2005072902170.html. Accessed 26 October 2010.
Tomblin, S. (1990). W.A.C. Bennett and Province-Building in British Columbia. BC Studies 85(1): 45-61. Audio stream available at http://www.bcstudies.com/audio.php?mp3=6. Accessed 26 October 2010.