British Columbia Ocean Falls

Ocean Falls, Cousins Inlet

Wednesday, July 25, 2012S.V. CAMBRIA

The damn in Ocean Falls.

After another quick soak in the hot spring pool, we upped anchor and left Eucott Bay (without incident) for Ocean Falls, passing by Sir Alexander MacKenzie Provincial Park along the way.  The park commemorates the site of the first recorded walk across the North American continent, marked with an obelisk monument.  Along the shoreline, there’s a rock which reads, “Alex MacKenzie from Canada by land 22 July 1793”.  The fact that he walked across Canada is impressive, the monument … not so much.

Ocean Falls was first imagined as an industrial community in 1903 by three men who saw the Link Lake Falls and surrounding timber and envisioned a pulp mill site.  In September of 1906, twenty-five men disembarked the steamer Venture with the sole purpose of clearing the land.  Eventually a pulp mill was built (the largest in British Columbia for many years); a saw mill, power station and dam followed years later and Ocean Falls grew into a thriving town of approximately 5,000 people, complete with a hotel, hospital, fire house, department store, apartment buildings, schools, and the like.

It’s been said that Crown Zellerbach, the principle and final corporate owner of the town, didn’t plan for the future but, rather, a funeral.  In the final moments before CZ pulled out, the company convinced the provincial government to transfer all of the surrounding timber rights to another one of its mills, effectively putting a nail in the town’s coffin.  Without those rights, whoever took over the mill in Ocean Falls would fail.  As it turned out, the new owner would be the government.

The company was set to leave in March of 1793.  The province, unwilling to lose the jobs, stepped in and purchased the town, mill, and everything else for one million dollars.  But without the timber rights and the additional costs associated with such a remote location, the mill wasn’t profitable and closed its doors for good in May of 1980.  Five years later, the government set out to demolish the town with bulldozers.  The remaining residents opposed the demolition until the government decided to recognize the heritage status of Ocean Falls and turned the town over to a newly (and hastily) formed Ocean Falls Improvement District.  The majority of the town had already been destroyed but downtown, fortunately, was largely spared.  With its infrastructure and deep water harbor, Ocean Falls has sought new industry over the years but hasn’t been successful.  Now it and the neighbouring community of Martin Valley, where most of the residents live, have a population of approximately 40 in the winter and 100 in the summer. 

We tied up to the dock with the help of our new neighbours, Don and Carol, and took Sally for a well-deserved walk.  We hadn’t taken more than a few steps along the road when we met Neil, a resident helping out at the docks, who recognized the name on my hat – Wichita State Shockers.  He grew up in Clearwater, Kansas and moved to Alaska over fifty years ago.  Upon making his way back to the lower 48, Ocean Falls stopped him in his tracks.  After a good look around, it was easy to understand why. 

We shook our heads in disbelief at yet another encounter with a former Kansan (it happens a lot), and continued our walk through the town and up to the dam.  The Martin Inn Hotel, once the largest on the entire coast, is empty.  Its windows have been left open leaving the interior to rot in the elements.  A two-story garden-court apartment complex, 1970s style, is overgrown with weeds and falling down.  The windows are broken, the plumbing fixtures are torn out, and the roof is falling in.  But some of the buildings and old homes have been saved and are being used today – the old brothel sitting proudly on the highest hill overlooking the town, the church (which oddly sits below the brothel), the former hospital, and a few others.  Walking past these places that used to house so much life is surreal, offering a glimpse into what was but will most likely never be again.

Sally was getting hot and tired, so we took her back to the boat before continuing our walk to nearby Martin Valley where there’s a grocery store.  As luck would have it, they were open today (Wednesdays, Saturdays and Mondays from 3:00 pm to 5:00 pm).  We picked up a few items and stopped off at the local pub, which used to be someone’s house, for a beer.  One turned into three as we soon joined a table of locals and chatted for an hour or so.  I gleaned a few places to add to this year’s cruising destinations while David talked to Rob and Steve Darke, the new owners of a fishing lodge in Ocean Falls – it’s been eleven years, but he still can’t pass up the opportunity to talk business.  By then it was approaching six o’clock and we all said our goodbyes, making room for the next group of drinkers.  It was the perfect ending to an already great day. 

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