Central Coast Destinations

Ocean Falls | Way Back Wednesday

Wednesday, March 01, 2017S.V. CAMBRIA

It’s Way Back Wednesday, an opportunity to dig through the files and pull out an old blog post to shed some new light on it. Over the years, I’ve written several posts about anchorages we’ve stayed in, including first-hand anchoring information (i.e. holding, protection, GPS coordinates), historical information and things to do. To date, I’ve done 26 of these (they can all be found on our Destinations page) and they’re some of my favourite posts. For the next six months, I’ll be highlighting one every Wednesday (from south to north) and adding a few new ones in where I can. This week, it’s a return to Ocean Falls in British Columbia’s Central Coast.

The Pacific Northwest is a vast cruising ground with hundreds of destinations to chose from, each one a little different than the last.  And situated at the head of Cousins Inlet, tucked away along the Central Coast of British Columbia, lies one of the most unique destinations we’ve experienced – Ocean Falls, a modern day ghost town.

Ocean Falls was first considered a possible industrial site in 1903 by three men, J.F. Keefe, John Hewitt and Mark Smaby, who saw Link Lake Falls and the surrounding timber and realized the potential of the area.  Three years later, twenty-five men disembarked the steamer Venture with one purpose – clearing the land to make way for the construction of the largest pulp mill in British Columbia.  A saw mill, power station and dam followed years later and Ocean Falls grew into a thriving community of approximately 5,000 people with a hotel, hospital, firehouse, department store, apartment buildings, schools and more.

Over the years, ownership of the town changed hands several times before finally falling under control of Crown Zellerbach in 1954 – the principle and final corporate owner of the town.  By the late 1960s, they wanted out.  Because of the remote location and outdated facilities, the company wasn’t making enough return on its investment. But they didn’t want to lose the valuable timber lease allocated to the Ocean Falls mill so they looked to the government for help . . . and found it.  The government agreed to extend the lease to their mill in Campbell River, making it jointly held.  Without the timber rights to the area, whoever took over the mill in Ocean Falls would be forced to purchase timber on the expensive open market and would fail.  As it turned out, the new owner would be the government.

Crown Zellerbach was set to leave in March of 1973 and the province, in effort to save the existing jobs, stepped in to purchase the town, the mill, and remaining company assets for one million dollars.  But without the timber rights, the additional costs associated with such a remote location rendered the mill unprofitable, and the government closed the doors for good in May of 1980.  Five years later, they began demolishing the town; and some of the remaining residents stood in front of the bulldozers, refusing to move.  In the end, they were able to convince the government to recognize the heritage status of Ocean Falls and turn it over to the hastily formed Ocean Falls Improvement District.  The majority of the homes had already been destroyed but the town centre, for the most part, survived. 
Thirty years later, most of the remaining downtown area is in a state of disrepair:  The Martin Inn, once the largest along the entire coast, is now empty.  The windows have been broken, exposing the interior to the harsh elements, and everything inside is rotting away.  It’s the same story with the high school.  The co-op.  The apartment dorms.  And may of the homes.  But some of the building have been saved and are in use today:  The manager’s house proudly overlooks the town and has been restored to its former glory .  The church was recently purchased and there are plans to turn it into a private residence.  The marine ways houses a museum and gift shop.  The hospital is now Darke WatersInn & Adventure Lodge.  And more. 

Over the years, Ocean Falls has tried to attract new industry but none of its efforts were successful.  Most recently, a multi-million dollar fish hatchery was built near the old mill site and is still in operation, but it didn’t bring many jobs.  As a result, Ocean Falls and the neighbouring community of Martin Valley, where most of the residents live, now only have a population of approximately 30 in the winter and 100 in the summer. 

Those who continue to live here year-round are hardy souls and have earned their nickname – The Rain People.  The entire area, from the tip of Vancouver Island to Southeast Alaska, makes up the Great Bear Rainforest, one of the largest remaining tracts of unspoiled temperate rainforest in the world.  And within this region, Ocean Falls is known for its abundance of rain – approximately 4,390 mm (172 inches) each year.  

Ocean Falls is a “must-see” for any boat cruising the Central Coast, not only for the unique experience of exploring a ghost town, but for its natural beauty and charm.  While there, take the time to walk through downtown and enter some of the decaying buildings (many of which are privately owned, so please respect “No Trespassing” signs).  And no visit would be complete without walking up the road to the dam and along Link Lake.

For a glimpse into the town’s past, visit the marine ways where Nearly Normal Norman Brown, one of the local residents in Martin Valley, has created a museum from items he found in the town over the years – everything from children’s toys to an industrial egg boiler that still works.  Some of the more interesting pieces include registers from the Martin Inn reporting on daily activity and the company housing logs.  But what’s striking about these items, from somebody’s spoon collection to their personal furniture, is how they were considered valuable enough at one time to possess but left behind without a care, as if the owners were escaping a natural disaster . . . maybe they were. 

Another “must-do” is eating at Darke Waters Inn & Adventure Lodge.  Owners Rob and Corrina Darke cater daily to loggers, so the food is good and you won’t leave hungry.  Walk-ins are welcome for breakfast (8:30 am – 10:00 am) and lunch (1:00 pm – 2:00 pm), but dinner guests need to make a reservation by 8:00 pm the night before.  The lodge also has laundry facilities (CA$1.50), showers (CA$5.00), along with bicycle and kayak rentals.  Full disclosure: since first coming to Ocean Falls in 2012, we’ve become friends with Rob and Corrina.  But ask anyone who’s eaten there, and they’ll tell you the same – it’s the best food in the Central Coast!

Saggo’s Saloon, located in Martin Valley, is open on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and is a good way to meet local residents . . . and stretch your legs (Martin Valley is 1.5 miles from the dock).  Sadly, the Rain Country Store is no longer open.  To reach Saggo’s, turn left from the dock on the one, and only, road.  But be aware.  Black bears come down from the mountains to feed on the salmon berry bushes alongside the road. 

Services Located in Ocean Falls and Martin Valley:

Ocean Falls Small Craft Habour:
  • Ample dock space at CA$0.50 a foot. 20 and 30 amp power is available for an additional CA$4 or CA$8 a night (Visa and Mastercard are accepted). 
  • The docks are in excellent condition and available on a first come, first served basis (rafting may be necessary). 
  • Access to the Shack (a float house with tables, chairs, computers, games, books and magazines).
  • Recycling station for cans, glass containers, plastic and burnables (all items must be separated before deposited).
  • Free wifi.
  • Excellent water.
  • Restrooms.
  • Fish cleaning station.
  • Ice.

  • Tuna’s CafĂ© serves breakfast, lunch and dinner (by reservation).
  • Laundry
  • Hot showers
  • Bicycle and kayak rentals

Marine Ways:

Martin Valley:
  • Saggo’s Saloon

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  1. This looks like a winner in terms of cruising destination. Plenty of places to walk ashore and beautiful scenery, too.

    1. Yeah, I'm really going to miss making our annual trip up there this summer. It's always so much fun to spend time there.

  2. I remember this post, or another one about Ocean Falls. Didn't you describe a walk there as well not too long ago? Such a diverse area "up there"! :-)

    1. Yeah, that's right. I did a Monday Walk With Jo through the downtown area. It's a great place to mooch around and look at all of the things people left behind.

  3. I love modern day ghost towns. There are places like that in north Idaho which are fascinating. Amazing how places go from boom to bust.