Our History is Under Siege, by T.W. Paterson

Cowichan Valley Citizen, Dec. 19. 2013

It's almost awe-inspiring, in a negative sort of way. We were following the historic Comox Logging & Railway grade, just north of Haslam Creek. After crossing Spruston Road it heads north to the Nanaimo River, parallelling rocky bluffs and passing an old quarry from the days when this was a colliery railway.

The din of gravel trucks and machinery grows louder and louder, until we reached the 'end of the line'–not Departure Bay, as originally intended, but a gravel pit. The railway grade that was laid out by Dunsmuir engineers at the turn of the last century to carry coal from Extension simply disappears, replaced by a gargantuan hole the size of downtown Duncan.

Such, too often, is the way we treat history. Had the Ladysmith Railway Historical Society succeeded in establishing a working railway museum, back in the '80s, this stretch of line would have been saved as a tourist attraction with 'live' trains, steam and diesel, a la the B.C. Forest Discovery Centre. Instead, it's well on its way to vanishing thanks to commercial exploitation and, where she's able to re-exert her influence, Mother Nature.

Nanaimo, the Wellington and Extension areas abound in industrial history, much of it relating to the coal industry. You can hardly turn a spade, it seems, but you encounter evidences of the collieries which, for more than three-quarters of a century, were the Island's greatest employer. But little remains beyond the millions of cubic yards of slack, the sub-grade coal that was discarded from south of Haslam Creek (Granby) to Divers Lake (Wellington). The mind boggles at the thought of how much coal actually was mined, washed, sorted and shipped when you see the 'near-coal' and rock that was discarded

A few ruins survive although, other than the concrete headframe/tipple at Morden Colliery Provincial Park, South Wellington, these are under siege. At Cassidy's Granby, one of three remaining concrete coal chutes was toppled in recent years to make way for a road. If you want to see coal waste, by the way, this is the place, now a hummocky playground for ATVers. And this is after much of the former townsite was hauled away for fill during construction of the Island Highway, 1949-50.

     

Still in the trees until recent years were the tumbled-down remains of two water towers. Almost 90 years after their construction, some of their timbers that I guessed to be of California Redwood, appeared to be quite sound, which says something about the quality of the materials used in their construction.

This is a far cry from my first visit to Granby in the '60s. It was my first ghost town in the flesh, so to speak, upon my being inspired to go looking for such things by American (not Canadian) magazines and television. Granby gave me my first two insulators, too; they were lying on the ground beside the road, not yet having become collectors' items, on this side of the border, anyway.

Even then, little remained of this model company town beyond one standing, grey-stuccoed wall, some concrete footings, foundations and rubble, particularly that atop what I later learned was the No. 1 airshaft. This was all a pale shadow of the ghost towns of the American Old West which, on film and in print, seemed to have survived virtually intact. Some of that could be attributed to their being in a much drier climate, of course, B.C.'s rain forest having scant regard for man's puny creations. Little besides concrete seems to be able to stand up on our aptly-named wet coast and, as is so sadly evident at Morden, even concrete is subject to failure when not looked after.

More often, however, it's development that dooms these survivors of our past. Logging, road construction, power lines and housing developments seem to have done the most damage in recent years. For those who enjoy searching out these abandoned sites of our industrial heritage, it seems that almost wherever you go, the bulldozers have been there ahead of them. In fact, it's become a race to get there before it's too late. It's almost uncanny–wherever there was a cabin, a building or a mine, it seems, the wreckers have done their work, often to the point of obliteration. Or, as indicated by surveyors' tape, they're about to do their magic. It often takes serious researching and reconnaissance to find something–anything–on the ground, these days.

Such seems to be the inevitable cost of what we call progress. It would be futile, even ludicrous, of me to rage against much of this development which will only continue to accelerate, and to spread out farther and farther into territory that was once the preserve of miners, loggers, railway men and homesteaders.

So, albeit reluctantly, I recognise, if not truly accept, reality. On those rare occasions that I and my fellow history buffs can get there first, so much the better. Happily, even when we're after the fact, we often find sufficient evidence of previous activity to make our day. For me, as a writer/historian, there's always a silver lining: I can 'save' in print what I can't save in fact.

Once, it even worked–the Kinsol Trestle. If only I could ignite the public's concern for Morden's six-storey-high headframe. It's the last man standing of the Island's legendary coal mining industry–an industry that founded no less than 10 Island communities, of which Nanaimo, Ladysmith and Cumberland, are the most significant.

But all that's long ago, right? Now, it's jobs and tax base, the twins of Prosperity and Progress, right?

I can't help but wonder about those political and corporate leaders who only see value in the immediate and the near future. They can't even comprehend everything that we have, everything that we are, is the product of the work and the sacrifices of those who came before us. Would it be so outrageous for us to recognize their achievements, the rich legacy they gave us, by saving more of our heritage than just a token here and there?

Oh, I forgot. We're Canadian, eh?