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Ghost town worth millions – in cash and memories

Heather Ramsay, Northword Magazine, Winter 2004-2005

“It was utopia,” says John Wheatley, who along with his wife of 48 years, Patricia, was the longest resident of Kitsault, a remote mining town 140 kilometres north by air from Prince Rupert now on the market for $7 million.
The couple retired to Houston last year, but for the previous 15 they lived in an eerily well-maintained but empty town, at the end of idyllic Alice Arm.

“There weren’t enough hours in the day,” says Wheatley, the former mine manager, who had no qualms about living in a town where the steep gravel road was cut off from the rest of British Columbia for seven months a year. When he wasn’t working his eight-hour shift or fishing in the deep waters of the inlet, he was making furniture or picture frames for his wife, a painter.

Wheatley could pull his boat up to whichever mooring he chose at the marina. There were no waits at the shopping mall, or times when they couldn’t use the recreation centre’s pool or the racquetball courts. They had their choice of 90 landscaped homes and 210 apartments to live in. Even stop signs on the paved and curbed streets couldn’t hold them back from going about their lives. Why? Because they were the only ones there. In a town capable of housing 1,500, Wheatley and his wife had been the only two full-time occupants since 1986.

In April of 1981, after much fanfare, controversy and financial investment, AMAX of Canada opened a molybdenum mine in this remote part of traditional Nisga’a territory, north of the Nass Valley.

Miners were no strangers to the area. An earlier mine had operated at the site in the late 1960s, and across the water a silver mine with a corresponding town, Alice Arm, was running up until the ’50s. According to Wheatley, the silver in the mountains above the arm was transported by dog sled in the early 1900s. Down the inlet, Anyox was once the biggest copper mine in the British Empire, with a population of 3,000. It closed in 1936.

AMAX had ambitious plans to create a desirable community in this rugged and isolated valley, populated by skilled workers ready to operate the mine for an estimated 25 years. They spent a reported $50 million, built a hospital, recruited a doctor, teachers and a grocer, all before the road connecting the mine to the Nisga’a highway was finished. Rick Killam, who was the project administrator for the construction at the time, can’t think of a similar effort to build such a well-equipped town.

“[The mining industry] was evolving at that point,” he says, suggesting the previous mine, which shut down in 1972, provided a more typical living experience for the era: modular homes and trailers.

Wheatley, who worked at the earlier mine, remembers when a landslide swept a dozen trailers into the ocean in 1971.

“They were just floating around and the tug was going around pulling them up,” he says.

Luckily, no one was injured, but the trailers had been set on a creek bed with little to hold them in place. That AMAX’s town is still standing in its wilderness location is a testament to the quality of construction and the quality of maintenance Wheatley provided over the years.

But for all the company’s good intentions, the AMAX mine had serious detractors.

In 1979, AMAX received a controversial dispensation from Cabinet to dump mine tailings directly into the sea. Upon realizing this, the Nisga’a, supported by churches, environmentalists and the BC Federation of Labour, mounted a campaign to stop what they considered a toxic threat to their fishery. They went all the way to the AMAX shareholders meeting in New York with a plea to halt the mine.

Killam remembers a headline screaming out of a newspaper box, as he left his office late one night, “King Crabs Flee Alice Arm.” The company, he says, went through a huge learning curve at the time, figuring out how to do the right thing with regards to stakeholders.

“It was a time of learning,” he says in retrospect. “Mines have a much larger relationship [to society] than simply what relates to their operation.”

The mine was given permission to dump 100 million metric tones of tailings into the ocean over 26 years. The Nisga’a had not been consulted and Jim Fulton, Member of Parliament at the time, claimed dumping toxic tailings into the ocean was akin to genocide.

But all protest stopped abruptly in late 1982, when, in an ironic twist of fate, the price of molybdenum freefell from a high of $30 a pound to $1.69 and the mine closed its doors.

The town, which had bustled for just over a year with 1,000 residents, 400 of whom worked at the mine, was completely abandoned by July of 1983.

“It was heartbreaking for the people who lived there,” says Killam.

For Wheatley, it was a golden opportunity. The company which harboured hopes the ore price would go up and the mine could restart, made it a priority to look after their assets.

Wheatley figures the cost of maintaining the mine site and the town, which no one lived in, was around $400,000 a year. He worked in summer to maintain the lawns, repair water and hydro lines, grade the roads and keep the swimming pool full. In winter he would plow the roads, check the power and keep the shopping mall, hospital and recreation centre heated.

He would head into Terrace with Patricia once a month for supplies in the summer, but with the road closed between October and June, there was careful planning to be done.

“You need a hell of a pile of grub,” he says. “We canned a lot . . . hamburger, chicken, potatoes.”

Gardening would interrupt fishing time, says Wheatley, who preferred to buy his supplies and save time for harvesting halibut, King Crab and salmon out of the bountiful sea.

“We used to feed crab to the cat,” he jokes.

The cat was a hardy wilderness beast, chasing bears and foxes from the yard. Wheatley has numerous stories of encounters with wildlife, including the ravens that would fly beside Patricia’s truck so close she could stick her arm out and touch them. Bears used to peer in the basement window when they were watching television.

“If you’d come out of the house and there was a bear asleep on the top of your truck, you’d just wait until he woke up and then go,” says Wheatley.

When asked if he wasn’t lonely out there, Wheatley answers, “I don’t mind people but I don’t need them.” When he did decide it was time to leave, rather than retire at the home they built in the nearby community of Alice Arm, Wheatley traded in his fishing gear for a Harley Davidson instead.

After a series of mergers, Kitsault is now in the hands of United States copper giant, Phelps Dodge, who has recently put the town up for sale.

It is not the first time the town has been listed. In the early 1990s, the price was set at $23 million.

Joe Gosnell, former president of the Nisga’a, says his nation offered to buy it for $10 million at the time, but was refused. Now, he says, while the Nisga’a nation is interested in working with any new owners, prospective buyers need to be aware of the nation’s constitutionally protected rights in the region.

“The only road leading into Kitsault is through Nisga’a lands,” he says.

Consultation is required as per the Nisga’s treaty and that means coming to talk to the Nisga’a not just sending a letter, says Gosnell.

Rudy Nielsen of Niho Cattle and Land, the company employed to market the town, says he’s had a number of prospective buyers look at the place and expects it will be sold by the time this story goes to press.

He envisions an eco-tourism business in the area, which would suit the Nisga’as’ plans for developing nearby backcountry recreation tenures. Others have suggested a health spa, a private clinic, a religious commune or a retirement community. Better still, leave the décor and the calendars on the wall, invite someone like Cyndi Lauper or Duran Duran to play, and transform the town into 1980s theme park.