Wanted: B.C. war memorials for digital mapping project

As of two weeks ago, 140 sites had been identified around the province.

As of two weeks ago, 140 sites had been identified around the province.

All these years later I still recall that moment clearly, even vividly: the blaze of yellow at my feet, the tall grey column immediately before me and, off to my right, the silver-blue lake where once had been a thriving city.

This was the Kootenay mountaintop site of Phoenix, in the first week of June 1978. I was researching B.C. ghost towns and this one, as its name suggests, was special.

The yellow fire at my feet was a mass of avalanche lilies, the most profuse showing I’ve seen before or since. The lake was what had been, first, a thriving turn-of-the-last-century city, then an open-pit copper mine, now an artificial lake popular with area residents.

But I had the mountaintop to myself that mid-morning and my attention had been drawn to the granite column which proved to be the memorial marking Phoenix’s dead of the First World War. (Ironically, Phoenix was beginning its own death throes during this period.) Standing there, alone, in total silence in the wilderness, I was struck by its isolation. It had been erected to commemorate those men, many of them miners, who’d volunteered to serve King and Country and gone off to war never to return. It seemed so lonely there and I wondered how many visitors still came, as I had, to poke about for evidence of copper’s heyday then to stand in mute reverence and to wonder about war and its devastating effects upon those who served and the loved ones who mourned them…

Fast forward to 2016. Heritage B.C. is in the final stages of a program to record all war memorials in the province — not just those of stone and metal but those of more natural, living elements such as stands of trees or flower beds, among others. Project co-ordinator Elana Zysblat believes, as she told the Vancouver Sun’s Jeff Lee, that “The notion of planting a tree, or the yellow ribbons, the whole connection between memory, memorial and a living plant talks about hope, about life going on…”

She also believes that as long as there is “some kind of living memorial for them, they will never really be gone”. The purpose of the exercise is to create a digital map of memorials of all kinds, many of which, it would appear, have fallen by the wayside, so to speak. The first version of the map is to be published by month’s end and is to be updated as more sites are discovered. As of two weeks ago, 140 sites had been identified for the map.

Got me to wondering if someone has told them of the cemetery at Anyox, another ghost town, this one in the Portland Canal area in B.C.’s northwest corner.

They don’t come more isolated than this. A few years ago, Cobble Hill resident Gord Hutchings and his brother visited Anyox where their grandfather Ozzie Hutchings had worked and where their father Norman was born.

Anyox died in the early ‘30s but its cemetery, overgrown, is still there, and recalls those employees who served in uniform then returned to their jobs and to early deaths from various causes. What made their graves standouts for the Hutchings brothers is that these graves are denoted by army helmets cast in concrete, now green with moss.

Here in the Cowichan Valley, as I’ve noted in recent columns, we have six war memorials (seven if you include Ladysmith as part of the CVRD) and several of our oldest churches have also memorialized those of their parishioners who perished in both world wars.

Speaking of Cowichan’s war memorials: On Saturday afternoon, April 16, the Cobble Hill and Shawnigan Lake Historical Societies will present a talk by John Orr (a retired research fellow from Dalhousie University) on his research of the names from the First World War on Cobble Hill’s Cenotaph. The talk is scheduled for 3-5 p.m. in the Cobble Hill Hall.

P.S. Ken Hiebert wrote to correct my reference to the late Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey’s role in the banning of thalidomide which caused thousands of birth deformities in Europe. Briefly: Cobble Hill-born Dr. Kelsey was the new medical officer at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1960 when “an application for FDA approval of the sedative Kevadon, the trade name of thalidomide” crossed her desk. Kelsey wanted more information than the drug’s manufacturer, William S. Merrell Co., wanted to provide. To quote the New York Times, “Thus began a fateful test of wills. Merrell responded. Dr. Kelsey wanted more. Merrell complained to Dr. Kelsey’s bosses, calling her a petty bureaucrat. She persisted. On it went…”

It was her first test case and, historically, her greatest because for 19 months she “fastidiously blocked its approval” despite intense corporate pressure. According to the Washington Post, “her skepticism and stubborness…prevented what could have been an appalling American tragedy.”