What a great way to start a new season for the Cowichan Historical Society. What a vindication (if I may be so immodest) of my plea of a week ago for people to record their life experiences. I’m referring to Gordon Hutchings’ talk and power point presentation on the ghost town of Anyox, on the B.C.-Alaska
border. That’s where his great grandparents lived and worked in the ’20s and ’30s and where his grandfather Ozzie Hutchings, employed first by the Granby Co. as a machinist then as a clerk in the provincial liquor store, began what became a comprehensive and unique photographic record of the town that came and went in
just 15-odd years (1917-1932).
It’s no coincidence that Granby, the coal mining community at Cassidy that I wrote about several months ago, had the same short span, both being owned and operated by the same company in tandem: Granby to provide the coking coal for the Anyox copper smelter, the largest in the British Empire.
Besides being a benevolent employer (quite out of step with most large corporations of the day) the Granby Co. built everything to last: fine homes and buildings at Granby, and smelter, powerhouses and auxiliary buildings of solid concrete at Anyox. Concrete that, for the most part, is still standing all these years after despite the ravaging effects of salvagers, total neglect and extreme winters.
Three years ago, Gord Hutchings and his brother set out to visit Anyox, to see for themselves what was left of the community that Grandfather Ozzie had recorded so faithfully with his fold-out Kodak camera and writings. Arriving by kayak via the more modern ghost town of Kitsault, they spent five days exploring the extensive townsite and gorging on the huckleberries which grow in profusion in the acid soil and attract grizzlies from afar.
The lush vegetation that prevails today, by the way, is the result of Mother Nature having had to totally regenerate this stretch of the Portland Canal as, when the smelter worked around the clock, the toxic fumes killed all vegetation for miles and miles. (Never mind what it did to the health of its inhabitants.)
One of Gord’s key goals was the 175-foot smelter smokestack, still standing, which Ozzie had climbed when it was new, to take what would have been a breathtaking photo from the top. But, having got there after an exhausting climb up the steel rungs inside the stack, he’d realized that trying to work with his cumbersome Kodak while trying to hold on would have been perilous in the extreme. So, no picture. And, as it turned out, no breathtaking view from the top for Gord. The stack with its iron rungs is still there, but he isn’t comfortable with heights, so…
But he did fulfill another goal, also at some risk. After jury-rigging a ladder in the powerhouse he was able to retrieve a light bulb. But not just any light bulb.
This one, which he knew from reading Ozzie’s unpublished history of Anyox, was embossed STOLEN to discourage employees from taking them home for personal use. Better yet, it still works! It’s but one of a kayak-load of artifacts – old bottles, insulators, pieces of electrical apparatus – that he was able to haul home.
His third wish was to find the town’s cemetery. It took some doing but was worth the effort. All but overgrown, the moss-covered graves of ex-servicemen have an unusual marker: army helmets cast of concrete. The company policy was to employ returned soldiers whatever their physical limitations resulting from their military service. Those who died, obviously prematurely, now sleep undisturbed as, because of its isolation, Anyox has few visitors other than the employees of a mining company which owns the site.
That’s enough for today but I shall return to the story of Anyox and of Ozzie Hutchings in due course. As for Gord Hutchings, he wants to share his photographic story so as to keep it alive. If your club or group is looking for a fascinating speaker with a powerful slide presentation, contact me at email@example.com and I’ll put you in touch with him. I guarantee you an enjoyable hour.