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The Heart of Kitsault

STUDENTS burst from the door at school in Kitsault in its early 1980s heyday. - CONTRIBUTED
STUDENTS burst from the door at school in Kitsault in its early 1980s heyday.
— image credit: CONTRIBUTED

If you live in Terrace, you’ve heard of Kitsault – especially lately with the provincial government giving the approval, providing strict conditions are followed, to develop an open pit molybdenum mine near the location of the mining ghost town.

And just last month, Terrace mayor Dave Pernarowski took a job with the company now owning Kitsault, helping promote the potential for the town to act as a hub for the liquefied natural gas industry.

But although abandoned, there are still memories of the town when it served as the home for miners and their families when a molybdenum mine briefly operated there more than 30 years ago.

Hopes were high in 1980/1981 when Amax opened the mine. But when the market for molybdenum crashed, so did the reason for the mine and the town, resulting in a flight of people leaving for other places.

The townsite has been meticulously well-kept – manicured lawns, a maintained fire truck, running water – over the years when it was on the sales market.

Purchased in 2005 by millionaire Krishnan Suthanthiran, the maintenance has been kept up and improved.

Suthanthiran has steadfastly refused to allow the town to become overgrown and rundown – nor leave the public discourse for long. His dreams for the town have been nothing short of newsworthy – a resort for single mothers, a haven for medical research. Most recently he’s announced he believes it to be the perfect LNG hub, and there’s at least one truck marked with the Kitsault Energy insignia riding through Terrace.

But as intriguing as the town is right now, and could be in the future, it’s the town’s past that gives it its depth. When looking at images of the town in its prime, the sense of community shared by its inhabitants is palpable – this wasn’t any old remote work camp, filled with men counting the days until their off-time, this was a bona fide community, facilitating lifelong friendships.

And at the heart of that community during its final years was its school, Kitsault Elementary Secondary, home to the Silver Eagles. About 85 students attended the school, which taught K-10 and had all of the amenities of a regular high school – a shop, science lab, kitchen and proper gymnasium.

The school had been shipped up to the site in pre-assembled pieces by the Terrace School District as the town began to fill and one portion of the school was the four-room elementary school from the last time the Kitsault mine had been in operation in the ‘60s.

“I called it my Lego school,” said the school’s former principal, Sue Olson. She spent her first year in Kitsault as a teacher, then became principal in ‘81. At 31, she was the oldest member on staff.

In a word, the teachers, parents, and kids of Kitsault were “wonderful”, said Olson with a smile that could be heard shining through the line from her home in Terrace.

“It was a wonderful experience for me. I would have loved to have stayed for the full 26 years [of my teaching career],” she said.

The teachers were a close-knit group, living in accommodations provided by the mine and spending holidays together eating turkey, often cooked by Olson.

“I’d cook two Thanksgiving turkeys at Labour Day so new teachers getting into the swing of things didn’t have to worry about eating for the first week,” she said.

The first year was in flux – the school building wasn’t quite complete, so construction workers were on site, and junior high students attended classes in halls and cloakrooms using invisible typewriters to practise their typing skills – but spirits stayed high.

“The kids were just such good sports about it all,” she said.

But the community experienced its first tragedy that year, too, when one of the young workers was involved in a fatal car accident.

“That just shocked everybody,” she said. “He was in the school all of the time, it was just so sad.”

The experience brought the community closer – they sent sympathy cards to the man’s family and grieved together.

And while the residents waited for other town amenities, like the rec centre, to be finished, the school became the town’s focal point with dances and events every week.

“It became in many ways a community school,” she said, adding that the school’s shop teacher would open the shop to the public a few nights a week.

“I think it meant the world to the people there because otherwise their kids would have had to go out,” said Olson. When the mine was open in the ‘60s, all secondary students boarded in Terrace.

And while the parents relied on the school, the school also relied on the parents.

“If someone was having trouble in a class, I’d phone the parents and say ‘Hey, can I please send him home to you for the day and will you give him a chore to do that he’s not particularly happy about so that he wants to come to school tomorrow and behave?’,” she said. “It worked.”

But all of this work came grinding to a halt one summer day in ‘83.

“I’ll never forget it,” she said, voice dropping. “My husband and I were just getting ready to go away for holidays for the summer, I had gotten the school fully ready for the next September, the textbooks were all in and on the kids’ desks... And they closed the mine.”

The miners hadn’t been working the year before, but until that day they were hopeful work would start up again.

“Our house was full of men crying. It was the most godawful day because the community was not a municipality. We belonged to the mine. So if the mine shut, you lost your job and your home,” she said.

The workers and families were given until the end of October to vacate the site, and if they weren’t gone, the company would move them as far as Terrace.

Years later, Skip Bergsma, who was assistant superintendent for the district during the Kitsault years, likes to joke that they could have held the opening ceremony and the closing ceremony for the school at the same time, because by the time the school was complete, there were already rumblings of the mine’s closure.

But in ‘83, the district still held out hope that the mine would reopen fairly soon and the school would go back to being in use.

“I remember talking to the mine manager at that time and he told me that he had three flare pistols – it was just a joke – one colour designated that the mine was going to open in a month, the other was a week, and the third one was it reopened yesterday,” he said. “But it never happened.”

Bergsma travelled to the site two or three times over the next decade with a maintenance crew, slowly shipping out textbooks, chalkboards, equipment, and expendables and distributing them throughout the district.

“It was a little bit eerie all right,” he said, of the empty property. “And sad. Kitsault was a really nice community. They did a good job in terms of building that community up so it’s a shame that it had to end so quickly.” It snowed on his last trip in and he remembers seeing trees growing on top of the roof of the school, and water pouring into the building.

And now all that’s left of the school at the Kitsault townsite is its foundation. Eventually, the building was shipped to an outfit in Kamloops, and then probably to another district as pieces, said Barry Piersdorff, who was secretary treasurer for the school district from 1986-2000.

But even though the physical building is gone, the people of Kitsault stay connected to their memories online through the Facebook group, Kitsault Remembered, which boasts photos of the town in its past and present state. Sue Olson says the first thing she noticed when she logged on were the full-grown trees in the recent photos.

“When we were there, they were planted saplings,” she said. “They weren’t trees when we were there, they were just sticks out of the ground.”

Special thanks to Heritage Park Museum for its contributions to this story.

 

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