Northern “memory places”: Unmarked sites of historical significance
Historians tend to view their surroundings from the perspective of not just what is here now and what might be there in the future, but also what was once there: an abandoned village site, a forgotten town, a manned lighthouse. Those of us who study local history have “memory places” that date back far beyond our short lifetimes. I absorb historical details that people share with me and it changes the way I look at the passing landscapes outside the train, the car, the boat, etc.
There are those in our Northwest who spend their days examining artifacts, cataloguing items, and actively researching our past. I asked some of these people to consider their towns and the unmarked historic places that exist throughout the landscape, then describe one site they associate with their town’s unique history.
Prince Rupert Over 100 years old, Prince Rupert is rich with official historic sites. When asked what unmarked site holds special local historical significance for her, Jean Eiers-Page, archivist at the Prince Rupert City and Regional Archives, considered first the WWII Barrett Fort and the important Lucy Island Lighthouse before finally settling on Salt Lake. “Salt Lake is located on the mainland at the end of Russell Arm, across the harbour from Prince Rupert,” she explains. It is called Salt Lake because during very high tides, ocean saltwater spills into the lake. Between these events, the water warms and makes for ideal swimming.
Eiers-Page explains that this off-the-beaten-path site was once the popular local swimming and recreation spot—so popular there was even a ferry that ran people across from the city. “In the early days of Prince Rupert the locals traveled across the harbour to swim, picnic, stay in cabins and skate in the winter,” she recalls. From archival photographs Eiers-Page describes the site: “There was a dock and a change room, and a floating dock with five diving platforms was built in the 1920s.” Once an outdoor pool was built in Rupert, and the highway to the east opened up other swimming locations, the popularity of Salt Lake declined. An indoor pool opened in 1958, further diminishing Salt Lake’s recreational appeal.
Kitimat Kitimat Museum and Archives curator Louise Avery nominates the historic vista locally known as “the Viewpoint,” along with the view of the Douglas Channel. “Together, they are Kitimat’s most defining natural features,” she says. The Viewpoint is located along the long Haisla Hill as you descend into Kitimat by road; there is a pull-out and a little public park where the ocean and Douglas Channel come into view. Avery explains that the Douglas Channel was referenced by several explorers dating back to the late 1700s, and was central to Haisla Nation activities over the centuries. The Viewpoint had special significance to the Haisla because it was one of the sites from which they could spot raiding parties coming up the channel.
“In the late 1940s, the location of the Kitimat Project was chosen because of the juxtaposition of this tide-water and the hydroelectric power source,” says Eiers-Page. The Douglas Channel, as seen from the Viewpoint, is a significant memory place.
Hazelton Laurel Smith Wilson, executive director and curator of the ’Ksan Historical Village and Museum in Hazelton, says the riverboat landing in downtown Old Hazelton carries special significance both to local history and to her personally. “My maternal grandmother was born in 1898, so she was a young child when the riverboats were running the Skeena. I recall her saying the riverboats would blow their whistles far off downriver to announce their approach.” She said that all the Hazelton residents, including herself, would run down to the landing to greet the strangers coming off the boat. “We were so curious and eager to see new faces.” The boats stopped running the river in 1912 but you can visit the boardwalk that runs along the Skeena River in Hazelton today to experience Smith Wilson’s memory place.
Burns Lake Lee Safonoff has been the curator at the Lakes District Museum for at least 24 years. The local landmark she thinks holds interesting historical significance is largely unknown and certainly unmarked. In the Burns Lake Cemetery lies “Buckskin Jim,” known to locals as Herbert James Atkinson. “He was born in Michigan in 1858,” says Safonoff. “He was associated with Custer and was a friend of Buffalo Bill.” Buckskin Jim is known throughout the US, with monuments erected to his memory in a number of different states, but in Burns Lake his grave is unmarked. Safonoff explains that Buckskin Jim lived (as James Atkinson) at Francois Lake until he died in 1932, with arrow and bullet wounds evident on his body. “There is no monument on his grave, but those who like history and the thrill of the find will like this little-known historical site.” If you visit the Lakes District Museum, Safonoff will draw you a map and send you to the right section of the town cemetery to visit the grave of Buckskin Jim.
Vanderhoof At the Vanderhoof Community Museum, manager and curator Heather Stephens considers carefully the sites that once were: where a granary once stood, where a railway station once was, where a telegraph line once ran. After much thought, she chooses a site that still exists. “The Grand Reo Theatre on Burrard Avenue is an interesting historical landmark. It is like stepping back in Vanderhoof’s history; you can’t help but recall the past.” The tall and flat-roofed building, built more than 90 years ago and originally operated as the Reo, still carries on as a small, family-run community theatre today. Stephens has enjoyed seeing the theatre advertisements in old newspapers and cites the theatre as a significant but undeclared community historic site.
Prince George Ramona Rose, head of Archives and Special Collections at UNBC, when asked what historical landmark is often overlooked, says, “my vote is for the cutbanks along the Nechako River.” She points out that, “This geographic feature has witnessed the growth and development of what is now Prince George. The cutbanks have seen bridges being built and torn down, paddle-wheelers and scows plying up and down the Nechako River.” You can’t miss Rose’s memory place as you drive into Prince George from the east and the south and along the length of the Nechako.
All of us have memories that are linked to physical sites—the street you grew up on, the place you first learned to swim. The life events associated with your personal history make up your memory places. Share these with each other and change the way we view our Northwest.