It’s Our Heritage: The town that could have been

Columnist Walter Thorne looks into the "un-built" town of Kitimat.

For more than a century, plans have been proposed for our town.  You do wonder what could have been if some schemes had succeeded.  Could our town have become a city of size?

The first mega plan was proposed in the early 1900s when the Grand Trunk Pacific transcontinental railroad was bantered about between Kitimat and Prince Rupert.  At that time it was uncertain which port would be chosen as the terminus.

There was a flurry of surveying.  The Quadra marine survey expedition was launched with extensive mapping of the channel.  Surveyors like Louis Coste were here gathering data and vastly improving the information available to potential mariners.  Likewise on the land, surveyors like Clague and Townsend worked feverishly to update the land data.

A land company was established, which proposed lots along Kitimat’s Inner Harbour at Minette Bay.  Speculators in Vancouver actually bought lots on the dozens of streets laid out in our proposed railway port city. When Rupert was chosen, all those plans evaporated.

Kitimat’s next mega project was courtesy of Alcan.  This project did develop, but what was built was a scaled down version.   The original Kemano Project called for a much larger power project with 16 generators instead of the eight that were built, supporting the power needs of 12 additional potlines planned to extend up the Kitimat Valley.   At one point in the early 50s it was thought that Kitimat would become one of B.C.’s leading centres.

Town planner Clarence Stein’s 1951 report on population estimated 35,000 to 50,000 residents would eventually reside in the town’s ten planned neighbourhoods.  We do know the first three of Stein’s ten planned neighbourhoods, as they were, Nechako (A), Whitesail (B), and Kildala (C); but what about the un-built ones?  They were, neighbourhoods D and G in the vicinity of the new Strawberry Meadows Development, E and F around Forest Avenue, H and I between Minette Bay and Robinson Ridge, and J at the north end of Minette Bay. What later town planners thought could become Imatra Heights neighbourhood, adjacent to the Kuldo extension area, was to be a municipal airport in Stein’s era; and what we know as the Haisla Hill Neighbourhood, in the area south and below the firehall was to remain a greenbelt.

With the original three neighbourhoods, there were changes.  Additional streets were added especially in Whitesail, or Neighbourhood B in Clarence Stein’s original plan.  There was an expansion of shopping into Mountainview Square, but clearly there were net losses in population and in the business and service sector.

In the 1950s and 60s we did have a Kitimat dairy facility which shipped in raw milk from the Bulkley Valley.  This was planned as the central facility for the entire northwest, but this plan, like others, failed.  Expansion of the dairy just didn’t happen.  It withered away.

Much of the original town plan still remains unbuilt.

Kitimat has been the focus of a myriad of development schemes, which would have built large neighbourhoods and huge industrial infrastructure.  Some plans proposed included a steel mill, a copper smelter, and a larger pulp mill with four paper machines.  This, had they materialized, would likely have erased the population decline of the last three decades.

Some of the other proposals that we can recall were the oil port of the 1970s, Orenda Pulp and Paper’s proposal of 1991, and of course the on-going plans for gravel export facilities.

Another interesting unbuilt facility was the large Elizabeth Arms multi-storey hotel complex of the 70s which was planned at the current site of Tim Horton’s and A&W.  Despite the erected signs, the hotel was never built. Today, three decades later, we are again awaiting a new downtown hotel to materialize near the same original site.

Current industrial expansion plans in Kitimat give the town real prospects for growth.  Perhaps the unbuilt Kitimat of the past will re-materialize or be reinvented in new proposals which would ultimately see our little town gaining something more substantial, as in expanded roads, schools, neighbourhoods, and services.  Perhaps the old plans for the unbuilt neighbourhoods will need to be resurrected.  Maybe the town will become an expanded port city with development extending down the channel passed Bish Cove in the west and even Clio Bay in the east.  You never know.