A recent story about three young boys from the Okanagan building an electronic Christmas star on a mountainside for their community brought back memories for several former Kemano residents of a star shining in their own community during their time living in Kemano.
Adam Charneski was foreman for the Kitimat-Kemano transmission line from 1954 onward. His wife, Sheila Charneski, said that in late 1957 or early 1958 — she said they can’t remember the exact date — the line crew built an illuminated star and hung it on a tree along the road leading up the Horetzky Valley, near Kemano.
Power to the star was supplied by tapping into the electrical system of the aerial tramway, ‘The Skip’.
“That year they began a Christmas outdoor décor by forming aluminum into some festive lighted decorations such as stars and bells that were installed on lamp posts,” Charneski said. “A few years later commercially -made large outdoor fixtures came to market and so the early lamp ornaments were exchanged for new lighted fixtures that decorated the town-site lamp standards.”
In a remembrance book given to residents when the town was closing in the late 1990s, former Kemano resident Faye Dennison said the star was initially only turned on at Christmas.
“It was an exciting promise of Christmas festivities when the star was lighted each year,” Charneski said. “When we left Kemano in 1970 the star was an established and treasured part of Christmas.”
However, at some point in the 1970s, Dennison wrote, it was turned on one year and left on until the following Christmas. When no one asked to have it turned off after that second Christmas, it was turned on and left on.
The star also changed colours several times over the years, according to former Kemano residents.
“When I asked our girls what colour was the star, their memories are very different!” Charneski said. “Dawn remembers it as blue lights, Carol at first thought blue but then changed to white and then to ‘I don’t really remember’.”
Dennison wrote that, in the 1970s, the lights on the star were changed from amber in colour to red, but later directed to be changed back to amber again when Cold War issues were brought up. This was because, during the Cold War, the colour red was associated with communism and the Soviet Union, given that its flag was red. People in the U.S. and into Canada were afraid communism would spread to North America, even going so far as to refer to periods of extreme anti-communism in the U.S. as ‘Red Scares’.
In the 1990s, the lights were changed to blue, but Kemano residents — especially the kids — said they couldn’t see the light during the day and thought the star had been turned off. This was not acceptable to residents, so the lights were again changed backed to amber.
Charneski said that when the Kemano tunnel failed in 1961, a new road up the Horetzky Valley was built for better access to the remediation work, so the star was relocated and better built. Kemano residents wanted the star to be a permanent installation, so it was rebuilt on a steel frame with coloured lights, it’s size increased to about 10 feet in diameter with a well-installed power supply.
While it has been taken down or destroyed several times, the star on the mountain near Kemano has always been rebuilt to continue shining its light on the town.
The star was inadvertently dismantled during Kemano Completion Project (KCP) construction in the early 1980s, but was rebuilt later when its importance was brought to the attention of KCP management.
It was also destroyed by a grizzly bear in the early 2000s, said Rick ‘Moondog’ Moretti, a millwright who has been in Kemano full-time since 2002. Moretti was also the one to rebuild it after it was destroyed, using aluminum instead of wood as its supports and base to try to make it stronger.
As to question on everyone’s — even former Kemano residents’ — mind: why was the star even built in the first place?
Allan Colton is a photographer and has taken many photos of the Kemano star over the years. He said he heard the star came about from a cross made of lights in a town previous to Kemano.
“I heard somewhere the idea came from the original town near Seekwyakin Creek, called ‘Seekwyakin’, which had a yellow cross in lights on the water tower above the community,” Colton commented on a Facebook post about the Kemano star. “When the town moved to where Kemano is today they wanted to keep the tradition going, but chose a star instead of another cross to look over Kemano.”
Charneski said she doesn’t know anything about the cross, but from her knowledge, the idea did come from a single light bulb that was near the water tower on the hill.
“There was a light at that point on the hill, just a light bulb that tapped into the power cables that ran The Skip up to 2,600 feet. It was near the water tank,” Charneski said. “When the permanent houses were being built in 1957 and onward the tank was replaced with a larger water tower that also tapped into the skip power. Exactly who came up with the star idea is lost in the mists of time, but the line department ran with the idea and built the first star. Quite possibly because at night it was a dark valley, the only lights were in the buildings and on the lamp posts. No neon, no Woodward-facing windows, no other lighted holiday accents. The star brought a festive light to the darkness.”