Nearly four decades ago in 1981, the book Kitimat My Valley was published. Many, myself included, remember getting copies signed by the author Elizabeth Anderson Varley at a fascinating book launch at the Kitimat Museum & Archives with the first curator, Gisela Mendel, in attendance.
The 228-page pioneer account of life in the Kitimat Valley, from five decades prior to that, is a large 21-by-28 cm coffee table book with plenty of interesting photographs. Unfortunately, the resolution and clarity of the photos leave much to be desired, mostly as a result of primitive photographic technology at the time.
This unique Kitimat classic was published in Terrace by Northern Times Press and was locally sponsored by Alcan Aluminum and the Smelter Workers Union with some support from the Canadian Heritage Trust. Today the publishing rights are held by the owner of Northern Times Press, last residing in Ontario.
This book describes life in the Valley over a century ago. It should be noted that events take place several generations ago during Victorian, colonial missionary times. Much of what was recounted by 70-year-old Elizabeth of her life as a young girl living in Kitimat lacked vital information about the Haisla Nation’s history and culture.
Elizabeth is a product of her time. Today, no author would suggest that Kitimat was ‘her valley.’ The Valley’s most prominent peak, Mt. Elizabeth was renamed “Elizabeth” by a provincial land surveyor. Among the Haisla, the mountain’s name is also known as Mount Bolton, or by its Haisla name, laxexw.
Taking into account these difficulties, Elizabeth’s account of events in her life is interesting. In the writing of her story, Varley relied upon her teacher and daughter, Zanetta, and all her treasured photographs, as well as the diaries and journals that her parents kept.
Zanetta readily admits her mother may have been confused about some of these memories from fifty years before. After her parents George and Martha Anderson had relocated south to the Fraser Valley, Elizabeth stayed on in the north, teaching in Klemtu for a while.
Through the pages, the reader is transported back to the time of many of the folks who came to the Valley. Dozens of pioneers are introduced through Elizabeth’s accounts, giving readers an insight to their personalities.
Readers are also introduced to many of the Christian teachers, preachers and others associated with the Kitamaat Mission, Church, Girl’s Home and school. One of those teachers who is mentioned is teacher Neta Markland and one gets to know village storekeeper George Robinson and the legendary lady physician, Dr. Dorothea Bower.
Valley loggers, including Jack Pine (Johnston K Pyne as in the census), Bob Mitchell, Frank Hallet and Pete Long are introduced. Many officials, including school inspectors, government surveyors and others came by the dozen. Miners like Jim Steele and John Dunn are also introduced.
Families with Valley children included the Worthings, Keplars, Moores, and Andersons. Bachelors a-plenty are also highlighted – Elizabeth describes these colourful and flawed independent folk as “jacks of all trades,” who occasionally helped out in the Valley farms when they weren’t trapping, hunting, fishing or even mining.
Although the Valley didn’t have a community hall they did have a harvest celebration and garden inspections were organized. Elizabeth proudly recounts how her father and Charlie Carlson would alternate winning the Valley garden trophy.
By the start of World War One in 1914, Kitimat’s struggling delta land community even included a school with a hired live-in teacher centred at the Anderson’s Kouthpega Ranch. At the start of the war the Valley enlisted young Gordon Anderson, Elizabeth’s brother.
Small wonder then that a few statements in Kitimat My Valley don’t quite jive with what we know today. For example, her reference in the chapter about Charlie Carlson refers to Sam Henderson and a woman referred to as Miranda.
I believe this is who we believe to be Maggie Cordella, after whom Maggie Point near MK Bay got its name. On page 53 she says Sam Henderson and his common-law wife Miranda “kept a nice home with a fine large garden on their beautiful little peninsula.”
Throughout the pages the comradery is related. You get a sense of some of the Valley celebrations held at the Anderson Ranch. People gathered around Martha Anderson’s extravagant family organ as they sang hymns like Bye and Bye and Shall we Gather at the River.
Occasionally the music would add an instrument or two, including Charlie Carlson’s violin. You truly get a sense of the changing seasons and valley wildlife. Clearly, the Andersons were eager to welcome all.
In a chapter Elizabeth recounts visits to the farm by premiers James Dunsmuir and Richard McBride. The Andersons were proud and great hosts at their special Kouthpega Ranch in the Kitimat delta lands.
Although far from perfect, Kitimat My Valley is a memorable account of life a century ago in the Kitimat Valley.
It relates the struggles and triumphs of quite a group of hearty folks who along with Haisla neighbours strived to develop a new future for this part of the northland. It is a historical document still worthy of consideration.