Legends of Myself 92

Posted on August 6, 2014

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92.  July 5, 1961:  Port Essington Burning

Dates are scarce for most of the events in my life.  Nowadays we get a date-stamp when we purchase milk at the store, but the dates I usually assign to matters from my early life are necessarily approximations.  But one day I am certain of is when Port Essington burned down: July 5, 1961.

I have chronicled Port Essington’s decline in previous chapters.  The decision early in the century to isolate it across the river from the railroad tracks had left it in a permanent backwater.  The centralization of the salmon canning industry and the decline of the fishery itself had left the village without an industry by the 1940s.  The banishment orders requiring all Japanese to retreat 100 miles from the coast meant that Essington permanently lost half its population one bleak day in 1941 when a train stopped in Haysport to carry them inland.

Grandfather Hammond had stopped there, in what must have looked to be the last and furthest part of the habitable world in the nineteen-teens, married an Aboriginal woman and fathered three children there.  Granny Alice, the Aboriginal woman in question, had moved there downriver from Kalem sometime slightly before then, perhaps to work in a cannery.  Old Pop had given up his Wobbly ways and by the early 1920s had settled there, an obscure byway of the British Columbia north, shedding his identity and past.  Granny Alice had a fourth child with him, and Pop took over the raising of all after Hammond departed forever in pursuit of an inheritance in the USA.

My grandparents’ lives had converged there.  My father and his siblings knew no other home in their childhood.  It is the place where memory opens my own eyes.

At the apogee of its existence, Port Essington had as many as 3000 permanent citizens, not counting visitors and those who swelled its walls in the summer fishing season.  In 1961 it had something over 100 residents, with much of its adult and able-bodied population out fishing the day it caught fire.

Port EssingtonThe Prince Rupert Daily News reports a 3000 foot column of smoke arising from the fire.  Port Essington is not visible from the Boneyard, or at least that end of it where the old dynamite shack was located, but a 3000 foot column of smoke likely would have been.  My father and partners fishing on the river that day might have been able to see it directly.  According to reports, a hundred fishboats evacuated the river and converged on Essington in response to the fire.  Our response was to go to Haysport, and look at it more directly, unusual behaviour on a precious fishing day.

But there was our home across the river burning down.  There was our past, self-incinerating.  We had failed to return.  I had not been on that side of the river since I left Port Essington in 1959.  But those were bridges we intended to recross which were now on fire.

And though no real flame or spark could cross that two miles of Skeena Estuary to endanger us, the 25 buildings that burned down over there, the half a dozen families that lost their homes and goods, the 50 or more people who moved away with little or no intention to return—that was a burning in Haysport too, if we had thought of it.  Because what was Haysport but a junction between railroad and Essington, and without Port Essington, there was little need for such a junction.

We had a boardwalk out to the float and pilings immediately upstream which protected the float from the winter ice on the river.  When that boardwalk and pilings rotted, who would repair them, and why?  When there was no one to go to Essington, what need was there for a flagstop at Haysport?

But that was an unimagined future.   Port Essington, much reduced and everyday fading and decaying further, continued as a half-ghost town for a few years more.  So did Haysport.