93. The Boneyard, 1961: Mail-Order Fire, and Boots Too
The fire in Essington happened near the beginning of summer, as the calendar says, though it is located at no particular time in my own memory of that Boneyard summer. As the summer progressed, some funds from fishing would have started to come in. That resulted in Squires’ rifle—purchased in town—and a pair of lace-up boots for me, purchased mail-order from the Eaton’s catalogue. I remember my father drawing a pencil line around my feet, which we mailed in. That is how we got the right size.
I loved those boots. I remember walking in them proudly, probably laced up right there in front of the Haysport store, which doubled as post office. Given the time periods involved, I’d guess that mail order and mail delivery was actually fairly efficient in those days.
Something else that arrived mail order, ordered out of a catalogue like my boots, was a new tin stove to replace the converted gas drum which had been serving us. That drum never had been very efficient as a stove. As friendly and funky as it looked squatting near its corner of the cabin, it never did heat particularly well, and it took patience and distractions to boil a kettle. The stove in the catalogue promised better. And when we took it back to the shack, removed the drum and installed its mail-order replacement in its place, the new stove proved to be in fact much warmer and more efficient. And it didn’t take hours to heat a kettle.
Not long after the new stove’s arrival, during one of the interstices between weekly Skeena River openings, and I suppose after another payday, the partners decided to go into town. That meant an early morning walk along the railway tracks three miles past Haysport to Tyee, where rail joined highway, to catch the bus.
I don’t remember any incidents particular to that trip. But living in the Boneyard made Prince Rupert seem like New York to us, and inevitably we went there with considerable excitement. Of course it was mostly about shopping, getting in exotic groceries not always on the menu—baloney, Irish stew in a can—or visiting the hardware section of the Co-Op store on 3rd Avenue for some tool or item to bring back to improve the homestead. Maybe a movie.
And going into restaurants. Somewhere on one of those trips into town, we went down to Cow Bay to Smiles Café, a café which took its name from the affability of its hostess, where I think we ate bacon and eggs and I drank milk from a wavy glass. I’m not sure the café was really much more than a greasy spoon, but Cow Bay always seemed like a worthwhile place to visit with its boardwalks and the many, many fishboats that tied up at its maze of floats.
Even though I can be sure of no details of that particular visit into town, I will never forget our return home. We took the train, and while we were on the train, even before we were let off, we heard that the shack was on fire. I can no longer be sure, but the timing of it suggests that the passenger train didn’t even carry us to Haysport. It stopped in the Boneyard. There we joined a few railway employees who were already working, trying to control the fire. By the time of our arrival—daylight, in the late afternoon—the fire had already consumed most of the front of the shack. Mr. “British Seagull” tried to enter the shack to retrieve his shortwave, which even at 11 years old I thought was a pointless. In fact, what he pulled out of the cabin was melted and fused at one end of it.
When eventually the blaze was out, including a tributary of it that was threatening to engulf the tree that stood hard behind the cabin, it became clear to all of us that we could no longer live there. It was also clear what had happened. We put the fire in the stove out before we left. But something in the stove’s design allowed it sometimes to restart a blaze from an ember, and it had restarted when we were gone.
I liked the way our new tin stove boiled a kettle. I liked how it heated the shack so efficiently and made it so warm on chill Skeena mornings. (A few mornings, at least.) But I didn’t like how it had burned down our house, and burned out our living. The Boneyard enterprise was now impossible, and we all had to go back into town.
I suppose a wealthy person could and might have sued. But what compensation is in order for your squatter’s shack burning down? The railroad was the actual owner. And wealthy people do not order cheap tin stoves from mail-order catalogues, anyway.
We were burned out, we had to leave and that was the end of it.
My father and I moved back into Prince Rupert into the rooms above the Grand Café.