My memories of life in Cassiar
By Herb Daum, resident of Cassiar from 1954 to 1983
Webmaster of the "Cassiar… do you remember?" web site
Herb Daum in 2002
I was born in Cassiar, BC in June 1954 and one the first boys born there. Kathleen Hanley (R.I.P.) born in January, half a year earlier, to George and Irene, was the first child born in Cassiar.
I must preface some of this history with a disclaimer as my recollection of the stories passed on from my parents and my own memories may not be entirely accurate anymore. This is accurate, to the best of my recollection. If you have more accurate information or spot some errors or discrepancies in any of the information presented on this page please do let me know.
Cassiar - I was born there and raised there; I went to school there, and I played there and I worked there. I share my memories with you to give a sense of what it was like to grow up and live in Cassiar, and to share some history of the town for the benefit of those who came there long after some of these long-forgotten aspects of Cassiar had already become history.
As I connect and communicate with more Cassiarites via this website more memories surface. So I come back to this page and add them - so I hope you too do come back once in a while to see what may have surfaced. Some of the memories are just snippets of information, not really tying into anything else. Many have told me this page is interesting and I hope you find it that as well.
Cassiar Road in 1953
The first Daum home, a "house-tent"
Erna Daum hauling water and "carrying" me!
Kennedy Street 1954.
Walter Schmidt & Bob Kager walking past the Daum house tent which was moved there while the Daum house was being built. Note the lumber.
Ore chute from pre-tramline days
My father Oskar Daum emigrated from Germany and soon after arriving in Canada went to the the Chamber of Mines in Edmonton. He and Bob Kager both got hired for a job in Cassiar and they arrived there July 1, 1952. Cassiar was still a seasonal operation then. He sent for his then-fiancée, Erna who in 1953 followed from Germany by ship to Montreal and traveled by train to Edmonton. She didn't know a word of English. After a time they married in Edmonton and headed for Cassiar. Access to Cassiar was difficult, with the approximately 100 mile trip from Watson Lake in the Yukon Territories taking many, many hours, often with the help of a bulldozer to assist in the tough spots. My father had built his first home in an area which was to become part of the company plant site. It was basically a wood and canvas tent structure referred to as a "house tent". It must have been cold in the winter! Mom used to say how shocked she was when she first arrived there. Dad had brought her in to the house-tent for the first time and Mom said, with suitcase still in hand "Well are we going to go in?", thinking she must still be in the porch or outer entrance. Dad said "We are in!" Mom used to have to hike down to McDame Creek in the snow, chop a hole in the creek ice and then haul water up. Apparently it was quite a hike, especially with me growing in the womb. Sometime after that my parents towed the house tent to their new address where they lived in the house-tent while they built a house at 231 Kennedy Street. As was common practice then, the house was built in a community effort with lots of people pitching in. My sister Christel (my only sibling) was born soon after that.
At first Dad worked in the mine on the ore chute crew. I remember Dad telling me that at times the chute would be plugged and he had to jump in and try to dislodge the ore. Apparently he had some good "rides"! His machinist trade and experience was soon discovered by Rene Passiaud, foreman of the Machine Shop and Dad worked the rest of his 30 years with the company in the Machine Shop. However Dad was one of the only people in Cassiar capable of splicing together steel cable. So when the tramline cables broke guess who got reassigned from the Machine Shop to work on the broken cables. Ore production was down when the tramline went down so the cable repairs had top priority. Sometimes Dad would work for 20 or 30 hours, maybe coming home for a very short sleep and a quick meal and go back at it again. Of course the tramline cables tended to break in the winter when the buckets were heavier due to stuck, frozen ore and often Dad had to endure some miserable conditions, working at night on a cold & windswept mountainside.
Mom had worked in the Snack Bar for many years, starting in about 1970 and was well known to the many youths and the single folk who frequented the Snack Bar. My parents moved away to Chilliwack, BC in 1982, Dad having worked more than thirty years and being the most senior union employee at the time. Sadly Mom passed away in Chilliwack in 1991 from A.L.S. (Lou Gehrig's Disease). Christel stayed on in Cassiar, married Danny Travnik and they moved to Alberta in 1988 where they now live with their two sons. After Dad was no longer able to look after himself he moved to Alberta, near Christel and in 2003 he passed away in Leduc, AB.
Going to school in Cassiar was much different from today. We all walked of course. In the mid-winter months it was still dark when we got to school and dark again when were dismissed from school. There was no Kindergarten - I started in Grade One and remember being in awe of the oldest kids in school. They were in Grade Nine, the highest grade at the time and they were almost like gods to us little guys. I doubt that Grade One students of today have anywhere near that much respect for a Grade Twelve student, much less a Grade Nine student! Shortly after I entered school Grade 10 classes were added to the curriculum.
Here is a special memory I have. When Leo Duri came with his mother Gina from Italy in 1958 to join his dad Robert Duri they lived just a few houses away from us. We were both 4 years old then and we played together a lot, despite the language barrier. Leo and his mother spoke only Italian. Though I was born in Cassiar, my mother tongue is German so that is the only language I spoke then. Many years later a bunch of us young adults ended up in the Duri cabin at Chain Lakes (now Boya Lakes). That is when Mrs. Duri told us all the following. When Leo and I were playing back then and if one of us said something the other didn't understand he would pull me into his house where he or I would repeat it for Mrs. Duri. She would then translate it for us in her Italian English/English Italian dictionary and off we would go, happily playing and everyone satisfied we had communicated effectively. It wasn't for quite some time later that Mrs. Duri learned that I was speaking German, not English! It is wonderful to reflect on how some barriers just didn't matter much in Cassiar.
During the early years every Christmas each class put some kind of performance together for the big Christmas Concert which was held in the Recreation Centre. The hall would be packed with all the school children and their parents. After all the classes had performed Santa would arrive and distribute gifts. One gift for every student was supplied by the company.
I remember the company giving Christmas presents to all employees. The nature of the gifts changed over the years. I don't remember what single, bunkhouse dwelling employees received in the early years but do remember that all the families received a turkey. The company would load up an open, flat-box truck with turkeys and send it out with a crew. They would drive down every street and drop off a frozen turkey and if nobody was home they'd leave it by the door (it was always well below freezing so there wasn't any chance of spoilage). In later years gifts included photos of the area and metal & jade belt buckles with the company logo.
Art classes in school included paper maché projects. I remember making a globe among other things. Asbestos dust was often supplied and used as a filler in these projects. I don't remember why anymore but suspect it was that the fibrous qualities of the dust improved the strength of the finished piece. I daresay that that isn't being done anymore!
We did not have a school gym at first. I remember my whole class walking to the Recreation Centre for gym class where Mr. Kip Dougherty gave us instructions in gymnastics. Around 1967 the school got a much needed upgrade which included a science lab and a gym.
The company provided some training to students as well. I don’t recall if girls got anything like this but remember us boys going to the plant site for lessons in drafting and lessons in electronics when we each built a tube radio. My radio even worked. We also attended carpentry lessons in the evening at the Carpenter Shop where we built cabinets for the radios under the guidance of Shop Foreman Gerry Kamlah.
When I completed Grade 10 in 1971 that was still the highest grade available. Cassiar students that completed Grade 10 then typically opted for one of four choices to continue their education. North Peace Secondary High was a public boarding school in Fort St. John. It was rumoured to be a pretty tough place. The other choices were Convent of Sacred Heart for girls and for boys Vancouver College (my choice, despite not being Catholic) and St. Georges. These three are private schools in Vancouver. Fortunately Cassiar Asbestos Corporation was generous and refunded to parents some of the tuition and boarding costs and paid for a few return flights home during the school year as the schools were closed during Christmas and Easter breaks.
It was during my time at Vancouver College for Grades 11 & 12 (1971-73) that I first became aware of something called "yearbooks". Former students that have Cassiar yearbooks may not realize how fortunate you are to have such a treasure. There never was a yearbook produced for any year I was in school in Cassiar. Other than the 2 class photos I have for Grades 1 & 2 I don't have any other class photos. I don't think there was any ever made! What a huge neglect and error of omission. This has resulted in a significant gap in my photo record of my youth. I would love to have some class pictures and yearbooks from my school days from Grades 3-10. When I got to Vancouver College I didn't even know what yearbooks were and had to ask. Yes, kids could grow up in Cassiar and have led a sheltered life. They would be naive about many of the undesirable aspects of big city life but unfortunately they would also be naive of desirable aspects too. This was certainly true back then, when the lines of global communication were not what they are nowadays. We only got live TV via the Anik Satellite in 1972 (when I was away to Vancouver College). We certainly didn't have the Internet! Anyway, I remember thinking "What a wonderful idea yearbooks are!" So if you have yearbooks I hope you treasure them and take care of them. Don't take them for granted.
I recall the travel service to Watson Lake was operated by Mr. & Mrs. Earl & Henrietta Boose. They used to drive a station wagon and a larger vehicle (International Travelall or GMC Suburban type) to ferry folks to Watson Lake where the nearest airport was. Cassiar did eventually get a small airstrip which was much appreciated by our local aviators. Frank Kliment, Alf Guderjahn, Frank Stewart, and Bill Riddle come to mind. The last two died in plane crashes in the area.
Water was delivered to homes via thermidors and often referred to as "pipe boxes". Each home on a street was connected to neighbouring homes by a wooden pipe box, an above-ground enclosure in which the cold water pipe was contained. A hot steam pipe also ran through the box to keep the cold water from freezing during the cold winter months. Sawdust provided insulation. The pipe boxes separated the back yard from the front yard. Sometime in the 1960s I think it was, the company changed water delivery to an underground system where a large trench was dug down the middle of every street and large asbestos-cement water pipes were laid to deliver fresh water to each home via a metal pipe that came up into the basement of every house. I remember the streets all being dug up with a huge trench running down the middle of each street. It was a great place for boys to play during the summer holidays. I remember neighbour Mr. Karl Voss, concerned for my safety (I think), always chasing me out of the trenches. During the upgrade the thermidors were removed. Additionally each house was equipped with a small box in which were two large metal connectors which were connected to the water pipe in the basement. In the event that water pipes froze the company would send out a pickup rigged with an electric welding machine and the crew would attach the welder to the connectors and turn on the "juice". This would heat up the pipe and thaw out the water in short order.
I believe it was at this time the sewage system was installed in the same trench so we didn't need our septic tanks anymore which everyone had at first. The tanks had to be pumped out occasionally so the company would send out the "honey wagon" to do that. If service was required in winter the company would first send a bulldozer up the back alley (it couldn't come down the street and go through the front yard because of the thermidors) and plough a road through the snow, often six feet deep or more. The dozer would clear a path to the backyard of the affected tank and clear the backyard so the honey wagon truck could come and pump out the tank.
One winter, when I was a young lad, we required this service too and the dozer made a huge mountain of snow in our backyard. Of course, me ever the enterprising lad, found a goldmine in the pile of snow. Investing many after-school hours working with the tools of Mom's steel dustpan and the family snow chisel I converted the hard-packed snow mountain into a most-enduring snow-fort with several chambers, snow-ball ammo room, attack turret, and more. The fort lasted several weeks after the rest of the snow melted. The only regret I had was that the fort was in the backyard, not in the front — where more "victims" might come into range.
Cassiar Asbestos Corporation operated a company store. It was in the basement, below the "Cookery" - the company cafeteria for single men who lived in the bunkhouses. The Post Office was run from inside the store by Mrs. Stella Lewak. Eventually the Post Office was relocated to a tiny building across the street.
The company used to mark the passage of time with audible signals. At 12 pm and then at 1 pm the company used to blow a steam whistle to mark the official start and end of lunch hour. The whistle could be heard all over the plantsite and pretty well the townsite too. At 5 pm there was a siren to mark the official end of dayshift. The siren was the same as the fire siren and there were sirens all connected together and situated in various locations and they would sound in unison. All the dogs in town used to join in and howl loudly in unison with the sirens. It was quite the event to witness and newcomers and visitors would always wonder what the heck was going on. This practice was stopped, sometime in the 1970s I think, in response to complaints about the noise disturbing the sleep of shiftworkers. I guess we can thank Timex and affordable timepieces for that.
I have recently learned from a TV show about dogs why dogs howl at sirens. When dogs are lonely they howl in a particular way and are saying "Helloooo, anybody out there?". When other dogs hear the howl they howl back (a different howl), saying "Hi, hi hi, I am here." The dog expert said that dogs must be interpreting sirens to be lonesome dogs. So it is reasonable to assume that Cassiar's dogs were being friendly and reassuring the loud and lonely "siren dog".
The Community Club building was a large panabode structure that housed many things during its time. There was a pool hall with three large snooker tables and more. The barber, actually a company employee who made extra money cutting hair, had a barber chair set up there. The company liquor store was on one end. At the other end was the Community Club Lounge, the only bar in town, actually the only bar for miles, the next closest being over a 100 miles away in Watson Lake, YT.
At some point a "Snack Bar" was created in the Community Club building and my mother worked there for many years, starting in the late ‘60s I believe. The Snack Bar was the only public "restaurant" in Cassiar. The company "cookery" catered to employees and was closed during non-meal times. I gather that after my departure the cookery became a privately owned restaurant.
The company built a large Recreation Centre, in 1960. Its main element was the big room which served as gym, movie theatre, concert theatre, union meeting hall and dance hall. It even served as a fancy ballroom for the Firemans Ball, the social event of the year. Stackable chairs were set up for movies and such. Admission to the movies cost 25 cents for kids and 75 cents for adults. Those prices remained in effect for many years. Every movie night featured a different movie. Movie nights were Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, with 1 p.m., 7 p.m. & 9 p.m. showings. Once in a while the projectionist would stick his head out the little projector window upstairs and call out, sometimes by name, to the people who were disobeying the "No Smoking" regulations. Sometimes he would stop the movie and we would all wait until the cigarette was extinguished. There were a few movies which were notable. "Born Free" and "The Ten Commandments" come to mind. Those were longer than usual - we actually had an intermission for those. The hall was overflowing with people standing all night at the back. A public library was set up on the second floor of the Recreation Centre.
One summer day, in 1962, an out-of-town film crew was in town. It was during the summer holidays and there was a bunch of us kids playing at the school grounds that day. They "recruited" us and staged us to look like a class that was just dismissed and leaving the school. No, they didn't pay us. For the shoot they loaded us with text books and had us exiting the school's fire exit facing Malezemoff Avenue. That door was normally never used but I suspect that they used it because the name of the school was on the sign above the door. I don't remember what game we were playing that day but I do remember that I was wearing my cowboy hat and toy holster and toy six-shooter revolver. Knowing that wasn't appropriate school attire, I offered to take those items off for the filming. Much to my surprise the crew insisted I leave them on, wanting to add some "character" to the piece. Much later, the incident long forgotten, I was at the movies and you can imagine my surprise at seeing myself and playmates on the big movie screen! There I was, in "Cowboy" gear, exiting the school. I can only imagine what an impression the cowboy must have made on non-Cassiarites viewing the film! It was a promotional film commissioned by Cassiar Asbestos Corp. to recruit employees, and it was shown in the movie theatre for the benefit of the townsfolk. It was shown before the regular feature attraction. The film is titled "The Cassiar Road". I only saw this film once during my time in Cassiar and it was not until 2004 that I managed to obtain a copy on DVD, made from an old and deteriorating copy of the film. Many, many thanks to Werner Schneeberger for undertaking to rescue the old treasure and save it on DVD.
In 1967, Canada’s Centennial year, a large arena was built which housed an ice-skating rink. This was a popular facility. Prior to its construction skating and hockey was enjoyed on an outdoor rink, complete with the extreme cold and heavy snowfall common to Cassiar winters.
The Lions Club built a swimming pool, in the mid to late 60's I believe. At first it was an open structure and the water could be quite cold. So after more money was raised the pool was upgraded to a heated water pool and it was covered as well. This pool was quite popular as local lakes, with the exception of Boya Lake, were generally too cold to swim in for most folks.
Much later the Post Office was relocated to a fine new building with lots of counter space. Post Master Hilda Voss was in charge. Sometime in the late 1970s a fine new store was built across from the new Post Office and a new theatre which opened with the hit movie "Star Wars".
In the early days liquor had to be ordered in advance and a large truck would come periodically to deliver the much-awaited goods. Sometime in the 1970s the liquor store operation had to be changed as it was not an official Liquor Branch-sanctioned store, often referred to as the only bootleg liquor store still operating in BC. There was a BC Government building built near the new store. This housed a real liquor store and an ICBC office.
Spring time in Cassiar was unusual, especially in the early days. Dust control on the mill's tailing pile was either not present or very poor then. So despite the town site being located upwind from the prevailing wind direction, the town site did get a deposit of asbestos dust. If one were to take a cross sectional slice of a snowbank, you could see the green layers and white in the snow, the green layers being strong when we had some heavy dust deposition during periods of no snowfalls. In spring, as the snow melted, the dust layers came together and formed a slimy green layer over the ground (and everything else). Laundry hung out on a clothesline in the early days often had a green dusting too. Fortunately as society's awareness of the hazards of asbestos grew the company grew evermore innovative with dust control and was able to dramatically reduce the dust deposition in town.
I remember working one summer as a student, my first full-time job with Cassiar. I was assigned to the mill department as a labourer, I think it was about 1971. There was no job orientation that I can recall and was handed a broom and an aluminum grain shovel and taken upstairs and shown a floor to sweep. It was a large floor but there were pipes and equipment all over the place breaking up the expanse in to lots of smaller areas so that you generally could see only short stretches from most locations. It was covered in asbestos dust about two inches deep. I was shown a wheelbarrow and where to dump the dust and then I was left on my own. Wanting to make a good impression it being my first day on the job, I tackled the floor with gusto, thinking that this floor must not get much traffic to get such a heavy layer of dust as there weren't many footprints in the dust. I worked steadily, the fine, light dust sweeping up easily on the nice hardwood floors and I dumped many wheelbarrows full of dust. I carefully got all the dust from around the numerous nooks and crannies around and under the machinery. After about two hours of this it was nearly time for coffee break and I stopped to turn around and survey my work. I was shocked to discover that the area where I had started already had about half an inch of dust again! Needless to say I realized that it was more important to be less meticulous about nooks and crannies and just sweep the bulk of the dust and go for high production instead.
Note: I don't recall being issued a dust mask that summer. As awareness of health risks from exposure to asbestos rose dust control measures improved and mill workers were issued dust masks and their use became mandatory. Employees went to the Cassiar Hospital annually for a physical exam which included testing for asbestosis. The tests were a chest x-ray and blowing into a lung efficiency machine. When it was learned that cigarette smokers were at 400% higher risk of getting asbestosis than non-smokers the company made lots of effort to encourage smokers to quit smoking. I did. I have made my physician aware of this history of exposure and still get regular chest x-rays. So far they have been clear. Sadly he said by the time anything showed up on an x-ray it was already too late.
I remember going to the independently-owned gas station, then operated by Gerry Kamlah to fuel up my 90 cc motorcycle. Gerry was working on a vehicle and being frustrated having to stop his repair work to come dispense a mere 25 cents worth of gas to fill up the small fuel tank on the motorcycle, showed me how to operate the fuel pumps and serve myself. This was long before "Self-Serve" stations were popular.
Life in Cassiar meant enduring many hardships. Long, cold winters and isolation were two. The ice on lakes commonly did not thaw until June. One could get snow anytime of the year. I remember seeing snow in town on July 1 one year. Fortunately snow didn’t start sticking until about September or October. Spring thaws in the early years were interesting. The accumulated, packed snow on the streets might be several feet deep by spring and then it would start melting, turning into deep slush and rivers of water running down the streets. It was not uncommon for vehicles to get stuck and abandoned in the middle of the street. It was fun for kids to play at being hydro engineers, creating streams and dams in the middle of the streets. After many years of this annual problem the company changed its snow ploughing practice into one of snow removal. Instead of grading the snow off the streets to the edges (and into driveways) in huge berms they started grading it to the centre of the streets and then coming along with big dump trucks which were filled by a large snow blower that sucked up all the piled up snow. The trucks hauled it away and dumped it over the bank between the rec centre and swimming pool. This more costly method kept the snow & ice buildup on the streets to a much shallower depth and was certainly appreciated by townsfolk as the spring time melt meant there was only a little bit of slush to endure.
The company used to take used crankcase oil from the powerhouse's huge diesel generators and spread it with the "oil truck" on the dirt roads of town for dust control. Any child foolish enough to play on the streets shortly afterwards would have black oily clothes. Sometime in the mid 1960s Cassiar streets got paved. What a joy that was, to ride your bicycle on the new pavement. It was especially delightful to kids that grew up in Cassiar and had never cycled on anything but dirt roads. Virtually every bicycle in town was in motion the summer they paved the streets.
As the town was situated in the bush the residents were often plagued by mosquitoes. Fortunately there wasn't any soggy marshland nearby or it would have been much worse. I remember the company had a "fogging" machine mounted in the back of a pickup and at appropriate times of the year the pickup would be driven down every street with the fogging machine spewing out a continuous thick cloud of some kind of insecticide fog, intended to control the mosquito population. The machine made the strangest loud and unique noise which could be heard from quite a distance. Once we got to know what it was we would scramble and quickly shut the doors and windows before the machine got to our house. Later on, likely in response to public concern about health risks, the company would give us advance notice of planned mosquito fogging operations.
Employees who lived in a bunkhouse in Cassiar had their laundry done at the local cleaners, commonly known as "Shrinkies" (for good reason). To identify your washables they would stamp your Cassiar payroll number on all your items with indelible ink. I still have several items bearing such a stamp, plainly visible - a testament to the durability of the ink stamp, the stamping done approximately 20 years earlier.
Often one would hear that someone was "leaving Cassiar for good!" but often that same person would soon be back with a sheepish grin. Cassiar had that kind of hold on many people. Many people who have checked into this website have commented that their years in Cassiar were the best in their life.
Bunkhouses were provided for male employees that didn't have families there. There were the "summer bunkhouses" which were thin-walled and on the low end of the scale. There were the "winter bunkhouses" which were panabode buildings and provided much better accommodations for the men. The bunkhouses were for men only, having big signs outside, over the entrance, barring admittance to women. Single adult women were rare and very popular - a few worked in the company office. There was a "staff house" provided for them, in the town site, located several blocks away from the men’s bunkhouses. There was also a women's residence right across the street from our house on Kennedy Street. At one time it was also for junior male staff. The teacher's residence was also on Kennedy Street, second house from the corner with Connell Drive. So single men had few opportunities for meeting with the opposite sex, most women being married. This highly unbalanced ratio of men to women contributed significantly to the high employee turnover rate. The rate I believe was about 30 days, which was quite short, when one factored in the many long term employees there. Some new-hires were reported to have come in one day and after a look around, left the next day. Sometime, in the 1970's I think it was, the company decided to change the ratio and started to hire single women and converted some of the bunkhouses to accommodate women. This move was much celebrated by the single men. As a result of this change the ratio of men to women employees balanced a little bit and the turnover rate did slow down somewhat - I never heard any firm statistics.
Labour disputes transformed a normally friendly town. Dad, a machinist, worked in the Machine Shop so was a member of the union. Mom had lots women friends, some of which were married to husbands who were staff. During a strike she was disappointed when one of her friends who was married to a man in staff disclosed to her that management requested staff wives not talk to or associate with union wives. Fortunately common sense often prevailed and friendships persevered, but perhaps not openly.
The company provided some employment opportunities to older school boys. In the spring, after the snow melted, boys could work in cleanup crews and cleanup the town site and the plant site, cleaning away debris that had been buried in the snow over the winter. Once summer vacation arrived students 16 and over could apply to the company for a summer job which usually meant a position in the Surface Department which looked after various roles such landscaping, garbage collection, etc. Occasionally a student would be assigned to other departments, such as in the Mill or the Mine.
Saved the farm
In 1974 I worked as Dryer Helper in the Mill Department. The dryers dried the incoming ore from the uncontrolled outside environment and dried it to the required moisture content required for milling. We had both the old dryers and the new dryers then. Often in winter the ore coming from the tramline was frozen in huge chunks that would plug up the system. So the Dryer Helper had to stand guard by the moving conveyor belt from the tramline hopper and pull off the frozen ore chunks and toss them on the floor. After the ore quality improved the chunks had to be broken up with a pick and shoveled back on to the belt. What fun! The helper couldn't leave the post so the Dryer Operator would spell off the helper so he could have his coffee or lunch break in the operator control room. Once as I was having such a break while the operator was covering my post on "frozen lumps patrol" I noticed some odd glowing light coming through the window. The firebox area for the old dryer was on fire! I reported the fire to the shifter on the intercom and then started to suppress the fire with extinguishers. We used dozens of them, having to resort to extinguishers hastily collected from other areas from the mill after the immediate accessible ones were depleted. I was later told by management that my quick action averted what could have very well been a major disaster. The diesel fuel for the dryers came in a big pipe, straight from the big tanks at the fuel farm at the powerhouse and it could have all gone up in smoke. It was February or March - middle of winter. Can you imagine a Cassiar winter without the powerhouse in operation?
Working in the mine had some perks - occasionally one might see some wildlife such as mountain sheep or mountain goats going through or near the mine. Northern lights (aurora borealis) displays were sometimes quite spectacular and the view from the mountain top, far away from bright city lights or even the lights of town, made it that much more enjoyable.
I worked in the mine from 1977 to 1983. I started as a dumpman, the person who guided the dumptrucks to the berm so they could safely dump their tons of waste rock over the edge. I moved up the chain to shovel oiler and then shovel operator, a position I held for several years. I then transferred to the Mine Garage and worked there as Field Serviceman until I quit. Read my descriptive essay Number Three Shovel, about operating a shovel in the mine.
Life and Death
During family roadtrips made when I was a child I remember seeing seeing small white wooden crosses on the side of the Cassiar Road. This was long before it became the Cassiar Stewart Highway. The crosses, from what I could discern, as we drove by in our white 1959 Austin, were marked with some painted black numbers and letters. Puzzled about what the crosses might be and what the markings meant I asked my parents about them. They told me that the crosses marked the spots where people had perished in car accidents on the road and bore the names of who died there and the year they died there. At some point during the development of the area and as the road was improved the signs were removed. This may have happened when the Cassiar Stewart highway became a reality but I don't remember.
Crime rates in Cassiar were low. Murder was extremely rare. I recall only two during my time there. I don't recall the details but during a labour dispute a man in a bunkhouse got stabbed in an argument about picket duty. In 1979 Jack Spycher, then Christel's fiance, was fatally shot, again in a bunkhouse. Apparently a misunderstanding led to the shooting.
There were other deaths, mostly by accidents, often at work. A least two people froze to death. There were a few suicides too. One man, Ken "Duke" Dolan, was diagnosed with terminal cancer and to everyone's surprise he came back from big city medical care facilities to Cassiar to live out his remaining days there among his friends, despite the fact that the Cassiar Hospital was not a fully equipped hospital. All the staff could do was try to make Ken comfortable.
Entertainment and Recreation
Fishing and hunting was very popular. Big game was abundant in the early years. I remember making road trips as a child when we would see some big game animal every trip, often seeing moose or bear. Fishing was also great. I remember fishing Vines Lake as a young boy, and Dad having quit and started cleaning fish, let me continue casting. By the time he cleaned one I had another for him to clean. My sister Christel, being too young to cast then, picked up Dad’s rod and started fooling around with it. His lure was about five or six feet out from the rod tip and she was just lobbing the lure into the water. We were all surprised when she hooked and landed one right at her feet. I heard stories of folks going to Eddontenajon Lake and catching 200 rainbow trout! Once the Cassiar Stewart highway was completed through-traffic increased significantly, bringing with it increased hunting and fishing pressure on the fish and game resources. Then the fishing and hunting success diminished. I am glad that common sense eventually prevailed and licence requirements and regulations were introduced to ease the pressure on these precious resources.
The long winters provided us with lots of snow to play in. I remember one winter when I and a bunch of other kids took advantage of the snow. We would climb up on the roof of the back porch of our house. The porch roof was not as high from the ground as other parts of the house roof and had a relatively low slope, safe to walk on. The roof faced into the back yard which was full of snow, and I do mean full. This was virgin powder snow, perhaps 6 feet or more, certainly deep enough to hide a kid completely. So we bundled up good, pulled our toques down over our faces and dived in, head first, just like it was liquid water, not crystallized water. Of course we made sure we jumped past the huge icicle spears that had formed and broken off the edge of the roof. We would dive in and completely disappear and flounder our way back out and do it all over again. The fire hydrants in Cassiar each had its own little shed about 6 x 6 feet to shelter it from the winter cold and snow and every house halfway down the side street had one in the driveway. As our house was situated halfway down the street we had one too. The back of the shed faced the neighbour's front yard, also deep with virgin powder snow and there weren't even any icicles because the shed wasn't heated. That discovery made for another day's play!
Cassiar had a ski hill which was right on the edge of town, the lift being only a hundred yards or so from the street. Cassiar had good cross country skiing opportunities too. In fact once (1968?) the Canadian Winter Olympic Cross Country ski team came to Cassiar to practice and get conditioned, believing the higher altitude training would improve their fitness. The elevation of the former town site is approximately 3,000 feet above sea level.
Curling was a very popular pastime in Cassiar with bonspiels being big annual events, drawing competitors from far away communities. Natural ice added extra challenges to the sport, especially when Cassiar got one of those rare warm spells in winter. This happened the year I skipped a Grade 10 student team in the bonspiel and we were pushing the 40 pound rocks through puddles of water. It go so ridiculous that actual curling was stopped and the bonspiel winners were selected by skips tossing a coin! Artificial ice was introduced sometime later, making ice conditions much more predictable.
I remember when snowmobiles became popular in Cassiar, when I was still in school. These caught on quickly and several of my peers, whose families were fortunate enough to have one, regaled us with tales of their adventures. The local snowmobile club organized snowmobile races. I remember the first oval track set up in the soccer field where graders pushed up banks many feet (15-20 feet?) high and the snowmobilers raced their machines inside the track, with spectators standing up on top. A cross-country course was also set up through the local trails. In future years oval tracks were set up on flat courses without banks, at the airstrip. Many people used to operate their snowmobiles on the local streets so eventually some regulations were introduced making it legal if certain conditions were met, including buying insurance and mounting a licence plate and fixing carbide runners to the skis.
When I worked in the mine I made the acquaintance of co-worker Jan Kaplicky. Jan was an avid photographer and he mentored and encouraged my own development as a photographer. I thank him for his contributions to any success I have achieved in the art. Jan claimed to be a Czechoslovakian gypsy and as such had uncommon philosophies on how to live life. Noteworthy was his practice of hooking up his dogsled to his two-dog team and mushing from his mobile home at the upper end of town to the Mine Dry where he would "park" his transportation and then report for his nine-hour shift. The dogs would hunker down in the parking lot for the shift and after Jan's shift ended he would mush home again. Once he gave me a ride home after work. It is the one and only time I had a ride in a dog sled. It wasn't the Ididarod dog sled race but it was a memorable experience just the same! Thanks Jan. May you rest in peace.
On a side note, Jan's girlfriend Muriel Havard was in his hospital room in Whitehorse when he passed away from cancer. When Jan slipped away Muriel reports seeing an eerie light leave his body and float around the room. Believing it to be his soul she opened the window and the light went out the window and vanished in the sky.
Television was first introduced to Cassiar in about 1967 and it started with Frontier Television which consisted of "canned" programming, one channel, in black and white. It was four hours of selected programming from CBC that was taped in some major centre. There was entertainment like the Tommy Hunter Show and "Hockey Night In Canada" and some movies. The tapes were then sent to communities in the north. Two other communities, first Whitehorse, YT and then Watson Lake, YT, got to view the tapes first before Cassiar so the programming material was three weeks old by the time it was broadcast in Cassiar. There was a "station" setup in the Recreation Centre in a little 8'x8' room near the stage. The room contained a transmitter and two video machines setup by Mr Potter (or Porter?), a CBC employee and it was there that Tom Lobbes and 3 others would play and change tapes. TV broadcast was scheduled from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. but was often not punctual, being subject to human error. Of course the outcome of hockey games were already determined 3 weeks prior and oft listened to live on the CBC Radio North. I recall watching the movie "Chariots of the Gods" which explored the possibility of visits to Earth by aliens. This movie was quite a sensation and due to high demand was aired several times out of normal times, like Sunday afternoon. In 1972 the television service to Cassiar was upgraded via the Anik I satellite. This brought us "live" colour service - a major upgrade for Cassiarites. At some point after this, perhaps the mid 1970s, Werner Schneeberger, who was a heavy duty mechanic for Cassiar but also electronic repair technician, started up a cable TV service, WSTV which brought us some of the big American stations and FM radio. Cassiar was not as isolated anymore.
See Werner Schneeberger's WSTV for a history of WSTV and how television service evolved.
Cassiar did not have a resident dentist, at least in the early days, so one would visit periodically and practice his craft from a little clinic provided for that. The drills were powered by motor-driven (leather?) bands, not the pneumatic equipment common today. One of the dentists was Dr. Barber. I remember Dad saying he was " . . . going to see Dr. Barber to get his teeth cut!"
Optometry was also not a regular service in Cassiar. There would be heavy bookings of appointments to get eye checkups whenever an optometrist would visit. I remember from my school days that shortly after such a visit there often were many classmates coming to class and sporting eyeglasses for the first time, including me.
Health care was not to the standards of big cities. The local hospital, which also served as the local pharmacy and at one time the only local source of personal items such as condoms, was typically staffed by one doctor and a few nurses who did the best they could with what they had. Getting birth control products could be pretty embarrassing for some, the town being so small and everyone knowing everyone, almost. Due to limited equipment the more serious cases, including complicated pregnancies, were treated out of town.
The remoteness of Cassiar affected health care service and had a significant impact on me personally. I was seriously injured when I nearly tore off my left foot in a motorcycle accident in June 1979. I was taken by our local ambulance (ably crewed by Kinky Borsato and John Forbes) to the Cassiar Hospital and was there within half an hour from the time of the accident. At the hospital my foot was stabilized and I was made as comfortable as possible. The doctor arranged by phone to have me transferred to a bigger hospital. I was to be transferred to Vancouver and transportation arrangements had to be made. A BC Ambulance jet was not available at first, as it was transporting another patient within the province. When it finally came available and started heading north it developed problems and returned to Vancouver. Another was dispatched from Vancouver. Coordinated to coincide with its arrival in Watson Lake in the Yukon, the closest airport capable of accommodating the jet, a helicopter from Watson Lake came to Cassiar and picked me up. It then transported me to Watson Lake, a thirty minute flight. We had been on the ground only a few minutes when the jet landed and I was transferred to it. Then came the long flight to Vancouver. From the time of my injury to the time I went under the general anaesthetic in Vancouver General at 5 a.m., thirteen long pain-filled hours had elapsed. The long delay contributed to a serious infection and nearly caused the loss of my foot.
On a side note: it was later learned that a Socred M.L.A. was inappropriately using one of the three Ambulance jets, for non-medical purposes. Had that not been the case, I would have been transferred to Vancouver much earlier on that jet and would have experienced a better recovery. Our M.L.A., the late Al Passarell (NDP), did bring this issue up in the BC Legislature on June 14, 1979.
|The following has been quoted from
Hansard -- Thursday, June 14, 1979 -- Afternoon Sitting
SERVICE IN CASSIAR
MR. PASSARELL: Mr. Speaker, I would like to address my question to the Minister of Health. Is the minister aware that on the night of June 4 Mr. Herbert Daum of Cassiar was critically ill and that he waited 11½ hours to be flown down to Vancouver to receive medical attention? Is he also aware that one plane developed instrument problems on the way up to Cassiar, returned to Vancouver, and another plane was not immediately dispatched? I would also like to add that Mr. Perry and his staff have been most helpful in this.
MR. SPEAKER: Hon. members, I didn't detect a question. Questions may not be constructed in lieu of an address or order, says Beauchesne, section 171 (s). Questions are also not to be framed in such a way as to suggest their own answer, and perhaps we could keep this in consideration while we are constructing our questions.
A further question? Please proceed.
MR. PASSARELL: Is the minister aware of what happened to Mr. Herbert Daum?
HON. MR. McCLELLAND: Mr. Speaker, I am not aware of the particular case. I am sure the member has not brought it to my attention, but if he will, and if he is doing that now, I would certainly investigate it for him as quickly as possible and get him all the information necessary.
MR. PASSARELL: Supplementary, Mr. Speaker. Why wasn't another medical evacuation plane — that was just sitting on the runway in Vancouver — dispatched to help a man in critical condition in Cassiar?
HON. MR. McCLELLAND: If you give me all the information, I'll get an answer for you
I never heard anything further about the matter. My ankle has since been fused, after developing severe osteoarthritis, caused by the injury.
Life After Cassiar
|My father Oskar Daum in 2000|
Satellite photo of Powell River in Southwestern British Columbia
Powell River, BC viewed from the Pacific
Public and private harbour on the left side.
My house on top of the hill right of center. Click to see full size.
While still a resident of Cassiar I had visited Powell River. BC twice and then I left Cassiar in July 1983. I'd had my fill of long cold winters, and moved to Powell River. I had fallen in love with the place and I had decided that this is where I will spend the rest of my life and retire. Ironically Powell River used to be a company town like Cassiar, only a much bigger scale. The pulp and paper mill is the main employer in a town located at the mouth of Powell River, a river only a few hundred feet long (second shortest river in the world), draining Powell Lake into the Georgia Strait of the Pacific Ocean. Powell River is on the mainland, about 80 miles north of Vancouver (two ferry rides) and is just east of the northern tip of Texada Island and across the strait from Courtenay and Comox on Vancouver Island. A ferry provides access to Vancouver Island at Little River/Comox. A smaller ferry services the Texada Island - Powell River route. I am self-employed with a home-based business ":Data Power" providing computer-based services.
Unlike the prolonged winters of Cassiar winters, most winters here I have to scrape the frost off the windshield less than ten times all winter. I don't miss the long cold winters of Cassiar but I certainly do miss the closeness and community spirit I felt with other Cassiarites. Like many of you I miss the Cassiar paycheques too.
This special page is one of two such pages that are provided here to give viewers a bit of background on the webmasters - the Cassiarites who have devoted a huge amount of energy and effort in developing the "Cassiar... do you remember?" website for you. Regretfully, due to limitations of webspace and energy there are no solicitations for such stories from other Cassiarites.
This page was last edited Wednesday, September 19, 2012
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