Kemano Camp 5, 1950-1955

Kemano or Camp 5 was the Morrison-Knudsen administrative centre and home base for tunnel and transmission line construction workers. Wachwas Camp for families was about two or three miles down the road from Camp Five. D. W. 'Red' McKernan was the superintendent of Kemano operations for Alcan:

"[He] was a well-respected person and everybody loved him.. to me he was a very great person, a very important person. He took me under his wing, and took all the other young foremen under his wing, and then sent us to courses - management courses, personnel courses, training courses... I used to remember him saying - when we were doing the protection around one of the Kitimat towers - I said, 'We have a problem out there.' He didn't want to listen to the problems. He said, 'Do you know why we hired you? It's to solve those problems. If you have a real problem that you can't solve, then you come to me.' He was a very fair person and if he gave you that responsibility, you carried out your responsibility." (Adam Charneski)

Hans Larsen had worked for Alcan as a sign-painter at Nechako, the camp near the Kenney Dam when it was under construction. Later, he decided to take the offer of more work for Alcan and so moved to Kemano where he was a gang leader of painters. Larsen reminisces:

Mess Hall at dinnertime, 6:30 p.m. sitting, Camp 5, Kemano, July 10, 1952.

"Life at the Wachwas Camp was a great experience. Just to set the record straight, this camp of prefabricated plywood houses were actually located at Seekwyakin Creek. The Wachwas was located further down the road towards the beach. The names have been mixed up on earlier maps... The camp was a sight to behold. When we had to paint the exteriors, I asked Red McKernan [Superintendent of Power Operations] if we could allow the occupants to pick their own colours. He thought that was a good idea. It was such a success that we did the same when Camp Five... quonset homes had to be painted. The quonset homes were spray-painted so we mixed colours with aluminum paint. It looked great. However, the brightest house, and there were some dandies, was Fred and Molly Gordon's home. It was fire-engine red. We had to special-order the paint as we couldn't mix it with what we had in stock... Our first home was a single bedroom pre-fab, kitchen and living room in one. When Anita [their daughter] was born a room was added. When Lars [their son] came along we moved across the street to a two-bedroom house to which we added another room." (Hans Larsen)

During the construction years of tunnel and transmission line, Kemano boomed with Morrison-Knudsen management personnel, service personnel including secretarial, and construction workers. At this time Kemano had a complement of some 5,000 men. Amenities had to be set up for the construction community. With the families moving into Wachwas camp, a school was set up with four classrooms. Clearing was just happening when Sheila Charneski and her family arrived in July 1952 from Vancouver:

Looking northeast along one of the streets in the Wachwas Trailer Camp – The Village, Kemano. 

Teachers at Wachwas School: (l to r) Mrs. Gleddie, Mrs. Filbrandt, Principal Gleddie, Mrs. Crane and Miss Thorne, June 16, 1953. 

"They just blitzed the trees down. It was at the edge of Wachwas Camp... I remember them knocking down the trees and getting them all out of the way. I remember being absolutely fascinated because we kids found some snow banks in amongst those trees... ice from the previous winter... Mr. Gleddie was the Principal there. He was a bit of a tartar... We had grade 7, 8 and 9 in my room so they probably had a kindergarten, primary and then sort of divided it like that... We were a mixture - we were Americans and Canadians. There were a lot of American kids there because of course Morrison-Knudsen... was a huge American conglomerate and so some of my friends were used to racketing around the country from project to project... I remember my mother telling me there was a huge fight over what flag was going to fly over the school, because MK - which was building the school and paying for everything - is an American company but this is Canadian soil... I know the Union Jack was flying there, but I can't recall if the Stars and Stripes did or not, but I know the Union Jack did in the end." (Sheila Charneski)

Life for the women in Wachwas was in creating a normal social atmosphere and community:

"My mother got involved in the community, of course, probably to a much greater level than she'd ever been involved in the community when she lived here in Vancouver, because you have to in a smaller place, if things are going to happen you have to make them happen. She was always interested in playing bridge... she would have Bridge foursomes, and the women had teas and Mom, of course, was always handy for that because she had the family sterling silver tea set with the cream and sugar and teapot. At that point we even had Old Toby, he was known as. Old Toby was the other silver teapot but he was on his own stand, he was a really big one... They did the teas the same way they did them in the city, where Mrs. So-and-So poured for the first hour and then someone else would take over and pour for the second hour... They would put on a tea if anybody important came to town. If the MK managers from elsewhere came, they would bring their wives. If the Alcan people came in to have a look around and see how the project was going... they'd bring their wives. Then the women who were resident there would put on one of these teas... It was gloves and hats, and so and so pouring for the first hour. I remember, she and her good friend Margaret Reynolds - Mr. Reynolds, I don't know what his real name was but everybody called him 'Fats'... He was in charge of the BCIE Office. And so she and Margaret went to this tea and Mother lived in Wachwas but the Reynolds lived in Camp Five and a number of women went from Wachwas. This woman... was being introduced around and at one point the comment was made, 'Well, this was actually a very nice tea and it was very interesting to see that there are some nice women in Wachwas.' And that became an absolute classic line in the family. I know my mother and Margaret would dissolve into hysterics every time one of them would look at the other and say 'Well there are some nice women in Wachwas'." (Sheila Charneski)

There was a Royal Bank of Canada, and Crawley McCracken ran a dairy, bakery, grocery store, and cafeteria.

A month’s supply of powdered milk for the Kemano Dairy, November 13, 1952.  

"That's the way it was in the beginning but as the big kitchen was eliminated then the Nechako used to bring in our fresh groceries from Kitimat. Twice a week and especially on Saturdays the boat would come in and that was when most of the fresh bread and the fresh milk would come in. That was quite an undertaking, to receive these groceries off the boat - there was probably a thousand pounds or two thousand pounds of groceries coming in. It would all have to be manhandled into the truck and this grocery truck would come into the store, off-loaded and then of course the people were lining up to get whatever they needed. That's how our groceries came in for many years until Kemano was closed." (Adam Charneski)

Construction began on the permanent community of Kemano in 1957, and the first permanent houses - 38 of them - were completed for the workers who would run the Powerhouse by the fall of 1958. The lots were later seeded and landscaped with trees, shrubs and hedges suitable to the area. As of June 1, 1959, there were no construction workers left in Kemano although a small group of privately employed personnel were busy dismantling quonset warehouses which the Company had sold to make room for the construction of permanent homes.

A view of the new Kemano townsite nearing completion.  Image appeared in Alcan's publication, Kitimat-Kemano: Five Years of Operation, 1954-1959.

The townsite planned by a Montreal firm, Durnford, Boulton, Chadwick and Elwood was to have 115 permanent homes. By 1964, 56 houses were built with an additional 9 still under construction. A four-room school was constructed in 1960-1961. By 1964, the population was 400 with 140 Alcan employees.

" and cultural amenities of almost every type have been organized by the residents... The residents of Kemano are an enthusiastic and active group with a deep sense of pride in their community... The town boasts of paved streets, underground wiring in the townsite area, a bright, modern primary school, a beautiful inter-denominational church, built entirely by the residents themselves, an attractive Rod and Gun Club, which has become the centre of social life in the community, a baseball diamond, bowling alley, theatre, post office, dairy, bakery, go-cart track and many other social and recreational facilities." (E.W. Red McKernan, Manager of Power Operations, 1964)

"That [Rod and Gun] was one of the first clubs and trap shooting was happening during the construction days. Trap shooting was very popular in those days, and of course the shells were only $1.50 a box and I guess I joined the Rod and Gun Club in 1954, right off the bat. There was no Rod and Gun Club [house] at that time. There was just a little spot about halfway between Kemano Townsite and the Bay, a little opening there, in a little gravel spot, and that was the safe area to be shooting trap. There was a little shed there and I think a little sort of an open area with a couple of tables underneath so that people could have a picnic and that was the first site of the Kemano Rod and Gun Club." (Adam Charneski)

The fellows of the Club had some memorable outings:

"We started off to go to the Kitlope, it was further down the Gardner Canal - at the end of the Gardner Canal - and the annual Duck Hunting trip was quite an event. All the tough, outdoors people would jump in little boats and I would take my company boat with x number of people and there was a tugboat that Captain Cogswell had and we'd load up everybody and there was always some sort of mishap when we did get up there either the tide was too high and everything was flooded out or the tide was too low and we couldn't get up the river. Somebody would always get lost and fall in the water, but it was a good time, a good time. At night they would have this big barbecue going and there was food and beer and everybody just re-fought the Second World War because there was all this mix of people from Canada, Germany, England, all over the place and so they re-fought all their events during the war." (Adam Charneski)

Crest from the Kemano Bay Yacht Club.

Community members made their own social and recreational activities. Adam Charneski reminisces on the early events of his new community:

" ...the families and the people - all this talent that came out. There was so much hidden talent in this varied mix of people that came from Europe and across Canada. It was wonderful to see them perform in a concert. There was musical talent, someone would move a piano onstage, and somebody would play a violin and then the banjo, or make up your own instruments, and there was always a trumpet player... There was a fellow by the name of Rudy Oeste and he was a terrific trumpet player so he did, lets say, a July 1st reveille, and then he would get mad at this trumpet because it didn't do something properly so he'd bash it on the door or on a table and bend it and then he'd spend the next two or three weeks fixing it up and he would fix it up nicely and then play it again for us. I think there will be a lot of people who will recall that - Rudy Oeste and his bent up trumpet." (Adam Charneski)

" ...the clubs that were formed - there was all types of clubs, including the bowling club, the tennis club - all the clubs were built by volunteer labour, the company supplied very little material, some key material we would ask and they would procure for us but after that it was all volunteer labour. The Kemano Rod and Gun was built in that rock pile there - on weekends the people would get together with trucks and front-end loaders and they would haul the fill in. Then we leveled the fill, then we'd dig in the footings, make the forms, pour the concrete and eventually the building was built, and then there was of course a monthly celebration in that building. With the KRA at one end of town and the Rod and Gun where it was located on the south end of town, so then we'd have two parties to look forward to in a month ...after awhile when the Legion came in there was a party every Friday night." (Adam Charneski)

"Once a month it was party night, there was a concert and maybe it was followed by a dance or something like that. I remember clearly the once a month gatherings that we had dances and there was tables set up and there was musicians and we used to get the Native Band from Hartley Bay to come in by boat, and we'd put them up and they would entertain us until one o'clock in the morning. They were live band music. I was the President and welcomed them to our event, 'Here's the Hartley Bay Band'. They went and played away, and then somebody would say 'We'd like another extra hour after one o'clock, would you play?' and they'd play for half an hour extra. We'd sort of dine them, make sure that they were comfortable, and took them back to the boat the next morning and they went back to Hartley Bay, which was about a 70 mile trip from Kemano." (Adam Charneski)

Kemano Volunteer Fire Department Crest

Location-wise, with no road in, Kemano was completely isolated. Community emergency services were set up, the M.V. Nechako made two round trips per week to Kitimat, and telephone service was provided over the transmission line. Ordained ministers from Kitimat, and the United Church coastal missionary, paid regular visits to conduct the scheduled Sunday service. The residents constructed the church:

"We were one of the first to get married under the Alcan flag. The church was built from a little building at the north end of town and I think it was perhaps a school or I'm not sure what it was but I still remember this white little building and then it was converted slowly into a church. A fellow by the name of Rudy Levcoe who was Lithuanian, I think - a very handy craftsman, he was in the carpenters shop - and he undertook to build the alter and the pews and all the decoration that you see at the end of pews and the seats and he did a beautiful job. We were very fortunate to get married in that little church. It was a small little walkway up to the altar. The superintendent Mr. E.W. McKernan was our chauffeur in his little 1951 Studebaker car, a light green little Studebaker. He drove me up to the church and then he went and got Sheila and drove her up to the church and then when we were married we jumped into this little car and then wherever we went to take our pictures and what have you. It was quite an event. We had something like 250 or 270 people to our wedding in the theatre and everybody came. This was the first big wedding in Kemano." (Adam Charneski)