The Town of Kitimat

Neighbourhood "A", Nechako, also known as "The Shield".

To match the futuristic industrial development, Alcan constructed an equally modern town. Kitimat would be British Columbia’s first planned community – an urban utopia so desirable to the worker that a stable work force would be maintained.  Swaths of land for the Townsite and roads were cleared.  Neighbourhood A - "Nechako" or "The Shield" - was begun first, then Neighbourhood C, "Kildala", City Centre by 1956, and a portion of the Whitesail Neighbourhood. 

The planner that I worked with mostly was Milton Glass.  We’d sit around and chew the fat.  I wasn’t exactly enamored with his thought of what a town should be. My thoughts were a little different than his. … He was the person who was sent by Whittlesey and the boys to implement the plan.  He was pretty committed to the plan.  Of course, I was young and inexperienced in that area and so … we had some pretty good discussions.  He had his assignment and he was going to make sure it got accomplished in the way it was assigned.  (John Pousette)

When planning the town, Alcan maintained two basic principles - Kitimat would not to be a company town and economic diversification would be promoted.  Alcan would not remain in the "town business".  Housing and commercial property would be sold.  In 1953, the District of Kitimat became the first town without residents to be incorporated in B.C.  The catch was that in order to sit on the District Council, one had to be a landowner.  Basil Baxter was elected on that first Council, having received his land.  His wife Cathy recalls:

When Basil was on the Council and Alcan gave them a piece of land on the delta and it was all signed, sealed and delivered.  I wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t flooded at the highest tide.  It was all in this document…it states exactly what you cannot do with that land, like you couldn’t fence it, you couldn’t build a shed on it, you couldn’t build anything on it.  You see, it was given – I can’t remember if they paid a dollar…but you had to be a land owner to run for Council…. and then that was given back when your council term [was up] or you didn’t stand again or whatever.

Kitimat planning conference, 1955: (l to r) James Dudley, Alcan Chief Planner, Albert Mayer and Julian Whittlesey. 

A successful smelter needed a skilled and stable workforce.  Kitimat would be designed for the worker and his family.  The fulfillment of people's needs as the focus of a town plan was considered revolutionary.  Famed American architect and town planner Clarence S. Stein, and town planners Mayer & Whittlesey of New York fulfilled Alcan's goals.  A green space model was chosen separating pedestrian and vehicular traffic and having home, store, and community building face "peaceful open spaces, removed from intrusion and hazard by the automobile". 

A town that is completely planned from A to Z. I don’t know if it has really been done before…. I think Kitimat was the first town that was totally planned for expansion many many decades ahead. (Peggy Burbidge)

Many construction companies were involved.  Alcan hired others like Dutch Vrooman for surveying and overseeing operations for the creation of the townsite.  Kitimat Constructors were already taking care of the smelter.  Dutch remembers the first steps taken in making the town planner’s vision a reality:

There [were] contractors coming along laying pipes and then you had to go back and check and say, “that pipe is going uphill and it’s got to go downhill.”…. [The plan] was all done in New York, by people who had never seen the place.  They had seen a bunch of photographs of treetops.  Now underneath the treetops, the land was not necessarily level with the top of the treetops…but they didn’t know this when they laid the streets out….  You got 520’ pipe that is going to drop ¾”, and you got there and that ¾” was really 5 feet!  So, basically, we were taking their Master Plan and suiting it to the ground.  (A.E. “Dutch” Vrooman)

Surveying the Townsite

In keeping with the short time frame for town completion, houses were prefabricated and assembled on site.  Two housing companies were prominent in the earliest days – Johnson Crooks and Hullah.  Prototype homes were constructed on Oriole, Partridge, and Pintail streets.  Homes of pan-abode, and others with high-sloped ceilings or banks of windows were among the choices. The builders of Kitimat chose innovative materials and designs.

…because of the prefabrication…a lot of that townsite was developed very very quickly in order to provide accommodation for the permanent people coming in….There was only a hundred or so married units down on the smelter and they had to get a lot more in a big hurry.  That was the program they took.  Rather than try to build them there they had to prefabricate it and ship in.  It made very good sense.  (Dick Hermann)

Gerald Burbidge mentioned the houses:

When they were building them in the early ‘50s, they patterned them after the California style. And you would have a house that would probably be suitable in Santa Clara. Here they are building these in Kitimat. The roofs were three-quarter cathedral ceilings, therefore they had virtually no insulation and an aluminum roof. And when it rains in Kitimat… it just thundered on the roof. After a while it would lull you to sleep. 

Here were these California houses in Kitimat. The design was so poor. They just were not made for that area. I don’t even think they would make it in Vancouver. 

Hullah homes under construction, 1954. 

Johnson Crooks Construction Company, an American-based company, began its housing program in Neighbourhood A, “Nechako” with plans to complete 300 homes between June and December 1, 1954.  Many of the one-and-a-half storey duplexes were occupied by the end of 1954.  The company was proud of its speed and efficiency in building right on site, using an adaptation of the assembly-line principle – tradesmen moving from house to house repeating specialized jobs.

N.W. Hullah Construction Ltd. barged in prefabricated houses and assembled them on site.  These houses were popular as they had the luxury of fireplaces in the living rooms.  By the end of June 1954, Hullah had completed 38 houses, 32 of which were already occupied.

The summer of ‘54 the first people went into the little Hullah houses on the Townsite and then as time went on in ’55 they went in the Johnson Crooks houses on the Townsite.  Of course there were oodles of problems.  On the Hullah houses…because they were built with glass – like the living room, the dining room had glass, French doors almost, right down to the floor and when you had five feet of snow.  That was just a nightmare…and besides the ducts were in the concrete footing, so a lot of people had to close up these big windows, because they just weren’t designed for the climate of Kitimat.  Now, the Johnson Crooks houses had another problem.  They leaked.  They had the same heating system with ducts right down in the floor around the house.  And they tended to leak and produce steam because you had the leakage coming in with the hot air coming from the furnace…there was all sorts of problems with the housing, and then of course they put in the sky bungalows…There was a basic lower floor where you had your heating.  You had a small portion where your stairs went up and your living room was…up here…it was like a little house on a little pedestal.  (Harry McLellan)

Establishing Permanence

"We are interested in building neither palaces nor monuments, but we are extremely anxious to avoid a shack town…we must not be extravagant or encourage the community to be extravagant.  Through proper planning we will try to avoid many needless mistakes and expenses of haphazard growth."  J.B. White, Vice President and Director of Personnel, Alcan.

In efforts to establish a stable work force for aluminum production, Alcan made every effort to establish permanence.  Temporary housing was collapsed as soon as possible, discouraging the rough life that had been routine in the male-dominated construction camps.

In 1953, the District of Kitimat became the first town without residents to be incorporated in B.C.  Alcan introduced a mortgage plan with a low interest rate, monthly bonuses for employees, and held a public auction of 118 building lots in Nechako.  The catch – a permanent house had to be built within 18 months.

A 5-ton steel ball measuring 8 feet in diameter was strung on a cable and pulled through the forest between two tractors, 1955.  This method was limited to areas where trees did not exceed 12 to 14 inches in diameter.

Noel Lewis Watts remembers the construction methods:

…they went into the bush where they were going to build with two cat dozers and there was a big cable between them with a huge metal ball in the centre and they just went through the bush with these two cat dozers and it just ripped everything out…  And so, they cleared the land of trees. They brought in bulldozers and scooped out 12 inches of mud, laid down some type of tar paper, laid down the heating ducts on top of that and then poured the concrete. That was the base and then they built the houses from there. What happened in several cases was it collapsed the heating ducts, so they had to come in with jackhammers after the house was constructed … to break up the floor and restore these ducts. You know you can imagine the chaos and the dust and dirt in the house when this took place.

At the start of 1954, Kitimat was hardly recognizable as a town.  From Smeltersite, one drove along a rough road, over Anderson Creek and Kitimat River bridges to the Townsite Camp.  Service Centre was a field of stumps, bulldozers and fires.  Driving past the cleared area for City Centre and the Kildala neighbourhood, one would continue up the newly graded hill known as Haisla Boulevard to the first houses.  Some were complete, others were just foundations, and everywhere, overturned earth and mud!

Doug Cohoon…had his car in Kitimat so one of the first things we did, he drove me up to the Townsite – just a complete sea of mud in the fall of 1953….It was a sea of mud for darned near the next year until they got house #1 in there which was I think on Oriole Street.  Anyway, that was my first drive around… just incredible mud.  They cleared the whole works.  So they had the whole of [“A”] area cleared….and they had big fires and they burned up all the wood and everything…and of course they had all the work going on laying water mains and sewers and all that kind of stuff…  (Harry McLellan)

Adam “Dutch” Vrooman reminisces on his earliest days surveying the infrastructure for Townsite:

Accommodation being delivered at Upper Townsite Camp.

It was a great big pile of clay.  There was clay in all directions.  No matter where you went there was clay, and there were four or five shacks…and each one, bless its heart, had a heater in it, a small oil heater, and three or four desks, drafting desks, and because I had been a surveyor in the army, they said, “OK, there’s the survey crew.  Away you go…here’s a drawing”…covered in clay…

The trick was you did your work in the morning and then you got back in the afternoon and you started doing the drawing of which you’d made in the morning, on linen.  That was fine but when you got back in the next morning and the heat had been off all night…So about ten o’clock in the morning, you’d finally get this place warm enough, to have this linen flat again to do your drawing…

I was heading off to see what this one particular drag line…what he was doing wrong I guess. I had some leftover paratrooper boots…and part way over to Oriole Street from where the center is, where the jail is now…I got well stuck in the clay and I tried to get out, and of course, being clay, it is like quick sand.  I got deeper and deeper, and the chap that was digging the trench ahead of me – where I was trying to get to – saw I was in a little bit of difficulty, and I think he deliberately left me there for awhile.   I am not sure.  He never admitted it.  When it was getting past the joke stage, he swung his bucket around behind, ahead of me, and I grabbed ahold of the bucket and laid in it and he very gently, slowly lifted me up and swung me over on to the ditch he was digging.  Unfortunately, I had to leave my boots and socks behind.  They are still there as far as I know, behind that lot on Oriole Street.  But, it was a very embarrassing little walk back along Oriole Street, along Kingfisher, back to where the…shack was.  It was cold.  My feet were bare.

By the end of 1954, hundreds of new homes were completed and families were pouring into Kitimat.

…all the furniture was down at the dock [on] pallet boards with tarps over them.  What a horrible mess – we couldn’t find our fridge for a week.” (Clare Craig, Alcan foreman, arrived in Kitimat, December 1954)

For the first week we had garbage cans of water delivered so we could flush the toilets, and tanks of water for drinking water, so we were really pioneers, but we loved it…anybody who moved in we made welcome.  We didn’t mind the mud [and] not having a store for us to go shopping.  Alcan had a station wagon – driver was Ed – and once a week he would pick up the ladies.  We would go shopping, maybe twice a week if we were lucky, to the Bay…at Smeltersite.  We got a treat to go up there.  (Hilda Prause)

As soon as I got the down payment, I got Pat on the boat up there with the three kids…and we had practically no furniture, and as matter of fact, two of the chairs we had were upended whiskey boxes…  We had to get [the furniture] up on the boat.  Next four or five days, make do with what we had.  I borrowed a couple of mattresses from Crawley McCracken.  (A.E. “Dutch” Vrooman)

Boardwalks saved the citizens from “mud water” as Kitimat’s precipitation had been called.  Hilda Prause recalls her husband’s enthusiasm for Kitimat and her first view of her new home:

[Tom] just loved it here, the fishing here…when he wrote…he said, how beautiful it was, and this is where he would like to make his home.  Tom purchased a house on Oriole Street.  I came – I think it was the middle of March.  My first impression of Kitimat was – I arrived with high heels, all dressed up because I hadn’t seen my husband for a long time, got off the boat, there was nothing but men, pouring rain, no husband to be seen.  So…it was, Mr. Whitehead, who finally said, Oh, Mrs. Prause, I don’t know where your husband is right now, but we will take you up to one of the guesthouses at Smeltersite.  We were taken to the house, then Crossan’s Cartage at that time, took us to our house [on Oriole].  The first walk into my house, over planks, because the oil tanks were still all open.  I believe we were the third or fourth couple to move onto Oriole Street…well, they said finished, but it was all very rough stuff.  [The house] was beautiful.  Everything was beautiful - we had black tiles….this was the first house we owned and we were so proud to be a house owner.  (Hilda Prause)

Dick Hermann constructed his Townsite home with friends’ help, and the Hermanns moved into their new home in 1956.  Roy Shupe poured the foundation:

….Everybody was friends there and the people who were in charge of the concrete plant and the mill and so on were all personal friends and so they did part of the work and provided good materials for us to use.  (Mary Hermann)

The Alcan Property Department was initially set up to acquire land for the dam, reservoir, powerhouse, smelter, and townsite.  “Once the necessary land was acquired our main function became the administration of the sale, development, subdividing and lease of all land not directly concerned with power generation or aluminum reduction, principally within the District of Kitimat.”  Kitimat-Kemano: First Five Years of Operation, 1954-1959, Aluminum Company of Canada

Opening Kitimat’s first civic building, Labour Day, September 7, 1956. 

"Our biggest job was employee housing.  Everyone wanted houses much faster than they could be built.  The Property Department cleared and developed land, rushed the building of the first Municipal services, allocated land to house builders, processed applications for housing assistance and set up waiting lists." Kitimat-Kemano: Five Years of Operation, 1954-1959, Aluminum Company of Canada

People had to go by whoever came first – seniority list – to be able to get a house next.  We had I am sure, at least six couples come stay with us, waiting for the houses to be completed. (Hilda Prause)

George [Melville] was an interesting individual.  He was the property manager … he was a little bit like [smelter manager] Dutch Turney in the sense that he had a very broad view of the operation and he had lots of loose ends that he was always pulling in and making sure they were working.  There were two construction companies building house out there, there was Hullah and Johnson Crooks.  He sort of ran the thing, he had a very open office and we had the New York planners with us – they had laid out the community and it was a matter of building it – there was a lot of negotiation that had to go on with the housing contractors in terms of where the houses were being built and what were the extras and all that sort of thing.  …The thing that was critical was getting houses there so that the guys that had been working for a year or two in the plant could bring their wives to the community.  (John Pousette)

At the time of Prince Philip's visit August 3, 1954, sixty-eight families were in permanent homes in Nechako - courtesy of Alcan’s Home Building Program.  During 1955, 239 employees moved into their new homes, and another 286 homes would soon be ready for occupancy.  In 1956, 600 additional homes with dormitory quarters for 800 single status plant employees were planned.

"Stores and shopping facilities were desperately needed and the Property Department had to explain Kitimat to merchants who knew nothing of local conditions but were considering investment in the town.  The Department endeavoured to interest those who would be in the best position to serve the community.  Rumours about Kitimat circled the globe and thousands wrote to find out if the streets were really paved with gold." Kitimat - Kemano: Five Years of Operation, 1954-1959, Aluminum Company of Canada 

Early landscaping and planting was made free to homeowners through the Aluminum Company of Canada's beautification program that saw every homeowner receive a dump of topsoil.  Contests encouraged townspeople to enhance their homes, adding beauty and permanence to Kitimat, and as a company official stated, "make Kitimat Townsite something to be proud of…"  By June 1955, the first shoots of green grass were growing on Oriole Street through seeding efforts by the Terminal Construction Company - "the landscapers' plan to cover Kitimat with grass this year."

This chap walked back and forth, from the road to the house, to the road to the house, and so on, broadcasting this grass seed. And within three weeks, it seemed to me, now it may have been less than that, the whole place had turned from a sea of mud to greenery. …it seemed to be overnight. And what a welcome relief, you know. It just really made the place quite nice.  (Noel Lewis-Watts)