British Columbia

Not dead yet: The wet beauty of Ocean Falls, B.C.

Calling it a town is a bit of a misnomer. There’s no mayor, there’s little government representation, but it wasn’t always that way. Ocean Falls was once a much bigger deal.

The mill shut down in 1980, but Premier Horgan thinks the town could still have a bright future

Ocean Falls lies at the end of the Cousins Inlet. BC Ferries still makes regular stops on its run between Bella Coola and Bella Bella (Matthew McFarlane)

Calling it a town is a bit of a misnomer. There's no mayor, there's little government representation, but it wasn't always that way. Ocean Falls was once a much bigger deal.

What was once a town of about 3,000 people is now home to about 25.

While the town might be a shadow of its former self, the sheer effort of getting there hasn't changed; it's as remote as it always was.

Ocean Falls began life in the early 20th century when some pulp and paper workers saw a lucrative possibility. A lake, a tumbling river, and an ocean meant the promise of almost limitless electricity, a vital ingredient in the creation of paper. The river was dammed, the lake made even larger, a mill built and the town was born.

Slowly, the town’s buildings are being swallowed up by the encroaching rain forest. (Matthew McFarlane)

For almost 70 years, the town drew in workers for the mill, and alongside came their families. It was the kind of town where there was plenty to do outdoors.

Brian McDaniel's father was one of the town's doctors and he's penned a new book about life in the town called Ocean Falls After the Whistle. For kids, it was an idyllic upbringing.

"I call it a kind of huckleberry existence. We were surrounded by mountains and lakes and rivers and the ocean. It was a wonderful place to be a kid, even though it rained a lot."

Residents called themselves The Rain People for good reason.

The area gets about 4,500 millimetres of rain each year, according to the Central Coast Regional District. And so they needed other activities to keep them out of the rain.

Champion athletes

Sports was a big part of the town, and early on, the mill company Crown Zellerbach built the residents an indoor pool. It was there that champions were born.

In addition to exporting paper, the town also exported swimmers. Swimmers like world doping head Richard Pound, and Olympic and world champion medallist Ralph Hutton. Brian McDaniel says it's the landscape itself that helped make the athletes.

"Because it was a town on the side of the mountain, people walked everywhere, and walked uphill. Everybody, and particularly the kids were just naturally fit."

Despite its wins in the pool, by the 1970s, the town was increasingly a financial loser.

The old fire hall, long abandoned. (Matthew McFarlane)

Threatened with a complete shutdown, the provincial government bought the mill and town in 1973, but continued financial factors eventually doomed Ocean Falls.

In 1980, the mill was shut down. And the town largely razed. The Martin Inn, at one time B.C.'s second largest hotel, was left standing. It still looms over the town site, a ghost hotel. But just steps from its shadow sits the Old Bank Inn.

Housed in the former CIBC, the inn plays host to the many people who come to visit Ocean Falls. Some are there for work — the dam is still in operation, feeding both the towns of Bella Bella and Shearwater and a new bitcoin plant in the town. Others have returned to see Ocean Falls, years after leaving.

The Old Bank Inn sits next to Ocean Falls’ crumbling Martin Inn. (Toni Ziganash)

For some it's sad, but for inn owner Toni Ziganash, the town as she sees it, is all she knows, and it's as beautiful as it comes.

Ziganash came to Ocean Falls years after the town was all but abandoned. On the day we talked, it was a glorious and warm sunny late spring day. She sat on the old bank veranda, overlooking the town's old fire hall, soon to be reborn as a home for her son and family. They're looking to escape the uncertainty of Venezuela for the peaceful quiet of B.C.'s Central Coast.

A premier's fond memories - and hopes

"It needs more people, we have an aging population," she said. "We would really like to see people come in and stay year round. Especially with people who have some energy."

Another former resident who sees a future for Ocean Falls: Premier John Horgan.

He worked in the mill in its final summer and loved the town, and its isolation. He thinks there's another chapter for Ocean Falls, around the corner.

"There's always been someone that's come up with an idea for Ocean Falls, and I'm hopeful that one of these days one of them is going to take off, and the town will be reborn with that sense of enthusiasm I remember as a young man."

About the Author

Matthew McFarlane produces CBC Vancouver News' flagship supper hour program at 6 p.m. He also contributes to CBC Radio and cbc.ca/bc.

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