It’s Heritage Week from February 20 – 26, and this year’s theme is “Energy in BC: A Powerful Past, a Sustainable Future.” The following special report has been prepared by the Agassiz Harrison Historical Society as a tribute to Energy, its importance to people in the Agassiz Harrison Valley, and how our early settlers harnessed energy to improve their lives.
Just imagine our lives without power. During the last week in January 1972 an ice storm hit the Agassiz Harrison Valley causing 26 hydro towers at Seabird Island to crumple like spaghetti. In spite of the valiant efforts of hydro workers, it took almost a week to get power restored. Severe cold, heavy snowfall and strong winds were followed by freezing rain which coated the wires until they broke, the weight of the ice dragging the huge steel towers down. Plate glass windows blew in, roofs were torn off, breaking branches made sounds like gunshots, and huge trees blew down. Wood-burning fireplaces or wood stoves provided some comfort and saved many houses from burst pipes but without alternate sources of power, life was difficult. Because each house at that time had its own water pump, residents usually filled containers at the first sign of strong winds. This was part of the local lore. No power meant no water, no lights, no heat, no toilet facilities, no coffee, no hot food, no TV, no radio, and no school. Farmers could not get water to their cattle and could not use their milking machines. Shops were closed. Life as we knew it came to a standstill. A few people had generators and other means to cope, but many suffered. We soon realized we do not have the tools to survive the way people did in earlier times.
This storm of 1972 was not a new experience for Agassiz and Harrison. According to J.J. Woods, author of “The Agassiz Harrison Valley”, a severe ice storm in 1917 caused much damage to trees, crippled the not-extensive telephone system in place at that time and ruined the telegraph wires. Another ice storm in 1935 was less severe than that of 1917 but caused more local damage due to the greater development of electric and telephone services and increased dependence on automobiles. In the 1917 storm, ice had formed on the wires to a reported depth of eight inches, while in 1935 wires were coated with five inches of ice, breaking down fifty percent of the telephone poles. All wiring systems: light, telephone and telegraph were damaged almost one hundred percent. The deciduous trees lost nearly 50 percent of their branches. This 1935 storm started with a very large snowfall which blocked both highways and the railroad. Then the ice formed and finally heavy rains followed, washing out numerous small railroad bridges. Schools were closed for two weeks, there was no train service for nine days and yeast was delivered by airplane. Services were not fully restored until almost the end of March.
Our dependence on power is growing, resulting in increased vulnerability. We now enjoy lives far more comfortable than the Kings and Queens of the Middle Ages did, but with a risk. Thus the drive is on to find alternate sources of energy: away from fossil fuels such as wood, coal, oil, and natural gas, towards more sustainable power sources such as wind, solar, waves, nuclear, methane, ethanol, biodiesels and biofuels to name a few. At the same time we are trying to reduce our dependency on power through the use of smarter machines, recycling, better insulation and careful use of our resources. But with an increasing population and a growing desire to enjoy more comfort, we require and want more power.
The history of power use in the Agassiz Harrison area is a credit to our early peoples’ ingenuity. The native people knew about using fire, sun, wind, and water for their needs. But when the settlers arrived in the mid-1800s our need for more power increased dramatically.
A convenient source of power was growing in importance, firewood for the first steamboats and trains. In 1886 an enterprising pioneer, Donald McRae, cut and delivered wood for the steam locomotives. He harvested the wood chiefly from where the present high school stands and from around the village limits. As many as 250 Chinese were employed at this work eventually, but by 1890 coal replaced wood for the train engines.
Near Harrison Hot Springs a huge fish hatchery at Greenpoint, now named Sasquatch Park, was built by the Dominion Government in 1904. Trout Creek was harnessed to supply water for the hatchery and power for the first electrical generator to provide light for the building. The next year the hatchery got a telephone link to the Harrison Hotel. In 1920 the electrical power at Trout Creek was upgraded to a 250 horsepower generating plant and electricity was then available for the Harrison Hotel.
Charles Inkman arrived in Agassiz in 1886 as a CPR agent. He soon moved on to build a store across the tracks from the CPR station, another store at Harrison Hot Springs, and the Bella Vista Hotel in Agassiz with his mother-in-law Mrs. Roberta Probert. Realizing that transportation and communication were a necessity for his businesses, he established motor boat transportation on Harrison Lake and in 1906 sent fellow pioneer, Donald McRae to Victoria to learn about the mechanics and how to run his newest purchase, a two-seater Franklin motor car, the first automobile in this area. This car had its gear shift and brakes on the outside of the running board, and it was started by cranking from the side. Now that automobiles had arrived in the area, there was a greater need for oil and gas products. The Agassiz Garage was built by Quin and Welter around the First World War. More garages followed. The Union Oil Company subsequently established tanks at the west end of the CPR right of way in the late 1930s.
When the CPR arrived here in 1886, telegraph lines arrived, too, and became an important tool for early communication. Telegraph messages were received at the Agassiz CPR station and relayed to the recipients. Telegrams for Chilliwack had to be phoned over to Chilliwack once telephone lines were built.
Mr. Inkman was among the first in the area to install an electric light plant for private use. In addition, he built a private telephone system linking the Bella Vista Hotel, the ferry Landing, his two stores at Harrison and Agassiz and his house. The only other telephone system at that time was the line linking the Harrison Hotel to the CPR station in Agassiz. However, by 1910 the first telephone system in Agassiz listed 43 subscribers, and calls to Chilliwack were carried via a submarine cable. Unfortunately it was washed out the first year by high water. Telephone poles for the telephone system were supplied by W. Green. Electricity and telephones were becoming rather handy tools to have around.
In 1916 the Agassiz Garage was sold to Duncan McRae who rented part to the Chilliwack Electric Company for installation of the first Delco light plant in Agassiz. Public power had finally come to Agassiz. This plant was soon relocated shortly after 1918 to the back of the E.J.Webb property, later called the Baumfield building. Now two Delco engines were installed by R. Marsh of Chilliwack. However, by 1922 the Delco plants were replaced by a generating plant built at Hammersley Mountain, with the water supply coming from Stacey Lake which had been dammed to a height of 15 feet. A 50 kilowatt generator and 4.5 miles of power line serviced the district. But demand for power continued to grow and on February 1, 1930 the BC Electric Railway Company bought the interests of the Chilliwack Electric Company and supplied power first from the Hammersley hydro plant, until it switched over to bringing power from the Chilliwack sub-station via a submarine cable under the Fraser River on May 11, 1931. When high water destroyed this cable in July 1931, overhead lines were erected, crossing the river from the Chilliwack side. By 1931 street lighting came to Pioneer Avenue and in 1939 ornamental and decorative Christmas lighting were installed there.
The electrical supply got a boost in the 1950s when the BC government began building dams in the province. From 1953 to 1957 the BC Electric Company hired about 400 men to build high tension lines over 700 steel towers at a cost of $15,000,000, from the Bridge River generating plant down near the north end of Harrison Lake, following the west shore of the lake, through the District of Kent and over to join the Wahleach generating station at Jones Lake near Bridal Falls. The power then went on to Vancouver. This route follows part of the old Cariboo trail built by the miners in 1858. Since that first line was built, many more electrical transmission links have been built in BC, with several major lines now marching across Seabird Island and through the District of Kent, bringing power from dams in northern BC.
Another energy source which had a big impact on our valley is the natural gas pipeline. Started in 1952, the West Coast Transmission Company laid 650 miles of 30 inch pipe from the Peace River at Fort Saint John. Nearly 15 miles pass through the District of Kent, crossing the Fraser River using the new Agassiz Rosedale Bridge built in 1956. A meter station on Tranmer Road provided gas for distribution in the Agassiz Harrison area. Local customers first started to enjoy natural gas on September 9, 1957.
As we become more dependent on energy for our comforts, we must never forget the lessons of the past. In developing a higher standard of living it is prudent to remember that nature still has the upper hand, and we must take steps to ensure we can survive when nature reminds us who is boss. Energy is necessary but there are drawbacks to becoming too reliant on it. Besides, power sources must be renewable and sustainable or we risk having no power again, just like we did during the winter storms of the past.
It has been mentioned that with all the dairy cows in this area, perhaps we should be taking another look at the gas they produce. We may have another home-grown source of power right here in Agassiz and Harrison!