Andrew Hory looks on during cleanup outside the old Coal Harbour Community Hall building.

Coal Harbour looks forward to Hornsby return

Residents hope to remodel former community hall into museum to house steam tractor, other artifacts

COAL HARBOUR—A tentative agreement worked out in provincial court could see the one-of-a-kind Hornsby Crawler returned to the North Island by the end of the summer.

In the meantime, a volunteer community group in Coal Harbour is working to provide it with a new home — one that was on the verge of being torn down.

“We thought we could re-apply this building and use it for a future museum,” said Steve Carlisle, a self-proclaimed Hornsby steam tractor buff, while helping with cleanup efforts recently at the old Coal Harbour Community Hall. “There were a lot of good parties and bands playing here 20-25 years ago; it was a real happening place.

“It would be nice to get something going with it again.”

The Regional District of Mount Waddington secured an agreement from George Hoffman in Provincial Court in Port Hardy June 27 for the return of the 100-year-old Hornsby “Mammoth” steam tractor.

Hoffman had overseen transport of the tractor from its display at Seven Hills Golf and Country Club to the Historical Construction Equipment Association Expo in Wetaskiwin, AB, in August 2005. But, following the expo, at which Hoffman had hoped to secure investment to restore the aging and rusted machine, it made the return trip only as far as Surrey before Hoffman stored it to continue his efforts toward its restoration.

The Regional District argued that Hoffman had the Hornsby only by virtue of a three-month loan contract, and filed suit in January to force Hoffman to return the tractor. That agreement was finally signed in a closed-door hearing attended by Hoffman, RDMW board chair Al Huddlestan, administrator Greg Fletcher and James Furney of the North Island Heritage Society.

“The agreement still has to be ratified by the board of directors at its next meeting (July 17 in Port McNeill),” said Fletcher, who said the agreement would not be made public until that vote. “Then we’ll have to wait until we see the Hornsby come rolling up the highway.”

At that point, the Regional District’s next decision will be where to house the machine, which was built in England in 1909 and shipped to the West Coast to haul coal in the Yukon gold fields before making its way to the North Island.

Carlisle and other volunteers hope Coal Harbour can be that home. The first order of business will be providing an appropriate site, and the group has targeted the former community centre building as a potential museum and showcase for the crawler and the whale skeleton that for years stood alongside the highway at the edge of town.

The group contacted local resident Andrew Hory, who last fall was elected to the RDMW board representing Area C, for assistance. And Joel Eilertsen, who houses a number of military, coal mining and whaling artifacts in his own private museum in the former military hangar, provided a backhoe and operator to help clean the trash and overgrowth that had built up over the years since the building fell out of use.

“I can’t pretend I was overly enthusiastic at first, just because of the shape the building’s in and because there aren’t a lot of people involved,” said Hory. “Certainly, Joey (Eilertsen) donating his backhoe and an operator to get everything cleaned up is going to help.

“But it’s still going to be a massive project. It’ll take a lot of people and a lot of hours.”

Remodeling the building will have to wait until test determine if asbestos was used inside. Carlisle said samples would be taken and sent off, and he doesn’t expect an answer back until early August.

“If it does have asbestos, it can’t be torn down until the asbestos is removed anyway,” he said. “At that stage, we now have a building that’s salvageable, which is not a hard thing to do if you have people who have done that kind of thing before.”

Carlisle envisions one wing of the building as a traditional museum and centre for local heritage and culture. The other would have its flooring removed and a concrete pad placed to support the massive Hornsby.

Of course, Hory pointed out, the RDMW board of directors would have to approve of the destination first. That may mean turning ownership of the prospective museum over to the District under a management agreement. And the board is not likely to even begin requesting applications until it sees the tractor back on the North Island.

“I think there’s a strong case to be made for Coal Harbour having it,” Hory said. “It was just down the inlet here for 50 or 60 years. But in order to present a package to the RD that says, yes, we’re a viable spot, we have to have some things in place.”