Today Vancouver Island’s northeast coast draws visitors who want to experience its pristine beauty and view the abundant wildlife. Telegraph Cove especially, has become a renowned tourist mecca.
In 1909 however, when Alfred Marmaduke Wastell first came to the area, Vancouver Island’s north coast lay silent and virtually empty – its scattering of inhabitants were Indian tribes in their villages and a handful of white people. (Time and Tide: A History of Telegraph Cove – Pat Wastell Norris).
Wastell, commonly known as the ‘Duke’ settled with his wife in Alert Bay, across Johnstone Strait from Telegraph Cove. At that time, no one lived at Telegraph Cove, in fact “It was my grandfather who named it Telegraph Cove,” Wastell Norris said. This was in response to a request from the Superintendant of Telegraphs, who in 1912, wanted to complete a telephone-telegraph line from Campbell River to northern Vancouver Island. He agreed to Wastell’s recommendation to set up the telegraph station in the protected cove, but required a place name, and Wastell obliged. The first lineman, Bobby Cullerne, was installed there that same year, and his job was to patrol the shore and protect the lines, which instead of being up on poles, were simply strung from tree to tree.
The cove saw very little activity until 1929. Just on the verge of the Great Depression, the Duke’s son Fred Wastell and his wife Emma moved from Alert Bay to Telegraph Cove to settle on a 400-acre parcel of waterfront property that the Duke had received in lieu of payment of a debt. It wasn’t entirely undeveloped at that time; in the mid-1920s, the Duke and a group of Japanese had already built a salmon saltery and sawmill there. There was however, a lack of power and no accommodation. With help from Fred’s uncles, who ‘could build or fix anything’ housing was constructed for Fred and Emma and a crew of workers. A water system and generating plant were set up and the mill was upgraded. Pat Wastell Norris explained that her parents lived “in a three-room shack perched on a bluff above the harbour,” and that during their first two years there it seemed to rain ceaselessly. The winter was so cold that the harbour froze over.
Soon Pat was born to the young couple, followed by a second daughter Bea. They hired a nanny from Hardwicke Island by the name of Helga Edward, who was affectionately known as Hug. Helga’s daughter Shirley Murray, who spent her early years at Telegraph Cove, told the story of how her parents met there:
“My father Malcolm Carmichael, known as Mac, was a fisherman. He came up to Telegraph Cove and began courting my mother Helga, who was the nanny for the Wastell family, the people who owned the sawmill. He would stand on the deck of his boat and play the violin, and my mother would come down and stand on the dock to listen.”
This eventually led to a proposal, and they were married at Cape Mudge. Mac was hired as head sawyer at the Telegraph Cove mill in 1937 and shortly afterwards Shirley was born at St. George’s hospital in Alert Bay. The family lived in a float house situated on the opposite side of the bay from the mill and across from the school. To get to the school, Shirley would be rowed over by her mother, or she would walk along the boom sticks to the point where the sticks met the mill’s gangplank.
Her father would meet her there and if there was a gap, Shirley would have to jump across and trust that her dad would catch her. She remembered going to Alert Bay about once a month for supplies and she and her younger brother were delighted with having ice cream from the Chinese grocer.
The family was living in Telegraph Cove during the war years, an unsettled time which dramatically changed the nature of the village, and the focus of the sawmill’s activities. In the early 1940s, there were several Japanese families living there and one of Shirley’s best friends was a Japanese girl. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Canadian Government began evicting Japanese families from the British Columbia coast. Shirley recalls that her friend suddenly disappeared one day, and she didn’t understand the reason why.
It was at this time as well, that the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) stationed some of their men at the cove, and they commandeered the sawmill so that they could manufacture their own building supplies. At the same time, they hired Fred Wastell to deliver their building supplies to Port Hardy.
For several years after the war, Telegraph Cove remained a coastal enclave only accessible by boat, but by 1956, Fred Wastell had managed to put in a road to connect the community to the rest of Vancouver Island. Many of the original mill workers’ homes remain on the boardwalk surrounding the cove and have been turned into quaint accommodations by Telegraph Cove Resorts; looking like a snapshot of days gone by.