COAL HARBOUR—From the interior of the old Coal Harbour Community Hall, skeletal winter alders can be seen stretching into a leaden sky. Not through a window, but through the roof trusses, where a portion of the World War II-era structure was removed more than a year ago.
That planned demolition has been put on hold, and now a volunteer group hopes the former Royal Canadian Air Force facility can find new life as a community meeting centre and repository for the region’s rich and varied history.
“It’s a big project,” admitted Andrew Hory, a local resident and Regional District of Mount Waddington director for electoral Area C. “But it looks a lot better than it did when we started.”
The key to the old building’s revival, the historic Hornsby Mammoth steam tractor, currently sits nearly 60 klicks away, in a Lemare Lake Logging works yard south of Port McNeill.
And now, as the result of a vote in a council meeting last week, Coal Harbour supporters may wonder if Port McNeill provides more than a geographical hurdle between them and the Hornsby.
At last summer’s end, when the Hornsby was recovered from a Surrey-based businessman’s warehouse following a six-year absence, it was accepted wisdom across the North Island that the machine, the only one ever built, was likely bound for Coal Harbour to be displayed as a cultural artifact to residents and visitors alike.
And why not? The Hornsby Mammoth, built in England in 1910 and shipped to the Yukon to work in the gold fields, was rescued more than 20 years ago from a damp, bush-shrouded home off a nearby Quatsino Sound beach, where it sat for more than 50 years after being brought to the North Island to work hauling timber.
And Coal Harbour’s small but vigorous group of supporters has been at the forefront of the Hornsby’s recovery, from researching its background to attending court hearings to commencing renovation of a potential home for the machine.
Coal Harbour is also the only community to put in an informal bid to host the Hornsby and, most importantly, has taken a pair of steps required by the Regional District of Mount Waddington and the North Island Heritage Society to qualify as host for the historic artifact.
First, the community is part of an Electoral Area that has joined a heritage registry service through the Regional District of Mount Waddington, which possesses administrative rights over the Hornsby. And, secondly, Coal Harbour is in the final stages of transferring to the Regional District the land its fire hall and the old community centre sit on, another requirement for RDMW approval.
Last week, Port McNeill’s town council suddenly voted to request to join the RDMW heritage registry, raising the question of whether the town is planning to make a move to secure the Hornsby itself.
“There is a movement underfoot in Port McNeill,” admitted James Furney of the North Island Heritage Society, which provides consultation to the RD. “I am definitely being torn. It’s one of those awkward spots to be in. I’m just glad there’s such an interest in the old artifact.”
Application for inclusion in the heritage registry is only the first in a series of steps required to host an artifact, RDMW administrator Greg Fletcher said. A host community must find a suitable property, transfer that property to the RD, and submit a proposal that details how the artifact will be displayed and protected. The artifact must be accessible for the public to view.
“We’re in the process of locating land in Woss for the Loci (steam engine 113), and in Coal Harbour the land transfer is just a matter of time. Then they’ll be able to get their proposal together. So far, nobody was really eligible to apply for it.”
Fletcher noted the RDMW board would need to amend its heritage bylaw to include Port McNeill. The board meets at the District’s Port McNeill office Tuesday at 2 p.m.
Until the vote by Port McNeill last week, Coal Harbour appeared to be the de facto destination for the Hornsby.
“I’m not aware of any bid other than Coal Harbour’s,” said Hory. “Certainly, Coal Harbour has been very up-front about being the location where it would be stored from the beginning. But it’s still a matter of process.”
Nearly two years ago, the RDMW invited its member electoral areas and municipalities to join a region-wide heritage registry that would allow them to pool resources to secure funding to secure, register and maintain historical property and artifacts.
Area D, which covers Woss and the Nimpkish Valley, was in the middle of a custody battle for the historic steam locomotive 113 and promptly signed on, and has been working since to build a permanent home for “Loci 113” near the Western Forest Products yard in Woss. The only other electoral area to join was Area C, which includes Coal Harbour, Nimpkish Heights and Hyde Creek.
And Hory admits Area C had its eye on on the Hornsby crawler even before it was brought back from Surrey under a court order last summer.
“In terms of the North Island, I think Coal Harbour has the most diverse history around,” said Hory. “It’s quite a spectrum, from whaling to coal mining to the Royal Canadian Air Force. I think the Hornsby would fit perfectly with that. And it did sit on a beach here for 50 years.”
In their debate preceding their heritage registry vote last week, Port McNeill councillors were circumspect to the point of vagueness. The Hornsby was only casually mentioned in passing, though coun. Shirley Ackland pointedly omitted Coal Harbour’s bid for the Hornsby when she argued for the merits of a community heritage bylaw over a shared RDMW heritage service.
“Right now, the areas in the heritage bylaw are Area D, which is Woss; Area A on Malcolm Island (sic) and Area C,” Ackland said, erroneously including Area A. “If we want to move forward quickly with something that helps our museum it would be easier if we did it ourselves. In Woss they have the Loci; in Sointula it’s preservation of the FO Hall. I can see what’s going to happen in the RD; it’s a lot of lobbying over what has priority.”
Regardless of Port McNeill’s aims, Hory said his group will continue to work toward preparing the old community hall, though ultimately its future may hinge upon the Hornsby. The community needs the financial assistance the heritage grants can bring to replace the existing wood floor with a concrete pad suitable for placing the heavy machine.
If for any reason the Hornsby is not designated for Coal Harbour’s facility, the building may yet be razed in favour of a park. But the property transfer to the Regional District will not be a waste, Hory said, since it will bring the town’s volunteer fire hall into the regional fire department service area, with its attendant financial support.
But, he admits, it will be even better if a newly renovated community hall can be put to use showing off not only the Hornsby, but other historical North Island artifacts currently housed in and around Coal Harbour.
“When the property transfer is complete, if the (RDMW) board can be pretty proactive working with the involved groups, it’ll be really helpful in getting grants by designating this as the spot the Hornsby will go,” Hory said. “Right now, when we’re telling them ‘maybe it will come here,’ it’s hard for people to take us seriously.”
For his time being, Hory welcomes Port McNeill’s bid for a spot in the regional heritage service bylaw.
“Hopefully, we can work together,” he said. “We haven’t been assuming anything here. It does have to go through the process. If Port McNeill is interested, they’ll be putting forward their proposal, and we’ll go from there.”