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No sign of tumbleweeds or ghosts around here
Ghost towns are the staple of the west. From the 19th Century to the later half of the 20th and even the 21st centuries, the remains of once thriving communities stand as testaments to failure.
They’re usually associated with resource industries. Gold mines played out. Silver stakes collapsed. Lead and zinc operations closed doors. Raised in the resource extraction industry, I’m no stranger to towns suddenly abandoned after they started losing too much money. Unlike gold rush towns of the old west which crumbled into rotting timbers and dusty roadways, 20th Century mining towns were dismantled and the parts were sold off or they were remarketed by an optimistic few as inexpensive housing to retire in or build your own independent future.
I lived in once-thriving mining towns – Tasu on Haida Gwaii and Faro, Yukon. Tasu was dismantled and the housing stock was shipped elsewhere after the mine closed. Faro remains vastly underpopulated for the amount of housing in that once-wealthy lead-zinc mining town. It is now trying to market itself as a doorstep on the wilderness. Much like Tumbler Ridge, B.C. after its first wave of closures and even Gold River here on the Island, Faro attempts to retain and redefine a community after its only employer left. One might argue that they’re not ghost towns but –if you’ll allow a pun – they’re ghosts of their former selves. Ba-dum. Other, more typical, ghost towns exist, fallen away over the years: Ocean Falls and Kitsault, for example.
So, why hasn’t Campbell River joined the legion of ghosts in British Columbia and the North? We lost our major employer, the Elk Falls Pulp Mill.
And yet, the population of the city has actually grown since the mill closure. Other towns of a similar nature – pulp mill towns Port Alberni, Powell River and Duncan/North Cowichan – are either hanging on or have lost population, even though they have kept their mills operating. According to BC Stats, Campbell River has grown from 31,485 people in 2011 to 31,601 people in 2013, continuing the trend from the years since the mill shut down.
Port Alberni, meanwhile, has decreased from 17,782 to 16,769 between 2011 and 2013. Duncan/North Cowichan has decreased slightly, from 4,945/29,298 in 2011 to 4,592/29,277 in 2013. But Powell River, surprisingly, has increased from 13,202 in 2011 to 13,439 in 2013.
I find this interesting. Despite an economic body blow, Campbell River continues to grow ever so slightly. We know the economy was and still is more varied than other similar towns – mining, ironically, continues as do logging and aquaculture operations. Still, you’d think losing the once largest pulp mill in Canada would kill the community. But no, people know what a jewel this is and how pleasant it is to live here. Many commute to the oil patch, of course, but it’s a telling fact that they retain their homes here.
We’re also beginning a period of construction boom. No ghosts here.