Crossings

Main_street_in_fog
From Granta:

I was standing in front of our old house: 168 Atomic Drive, Uranium City. The street numbers just visible next to what remained of the front door. Up close, our house didn’t seem so ominous, not like the day before when I’d stood on top of the hill across the street and had the sense of being actively warned away. It had been like peering down into a cold dark pool, our house and all the other houses on our street down at the bottom. Now there was just an aura of strangeness – a lingering hint of menace – like a membrane I had to push through.

I noticed things I hadn’t when I’d come back a few days before and seen our old house for the first time in nearly twenty years: the spruce tree with four branches growing out of what used to be the crown; the sidewalk, running up to the side door and then around to the backyard, where it had been devoured by a hedge that once separated garden from lawn and now covered both; the stillness contrasting sharply with the bright fall yellows of the saplings and small trees dominating every yard, their limbs tossing about in the breeze like sea plants writhing on the ocean floor.

Even after five days of entering empty houses, I still hadn’t gotten used to how easy it was, like I still expected someone to appear in the doorway demanding to know what I was doing. I pushed inside, breathing sharply inward as I always seemed to do when I entered one of the houses. Someone had scrawled cunt is good in foot-high letters by the steps to the basement. Rubble covered the floor of what had been our dining room, glittering with glass from the shattered windows. Holes had been punched and kicked into the walls; cupboards, a dishwasher and even a toilet tank had been ripped from their moorings and strewn about the hallway. Here and there touches of familiarity: yellow and black patterned runner carpet covering the steps to the basement where my bedroom had been, wallpaper with yellow and lime stripes on the dining room walls. Normality broke through in unexpected places, patches in a photograph that had mostly discoloured and faded.

Water dripped steadily from the ceiling in the living room, trickling down from that morning’s rain. A mound of grey material on the floor, moulded by the water into a miniature volcano. Possibly asbestos – our house, like most houses built here in the late 60s and early 70s, would have likely been lined with asbestos panelling. Or maybe just some unknown substance, the detritus of modern life as it starts to decay. Wind, rain, snow enters abandoned house so easily, erasing the boundaries between interior and exterior, man and nature. These spaces had a kind of final emptiness, stale air and a cloying, oppressive silence.

Read the rest in Granta

Youth

Urban Glow, Downtown Montreal

Published in Urban Graffiti

She was striking, with high Indian cheekbones and olive skin and long brown hair she’d tied back in a ponytail with an Indian braid, and an athletic dancer’s figure which she’d wrapped in a ankle-length leather greatcoat. As she said hello in turn to everyone on the porch, I noticed that, unusually amongst Bill’s friends, she was French.

She’d noticed me as well, because she stopped right in front of me, taking me in with amazing diamond eyes. Up close, she looked familiar though that didn’t mean much: in the month I’d been back in Montreal, every street, face or overheard conversation – whether in French or English – contained some association with a set of vaguely remembered persons or memories. For this and other reasons, I didn’t like to go out much, but that afternoon was special: Bill and his wife Sarah were having a baby shower for their daughter Gisele, who had just turned one.

Sarah, just two years off heroin.

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Uranium City Return, Back to Edmonton

published in Urban Graffiti, December, 2011

Jasper Avenue, Edmonton AlbertaI hadn’t been back to Edmonton in nearly 20 years, not since I’d passed through with my parents at age 15 on my way back to Vancouver. I took the airport shuttle downtown to the bus station then checked in at the Grand Hotel across the street. The hotel looked rundown, but the wooden awning out front and the cowboy bar on the ground floor lent it a frontier feel, made it an apt jumping off point for the journey that would take me to Fort McMurray and beyond to a North I hadn’t seen since just before I’d last seen Edmonton.

Except for a guy who tried to bum five bucks off me in the hallway, the hotel was empty and quiet. I was tired from getting up at dawn and catching the flight from Montreal, but when I lay down on the bed, I was too agitated to rest. I felt my childhood all around me in the quiet streets stretching out beyond the window, the brilliant blue sky directly in front of my line of vision that just seemed to go on and on. It was more a shock than I’d expected to be back. For most of the time I’d been away, I’d suppressed my memories of Edmonton. Or lost them, I’ve never been sure which. I’d been thinking about Edmonton in a roundabout way, as part of that whole first 15 years of my life that involved the North, rebuilding it all piece by piece in my mind until I felt like I could enter it at will. Now here it was, memory made life. If I shifted position, I could just see the neon red CN logo, atop the hi-rise with the vertical black and white lines running down its sides. The CN Tower had been my favorite hi-rise when we’d lived in the city, and just seeing it again felt like a minor miracle and made me as anxious to walk Edmonton’s afternoon streets as I’d once been, in my drinking days, to hit the bars as soon as possible whenever I arrived somewhere new.

To read the rest go to Urban Graffiti 

Uranium City Return – An Excerpt

Published in Sensitive Skin Magazine, Fall 2011

At the end of the road, an airstrip appears, as unexpected as a landing pad for aliens. Instinctively, I look for the Eldorado Mine and the company town of Eldorado that stretched around the lake behind the airstrip and am startled to find nothing but hills and trees and a muddy black field. The plane lands and pulls to a stop on the edge of the tarmac. No one is there to greet us and we get out of the plane and wait. Behind the airstrip are the familiar hills – as rounded and smooth as hills on a golf course, and covered with pine, spruce and budding poplar – so familiar that I listen instinctively for the old rhythms and sounds. Though neither town nor mill were ever visible from the airstrip I can already sense the difference; knowing that I can cross these hills and see only more hills and more lakes makes the silence heavy and oppressive. For a moment it feels like we have shifted dimensions and landed in another time, the turn of the century say, and that the present and even my own past and the past of the town is still in the future and there is nothing here but the rocky hills, the stands of poplar and jack pine and spruce, the warm afternoon sun beating down on the tarmac.

Tim Beckett, Uranium City

The woman and the pilot unload her trays and boxes from the plane, handing things back and forth without many words as if they have been through this routine many times before. At first the woman hardly registers my presence then, when I help her with a few boxes, she opens up a little.

“So you like living in Uranium City?” I ask. Her judgment matters less now that I am actually here. She smiles with the slight trace of irony that I remember as a Northern trait and shrugs her shoulders.

“I don’t know. My mom’s here so I guess I like that.”

A mini-van blazes up the road and stops at the foot of the airstrip, and a woman and a man and two teenagers spill out of the doors. They seem slightly unreal against the stillness. They appear to be brothers and sisters of the woman I came in with. The man is thin and wiry and sports a broad moustache; he takes boxes from the plane and into the van, talking with the others. His speech has a curious native inflection – heavy consonants, thin syrupy vowels, sh for s – as if he learned to speak on a reserve. I help him and the others unload but he doesn’t greet me or acknowledge my presence in any way except to take the boxes from my hands. If I look at him he looks back guardedly, eyes blank, anxious to retreat into the familiar world of his family.

After everything has been unloaded it transpires that the rest of the family is flying back to Fort Mac and the blonde woman is going to drive the van into town. A commotion erupts – no one, it seems, has a key for the airport fuel tank and there is not enough fuel in the plane to get back without a stopover in Fort Chipewayan, a reserve on the far edge of Lake Athabasca.

“I don’t want to stop at Fort Chip!” the man with the moustache says brightly as the whole family points at the fuel tank and the plane, shrugs their shoulders and shakes their heads. Their voices rise and fall, cushioned by the emptiness, and their arguing has a circular frenetic quality, and the more it continues the more helpless they seem, as if any obstacle at all reduces them to bickering and inertia. Watching them I get the disquieting sense that this argument could go on forever if it was allowed to.

A blue Ford pick-up pulls in and a very thin man with slicked back hair gets out, holding a set of keys out in front of him and grinning, as if this too has happened many times before. The truck looks brand new, hardly dented or covered in dust. I recognize the man: he is Jackie Garret, proprietor of the Garret Motel and U-Drive, one of the town’s few remaining businesses, and an old-timer from the town’s other life. We’d talked on the phone before I came up. Jackie greets everyone and everyone greets him, relaxed now and laughing as they board the plane and, relieved that the arguing is over, I hop into the truck and presently Jackie gets into the driver’s side and we pull onto the highway for the seven kilometer ride to town.

At first the view is so exhilarating, I don’t want to say anything. The highway follows the arm of a clear open lake, then cuts between the two rock cliffs where they’d dynamited right through a hill the year before I’d left. Lichen-covered rocks flow from the road, and dusty blue hills float along the horizon, as serene as extinct volcanoes. Every sway, every dip and peak of the skyline slips into place as soon as I see it, so that I feel like I’ve last seen these hills only a couple of days before and this is home and I’ve never really left.

We round a curve and pull into MASL, the seaplane base on the edge of Martin Lake. There is a sign with faded letters: ‘Welcome To Uranium City’ and a number of houses around a giant white seaplane hangar. The houses are abandoned and fading to grey and the hangar is bolted shut, the white paint on its flanks peeling off, exposing grey wood underneath. Subconsciously I’d expected to find these buildings inhabited and still in use and seeing them abandoned shocks me a little. But the shock is mitigated by obvious signs of life – two seaplanes sit in the water in front of the hangar and further up the lake is the old Kiwanis Beach looking pretty much as it always had: swings on the shore and children’s slide in the water; rocky hill rising behind the sand and water sparkling in the northern summer sun.
We cross a bridge over the river that runs along the edge of town. One more turn and we will be on Uranium Road, the main thoroughfare through the city.

“It’s a hundred times worse than you could ever imagine it,” Jackie says abruptly, “you won’t believe what’s happened to this place.”

He is right.

There are some experiences so profound, so monumental, that you cannot even try to predict what they will be like before you go through them. Despite reading Deborah Foster’s article, despite being fascinated my whole life by ghost towns and derelict buildings; despite being well aware that the town I am about to see would have little in common with the town I left behind, I am completely unprepared for my first view of Uranium City.

Uranium Road leads up a short hill and disappears around a corner. There are the familiar outlines I’d recorded through the undiscriminating lens of youth – the green stucco mass of the old hotel, the yellow cinder block cube that was the bakery, the two-story concrete building that used to be the car wash. But what I had recorded as a young man was open windows, vehicles, people, movement – now there is only parched brown earth and an eerie oppressive stillness. But for a yellow backhoe parked in front of the old car wash the street is completely deserted; even the windows have been blocked by lengths of greying plywood. Disintegrating concrete steps lead to the hotel’s main entrance; the awning has fallen away and the single steel door has been sealed firmly shut, a giant ‘EH’ spray-painted in yellow across the metal surface. Already there is a sense that this is a place that has not seen much movement for a long, long time.

The hotel is particularly hideous. It reminds me of a set of housing projects I saw once in Newark, New Jersey that had been torched and gutted in the sixties and then just left. It radiates the same sullen negativity, an emptiness that spreads to everything around it.

The Garret Motel is a sparse collection of blue and purple trailers decorated with white trim directly across from the car wash. A ragged Métis man stops Jackie at the front door and asks him for ten dollars. Jackie gives him the money then, when the man has shuffled away, he says, “Better take your bags inside while I check you in.”

“Lot of thieves around here?”

“No, not too bad. But if you leave them long enough they might just grow legs.”

In Jackie’s office the curtain are drawn over the windows and a single desk sits in the middle of a carpeted room. Papers and assorted debris cover the desk and the floor and the single couch in the corner – a road map of the USA takes up one wall. I sign for three nights; almost $250 in total with tax and Jackie gives me the key and tells me where my room is. There are eight rooms in all but as far as I can tell I am the only guest. The room is bare but comfortable, with a small bathroom, a double bed, a TV, and a lamp on the single night table. On top of the TV are two Bibles, open to the same page and stacked one on top of the other. In the centre of both pages is a passage from the book of Ezekiel:

“Thus says the Lord God, ‘When I shall make you a desolate city, like the cities which are not inhabited, when I shall bring up the deep over you, and the great waters will cover you,

“then I shall bring you down with those who go down to the pit, to the people of old, and I shall make you dwell in the lower parts of the earth, like the ancient waste places, with those who go down to the pit, so that you will not be inhabited; but I shall set glory in the land of the living.

“I shall bring terror upon you, and you will be no more; though you will be sought, you will never be found again.”

I study the passage for a minute, wondering who would have left the Bibles open like this and whether it is meant as some kind of message. Then I open the curtains to let in some light. Just beyond the window is a pile of wrecked cars, some sitting upright, some on their sides or piled upside down on other cars as if some massive accident had taken place a few years before and everything had just been left.

Too restless to sit still for even a minute, I put my bags on the bed and step back outside.

Going Back to the Old Hotel

Uranium City Hotel, Uranium City, Saskatchewan

published as ‘The Hotel’ in the Evergreen Review, Jan 2013

Weeds rise from the cracks in the underbrush along the edge of the parking lot, reaching up the concrete steps to the hotel’s main entrance. In the fog, the weeds look febrile, like they are about to crawl right up the walls. I climb the steps, pull on the steel door that once opened onto the lobby. Locked tight, as they’ve been since 1982, when the hotel closed. Up close, even the yellow ‘EH?’ that decorates the front and back of every road sign the seven kilometers from town to airport, looks faded, like it was painted a decade or more ago. Even the steps are crumbling: a few more years and they will collapse altogether.
Yet pull back a few feet, and the hotel looks as impregnable as a fortress, a block long three story building of green stucco, so monumental you expect it to remain standing long after every other building has collapsed into the ground.
The door to the Zoo bar on the ground floor is just below the big ‘Welcome’ sign carved into the concrete slab behind the parking lot, black letters painted on a white background, the first thing anyone sees after they turn the corner into town. To my surprise that door opens without resistance, and as I step inside I want to believe that despite the outward signs of abandonment, inside the hotel will still be functional — the bar and café, just as they used to be, maintained and frequented by townspeople who never left – who file in through underground tunnels to drink beer or shoot darts in the bar, or gather in the upstairs café for coffee — a parallel existence, cut off from the rest of the town by the boards over the window, the hotel’s menacing stillness. Stepping inside, I almost expect to see lamps or candles, hear music, hear a voice from somewhere deep within, shouting out a greeting.
Or a warning.
Stale air hits my face like a liquid wall. The door slams shut behind me and everything is dark until my eyes adjust. A shaft of light reaches through a broken window at the back of the bar. The bar is much smaller than it appeared when I stared through that same window, waiting for a miner to get me and my girlfriend Willow a six-pack. Hardly big enough for a hundred people. The little round tables that cluttered the space have been taken away, and lengths of wood cover the floor next to the single beer counter which has been kicked over on its side. The bar fridge, still protected by a half-dozen heavy glass doors, sits against one wall. A Carling Old Style box, cardboard warped with age, lettering faded white with yellow borders, sits in front of one of the doors.
The air is as heavy as the air in a cave — decades of rot, of mysterious man-made substances vaporizing in the stagnant air. That fake wood paneling on the walls like some ’70s basement den. I can almost imagine how it would have been, even if I was too young to ever actually get inside. Cigarette smoke hanging below the drop-down chipboard roof, country music wailing off a battered jukebox, plenty of drunks, white and native. Maybe some greater sense of transience than the average small-town bar, with the miners coming in from the bunkhouses, the natives by truck and skidoo from the reservation towns fifty, a hundred miles away. The fights spilling out into the thirty below cold with the northern lights crackling overhead like signals from a distant planet, the taxis pulling up outside, depositing miners, people from around town. She’d taken me down to see it, many times. It was like a carnival, electric and a little dangerous, faces brighter in the lights and the cold. Then the announcement that the mine was closing and for a few weeks everyone in town coming to the bar wondering what the hell they were going to do, how they would fight the powers that had torn their lives apart, until one February afternoon the moving vans pulled up off the ice road to that barren parking lot outside.
Light, fainter than from the back window, slants through the door that leads upstairs to the hallway and I follow it until I am standing at the bottom of the stairs leading to the second floor, next to the men’s bathroom where I’d scored pinners of bad weed when we couldn’t get weed anywhere else. The hallway looks as if an army of looters has run amok, scattering acres of debris over the industrial carpet which still covers the floor, knocking holes in the paneled wall. The trash seems almost incongruous, since the three kilometers of abandoned houses outside are mostly empty, denuded of the furnishings that must have been left in great abundance when the town was abandoned. It’s as if all the refuse, all the artifacts, from the rest of the town, has been swept up and dumped here. The carpet is buried; I can’t even make out its original color, and in places the debris is ankle deep. The air smells of mold, plaster dust, a sulfurous decay that could be anything from rotting asbestos to corroded pipes.
It is too much to handle, so I go up to the second floor, an area I never saw when the hotel was open. Light, muted by the fog, streams through an open window and into the hall, so that the rooms at the end of it appear to glow. Like downstairs, the walls have been kicked in, the floor covered in trash. I bend down to look at it. Newspapers from late 1981, the first months of 1982, beer cans with whitened logos, indecipherable plastic bottles, some papers with the town council letterhead on them, copper pipe, electrical wire, lengths of wood; refuse too decayed or fragmented to identify.
The ceiling here is only a foot above my head, the rooms off the hall too narrow for more than a bed, a night table. Must have been a hell of a place to stay, with the brawls spilling out into the parking lot, the local girls coming up to hang out with the miners, the parties continuing in the rooms until the early hours. The floor buckles as I walk down the hall, enough to make me cautious about each step. Some of the walls between the rooms have been bashed in, and in the back of the building entire sections of the exterior wall have been smashed out. The ceiling sags until it reaches the end of the building where it’s collapsed, exposing the rooms to rain and wind. Graffiti runs across every wall: ‘Laureen sucks cock!’ ‘Fuck you whore!’ — the same graffiti kids write everywhere. The dates on the walls start at 1985, and run right up to the present. So the kids keep coming here, year after year. Do they come at night, carrying flashlights and cases of beer? Do they kick in the walls during the day, ignoring the adults on the street below who in turn ignore them? The holes in the back look like they were knocked out with two by fours, steel beams. One room has been so badly damaged it opens right onto the lot behind it.
No way this kind of damage was done by kids. Not small kids anyway. Maybe it was someone I know, one of the native guys we used to hang out with in the parking lot on those winter nights, one of the native guys who stayed behind when everyone left — coming here during those hard years when it became obvious that no one was coming back, and nothing would ever happen here again. What a relief it must have been, in the face of that knowledge, to come up here, drink beer and smash holes in the wall until you saw the whole town spread out below you and the phosphorescent sun glowed through walls and ceiling and warmed your flesh.
Back downstairs, I am a little shaken. Even if I understand the violence in the abstract, it freaks me out to think of someone I know coming here to tear this place to pieces. The hotel was the center of town, and I wonder just what happened in those dark years when everyone who was still here was stranded. The hotel is less menacing than some of the other buildings, where you feel angry forces seething in the darkness; here it is just eerie, as if, despite being at the heart of the still occupied center of town, it is that much further removed from the town’s living history. Downstairs, the rooms seem to go on indefinitely, opening onto black holes, burrowing deep underground. Somewhere down a hall is the old Chinese restaurant, the Stope bar, a respectable drinking place to offset the bedlam in the Zoo. In the darkness these rooms appear without form, denuded even of air. And perhaps after so many years of being sealed away, the oxygen has gone, so if you did venture back there, you would slowly asphyxiate and never come back.
At the end of the hallway, light creeps in through the cracks and holes in the plywood that covers the windows, illuminating the lobby in multiple shafts of grayness, like the light in the depths of an old stone church. The lobby ceiling is at least fifteen feet high, and the front desk where the old Chinese manager used to stand, toothpick in the side of his mouth, is virtually intact, as are the rows of boxes for keys and mail. Even the windows here, unlike in virtually every other abandoned building in town, have been preserved, protected by the plywood that went up when the hotel was closed — as if they expected to come back, pull the plywood down, open the hotel up again like nothing had happened. And I can almost imagine it: the hotel coming back to life. The foggy light streaming through the tall windows as it did twenty years ago on fall afternoons when I came here with Willow after school. Watching the breeze scatter red and yellow leaves across the intersection. The first snowfall, wet flakes spiraling out of dark grey sky and landing against the windowpane, the metal door banging shut every time someone came or went. Mrs. Mercredi, the daytime waitress, emerging from the gloom, coffee pot in hand, taking us in with that knowing smirk as we edged into one of the booth tables in the cafeteria.
But even if the plywood did come down, the steel door would still be sealed shut, the floor covered ankle deep in garbage. The air would still taste stale and faintly poisonous. And this place would still give me the chills. Even if the lobby is relatively intact, there is a sense of being completely removed from the rest of the town. I can feel the ghosts lurking in the darkness at the back of the building, where the cafeteria and the lounge used to be. I sense that if I stay here too long, I will be absorbed into the cold air, the trash decaying on the floor, the indefinable film that coats every surface. Like the debris, the ghost presence that lurks everywhere in the empty town seems concentrated here, as if the lobby is the place where the spirits gather before spreading out to their posts in the abandoned town. Even the emotional twists that have yanked me to and fro for the five days it’s been since I got town seem concentrated here, so that even as I stand stock still, I feel alternate forces of fear, longing, elation; overwhelming and crushing depression.
I turn to go, glancing back at what had been the cafeteria. The booths, round counter seats and even the counter have all been ripped out, leaving a row of plugs on the laminated floor. It looks so ghostly, so absent, I can’t bring myself to cross the barrier of the doorway. I wonder if she ever came back, in the year or so after the mine closed, when the town had yet to completely empty out and the hotel was still open, when it still seemed by some miracle that the town might be saved. I wonder if she sat at one of those booths staring out at the winter dusk, looking on the fast-emptying downtown, sinking into the shadows that must have already been creeping in.
I step carefully to the back of the hallway, suppressing the urge to check behind me for the figures I feel there in the gloom – to run, gasping for oxygen, the steel door banging behind me as I rush back onto the silent street. It feels almost sacrilegious to be here now, as if the hotel had become a tomb. And perhaps that’s exactly what it is – a tomb at the heart of the town.
Outside, the air tastes cold, fresh, alive. I release the metal door and it taps closed, the sound muffled by the fog. The street is so still, I can feel my heart beating, like the echo of a metronome, ticking away in the gloom.
I won’t go back inside. The hotel, of all the buildings in town, deserves to be left alone.
My footsteps crunch on the gravel as I walk to Main street. The Robinson’s Drug Store, the CIBC bank, the MacIntyre shoe store, the pinball hall. Everything boarded up, bushes pushing from the concrete. Charred beams, distended pipes sticking out of vacant lots. No one around, even the Athabasca, the town’s only remaining restaurant, locked tight. Fog cloaks the end of every street, and as I continue down Main Street, I feel as if I am walking through an abandoned cathedral.
A single fire hydrant pokes from the weeds at the end of every street. Even if every building in town were burned off the face of the Earth, and trees and bushes overtook the lots, the fire hydrants, the odd sign or foundation would remain, covered by the very forest they supplanted a half century before. A century from now, an explorer, ignorant of the area’s history, could stumble on these remnants and wonder what had been here before the forest closed in. I wonder if even then he would feel the presence of the spirits, still lingering about the foundations and the rusted plugs of the fire hydrants – spirits of a town that had wanted, desperately, to live.

Going back home to Uranium City

main street, Uranium City, Saskatchewan

 

The vehicles began streaming in on Friday morning and by late afternoon almost 600 people had arrived at the Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park for the 2001 Uranium City Reunion.
Almost 20 years had passed since Eldorado Nuclear announced the closure of its Beaverlodge Mine, which led to Uranium City losing over 80 percent of it’s population in just six months. But this last summer, ex-residents drove or flew in from the Northwest Territories, British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and, in my own case, Montreal, Quebec.
The town they came to remember sits on the opposite end of the province, just 40 km south of the NWT border and divided from the rest of Saskatchewan by Lake Athabasca. Just 200 people now call Uranium City home. And, beyond the barely occupied downtown core, empty houses, schools, and public buildings stretch over three or four kilometers of some of the most exquisite country in the Canadian Shield.
In the 1950’s, Uranium City was a boomtown, fuelling the British and American nuclear weapons programs. Later, it fuelled the Candu reactor, which was supposed to put Canada at the forefront of the nuclear industry. By the late 1970’s, it was to be a model northern town. Candu High, built in 1978, was the best-equipped high school in the North, and Eldorado Nuclear spent $100 million on new roads, cedar-panelled houses, bunkhouses, offices and improvements to the mine. Declining ore prices and an inexplicable change of policy put an end to that.
And yet, both town and reunion area testament to a community that survived – aided, curiously enough, by the internet – two decades after being deserted by the very industry which gave it life.

“The veteran prospector came – heavy-bearded, with face burned brown by a thousand suns, roughened by sand and wind. The novice came – protégé of God alone. The drifter came – forsaken of both God and man, searching for a new beginning. All of them were lured by the golden promise of an awakening North.”

– Des Fogg, a Uranium City journalist, 1959.

Uranium was discovered near Beaverlodge Lake in the late 1940’s, and Eldorado Nuclear, which supplied ore from Port Radium, NWT to the Manhattan Project, sank three mineheads which in turn set off a staking rush. Thirty-three mines – some no more than a hole in the ground, some large enough to require bunkhouses, stores and even townsites of their own – set up in the area.
Uranium City grew apace. The first store was a tent set up by Gus ‘the Famous’ Hawker, an English immigrant who made headlines back home when he chartered a plane and flew to London with his six daughters to see Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. Tents and shacks sprung up around downtown, then a hotel, bars, cafes and a movie theatre. Main street was as busy at night as it was in the day; the flood of men and money outdid the Klondike rush of the century before.
In 1959, Prince Phillip paid a visit. Then, that same year, both the British and American governments cancelled their contracts for Canadian uranium. Every mine but Eldorado shut its doors.
Soon, the town’s fortunes rose again when the Canadian government began stockpiling uranium for the Candu. Uranium City’s population grew. Locals were encouraged to invest in businesses and miners and their families were imported from as far away as the Phillipines and Germany to fill the new housing complexes around town.
Then, on Dec. 3rd, 1981, came the announcement that Beaverlodge Mine was closing. Protests were made, petitions circulated, meetings held, all to no avail. When the winter road opened across Lake Athabasca in February, moving vans rolled in from southern Saskatoon and Edmonton and for a few weeks the ice road as busy as the Trans-Canada highway.
My family lived twice in Uranium City, first in the 60’s, then the late 70’s before we moved to Vancouver in 1980. When we left for the last time, I was 15 and yet I neve forgot Uranium City or the North.
In the 60’s, there remained an echo of the frontier, and bush pilots, prospectors, and trappers were as much a part of town life as the miners and retailers who made up the bulk of the population. By the mid-70’s, Uranium City was coming into its own as a stable community, and yet, accessible only by air and the winter road, it was still very much the frontier. Summers and winters were spent outdoors, and stepping into the country, one felt hundreds of miles of uninhabited territory out beyond the town; at night the Northern Lights crackled overhead.
In 1996, I went back after an absence of 16 years. The first days were difficult: much of the town looked as if it had been ransacked by an invading army, then abandoned; roofs and walls had been removed, doors swung loosely on their hinges, and every window was smashed. Our old house had been stripped to bare wood and graffiti covered the walls. Candu High was little more than a concrete shell, dark and cold at its core, with refuse strewn across the floors.
I returned in 1987 and 2000, partly to research a novel I wanted to write about the town, partly out of curiosity. The population is mostly native, a change from the old days when the population was mostly white. The people who stayed did so for the same reasons that people have always stayed in the North – a love of the land or a disinclination, for whatever reason, to live in the south.
James and Luffy Augier were born in Camsell Portage – a Metis community 100km to the west – some 60 years ago and lived in Goldfields and Gunnar Mines townsite (where James began work in the mine at age 14) before moving to Uranium City in the 60’s. James started his own construction business: by the time the mine closed, he was a millionaire. Now, James guides in the summer and hunts in winter, remains active in Metis politics, and lobbies the government to clean up the town. Though five of his six children have moved south, James and Luffy plan to stay as long as they can.
Danny Murphy moved here in the 1970’s with his wife Pat. They took a lot outside of town and lived in a canvas tent while they built their first cabin from logs and timber from the abandoned mines. Four cabins decorate their wooded lot, ornamented with license plates, moose and caribou antlers, cast-iron stoves and other memorabilia. Danny doesn’t miss the south:
“The government wants us all to clear out but we ain’t going. We like the country up here.”
Andy and Clarice Schultz plan to move here in a couple of years when Andy, at age 43, retires from his job in Alberta. Andy was born and raised in Uranium City but left upon graduation in the 70’s. He came back 20 years later and decided that Uranium City was where he wanted to be. A few years later, he met Clarice and they took over his old family home and a cabin on a nearby lake.
Last year they crossed Lake Athabasca five times by skidoo, bringing up supplies and getting ready for the permanent move.
In 1952, Jim Price went down in a white-out over Lake Athabasca and walked for 24 hours across the lake to get help for his three passengers. He got help, but lost both his feet. Now, at 71, he lives near the seaplane base and flies for his own pleasure.
Although Uranium City has experienced far more than its share of pain and darkness, these people and others provide an echo of the old frontier spirit. This is a town, after all, where the post office is run out of the local jail, where people think nothing of traveling hundreds of miles by boat or skidoo, where a Canada Day Parade is still held on Main Street, where kids play hockey in the deserted Legion.
Len Kilbreath began the ‘Friends of Uranium City’ website in 1996, for the purpose of promoting the 1997 reunion, which was the first to be held in Cypress Hills. There’d been other reunions, which drew a couple of hundred people, as well as an annual New Year’s Dance in Saskatoon which always had a good crowd – but Len and his wife Joyce put on the first large scale reunion near their home in Vernon, BC in 1992, drawing 400 people.
“It was like stepping back in time, seeing people who’d shared their whole life together and really built the town.”
Encouraged by this success, they held the first Cypress Hills reunion in 1998, which brought in 700, most of whom hadn’t seen each other since the mid-80’s. Len spruced up his website, adding photos, articles, and an address list which quickly grew to over 1000 names. For the first time since the mine closed, people began to find their way back to each other. The years after the closure left much anger, shame, and bitterness in their wake, and in a way the Internet provided the perfect medium for people to make contact with the town – and each other – because of its relatively casual nature.
It was through this website that I discovered a dozen old friends, some I see regularly, some I just keep up with through the odd email or phone call.
The 2001 reunion lasted three days. Most of the 600 people were in their 50’s or 60’s, their faces etched by the cold or long hours in the mines, slightly out of place in the resort setting. There were plenty of children as well as 50 or so of my ex-classmates from Candu High, now in their mid-30’s, married with kids of their own.
To many, Uranium City had been the only place they’d known when the mine shut down. The subsequent years when their friends and neighbors left and the houses were abandoned had left a wound that will never totally heal. And yet they retained their easy closeness, and the habit of finding absurdity and humor in any given situation: traits that had made living in Uranium City so memorable.
Now, Uranium City struggles year by year. The hospital is set to move in the spring of 2003 and most resident feel that when the hospital goes, the government will cut basic services. But deadlines for the move have come and gone before and there are hopes that the hospital might stay a little longer, just as there are hopes that the price of gold might rise and the gold mine at Goldfields might open again, or that a ‘rare earth’ showing 30 km out of town might clean up the tailings ponds left by the Gunnar and Lorado mines, or that the town site itself will be cleaned up, or that the fishing lodges and spectacular countryside will bring in enough tourism to keep the town going.
As long as there are people in Uranium City, there is hope that one day the town might blossom once more.