15,000 attended Castlegar airport’s opening

Castlegar’s airport appears to have been designated the regional facility for West Kootenay around 1951.

ABOVE: A plaque unveiled in Ralph West’s honour gave the wrong date — it should have said May 30

Second of two parts

Castlegar’s airport appears to have been designated the regional facility for West Kootenay around 1951, by default if not official proclamation.

In October 1950, the Associated Boards of Trade of Eastern BC met in Nelson, where a committee headed by aviation enthusiast Caddie Donaldson of Salmo was tasked with recommending which of several local airstrips should receive its backing.

“Feeling of the meeting was that one West Kootenay airfield should be supported by the organization so that it might be brought to first-class condition,” the Nelson Daily News wrote. “This is what will be studied and reported on by the committee.”

Other members included Nelson mayor Norman Stibbs — after whom the city’s airstrip would later be named — E.F. Barnes of Rossland, Ralph West of Castlegar, Lloyd Williams of Trail, and Neil Tattrie of New Denver. Kaslo and Nakusp were also expected to name representatives.

Although the exact nature of their deliberations isn’t known, the committee’s recommendation — that Castlegar be the regional airport — was influential.

Already the airport had grown leaps and bounds since its creation in the late 1930s as an emergency landing strip. Between 1945 and 1950, more than $12,000 was spent on improvements (about $125,000 in today’s currency), which included a topographical survey, grading, leveling, and fencing. Rock was also cleared, old foundations were removed, and four Doukhobor homes were removed so the runway could be extended.

The first commercial flight landed there in September 1947 and in 1949 the City of Nelson and then-villages of Castlegar and Kinnaird arranged to buy the airport site from the Land Settlement Board, which administered former Doukhobor communal land.

At the same time that the Associated Boards of Trade mulled which airport to support, the federal government came through with a $25,000 grant ($262,000 today) for further improvements. However, “considerable trouble developed owing to the sandy nature of the soil,” so another $12,500 ($118,000 today) was provided to lay more asphalt and gravel.

In 1953, $125,000 ($1.16 million today) was spent paving the 4,800 foot runway. As a result, Canadian Pacific Airlines was able to switch from DC3s to larger and heavier Convairs on its Calgary-Vancouver service.

When the young airport had its grand opening on May 31, 1954, organizers were blown away by the turnout: an estimated 15,000 people, perhaps the largest mass gathering in the area’s history. (At the time, the combined population of Castlegar and Kinnaird was only something like 2,600.) The line-up at the Robson ferry was backed up two miles.

Royal Canadian Air Force planes, Canadian Pacific craft, US Air Force jets, Department of Transport planes and private aircraft all participated in an airshow, although it was hampered by high winds and clouds of dust.

Kootenay West MP Bert Herridge officially opened the airport, declaring it “the result of imagination, determination, and co-operation. It is the finest illustration of worthwhile cooperation between all levels of government — federal, provincial, and municipal — and the people themselves.”

Nelson mayor Joe Kary also lauded the co-operation between local communities.

“This particular project has a special significance as an emblem of unity,” he said. “I believe that it emphasizes once again that the Kootenay is an entity and that the greatest benefit for all is achieved when we act in concert and not just on the basis of localized interest.”

He announced that what had until then been known as the West Kootenay Primary Airport would henceforth be named after the Castlegar businessman who was the driving force behind it.

“Who knows how much time, energy, worry and ingenuity this man has put forth to give the West Kootenay an airfield? I would not attempt to list it. Let me say however that it has been so much, so effective and so unselfish that the three owner communities have out gratitude decided today to name this the Ralph West Airfield.”

West himself, however, said credit for the previous seven years in which “we have watched this airport grow from a cow pasture and dust bowl to the modern airport we opened today” belonged to many people, including the Castlegar Board of Trade and Canadian Pacific Airlines.

Although a plaque was installed in his honour and he continued to chair the airport committee, West’s name gradually faded from public memory after his death in 1971. By the time the Castlegar airport was renamed the West Kootenay Regional Airport in 2009, West was hardly remembered in connection with aviation, although the department store he founded is still in business.

Previously: The early Castlegar airport story