The early Castlegar airport story

West Kootenay’s chief landing strip was born out of both collaboration and controversy.

The Castlegar airport terminal is seen in the 1950s. Canadian Pacific Airlines was the commercial carrier at the time.

First of two parts

How and why did the West Kootenay Regional Airport end up in Castlegar?

It’s a question often posed when flights are cancelled, perhaps with the intimation that a different location would be more reliable. The complicated answer reveals both admirable co-operation between local communities and some old wounds that never really healed.

This much we know, thanks to Chris Wecht’s book Trans Canada Airway: An Aviation History: In the 1920s, the Nelson Board of Trade was scouting locations for an airfield, and decided on bench land at Crescent Valley, but it took until 1938 for the area to be cleared for an emergency field. It saw few if any landings, due to its difficult approach, and the Department of Transport and Trans Canada Airlines (the forerunner to Air Canada) concluded a better location was needed. Their proposed site was at Ootischenia, on former Doukhobor communal land.

According to an early history, “pilots were supplied with sketch maps showing locations of trees and an old foundation and instructed to use the field for ‘belly landings.’”

Wecht writes that few landings were made prior to and during World War II, but development began in earnest in 1945, when the newly-organized Castlegar Board of Trade got involved.

The Land Settlement Board, which administered foreclosed Doukhobor lands on behalf of the provincial government, agreed to reserve the site for airport use, and through volunteer labour the old foundation and loose rock were removed and the ground leveled.

In November 1946, the Nelson Board of Trade visited the airport, which measured 4,000 by 1,000 feet (1,200 by 300 meters), although the runway hadn’t been completed. Mayor Norman Stibbs said he was “amazed at the natural field and that the potential for a passenger service seemed excellent.”

Following some improvements to the field, the first commercial flight landed there on Sept. 22, 1947 as Canadian Pacific Airlines inaugurated service between Calgary and Vancouver using a 28-passenger Douglas DC-3.

The airstrip proved its worth early on when, during the Columbia River flood of 1948, roads and rail lines washed out, crippling local transportation.

The following year, the City of Nelson and then-villages of Castlegar and Kinnaird proposed to jointly purchase the 128-acre airport site from the Land Settlement Board for $3,200 (the equivalent of $34,000 today), but a legislative quirk prevented the villages from participating. As a result, Nelson held sole title, but a joint committee operated what was dubbed the Castlegar Inter-Municipal Airport.

“This has been most pleasing news to me,” said Nelson Board of Trade president Walter Hendricks, who praised the regional collaboration and noted his organization had “worked hard for the Castlegar airport. It’s been one of our prize babies.”

However, Nelson was simultaneously developing an airstrip on its waterfront, and some felt buying the Castlegar-area property was a mistake. Alderman Alex Sutherland voted against the move, protesting the lack of assurances that Nelson would recoup its investment.

But according to the Nelson Daily News, Mayor Tom Waters “told of the long battle by Nelson council and Board of Trade for air service, now finally realized. All felt Castlegar was the logical site. Nelson must put forth an effort if it was to have air service and ‘stay on the map.’”

By then there were plans to lengthen the runway by 1,500 feet (455 m) so larger planes could land. The expansion required the demolition of several Doukhobor homes, whose occupants were deemed squatters. A newspaper report said “The Doukhobors themselves will demolish the houses, and John Verigin of Brilliant, secretary of the Spiritual Communities of Christ, gave authorities assurances of ‘fullest co-operation.’”

However, it didn’t turn out that way. The airport committee told residents if they left by April 1, 1949 they would receive $200 in moving expenses, but the offer was ignored. A new deadline of May 1 was given, and on that date, two large buildings once used as schools were destroyed.

Further demolition was delayed when the occupants refused to go. They were ordered to vacate by Aug. 15, but continued to hold out. Finally, in September they were given two days’ notice that work would begin, and when the village bulldozer arrived, all but one home was empty.

“Residents moving before Tuesday removed all belongings and were allowed to strip the houses of valuable parts,” the Daily News reported. “Some of the better lumber was also taken after the houses were knocked down … Only one building was still occupied when the bulldozer moved to the field, a small two-room shack, and the occupants removed all belongings quickly when the wrecking crew moved in.”

Four homes, a barn, sheds, and outhouses were razed, then burned.

As the Trail Daily Times evocatively described it, “Soon the flames were licking at the tinder-dry dwellings as they went under the torch as the Doukhobors, angered by the sudden termination of their residence in the area, stood helplessly by. Time and time again the Doukhobors were forced to move their possessions farther from the scorching heat of the blazing buildings. Jar after jar of preserves burst and splintered in the heat.”

Once the homes were gone, crews began to uproot fruit trees from surrounding orchards.

Although the residents were Orthodox Doukhobors, not members of the Sons of Freedom sect, the provincial police nevertheless feared reprisals and posted a half dozen extra officers to “keep close watch on the situation just in case something happens.”

Nothing did, other than one woman shouting at two officers. However, the situation left hard feelings for generations, particularly against airport committee chair Ralph West, who supervised the demolition.

“Local residents felt their civil rights were infringed, but could do nothing about it,” Koozma Tarasoff wrote in his Pictorial History of the Doukhobors.

According to the Doukhobor Genealogy Website, the demolished villages were named Chernenkoff, Pictin, Planidin, and Popoff after the families who lived there.

Next: The airport takes off