RCAF Station Telegraph Cove
Telegraph Cove is in the Namgis First Nation’s traditional territory and is called “tuǥwasu” in the Kwakwaka’wakw language. Telegraph Cove got its present name from Alfred Marmaduke “Duke” Wastell when, in 1912, the Superintendent of Telegraphs was looking for a suitable location for a lineman’s station. Wastell suggested the protected little harbour and referred to it as Telegraph Cove. Telegraph lineman Bobby Cullerne became the Cove’s first inhabitant, living in a one-room shed-roofed structure that is still there. Duke had arrived in nearby Alert Bay from Ontario in 1909, with his wife and nine-year-old son Fred, to manage BC Fishing and Packing Company’s box factory. In the mid-1920’s, Duke and a group of Japanese workers built a salmon saltery and small sawmill at Telegraph Cove. In 1929, the owner of 400 acres surrounding the Cove defaulted on loans received from Duke and signed over the chunk of wilderness to him in payment, making Duke the owner of Telegraph Cove.
Duke’s son Fred needed something to do after the Great Depression. Now married and the father of a baby girl, Fred had a financial interest in the sawmill at Telegraph Cove that had lain idle for two years. In the early 1930’s, he resurrected the mill with his childhood friend, Alex MacDonald, undertaking the financial end. With the help of Japanese and Chinese labour, the early 1930’s saw Telegraph Cove Mills up and running in earnest. Logs milled at Telegraph Cove were used to construct buildings throughout the North Island. For accommodation for himself and the workers, Fred built a charming huddle of houses on a boardwalk lofted over the beach on stilts as the rough terrain and the lack of equipment made it easier to put in pilings and build the roadway on top with timber.
In 1940, the RCAF decided to build an airport on an uninhabited stretch of land some fifty miles north of Telegraph Cove and wanted the sawmill to supply the lumber. The airport construction would take everything the mill could cut—the total production—but putting together a crew to cut it was the challenge. All the able-bodied crew had filed off to war and the mill was struggling along, manned by the halt and the blind. Nonetheless, this was an opportunity too good to be missed, and all the hands fell to with a will. Week after week, the crew loaded scow after scow, and the Hili-Kum edged them out of the harbour at high tide and started the long, slow tow northward, up Johnstone Strait and into Queen Charlotte Strait.
The landing arrangements at Fort Rupert consisted of a hastily built grid on the beach, which meant that in the few minutes of high tide the empty scow had to be pulled off the shore, and the loaded one pushed onto it. This had to be done with precision; if the scows had drifted just slightly out of position, they would have got hung up and holed by the huge boulders that littered the beach.
As time went on, the airport contractor Marwell Construction and #9 Construction and Maintenance unit (#9 CMU) really got under way, and the rag-tag crew at Telegraph Cove wasn’t equal to the task of keeping the Port Hardy Airport supplied with lumber even though #9 CMU had also purchased a sawmill which was set up and operated by the Unit at Port Hardy. Again this wasn’t enough, so the Air Force’s #9 CMU took over the Wastell mill, and the boat, in 1941. They rented the mill at a nominal rate, retaining only Alex Macdonald as manager of the mill and Fred Wastell to deliver their lumber. The CO took over the school. #9 CMU built a new cookhouse and bunkhouse, this one with an indoor privy. By July 1943, the sawmill at Telegraph Cove was in full swing cutting 100,000 board feet per week and maintaining a yard stock of 500,000 feet. By March 1943, #9 CMU had also set up another small sawmill at Beaver Cove so the lumber supply problem was solved. In early 1946, the mill and boat were returned to Fred and Alex.
The Hili-Kum disappeared for a short time and reappeared with her glossy white paintwork painted a dark wartime grey, her mast bristling with aerials and her cabin roof piled with life-rafts. All this life-saving equipment wasn’t as excessive as it seemed, for the boat which had always operated with a crew of two, now had seven on board. To Fred’s astonishment, the Hili-Kum now had, besides her captain, a slew of mates, deckhands, first and second engineers, a radio operator, and a cook to keep this mob fed. The same largesse was applied to the mill. Where the regular able-bodied crew had numbered twelve, there were now sixty-five. It certainly gave the place an air of purpose. Every house, as well as the bunkhouse, was packed with sawmill crew or “support staff.”
The individuals most markedly affected by this turn of events were the three Chinese employees. The Japanese workers had long since been deported to the BC Interior, and the rest of the regular crew were in the services; but the Chinese, who had worked here ever since the box factory closed, were still there. Welfare didn’t exist nor did the three expect any regularized assistance. Instead, they adapted to this change with flexibility and imagination. They continued to live in the China House, which cost them nothing, they had all the free firewood they needed for fuel, they had always kept chickens and had a garden—and now they became bootleggers! Cut off from the nearest liquor store by miles of water, surrounded by the military, they followed the classic recipe for success: find a need and fill it. Their new occupation wasn’t immediately apparent, for the dealings were always handled with the utmost discretion, but finally Fred realized where all those footfalls in the night were heading, and why. In theory, this activity was not a good idea, because it took place on private property, the owner of which was the local magistrate. In practice, however, it all worked out, because all concerned maintained their ignorance, if not their innocence.
RCAF Stn Port Hardy had three crash boats, the Takuli, the Huron, and the Montagnais, and one or other of them was always stationed in the little weatherproof harbour. These boats were designed to come to the aid of planes if they crashed. Since no planes ever crashed, it made a very pleasant life for the crew—and certainly a very exciting one for residents who often slipped aboard for rides. Except for blackouts and the normal hardship endured during times of war, life was good at RCAF Stn Telegraph Cove.
By August 1945, the Cove was waiting, along with the rest of the world, to hear that World War II had ended. Although they expected the news, they weren’t sure how quickly it would reach them or who would hear it first. As it turned out, it was Grace, an airman’s wife who worked in the mill office, who broke the news. At four o’clock in the afternoon of August 14, she heard an alert on the telephone. She picked it up and listened in. It was the word they had been waiting for. Within minutes, the mill whistle began blasting out its message to the mountains and the sea, to a wilderness that neither knew nor cared about the end of a war. One of the airmen fired off his rifle; the radios, now all on, blared band music; and, when the Hili-Kum came in later in the afternoon, all her signal flags were flying. The next day was a holiday. The community cooked, and the airmen prepared the mess hall. It was a great party, an innocent celebration. They didn’t know, then, that they were marking not only the end of a war but the end of the Cove’s isolation.
The war ended, the airmen left, and Telegraph Cove became a sawmill town again, providing custom-made lumber for boats and docks. The air force dining house was divided into a community space, known as The Hall, and a kitchen with a dining area, which later became accommodation. On Saturday evenings, a movie was shown in The Hall, with sometimes a square dance to follow. Santa Claus always made it to the Telegraph Cove Christmas party. The radio telephone replaced the party line that was often knocked out of service by falling trees. The Mill changed to diesel from steam and new boats, the Hilikum and then the Gikumi replaced the Hili-kum. By 1956, Fred Wastell had managed to put in a road to connect the community to the rest of Vancouver Island which meant the school moved to Kokish, then to Port McNeill.
The 1970’s saw the end of an era as the lumber mill, salmon saltery, and fish storage warehouses were close. In 1979, Gordie and Marilyn Graham purchased property in the Cove and built a campground, RV Park, and marina. The Cove gradually yielded to pleasure boaters, kayakers, sport fishermen, whale watchers and vacationers. Fred Wastell died in 1985. Many of the original mill workers’ homes and the buildings built by the RCAF remain on the boardwalk surrounding the Cove and they are reminders of how important the Cove was to the war effort during WWII. These buildings have been turned into quaint accommodations by Telegraph Cove Resorts making the boardwalk a snapshot of days gone by. Today, Telegraph Cove has grown to become one of the ten “best towns in Canada to visit” (as published in Harrowsmith magazine) and is a bustling tourist destination.
On 26 September 2015, the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain, 101 Squadron RCAFA and 19 Wing RCAF dedicated this plaque commemorating the period, 1941-45, that Telegraph Cove was an RCAF Station. It was a picture perfect fall day. LCol Gilles Couture, 19 Wing OpsO, was the RCAF representative. There were numerous other guests from 19 Wing, 888 Wing, and 101 Squadron. 101 fielded a full colour party, an MC and a bugler. A special guest was Jennifer Butler who is the granddaughter of Fred Wastell who told us of a few recollections of visiting the Cove during this time. The fifty invited guests toured the Whale Interpretive Center with Jim Borrowman and then had a fabulous seafood feast prepared by Chef Taso and Gordie thrilled us with his barbequed Atlantic Salmon. After the presentation by Jennifer, we retired to the Lyon’s Den to renew acquaintances with the three titted moose.