Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Looking For Alvin: The Debacle

This post leads from a comment I made over at Worthwhile Canadian Initiative to the effect that Canadian rural abandonment had become so severe that entire regions of British Columbia had been depopulated. 

I was kind of talking out of my ass, as commenters do in comment threads. I had the Lardeau Lake country along Highway 31 in mind as something I could point to, but it's a little weak, as the region is basically a string of old copper-boom ghost towns. Semi-abandoned mining towns don't count, except maybe  in Zenna Henderson short stories. So it occurred to me that I might check for something with a little higher impact. What is the closest "abandoned region" to the Greater Vancouver Regional District? You know, "Hollywood North?" Skyrocketing house prices? More than half the population of the province? Place where most of the jobs in Canada are being created now?" (Along with Toronto, but who cares about Toronto? Oddly second-wave British Columbia city, not even imagined when Port Douglas and Yale were being built?

What I found was a bit shocking. Also, something worth contemplating as the precarious staffing at my place of work came undone this week under one irreplaceable sick shift another. When, just for a non-dairy whipped topping, I had to deal with an elderly customer having a cerebral aneurysm and one of our hardest-working, minimum wage kids being crippled by one of the most easily treated chronic medical conditions it's possible to imagine. Since most of these things are related to demographics, it is easy to see them getting worse. It's also easy to imagine it getting worse, much quicker. That is, if I was being Chicken Little last week, I'm extra-crispy Chicken Little this week.

That's the preamble: now, audience participation. "Compare and contrast."


Screen Capture from Panoramio, photo by niftynial.
"Generic footage of a German panzer division parading in Paris, 1940."
And contrast.

Some day, someone will come up with a way of a visual reference for the debacle of 1940 that isn't pure, burning humiliation. There must be some way of signifying it without humiliating the French. The army breaking at the front is not the guilty party. The guilty party is almost certainly the Bank of France. Since we are, however, sensitive to the hideous emotions that lie behind so many myths of betrayal, we prefer not to pursue the casual connection too far, lest we find ourselves raving about Rothschilds and the Elders of Zion. 

On the other hand, the repurposing of the Old Alvin Schoolhouse as the "social activities building" of the Pitt River Fishing Lodge doesn't humiliate us. There's no racial conspiracy angle --although hang to that thought. If there's a crime there, we might not even think of it unless we have a primary school teacher next door talking about the effect on children of having a "forever school." Alvin School is not a forever school. The children who attended it between 1955 and 1993 are scattered to the wind, and it would be pure histrionics to say that the loss of this institution has had much effect on them. The effect of frequent uprooting from communities, on the other hand, may well have had a very serious effect. (Just something for "educational reformers" to contemplate.) More important is the question of why Alvin was abandoned. This, I think should humiliate us, introduce us to the idea that we have failed, and that the rout is about to accelerate, and that it is our fault. 
Context? The first and most important is that my employer posted 120 vacancies last quarter, and was only able to fill 17 of them. Perhaps you have never experienced a labour-short workplace, a workplace where there is work to do, and money to pay for it, and the employer simply cannot get the bodies, then, dear reader, let me assure you that you are not missing anything you'd enjoy. The job statistics for Vancouver are actually quite good: we're creating a lot of them. It's the quality that's the issue.

It is also not something that we have to tolerate. Ozymandias came up with a solution! So can we! Perhaps the road to Alvin can show us the way to Bir Hacheim.

Now, the physical context. 

Satellite image.

This is a bit obscure, so here's the road overlay.

You may have heard of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada: 632,000 people in the city proper, 2.4 million in the greater metropolitan area. A big city, by the standards of the Pacific littoral, anyway. It is located on a typical, deep-sided, U-shaped, glacial valley, drowned by the post-Ice Age sea level rise, and adjacent to the river valley of the Fraser, created by rapid sedimentary infilling. The Fraser may not be a big river in the scheme of things, but its average discharge is amazing: almost a quarter that of the Mississippi river. This is because it drains a very wet area, and one of the reasons that its watershed is so wet is that it is very mountainous. the complicated accretional history of the Coastal Ranges explains the comparatively large fault through which the Pitt River makes its way to the right bank of the Fraser River, between the suburban towns of Coquitlam and Maple Ridge. (Actually, the municipality of Pitt Meadows is wedged in between them, but the Google Maps view doesn't show it.) 

You will know all of these names if you are in the Vancouver real estate market, because our housing prices are going up rapidly, and the received wisdom is that regular people are buying on the right bank out as far as Maple Ridge. This is weird received wisdom, considering that the wedge between rental rates and housing prices has reached historic highs. It is rare to find a Vancouver-area house with a listed price less than 60 times its annual rent. I think that the unreality of the received wisdom is related to the number of members of the Canadian bien pensant who are looking to sell their houses, but you can only say that "house prices are a bubble" so many times before your credibility as a prophet comes into question.

That really isn't history, though. Alvin, at the head of Pitt Lake, was exempted by homesteaders in the first two decades of the Twentieth Century. Since it has been abandoned (I repeat myself), all of that land is out there, free of the encumbrances of tree farm licenses and the Agricultural Land Reserve, ready for resale. I ask people: What if I told you that I knew a 700 acre property within 16 miles of the boundaries of the Greater Vancouver Regional district on sale for $6 million? It's in Alvin, it has been on sale for many years, and no-one has bought it, and neither is anyone likely to buy it. The catch is that there is no road to Alvin, and never likely to be one. The Upper Pitt River Valley is another of those "U-shaped" valleys carved out by glaciers during the last Ice Age, and the particular history of post-Ice Age sea level rise and the Fraser River's aggressive sedimentation then left it stranded at the north end of a very deep lake that completely fills the hotizontal part of the "U" right up to the beginning of the vertical "walls." Some nice hikers who made the trip overland from Squamish to the Pitt River were kind enough to post a photo-essay of their trip. Here is a picture of the forest "floor" on the way over one of the two mountain walls that separate Squamish from the Upper Pitt.

This is not unrepresentative, either:


Don't get me wrong: What makes the Upper Pitt River Valley important is that while the mountain walls are steep, as they often are in this country, the bottom part is very flat, and also dry. A random Internet environmentalist says that there are over 700 square kilometers of land in the upper valley, and if an unsourced Internet comment is not dispositive, what is? (Well, the B.C. Geological Survey, but I am not going to get access to that from my desk, apparently.) The lack of roads, however, means that all of that buildable land might as well be on the dark side of the Moon.

Except, if this were Switzerland, there probably would be a road. . . .

Remember: this open grass ecology is anthropogenic, the product of diligent village communes working from the sub-Roman period to open up highland pasture. Without them, this, too, would be mountain forest.

But, then, this is Switzerland,

And this is Alvin.

Rural British Columbia has its picturesque areas, but far too much of it looks like a bad duct-tape repair job.  That isn't an explanation for the fact that no Swiss-style mountain roads wind their way from the Upper Coquitlam Valley to Alvin. It will suffice to note that the Upper Coquitlam is a great deal closer to Vancouver, and better-roaded, and there's no land-development rush there, either. This, too, is hardly difficult to explain. No-one wants to build in the straight-up-and-down landscape of the upper Coquitlam. It's just that if picking out or preparing good sites in the upper Coquitlam is too hard to bother, Alvin is definitely beyond the pale.

Why would anyone ascend the Upper Coquitlam canyon and find a cliffside to blast a house location out of? Because it would be stupid. Just remember, when I say that, that people do exactly that in West Vancouver. Real estate: it's all about location!

Alvin shows up on Google Maps because it is a Census-designated place. Per Wikipedia, and per the Pitt River Fishing Lodge, and probably ultimately Canada Post, we know that Alvin is named for Alvin Thomas Patterson (1865-1942), who homesteaded there in 1903, and established a post office on his property in 1915, which operated there until 1955, and then just up the river at a new townsite at least long enough to receive a modern postal code in the 1970s. That freed the land around the head of the lake for the charming dump site pictured above, which hopefully is not receiving new detritus from the Teal-Jones Group's fly-in logging camps in the upper valley, Alvin Jetty, through which they move their heavy equipment, or the dryland sort where they boom their logs for delivery to the mills of the Lower Mainland. 

The Pitt River Fishing Lodge, which is ten years old, at least in its early days, had some old folks about who still maintained cabins in the area. From them, we know that there were once "around 200 people" growing potatoes and strawberries in the Upper Pitt River Valley, and that they all moved away, for one reason or another, in the 1940s and 50s. 

Fortunately, Niho Land and Cattle Company would really like to sell the properties. The Upper Pitt River Valley: Not small.

This is all a bit vague, but the Niho ad provides some additional information, noting that the property it is trying to sell --only a small portion of the upper valley, is 733 acres, intriguingly close to a square mile claim. It was subdivided into seven lots between 1910 and 1919. It it was owned by Mr. Alvin Patterson, of which I have no evidence whatsoever, this would be the right timing for Mr. Patterson to have provided for children of a marriage for which I have no evidence, contracted about 1903 (ibid.) I notice a Rootwebs request for information about Alvin from a David Pattison of Victoria, which is interesting given Jim Pattison (1928--). British Columbia's richest man is intensely private, and the owner of another one of those Horatio Alger up-from-nothing stories of which I have grown increasingly skeptical. The galloping scale of his 1960s corporate acquisitions are somewhat implausible for a man of not-yet 40, even if the 1960s were an era of rapid economic growth in these parts. My point is, if I were writing a historical novel here --I'm not, and so will leave those impulses to next week-- I would have trouble imaginging Jim Pattison as the grandson of Alvin Patterson. Just given the size of the population, there's maybe a one-in-20 chance of this relationship being real, just on the statistical frequency of the last name.

If Alvin Patterson was at all a wealthy man, you can still see why he might have ended up in the Upper Pitt Valley. Unlike the Lillooet River, which provides a route to a pass onto the Interior Plateau and which is a classic road-and-rail route to Maybe Next Year Country, the Pitt River is a dead end. However, it is a dead end on the tidal reach of the Fraser. The tidal bore reaches 40 kilometers up the upper river. With London on one's mind (it's not an entire coincidence that the province's first capital was named "New Westminster"), one could well imagine the tide doing the work that made the Thames' tidal current the equivalent of a major power plant/railway in the late Nineteenth Century British economy. As it was, there was plenty of timber to float down the river, and in 1915, logging meant horses, and horses meant fodder, and fodder meant farms. In that sense, the death of the community was written in the family story of buying a used Model T to part at the jetty so that they would not have to walk four miles back to their home after a shopping trip down the river. Ubiquitous automobiles mean the end of the age of grass. 

So that's the reasoning, as I reconstruct it. As for the way it all went wrong, this it is not hard to guess. By the postwar era, it would have been clear that development had passed the valley by, that there were better lives, and better jobs, down river. The farms were abandoned, the people, whether called Patterson or Pattison or something else entirely, left. The loggers remained. Enough to make a new Alvin, anyway, one that lasted another 40 years, working on oil instead of grass.

The end. 

So there you go: a dead town, an empty region. Isolated by mountains, to be sure, but readily accessible by water, just like the Gulf Islands off Vancouver, where real estate prices are also buoyant.  (Although anyone gullible enough to fall for the idea that the islands are the next hot Lower Mainland market should be aware of just how much underdeveloped land there is out there in the strait waiting to come onto the market.)

You can tell a modern Vancouverite by the way that we can't stop talking about real estate. There's a reason for that. 700 acres for $6 million. $2.48 million for this.

I think I see what is really happening here: a rout to safety. The debacle is on!

Except no horses, just invisible money, because we have oil now :-)

Enough about real estate, enough with trying to imply my way into an argument that we need a massive investment in agricultural infrastructure as part of our global warming mitigation strategy. This is supposed to be a blog about history, so I'll try to talk about it, and, specifically, Chinook Jargon, for a moment. Lameen sends me this intriguing link. Dr. Robertson, who runs the linked site, has come across a notice printed in the Bulletin of the American Institute of Mining Engineers in 1913, two years before Alvin Patterson opened his post office:

Something evidently occurred in the Department of Geology, Columbia University, on a recent date which is described as follows: ‘Kwinnum Moon, Sinamokst Sun, Tenas Polaklie.” [The morning of May 7.]  The following notice of the event has been sent to us with a special request that it be printed for the benefit of Western members, who are well versed in foreign languages:
Ikt Ehkahnam, Mamook Hee-Hee [First Story: An Amusement]     Professor Grabau
Mokst Ehkahnam, Oleman Sun kopa China [Second Story, Old Man Sun in China],     Mr. T. T. Read, 02 S
Klone Ehkahnam, Hy-iu Cultus Hee-Hee [Third Story, Plenty of Joking Around],     Dr. A. R. Ledoux
Lakit Ehkahnam, Tipso Illahie Saghallie Illahie [Fourth Story, Prairie Heaven]     Prof. D. W. Johnson
Kwinnum Ehkahnam, Mamook lip-lip chuok [sic] [Fifth Story, Boiling Water],     Dr. E. O. Hovey
Taghum Ehkahnam, Mamook weght kloshe Columbia University [Sixth Story, Improving Columbia University],      Professor Kemp.

Dr. Robertson provides the translation. What he cannot tell us is whether this entire colloqium was given in the Chinook Jargon. Or, more likely, whether this blurb was translated as a message for the "benefit of Western members." I, for one, do not think it completely outlandish that there might have been some Chinook-speaking, western-educated, American mining engineers working in China at the beginning of the last century.  Or ex-football team managers who managed to leverage a B.Sc. in geology into a job in mining engineering, anyway.  

As Dr. Robertson says, this is an example of an ipsut-wawa, or secret ("in-group") language. Lameen is intrigued by the mention of "Old Man Sun:" so am I. There was a "Chinese" Chinook, and Dr. Robertson is on the case.

 I could swear I know the guy front right. His name is "Uncle."
That's the point of the Chinook Jargon! Dr. Robertson wants to know more about how Chinook ended, and why its last phases were as a secret language. 

I will suggest that it ended because places like Alvin were abandoned. I really can't explain the secret language phase, because secrets are secrets. But, then, I like to imagine a fourteen-year-old boy, standing, fidgeting, in front of his grandfather's bed in a New Westminster Hospital, and being told that his share of his grandfather's estate will be a trip to Saskatchewan in the summer, to the town where his father spent many happy days in the 1920s in a church camp. 

Great, thinks the boy, scuffing the floor as he walks away. What's wrong with buying me a car?


  1. Funny thing is, most of these people seem to have biographies online, and I don't see any obvious Northwestern connections in any of them - though Chinese connections are clear enough for the first two. Time spent on geological surveys there, maybe. Of course, it may be that none of them had anything to do with placing this notice - but in that case, why did someone feel that this would be of particular interest to Northwestern readers?

    "Amadeus William Grabau (January 9, 1870—March 20, 1946), the father of Chinese geology, was an expatriate American geologist... born in Cedarburg, Wisconsin" (

    "the mining engineer Thomas T. Read, who had worked in China and written on the history of ferrous metallurgy there" (

    "b. ... Newport, Kentucky...Ledoux rose to fame in U. S. industry after solving one of the most pressing issues facing the copper industry in the late 19th century." (

    "Douglas Wilson Johnson... was born at Parkersburg, West Virginia... his most important coutri1)ution to geomorphological theory is the concept of rock fans and its application to the interpretation of pediments"

    "Hovey was born in New Haven, Connecticut... One of his most significant voyages was to study the aftermath of the Mount Pelee and La Soufriere eruptions in 1902." (

    "[Kemp] was born in New York City and graduated from Amherst in 1881 and from the Columbia School of Mines in 1884... Besides numerous articles, reports, and monographs, he published Ore Deposits of the United States and Canada (1893; third edition, rewritten, 1900) and Handbook of Rocks (1896; fifth edition, 1911)." (

    1. Ledroux is a characteristically Canuck name; New Haven, Connecticutt is a whaling port. So there's that. Reducing Grabau and Read's connection to Chinook to Chinese intermediaries --is actually not that improbable, when you think about it.

      Though if you have a class of Chinese translators in the mid-Nineteenth Century who attack English from a fluency in Chinook, I can see where that would be linguistically interesting.

  2. Hmm. What if the answer to:

    a workplace where there is work to do, and money to pay for it, and the employer simply cannot get the bodies

    was cunningly hidden earlier in the post?

    our hardest-working, minimum wage kids

    1. We have lots of hard-working kids, and it is really hard to make them go away, but paying minimum wage seems to do it, eventually.

      Meanwhile, I'm looking foward to seeing the wreckage of last night's "repack" delivery, which was, apparently, doubled in the computer-generated pick list. Automation to the rescue!