Fresh out of college in 1982 at the age of 23, Richard Mackie came face-to-face on Newcastle Island with “Torchy” Smith, a B.C. government employee who roamed the province in search of abandoned buildings in provincial parks.
It was his job that when he found one, he burned it down.
Mackie had just taken on his first job: writing a historical report on the Newcastle Island Dance Pavilion. It was the last remaining pavilion of the 10 built by the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) in the early part of the 20th Century.
The pavilions were featured attractions of the CPR’s coastal resorts, whose guests arrived on the company’s Princess Ships of the British Columbia Coast Steamship Service.
Mackie’s 1983 report noted the historical, recreational and aesthetic values of the last pavilion, and it sent Torchy back to the mainland to start some other fire. The pavilion was restored in 1984 and today is a sought-after location for weddings and other events.
Flush with his initial success, Mackie began a noted career of teaching and writing about history, with an emphasis on heritage buildings. He’s authored half-a-dozen books.
“I got the idea from my Newcastle experience,” Mackie told an audience at North Island College on Saturday, “that if I wrote a report, people would always care. They don’t.”
That’s particularly true in the Town of Comox, which Mackie accused of perpetrating “wanton cultural vandalism.”
He referred to the Comox Council’s decision last year to demolish famous naturalist Hamilton Mack Laing’s original Comox Bay home, named Baybrook, and its plan to demolish Laing’s second home, Shakesides.. The nation’s top heritage experts have criticized Comox for demolishing Baybrook and are fighting the town to save Shakesides.
“In the Comox, you can write all the reports you want, but they’ll tear them down,” he said.
Mackie titled his lecture, the last in an NIC Elder College series featuring authors, “Dead Dog or Land of Plenty? Creating and Effacing History in the Comox Valley.”
He discussed many of the region’s “dead dogs,” which have either been torn down or burned down before they could be restored. It’s a long list that includes the Lorne Hotel, the Elk Hotel, the Courtenay Hotel, the Riverside Hotel and the EW Bickle Palace Theatre.
He lamented the loss of these historical buildings because they serve as anchors for a community’s collective memories, like rooms and artifacts in a person’s childhood home.
He noted the contrast between Cumberland, which has preserved many of its historical buildings, and Comox, which has no apparent regard or respect for its history.
He did have praise for the preservation of Courtenay’s Native Sons Hall and the Filberg Lodge.
Mackie said saving heritage buildings can benefit a community in many ways, including financially.
Campbell River boosted its public awareness when it preserved the home of Roderick Haig-Brown, a more well-known figure but less important to the scientific world than Mack Laing.
And that city also supported the restoration of artist Sybil Andrews’ home, which has since become a popular tourist and event location similar to the Newcastle Island Pavilion.
Referring to the area’s moniker as the “land of plenty,” Mackie asked “plenty of what?” The Comox Valley is destroying its ghosts, he said, with a frontier mentality that doesn’t value these buildings.
Richard Mackie is a former Comox Valley resident. He is the author of Mountain Timber: The Comox Logging Company in the Vancouver Island Mountains (Sono Nis Press, 2009), Island Timber: A Social History of the Comox Logging Company, Vancouver Island (Sono Nis Press, 2000), Trading Beyond the Mountains: The British Fur Trade on the Pacific, 1793-1843 (UBC Press, 1997), The Wilderness Profound: Victorian Life on the Gulf of Georgia (Sono Nis Press, 2009) and Hamilton Mack Laing: Hunter-Naturalist (Sono Nis Press, 1985). Mackie lives in Vancouver where he is Reviews Editor of the Ormsby Review.