The Lost Town of Pine Point
Once an open-pit mine, now a lake. Photo by Hannah Eden/Up Here
History November, 2015
A road runs through the bush in the NWT, and it tells a story of tragedy, hard truths and the circle of life
By Katie Weaver
A poplar sapling has broken through the pavement in the middle of the street, reaching toward a violet twilit sky. The smell of the bush clashes with the feel of cement underfoot as I walk on the sidewalk past the tree. There are crosswalks but no traffic. Roads but no buildings. The only thing that stands is a sign back where I turned left off Highway 6 to enter the old townsite. “Pine Point” is painted proudly upon it, with stuffed animals arranged around it on the ground and in trees. It’s a memorial. It ties my stomach in a knot, as if something terrible happened here.
Without that sign, the site would be a mystery. But with it, every memory, death, birth and anniversary held in this town still hangs in thin air. But this sadness and nostalgia was foretold from the town’s very beginnings. It was never permanent, after all. It only existed from 1964 until 1988. And now it’s gone. All I see is an eerie blend of forest and concrete. But then I look a little closer.
The Pine Day Parade in a town of many freedoms (including the right to party in a pickup truck’s box). Photo courtesy of Barb Michel
Pine Point, summer of 1982: Warm weather meant Pine Days. Every resident of the town lined the streets unless they were cruising down them, vehicles decorated in ribbons and bows, trailing behind Miss Town of Pine Point’s pick-up truck. Behind them, a motorcycle disguised as a giant mosquito whizzes by, leading a gang of children on bicycles, ringing bells, honking horns and letting their streamers fly in the wind. In alleys, friends compete for the title of Crab Walk champion. Pine Point babies are held up next to each other, fortunately unaware that they’re being judged for the Beautiful Baby Contest. It’s a town-wide party, and every one of Pine Point’s 2,000 citizens is celebrating, and the sun won’t set for weeks.
One of those kids, ripping around town unsupervised, black hair and piercing blue eyes, would soon lose his hometown and move north to Yellowknife, the territory’s freshly minted capital. Peter Curran, now 39 and an English teacher at Yellowknife’s Sir John Franklin High School, lived on Fox and Lemming Drive (all of Pine Point’s streets were named after animals), with his parents, older sister Eletha, and younger sister Amy. For six years, they were either in school, exploring the network of bush trails running in and around the town, or playing in the streets. Their mother once counted 20 kids playing kick the can in the front yard.
Peter’s aunt, Barb Michel, convinced their family to move to the settlement, where she was raising her own. Barb fell in love in Pine Point, got married in Pine Point, and had her three daughters in Pine Point. Adults played friendly, spontaneous midnight baseball games. It was a sports town, but an inclusive one. “You’re all so far away from home,” she starts. “It makes you a family,” adds her daughter, Denise.
Pine Point televisions played MTV and HBO, and everything was brand spankin’ new. Peter describes it as an affluent and optimistic place. It didn’t feel as isolated as it was. Pine Point was ahead of the curve—more so than the rest of the Northwest Territories. Even the people in Pine Point were new. “There were no, for lack of a better word, old people,” says Eletha.
But the central hub of life in Pine Point was the lead-zinc mine with which it shared its name. If a working-aged Pine Pointer didn’t work at the mine, they provided goods and services to the miners in town. And working conditions at the mine were great. A bus—on which Barb Michel met her husband—brought workers to work and back home, and there were homes for families and apartments for singles. Rent was only $100 a month.
Any mining town lives or dies with the mine it’s based around. The death is much more immediate when the mining company owns the town itself. The economics took a downturn. The deeper they dug to get at the lead and zinc, the more groundwater would flow in and the larger the pumps had to be to keep the pit dry. By the mid 1980s, the electrical bills for the pumps, stacked on the rest of the operational costs, outgrew the profits brought in by the minerals.
When Pine Point Mines Limited announced the closure of the mine in 1986, a survey by Andersen Management Services Inc. found that 86.9% of mine employees were considering leaving. Two years later, the town site was shut down permanently.
Pine Point’s streets are being retaken by bush. Photo by Hannah Eden/Up Here
Was it the right thing to do? Though Barb and Denise loved their town and were sad to leave it, they admit there was no other logical way for the situation to play out. “I guess [the company was] obligated and had no choice,” says Barb. There was little debate or resistance, though there was an undeniable sense of uneasiness in the town leading up to the exodus, says Bill Burlington, a teacher at Pine Point and, later, Yellowknife. They left, but they left dragging their feet.
Peter remembers walking home from school at lunchtime when his dad rolled by in his Town of Pine Point work truck. He told Peter right then and there that they would be moving to Yellowknife. He and his sisters held final goodbye sleepovers with friends they were certain they’d never see again. “I stood in the living room window and waved at everybody as they walked to school,” says Amy. Peter laughs, but says he had a goodbye sleepover too. Their school was gone within a year.
Though the initial blow was immediate, the town died slowly, says Peter. The move was hard on him and he visited Pine Point often at first. “[I went
back] in March and then I went back in the summer as well as a few months later. The trailers that were there in March were gone, you’re staying at your cousin’s house and there’s no neighbours for the next three properties. And I think I went back in the fall again for a hockey tournament and again, half the homes in the street are gone, they’d been trucked out,” he says. “It was more dead every time you went back.” It was, in fact, his sister Eletha’s first job to mow the lawns of vacated homes in order to keep the town feeling livable for the few remaining residents. Barb and Denise’s home was used as a school for those who stuck out at the town until its final days, in 1988. It, too, was eventually removed. The homes were placed in Fort Resolution, Hay River, Yellowknife, and sprinkled through the South Slave region of the territory. Pine Point’s church is now Trapper’s Cabin, between Yellowknife and Behchoko; Pine Point’s community rink was taken to Fort Resolution; and the brown apartments of Hay River’s “Browntown” were once Pine Point homes. Soon enough, maps listed the Currans’ hometown as Former Mine, or didn’t list it at all. Denise has a map that still has Pine Point and displays it like a treasure. She was there. They were all there.
It’s not easy for Pine Pointers to talk about losing their home, but they do it with brittle voices, knowing it keeps their memory alive. “It’s tough,” says Denise. “I don’t even call it a ghost town. It literally does not exist anymore. There’s not empty buildings, even the pavement is starting to disappear. There’s literally nothing left.” She went to Newfoundland recently to see where her husband grew up, but she will never get the opportunity to show him or their child where she did. “And you can’t share it with anyone because you can’t explain what it was like to capture it.”
Peter never went back to visit without a plan. He once visited with a list of 11 things he wanted to rediscover to prove that his picturesque childhood was not a figment of his imagination. “I had visions of building a tree house and I had three boards and two nails and I think I left those boards hanging from the tree at lunchtime and I gave up on the project. So I went back to the road I thought we lived on and everything was grown over and I said, I think it was this lot. And I found my way to where I thought out old trailer was. I walked back and there the two boards were, hanging from the tree, and wow: these little things that were just fragments of memories were now things I was putting my hands on and remembering.”
The Pine Pointers I spoke to relate the town’s demise to nature’s circle of life. “I know up north especially,” says Barb, “you have to put the land back to the way you get it.”
Her face is sad but resolute. Peter’s expression mirrors hers. He says there is ahumbling lesson to be learned from Pine Point: a place can hold all of your efforts, experiences, and memories, but it’s all going to be wilderness again someday. “Nature has a way of reminding us that we’re not really that big of a deal,” he says. Trees burst through the roads now. An eight-foot birch is reclaiming the tennis court for the bush.
Photo by Patrick Kane/Up Here
The NWT still has a resource-based economy, but its mines—three big diamond projects north of Yellowknife—now fly their workers to the site from Yellowknife, Edmonton or farther away. It just doesn’t make sense to construct a town to serve your mine. “I think anyone aware of the sort of boom/bust cycle of the extractive industry should have been aware of the life expectancy,” Peter says. NWT and Nunavut Chamber of Mines executive director Tom Hoefer says Canada built several resource towns after World War II and that’s what made Canada as rich as it is. But when the mines shut down, the government was losing money supporting these towns that really no longer had a reason to exist. Canada’s largest blow in this respect was the 1982 closure of Northern Saskatchewan’s Uranium City mines—right after they had funded its municipal services. After Uranium City shut down, the government stopped funding mining towns and let companies support themselves.
The fly-in/fly-out system preferred today was conceived in the late 1970s by mining companies who knew they couldn’t support a townsite—as it is, they’ve already got to create their own power, infrastructure, roads and other services. The last mining town site ever built in Canada was Nanisivik in 1976. The mine closed by 2002 and its town was demolished by 2006.
Today’s Pine Point memorial. Photo by Hannah Eden/Up Here
Peter Curran bought the 1968 11-foot-wide trailer he grew up in at Pine Point from his dad in 2000. He drove it up to Yellowknife, where he lived in it for eight years atop a hill in the Kam Lake region with his wife. Although he and his wife decorated it together, the counters, floors and walls are still Pine Point. After eight years, Peter was set to renovate and add on to the trailer, but it had been twisted and bent so many times in its long life, having moved from Saskatchewan to B.C. to Pine Point to Yellowknife, everyone he talked to said it wasn’t worth fixing. “So we demolished it instead.”
The toughest part wasn’t the day they knocked it down and hauled it away; it was the day before, after he’d removed the doors to use them elsewhere in his new home. “It really bothered me seeing the wind blowing through my kitchen, and the dust and the leaves blowing through this house,” he remembers of that final walkthrough. “The roof over your head and the doors that have kept out the elements and kept you safe and kept your family warm, gone.” He drove it in the dump truck the next day to its final resting place.
The house is gone now, to the naked eye, like the town itself. But Pine Point is still around, in fragments, if you know where to look: a partial tree house, a door in Yellowknife, an old house in Hay River. But if you know Pine Point’s story and stand at the barren townsite, that tree bursting through the asphalt makes way for the Pine Days parade, and the town comes back alive.
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