For the past nine years my wife Pat and I have had our feet planted in two communities, Nanaimo where we spend the greater part of the year, and in the Alberni Valley where we have a summer cottage on beautiful Sproat Lake. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve wheeled my van over the hump it would rival a lottery win.
This summer, if one could call it that, I’ve been playing piano and acting as music director for Anne of Green Gables at the Village Theatre in Qualicum Beach. Except for two or three shows when the production first opened, every performance of the five week run has been sold out.
The Village Theatre in Qualicum Beach was home base this year for Oceanside’s Bard-2-Broadway’s Summer season.
The curtain calls usually hit the stage about 10 pm enabling me to make it back to Sproat Lake by 11 pm. Passing through Cathedral Grove last Friday I caught a radio news report that there was to be a meteor shower later that evening. So upon arrival I headed down to our lake dock, stretched out on a deck chair and waited for the announced celestial affair to get underway. With a perfectly clear sky and no city lights to intrude, it turned out to be a spectacular show as bits and pieces of cosmic debris streaked in from outer space, turning into fireballs as they entered the earth’s atmosphere. Their reflection in the calm surface of the lake made the phenomenon look even more awe-inspiring.
The quaint E&N Station in Qualicum has been quiet this summer with the cancellation of the daily passenger train from Victoria due to poor track conditions. The Island Corridor Foundation (made up of communities and First Nations Groups along the right-of-way) is hoping for a $7.5 million grant from the Federal Government to make repairs to the 125-year old railway. The BC government has promised to match the grant if the Feds cough up the money.
Performing in Qualicum Beach this summer reintroduced me to the area where I spent many idyllic summers in my youth. During the 1950’s my parents had a waterfront cottage just north of the historic Shady Rest Pub. Last week, as well as playing Anne of Green Gables, I had an afternoon gig at Qualicum’s Milner Gardens with Rosalee and the Jazz Swingers. The group includes Rosalee Sullivan (vocals), Bill Cave (trumpet), Claudio Fantinato (woodwinds), Doug Gretsinger (bass) and Wayne Finucan (drums). Bill Cave let me use his new Yamaha Keyboard so I didn’t have to haul mine (which is 10 times heavier) in and out of the orchestra loft at the theatre. Incidentally you can catch the Jazz Swingers Band at the Shady Rest Pub on August 20 from 7 to 10 pm. I digress.
Having a few hours to spare between the garden gig and the evening theatre gig, I took the opportunity to poke around Qualicum to see if I might trigger some memories from those heavenly summers of my childhood. Sadly the family cottage is long gone, replaced by a rest stop on the Oceanside Highway. In the 1960’s the Qualicum Village Town Council expropriated several properties along the beachfront (including ours) with a plan to construct a marina. The plan never materialized and today the property consists of a gravel parking lot and a strange diminutive viewing deck for bird watchers of a chatty sea goose called a Brant that migrates between Baha California and Arctic climes each spring. However, a family footprint does remain visible - the 6 Japanese Maple Trees my parents planted when they first acquired the tiny cedar cottage that sat only a few feet above high mark.
The property on which our Qualicum Cottage once stood is now a public parking lot.
The view from our family’s cottage porch was glorious.
Driving a half km north, I turned west off the Oceanside Highway and parked near the E&N Railway tracks. As youngsters we would hike along the tracks northward to the mammoth Little Qualicum River railway trestle. By hiking down a steep fisherman’s trail near the trestle, I came to the deep pool that back in the 1950’s served as the local swimming hole. Some of my fondest memories are connected to the hours spent here swimming with my brother Terry and neighborhood summer cottage friends. The river, which flows out from Cameron Lake is still crystal clear. As it was a warm day I almost peeled all my clothing off and dove in. However, being alone and a little older and with the river flowing unusually swift for this time of year, I felt it could be a little dangerous and scrapped my impulse.
Clawing my way back up the sandy bank to the railway right-of-way, I retrieved my car and spent the next couple of hours driving through Qualicum sub-divisions, most that didn’t exist back in the 1950’s. Just east of the train station and a short walk downhill on Beach Road will bring you to where the Tudor-styled Qualicum Beach Hotel once stood. Built before the First World War, the hotel in the 30’s and 40’s was a favourite vacation destination for Hollywood movie stars such as Shirley Temple, Errol Flynn, Bob Hope, Spencer Tracey and Bing Crosby. The hotel continued to operate until it was sold to a developer in 1969. Today the property is a sea of private homes.
As a youngster I recall hiking through the luxury resort’s extensive grounds whenever I was on my way to catch a movie at the Village Theater, the same theatre I’m currently performing Anne of Green Gables in. However, I don’t call to mind ever seeing a movie star wandering the hotel grounds. The only famous person I remember meeting in Qualicum was Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent who had stopped his chauffeured limousine at the war memorial on the beachfront across from the present Shell Gas Station. It was sometime in the early fifties and I believe St. Laurent was in the midst of a federal election
campaign. Along with the local dignitaries who had come to the beach to greet the Prime Minister, all the kids hanging about received a handshake from “Uncle Louis” as well.
Continuing along the waterfront I passed a resort called Buena Vista by the Sea that was operating in the 1950’s and still is. Nearby is a resort called the Sand Pebbles Inn. On this site I recall there being a community dance hall called the Log Cabin Inn, which I believe was closed in the late 60’s after being badly damaged by a winter storm. Apparently a number of drift logs impaled the waterside walls and ended up on the dance floor.
Continuing southward, I turned off into a beach area known locally as Judges Row which in the 1950’s had a number of luxury summer homes including one owned by BC’s iconic lumber baron H.R. MacMillan. Today the area is still very beautiful and several monster homes have replaced some of the original summer residences.
This mammoth home sits at the end of Judges Row in south Qualicum. A far cry from the small two bedroom cottage our family enjoyed in the 1950s.
Eventually the clock ran out on my little tour around Qualicum and I had to skedaddle up to the Village Theatre to get ready for show number 11 of the Anne of Green Gables run.
Following the closing of B2B’s presentation of Anne of Green Gables on Aug 5th, Pat & I returned the following day to our other conducting jobs as railway conductors aboard the Alberni Pacific Railway in Port Alberni. Photo shows the APR train awaiting passengers at the (E&N) Port Alberni Railway Station.
This 1913 McLaughlin Buick belonged to Port Alberni’s first mayor A.E. Waterhouse. Port Alberni was incorporated in 1912 and is planning major celebrations for its 100th birthday in 2012. The McLaughlin Buick is currently housed in the Port Alberni Railway Station as part of a recently opened Industrial Heritage Society truck display.