Stories & Features

'Every day was an adventure' at townsite built for workers at John Hart

Image of the John Hart dam townsite
Hydro Hollow was a Campbell River-area community built specifically for BC Power Commission employees, the majority of them working on the John Hart Dam. The story of Hydro Hollow is included in the new BC Hydro Power Pioneers' book People, Power and Progress.

Excerpt from book about Campbell River hydro projects tells story of 'Hydro Hollow'

Following is an excerpt, edited for brevity, from 'People, Power and Progress', a BC Hydro Power Pioneers book about the John Hart Dam and other projects on Vancouver Island's Campbell River. It features comments from former resident Georgean Price, who was recently chosen – at 98 years old – to turn off a turbine at John Hart Generating Station to allow for work that's part of $1.89 billion in upgrades at the facility.

No one needed keys in Hydro Hollow. If anyone left the house, or if a family went away on a holiday, they simply shut the door behind them.

That's how Joan Miller, daughter of John Hart superintendent Art Price, remembers her idyllic childhood in the place they all called Hydro Hollow.

Imagine growing up in a brand new, spacious house in a park adjacent to a virgin forest. You've got a river to fish in and places to swim. In the winter, when you are tired of skating, you can slide down the hill on a toboggan. Gardeners keep the little town looking neat, and there's never any traffic to worry about on the half-moon-shaped road that connects the houses.

The African proverb "it takes a village to raise a child" applied to this tightly knit Vancouver Island community created by the British Columbia Power Commission for the operators of the new John Hart hydro station.

It was where we all grew up. It was a family.

"It was damn near like a commune," recall's Joan's older brother Bob. "Everybody watched out for everybody else's kids.

"When I was learned to drive, I took my dad's car and I went around our road a little too fast, and when I came back, Bill Bradshaw [a Hydro Hollow resident] was standing in the middle of the road. I stopped and rolled the window down and he grabbed me by the throat, and he warned me that if I didn't slow down, he was going to take the next step because I was endangering those children, which I was. I got a lesson there and I deserved it."

"You had to keep your nose clean," says Bob. "Everybody knew what was going on. There were tiffs among families, kids mostly would fight, but I don't recall any real bitter things that lasted. They were all basically working guys, they all seemed to get along really well."

Parties were frequent at Hydro Hallow and sometimes the parents wanted the children out of the way. "They stuck all us kids in one house," recalls Bruce Pilkington, another former Hydro Hollow resident. "The oldest kids were in charge. That was their idea of babysitting."

That was an exaggeration, say Georgean Price. In fact, all the resident mothers babysat each other's children.

"I looked after every kid in the townsite at one time or another and vice versa."

"Hydro Hollow was our backyard," says Joan. "It was where we all grew up. It was a family."

Image of the John Hart dam
The BC Power Commission built the first John Hart powerhouse below John Hart Dam, in 1947. A year later, the first workers at the powerhouse moved in to Hydro Hollow.

Move-in day [at Hydro Hollow] was in May 1948. It was one of the happiest days in the lives of the new residents, who were finally able to escape their cramped quarters in motels and shacks.

The first residents, all BC Power Commission employees, were Philip and Edith Wolstenholme, Wilf and Ellen Kenny, Bill and Ann Jackson, Bob and Essie Wilson, Art and Georgean Price, Cecil and Bea Clarke, Cecil and Hazel Lindgren, Jack and Nan Pilkington, and Frank and Jesse Belcher. Bachelor employees used the tenth house. The new houses rented for $35 a month, the equivalent of $368 in 2015.

"There were no homes in town to match them," says Georgean Price. "The townsite was the envy of the folks in Campbell River." The residents were mostly operators in the generating station Frank Belcher, who was a floor man at first before becoming an operator after a year, also got one of the houses. (A floor man kept the powerhouse clean and looked after the turbines, making sure they were properly greased and the oil pressure was correct."

Hydro Hollow was a kids' paradise. There was a pond to swim in during warm weather and to skate on during the winter. After hockey games, everyone would gather around a bonfire.

The townsite was the envy of the folks in Campbell River.

Neighbours who didn't live in Hydro Hollow were welcome to use the pond. "We could put a raft on it," recalls Alan Simmons, whose father helped assemble the transformers during the construction of John Hart and continued to work there afterwards, maintain the heavy electrical equipment. Simmons lived near the townsite and was friends with some of the residents.

"We used to swim up there," he recalls. "And on occasion, we would hike the pipeline and wander in and look at the canyon, and Elk Falls, and stuff like that."

Another resident, Marilyn Roddy, recalls that "the older kids would get on tubes just below the powerhouse and go down the river to the bridge, and I would drive down in the truck and pick them up with their tubes and take them all back again. And they'd go down again. This was just when the river was low. Most places they could probably touch the bottom. Oh, the kids had so much fun."

Being kids, however, they sometimes got into trouble. "Every day was an adventure," recalls Marilyn.

"Our boy and the neighbours grandkids who were the same age, were fishing and they weren't allowed to cross the river to go to the other side, but of course the grass is always greener on the other side. So these little boys caught their trout and lit a fire on the other side. But they couldn't hear the siren when the dam opened, so when they went to start across, they got swept up in the current.

"The older boys managed to get across and to go and tell them at the powerhouse, and the two younger boys clung to a rock till they were found. That was scary. But still it was a wonderful place. I can't think of anything bad about living there."

Take a tour of John Hart, or order the book

Take a 360-degree tour of the work on the John Hart Generating Replacement project, or get project details on our John Hart project pages.

Interested in buying a copy of the People, Power & Progress book? It's available for $25 from the Power Pioneers.