In the abandoned mining town of Kitsault, B.C., where time has been suspended for the past 40 years, tourists are no longer welcome to take a journey into nostalgia.
Built in the late 1970s and early 1980s in northwest British Columbia, the remote town once boasted 1,200 residents before the boom went bust for mining molybdenum, an additive used to strengthen steel. The local mine, which Amax of Canada Ltd. operated for only 18 months, was forced to close in 1982 after molybdenum prices crashed.
The final two residents left Kitsault on Nov. 10, 1983, but remarkably, the place has been preserved by a series of townsite managers and crew.
U.S. millionaire Krishnan Suthanthiran bought Kitsault for about $7-million in 2005.
THE GLOBE AND MAIL, source: openstreetmap
THE GLOBE AND MAIL, source: openstreetmap
THE GLOBE AND MAIL, source: openstreetmap
A limited number of lucky tourists, lured by the chance to experience what life was like in the early 1980s, gained access through a tour operator from 2013 until 2022. This year, after exploring an array of options, Mr. Suthanthiran decided to close the town’s entrance gate to tourists and only allow access to preapproved visitors.
The last truckload of tourists to make the trip down an unpaved road into Kitsault was in September, 2022. Since then, Mr. Suthanthiran has revived his efforts to attract or help create some type of industrial development, which he believes would provide the long-awaited benefits to awaken the town from its slumber.
Kitsault has more than 90 houses and 150 apartment units still in good condition. Facilities spread across the 130-hectare site include a curling rink, shopping mall, gymnasium and medical clinic.
“Look, I’m one man. For me, I want to preserve the town and create economic activity,” Mr. Suthanthiran said in an interview from Virginia. “This is not for a tourism thing.”
He said he is no longer interested in pursuing resort-related options for what to do with Kitsault, including crossing off a movie studio, private retreat, scientific think tank and ecotourism from his wish list.
Now topping his list for ways to breathe new life into the ghost town is one of his ideas from years ago – building an energy export terminal, either for liquefied natural gas (LNG) or for butanol, an alcohol that could be used as a fuel.
Mr. Suthanthiran believes Kitsault, which is situated on the traditional territory of the Nisga’a Nation, is an ideal location to attract investment from the energy industry. “Butanol and LNG are the primary plan A,” he said. “Hydrogen is a possibility.”
While climate activists say the focus in B.C. should be on renewable energy, Mr. Suthanthiran thinks Kitsault could be part of LNG ambitions in the province, given that Nisga’a leaders support LNG exports in general. Specifically, Nisga’a leaders have thrown their support behind plans for the Ksi Lisims LNG project at Wil Milit on Pearse Island, which is about 85 kilometres southwest of Kitsault.
“Ksi Lisims LNG will be the heartbeat of our economy and our best chance at prosperity for our people,” Eva Clayton, elected president of the Nisga’a Lisims government, told the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office this week.
Ten years ago, there were more than 20 proposals in B.C. to export LNG in tankers to markets in Asia. Of those, the Shell PLC-led LNG Canada joint venture in Kitimat, B.C., is more than 85-per-cent completed. But dreams for Canada to become a major LNG player globally have faded. Despite much hype, only four other projects are active in the province.
Mr. Suthanthiran, who said Canada lags far behind the United States on LNG, hopes to rejoin the LNG chase in B.C.
“I need a pipeline to bring the natural gas to Kitsault,” the 75-year-old millionaire said. “There are a lot of things that I’m doing and a lot going on, so I’m not retiring. This is me, and what we do in our life is a reflection of our character.”
Born in India, he graduated in 1971 with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Carleton University in Ottawa. He would later go on to make millions of dollars from real estate investments and to found Virginia-based Best Medical International Inc., a distributor of health products for hospitals.
Mr. Suthanthiran said that after a disagreement, he decided in June to part ways with the caretakers of Kitsault from 2005 to 2022, K.U. Mathew and his wife, Indhu.
The Mathews used to live in Kitsault part of the year, arriving after the snow melted by late May and staying until late October. They have retired in Parksville on Vancouver Island.
“Tourists were amazed at the way Kitsault was preserved and maintained. That was surprising to them after all these years,” said Mr. Mathew, the former townsite manager.
Scenes from Kitsault today make for both a quirky and eerie experience.
Ms. Mathew, the former townsite supervisor, created a museum inside one of the houses to collect many of the mementoes under one roof. “We cleaned and tidied up the whole town,” she said. Old issues of Maclean’s magazine linger, including a copy from Nov. 1, 1982, featuring then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau on the cover, with the headline: “A question of trust.”
Also in the museum are curling trophies with bronze spaces meant for engraving the names of winners of annual bonspiels that were planned but never played.
The recreation centre has an empty swimming pool and a hardwood basketball court. A daycare and a library are in the same complex. What are now vintage toys remain in the daycare, free of dust because of cleaning over the decades. The library’s shelves carry books mostly from the 1970s and early 1980s, including separate sections titled Romance, Westerns and Mystery. Robert Ludlum’s 1980 thriller, The Bourne Identity, is still on the shelves awaiting a new reader.
The curling rink has a movie theatre in the basement, with a reel-to-reel film projector.
At the medical clinic, a clear plastic bag one-third full of saline solution hangs from a metal hook above a bed for patients. The bag’s expiry date is January, 1984.
Since 1983, there has been a wide variety of caretaking chores. Those include mowing lawns, keeping moss from creeping up house entrances, vacuuming shag carpeting, ensuring electric baseboard heaters are turned on in the winter and overseeing roof repairs.
Unfortunately, after a contractor inadvertently left his torch on while taking a lunch break from tarring a roof many years ago, one of the apartment buildings burned down.
Mr. Suthanthiran granted access to Kitsault recently to The Globe and Mail to meet Kristine Eva, who took over as townsite manager in early July. She has taken possession of the keys to buildings in the town that time forgot and will be living there year-round.
“I feel like it’s a living museum because it is so well-preserved and it’s like a time capsule,” she said in an interview in her pickup truck. As she pulled into the parking lot for the curling rink, she mentioned a watering hole where residents gathered four decades ago for their final farewells after the mining boom went bust.
The local pub, where a pack of cigarettes cost 70 cents, was built inside the two-storey building that once housed the four-sheet curling rink. “We had the last drink in the Maple Leaf Pub,” according to a poster signed by about 60 residents on Oct. 1, 1983.
Ms. Eva first saw the town in the summer of 2022, when she worked for five weeks as one of the caretaking crew.
“I fell in love with it. I knew I had to return,” she said. “It’s just magical to me. I’m driving around this town that people actually lived in 40 years ago and it still looks very similar to what it did back then.”
In each of the past several summers, gold-mining employees from Goliath Resources Ltd. have been sleeping in apartment bedrooms. Mr. Suthanthiran allows in more than 50 Goliath workers who use Kitsault as their base for activities such as setting up tents for core samples from mining in the region. But expanding that rental revenue isn’t a priority for him.
“Goliath wanted to rent space and we have the space. We don’t have a long-term lease and we should review year by year,” he said. “My focus is for a much larger purpose.”
New mattresses have been brought in over the years, but everything else has been largely kept intact inside houses and apartments, as evidenced by colour schemes – such as harvest gold – popular back then.
Larry Payjack recalls a sign that asked the last person to leave Kitsault to please turn out the lights. As it turned out, Mr. Payjack, who owned a sporting goods outlet in the shopping mall, and grocery store manager Reg Piercey were the final residents to leave on Nov. 10, 1983.
Mr. Payjack also worked as a heavy-duty mechanic starting in 1981 at the molybdenum mine opened by Amax of Canada.
Weeks after the mall held its ribbon-cutting ceremonies in April, 1982, Amax told workers that low prices for molybdenum would force the company to suspend operations for one month in late summer that year.
After reopening briefly, Amax announced what was supposed to be another temporary shutdown in November, 1982, which then became a permanent closing. A hoped-for rebound in prices for the commodity didn’t happen and the mine never reopened.
“I was holding down a full-time job on shift work, plus running the store,” recalls Mr. Payjack, who now lives in Terrace, B.C. His wife, Cathy, looked after Payjack Sports when his mining schedule conflicted with retail hours.
His Payjack Sports sign remains intact on his former storefront inside the mall. “I didn’t take my sign off because I was hoping maybe to come back if they opened up again,” he said.
John Wheatley worked as a foreman at the area’s first molybdenum mine, starting in 1968 and lasting until the operation closed in 1972.
Mr. Wheatley, who served as Kitsault’s townsite manager from 1986 to 2002, remembers seeing furniture left behind by many of the families who moved away in 1983. He lived year-round with his wife, Patricia, in Kitsault, and they enjoyed the town’s charms.
At what was the local branch of Royal Bank of Canada, there is a notice on the wall alerting customers that the outlet would be closing for good at noon on Oct. 12, 1983.
Mr. Wheatley, who now lives in Terrace, said he felt a sense of civic pride in maintaining Kitsault during his 16 years of caretaking.
The automobile-centric site has driveways and parking lots, but no sidewalks. “Once winter was done, I would make sure all the roads were washed. I cleared gravel off the roads and made it look good,” he said.
Tour operator Rob Bryce recalls taking small groups of up to a dozen people into Kitsault during past summers. There was a slowdown in the number of tourists in 2020 and 2021 during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the excursions regained their popularity in the summer of 2022.
“Lots of people have asked about going in there this year and I just said ‘No, sorry,’” Mr. Bryce said.
While the tourism industry and the energy sector are both important drivers of B.C.’s economy, major projects such as those seeking to export LNG are needed to advance the province’s long-term economic prosperity, said Ken Peacock, chief economist at the Business Council of British Columbia.
Time is running out on an LNG export licence that Mr. Suthanthiran received in 2016 through one of his companies, Kitsault Energy Ltd.
The 20-year export licence from the National Energy Board, which is now called the Canada Energy Regulator, is at risk of expiring on Dec. 31, 2024, unless Kitsault Energy starts exporting LNG by that date or obtains a deadline extension.
Adam Tang, who worked at Kitsault Energy from 2013 to 2019, said there is demand in Asia for Canadian LNG, but the challenge is to make the economics work for costly export terminals in British Columbia.
He said Kitsault is a unique asset as a time capsule. If the entrance gate were to be unlocked again to let in tourists, there is “a lot of potential to develop Kitsault into a tourism town,” said Mr. Tang, the former business development co-ordinator at Kitsault Energy.
For Mr. Suthanthiran, who tries to visit Kitsault for a day trip each summer, keeping the ghost town from decaying has cost him between $1-million and $3-million a year, depending on what needs fixing.
He said there remains an excellent opportunity for economic growth, even though it has been more than 18 years since he bought Kitsault from Phelps Dodge Corp., which itself acquired a company that merged with Amax in 1999.
While he acknowledges the sentimental value of Kitsault, he is striving to attain the highest and best use of his asset.
“We don’t want just anybody coming in,” Mr. Suthanthiran said. “I’m a long-term investor. I would say that you will see Kitsault thriving within the next 10 years.”