How an Icelandic Fishing Village Became a Ghost Town Gateway to a White Elephant Luxury Resort
by George Siamandas
MR. PORTAGE AND MAIN, HENRY MCKENNY HELPS ESTABLISH HECLA ISLAND
The first group of Icelandic settlers came in 1876. But they had not been the first. The man that first brought attention to this island north of Gimli was Henry McKenny.
Henry McKenny the man responsible for establishing Portage and Main, is also one of the first to create economic activity at Hecla Island. It was his idea to cut lumber on well forested Hecla Island and ship it to Selkirk for processing on his schooner the Jessie McKenny in 1868. The same year a saw mill and a general store established at Hecla.
The first Icelander to establish a homestead was Magnus Hallgrimson. He first worked on McKenny's saw mill and also became the island's first postmaster from his home. He called his home Hecla and it caught on as the name used by outsiders. The Icelanders actually called the island Mikley or big island. Until a cause way was built as part of the park development, Hecla was isolated during parts of the year. Hecla which is about 18 miles long and 6 miles wide eventually had 500 people. And almost all the residents had something to do with fishing, timber or livestock farming.
THE GOVERNMENT DRIVE THEM OUT
It was in 1970 and 1971. Sixty families had to move out. The land became Hecla provincial Park and the destination resort was named Gull Harbour. The philosophy was that the natural beauty of Hecla would be best be enjoyed without the clutter of people. And parks are easier to run without residents. But the resort failed to realize success and has in fact been a money loser. The lack of people are obvious to a visitor and one just does not feel the pulse of real life there now. People tell stories of visiting Hecla before the park and how take the ferry there before it became a park. It was not fancy, but you got to see a real fishing village.
PLANNING GONE AMUCK
It seems to have started as project to give the Hecla residents economic opportunities. Government studies showed farming was not worthwhile, the fishery had closed and so had the island's high school. Hecla Islanders initially developed the plan. People would have new jobs. But the plan envisioned the residents staying. They liked it there. Residents say that they would not have lived anywhere else, and that the isolation encouraged a very independent style of living. At the time, government was looking to provide additional recreational opportunities. And to provide a destination for the Lord Selkirk. But as the planning process continued there was a major change. The plan got bigger. Residents found out that they would all have to go.
PRICES THE HECLA RESIDENTS GOT
Some found alterative accommodation, but others feel they go next to nothing. Replacement properties were running three times what they got. Since the early 1980s some of the original residents have been actively lobbying to get the land back.
HOW DID SUCH A MISGUIDED PROJECT EVER HAPPEN?
I spoke to many people, three at length. Two were intimately associated with Hecla Park, while a third was closely involved in related projects. All three, concerned about their jobs and reputations, demanded anonymity. One knew all the details but he could not explain how the plan had changed so radically or why.
Another had an admittedly cynical explanation. He thought Hecla may have happened in a time (early 1970s) when a group of master-planning oriented technocrats thought they knew best what should be done. And apparently in those the heady Schreyer years they pretty well could push things through and get their projects done.
A third said he would come looking for me if his name was used. But he kept talking about it. He left government before it was fully completed. He feels that most of the criticism is ill informed. Yet he doubts it would be built that way or at all today.