The Buntzen Power Stations on Indian Arm

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A couple of weeks ago, I took a boat ride up Indian Arm with Belcarra Mayor Ralph Drew and the Deep Cove Heritage Society. It’s hard to imagine that over a century ago Indian Arm was thriving and serviced by sternwheelers, a floating post office and grocery store.

The highlight for me was finally seeing the Wigwam Inn, but almost as exciting were the two massive power stations that dominate the eastern shore at Buntzen Bay.

Power Station #2. Eve Lazarus photo, July 2017

Heather Virtue-Lapierre was born up there in 1943. Her grandfather Matt Virtue was one of the first power house operators shortly after #1 opened in 1903. Her father Jim carried on the family tradition from 1941 until the plant was automated in 1953.

1910: Far left Matt Virtue. H.R. Heinrich, master mechanic is in the cap. #5 Tom Lundy, #6 George Henshaw, and #8 Jim Findlay. Courtesy Heather Virtue-Lapierre

Heather’s school was a one-room building above the power house. She was taught by a teacher who had worked as a welder during the war. “You didn’t mess with her!” she says. The teacher and her husband, who worked on the new penstock, lived in a small apartment attached to the school.

Buntzen |Power Station
Heather at Power House #1 in 1953. Courtesy Heather Virtue-Lapierre

Heather says that power house operators were exempt from service during the war years, and instead joined the Pacific Coast Militia Rangers. “Nobody was allowed to land at Buntzen without permission during the war,” she says. “I still remember the blackout curtains in our house.”

Buntzen Lake Power Station
1940s, the second generation. Left to right: Jim Virtue (son of Matt), Vic Shorting, George Mantle, Gill McLaughlin, Bill Henshaw (son of George) Courtesy Heather Virtue-Lapierre

Dawson Truax’s father was a floor man, and Dawson was just 18 months old when he moved to Buntzen with his war-bride mother in 1946. They lived in a cabin on the hill above the power plant owned by the BC Electric Railway (the forerunner to BC Hydro). Supplies came weekly on the MV Scenic.

Buntzen Power Station
Dawson with his dad, 1948. He used a wheelbarrow to get parcels from the hoist to their cabin. Photo courtesy Dawson Truax

“It was quite a small community and only took three men to run the power plant at any time over three shifts a day,” he says. “There was a hoist on tracks that went up the hill from the plant area to the cabin. One of my first childhood memories is of my father putting me on the hoist with a pile of parcels while he walked alongside.”

“My mother talked about it quite a bit. It was quite horrifying for her to move from London, England to the Canadian wilderness,” he says.

Buntzen gets its name from Johannes Buntzen, BCER’s first general manager.  According to Ferries & Fjord, the power stations weren’t the first industry on the Arm. The area was populated as early as 1880 by a Japanese Logging Camp. Between 1902 and 1914 around 500 men camped up there while they worked on a tunnel from Coquitlam Lake to Buntzen Lake.

Vancouver’s rapid growth soon demanded more power, and Power Station #2 opened in 1914.

Rumour has it, #2 was designed by Francis Rattenbury, the architect who designed the Parliament buildings and the Empress Hotel in Victoria, and the Courthouse on West Georgia. It certainly looks like his work—large, gothic and creepy (Rattenbury, who was a bit of a jerk, was eventually murdered by his trophy wife’s 18-year-old lover). But according to Building the West, #2 was designed by Robert Lyon, an architect employed by BCER.

Buntzen Power Station #1
Power Station #1. Eve Lazarus photo, July 2017
  • Top photo of Power Station #2 courtesy Vancouver Archives LGN 1169 ca.1914

© All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, all blog content copyright Eve Lazarus.

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6 comments

  1. Good Buntzen powerhouse stories and photos. They really cared about the outward appearance of the stations in those days. I hope you have some lurid tales up your sleeve for the Wigwam Inn post that surely must be coming next.

  2. Thank-you so much Eve for joining my own efforts in correcting the mistaken claim often made that the somewhat notorious Rattenbury designed Buntzen 2, when it was in fact Robert Lyon, a wonderful and unfortunately lesser known architect, as pointed out in “Building the West”. I’m not sure if I told you I created a large drawing of the Power House a few years back. The project involved my own reference photos and research that included reading Donald Luxton’s excellent book. As an artist, nothing disappoints me more than when credit for any creation in not given to the true author. I wish I could show you my Buntzen drawing, but it is now permanently displayed in the BC Hydro head office in downtown Vancouver. Thanks again Eve for your fine post on one of my favourite structures in the Metropolitan Vancouver area.

  3. buntzen #2 was not decommissioned in 1964, it was however automated and had the switchgear and h/v equiptment removed then

    It was decommissioned in the late 90s

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