Opinion

The man who made it easy to smile

Nelson’s Dave Macdonald, who died last week at 94, was among the last surviving people born in the ghost town of Phoenix, and had the birth certificate to prove it. - Greg Nesteroff photo
Nelson’s Dave Macdonald, who died last week at 94, was among the last surviving people born in the ghost town of Phoenix, and had the birth certificate to prove it.
— image credit: Greg Nesteroff photo

One of my favourite nonagenarians died last week.

Dave Macdonald, who passed away in Nelson at 94, was among the first people I’d ask whenever I had a local historical question. His elephantine memory rarely disappointed.

He had the distinction of being one of the last remaining natives of the Boundary ghost town of Phoenix, where his father Russell was a crusher boss at the mines.

His mother Maggie came to Canada from Scotland after her father died in a coal mining accident. The couple married in Greenwood in 1909.

Two of Macdonald’s siblings were also born at Phoenix: elder brother Roy, who died in 1950, and younger sister Betty, who survives him. She was reputedly the last baby born there.

(In a story for Route 3 a few years ago, I wrote that Dave and Betty were among the final eight surviving Phoenicians. In fact, there were several more I didn’t know about until I saw their obituaries.)

When the demand for copper collapsed at the end of World War I, so did the town. The Macdonalds were among the last to leave, departing in 1920 for Grand Forks where the Granby smelter was disassembled. They followed the company’s coal operation to Cassidy and then Copper Mountain, near Princeton.

“We just got there and they shut the thing down,” Dave told me. “The construction of West Kootenay Power’s No. 1 plant was going in 1924, so Father came over and got the job as master mechanic.”

Dave attended school in South Slocan and remembered seeing future prime minister Robert B. Bennett speak at the No. 3 plant hall in 1929.

After completing Grade 11 in Nelson, he went to work with his father at West Kootenay Power His first assignment was digging pole holes in the Boundary at Camp McKinney.

His career was interrupted by World War II and deployment with the army to Scotland — where he met Henrietta (Rita) Kellie, whom he married in Edinburgh on June 3, 1944.

They returned to Canada, and Dave returned to West Kootenay Power, where he stayed for 40 years, eventually becoming head of the welding shop at South Slocan. He proudly declared he was the last of the crew that did soundings for the original Brilliant powerhouse.

Following his retirement in 1976, Dave and Rita moved to Nelson, where he built bizarre sculptures and wrote crazy poems.

He was also a fount of local history.

For quite a few years, he’d phone me at work just about every Saturday.

When I’d ask how he was, invariably the answer was “Still here.”

We’d chat about whatever historical project I was working on, and more often than not, he’d tell me something I didn’t know or point me in a new direction.

His memory was not infallible, and when he wasn’t sure of something, he said so, but on the whole, he was blessed with preternatural recall.

I didn’t hear from him as often in recent years — we only spoke every few months.

I tried to phone him on January 2 to wish him a happy birthday, but there was no answer.

When I finally caught up with him a week or so later, he sounded frail. He explained he’d spent Christmas in hospital with the flu. I didn’t realize it would be our last chat.

The conversation turned, as it always did, to local history.

He confirmed the name of a Bonnington man killed while working as a lineman for the Northport Power and Light Co. in 1919, and then told me about the man’s family.

“Oh, lots of history,” he chuckled, as he often did.

His sign-off was always the same too: “Keep smiling. Tee-tee.”

Tee-tee, Dave.

Greg Nesteroff is a reporter at the Nelson Star. He can be reached at reporter2(at)nelsonstar.com

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