John Stackhouse has long known his maternal grandfather was once city engineer in Nelson. But until recently he had no idea George Creighton Mackay also designed the city’s century-old fire hall.
This past spring, Stackhouse’s wife Sue, the family genealogist, did an online search that turned up a Nelson Star story mentioning the fact. Although they had been here once or twice before, they didn’t recall passing the fire hall.
But last month the Victoria couple visited again and received a personal tour from chief Simon Grypma.
“It was interesting to look at the original engineering and architectural design and put a face to the person involved,” said Grypma, who was aware Mackay was the fire hall’s architect but didn’t know anything else about him.
John knew his grandfather but doesn’t recall him mentioning his time in Nelson. Fortunately, a diary survives that provides some insight.
Built Latimer Street home
George Creighton (Crick) Mackay was born in 1880 in Carlisle, Cumberland, England, the youngest of three brothers. His father was Carlisle’s police chief.
A week after his 1907 wedding, Crick and bride Margaret boarded a steamer bound for Halifax and then continued on to Vancouver. After a few months spent among “stumps lying all over the place” they took a train to Nelson and stayed at the original Queens Hotel, apparently following someone named Beling who arrived the week before.
In his diary, Mackay described Nelson as “a nice little town … it seems to be as big as ever it will be, fitting snugly into a gently slope at the foot of two great hills with lake at bottom. I feel more like settling here than I did in Vancouver, providing I can get a job.”
Within ten days, he started working with prominent local architect Alex Carrie. By fall, he was “still working with Carrie, busy contemplating buying a lot and building house. Wrote father yesterday asking for loan of £200 to build, can hardly expect this even though I offered him 10 per cent per annum interest. I am applying for job as city electrical engineer, but hardly care for the job should they even offer it to me.”
In fact, his father granted him the loan and at only seven per cent interest. He used the money to buy three lots on the northwest corner of Latimer Street for $500 (something over $10,000 in today’s currency) and put up a house.
The Mackays had three children in Nelson: Isabella Margaret in 1908, George Richard in 1909, and John Donald in 1911. Two of Crick’s brothers, Wemyss and Jack, also came to Nelson in 1910 but soon left for the coast.
That year the civic directory listed Crick as a civil engineer with an office in the Griffin Block, although in mid-1909, he was appointed Nelson’s city engineer. By 1912, he filled in the blank years in his diary by noting he had “worked at many things — architectural draughtsman, foreman for contractor Burns, helper to Campbell and Robb contractors, partner to architect Carrie, contractor’s assistant on rifle range contract and street railway extension.”
That same year he designed Nelson’s new fire hall, which we know because of a statement in the Nelson Daily News — there’s no specific mention in the diary.
Grypma says Mackay brought a “European flair” to the building’s design. At the time it was also at the forefront of technology with automatic bay doors and lights plus a centralized alarm box system.
Served in France
It’s unclear how many other local buildings might be the result of Mackay’s handiwork, but in 1913, the family sold their “old cottage” and built a new home in Rosemont. (Coincidentally, Nelson’s then-mayor, Mungo McQuarrie, was one of the sales agents for the new subdivision on the old smelter site.)
In early 1915, Mackay quit his job “on account of the financial condition of the city” and put his home up for sale. He enlisted as a private in the 54th Kootenay Battalion that May and went to Vernon for training. His young son George died soon after of illness while the family was travelling through Vancouver.
Mackay subsequently joined the 1st Pioneer Battalion, went to Folkestone, England, and then on to France where he joined the 2nd Pioneers. He served until 1917 and then returned to base “on account of my leg giving way by fall into shell hole.” He was attached to the Royal Engineers at Etaples until 1918. His brother Jack, meanwhile, was killed near Ypres.
Back in Nelson, the Daily News published a wartime letter from Mungo McQuarrie’s son Don in France, who mentioned meeting Mackay. A year later, the newspaper ran a tribute letter Mackay sent to Mrs. McQuarrie about Don’s death.
While Mackay was on the battlefield, his wife and two remaining children were in London enduring air raids. On his return to England, they sailed home, arriving in New York just in time for armistice celebrations.
Mackay’s subsequent career as an engineer with the BC public works department took him to Merritt, Lillooet, Quesnel, 150 Mile House, Prince Rupert, and Penticton. In 1934, he was demoted to assistant district engineer and transferred back to Nelson, but “on being further insulted” by the government, he soon resigned.
After a year in Vancouver, he bought an oceanfront cabin at Mill Bay on Vancouver Island, then designed and built a house over the shack. Forestry industrialist H.R. MacMillan was once a dinner guest there. Mackay was also involved in choosing Elk Falls near Campbell River as the site of a pulp and paper mill.
Mackay died at Mill Bay in 1968 at age 87. His home there remained in the family until just a few months ago. The first house he built in Nelson is believed to be the one at 921 Latimer.
At some point, his daughter Isabella — John Stackhouse’s mother — sent his diary to relatives in England who transcribed it and sent a copy back to her. John and Sue only discovered it amongst her belongings after she died in 2011 at age 103.
Stackhouse said finding out about the fire hall made him proud of his grandfather and “happy it has served the community all these years.”