Thirty-eighth in a series of pioneer profiles
Ray Johnson found his calling at 15.
It was 1947 and Boyd Affleck was surveying the federal rifle range — now Perrier Road. The people who lived there, including Johnson’s family, were technically squatters, but were being given the right to buy their land, or leave and receive compensation for their improvements.
For two days, Johnson watched Affleck and his assistant, a boy not much older than himself. “This fellow says to me, ‘So you like the looks of this work? Well, you can have my job. Go ask him. He’s kind of a grumpy old guy.’”
Johnson vividly recalls Affleck looking him up and down: “Luckily, I was a skookum fella. I was training for shot put, skiing and playing hockey, and strong as all heck.”
Affleck agreed, but insisted Johnson have work boots and an axe. He borrowed the boots from his father and showed up with a huge double-bitted axe.
“What are you doing with that?” Affleck asked.
“It’s the only axe we’ve got, but I know how to use it,” Johnson replied.
They spent the summer laying out 64 parcels and Johnson was tasked with determining how much land each owner would have and generally keeping everyone happy.
“So there I was designing the subdivision. I’m just a kid but had the confidence of my boss, who said ‘You seem to know all the people here.’ Of course I’d been living there for 12 years.”
His family arrived in 1934 from Shaunovan, Sask., when Ray was 2½, in a covered wagon known as a Bennett buggy — acerbically named for Prime Minister R.B. Bennett.
People and animals were starving on the Prairies, and Ray’s parents, upon being offered use of two horses by a man headed for BC, decided it wasn’t worth trying to survive another winter. They set out for the Okanagan. The trip took a month and they only had $8. Ray’s mother Fay — alive today at 96 — sold her sewing machine to buy flour.
When they reached West Kootenay, Ray’s father George initially found a job at a mine in Retallack. Feeling there was enough work in the area to survive, they moved to Nelson, where George became a blacksmith, welder, and fabricator at Stevenson’s machine shop for 35 years, while Fay worked as a diesel wiper, cleaning locomotives in the CPR maintenance shop.
Surveyor and engineer
Ray returned to work for Boyd Affleck for the next eight summers, as well as on weekends and holidays. In 1950 Affleck promoted him to instrument man and he was assigned to lay out the new road from Shutty Bench to Lardeau.
Each summer he put in long hours and earned enough to pay his way through the University of BC, where he studied civil engineering. In his fourth year he was also class president and social convener for the school’s entire grad class.
“University life was hard work but also a lot of fun,” he says. “We never had anything to do with hanging Volkswagens off bridges, but I was in charge of stealing the bell from Royal Roads College and several other pranks.”
Between third and fourth year, Ray married Rose Picard, whom he met while surveying mineral claims at Sheep Creek, where her mother fed the survey crews.
After graduating, Johnson went back to work for Affleck again, but was laid off when his employer got pneumonia. With remarkable timing that characterized his entire career, the next day he was hired as layout engineer on the new Nelson bridge. He looked after the foundation location as well as the elevations for erecting the steel work.
Johnson later wrote a thesis about his work on the bridge to secure his professional engineer’s registration. Unfortunately, he lent his only copy to someone and never got it back. In 1958, he earned his surveyor’s commission number: BCLS 373.
Holding both consulting engineer’s and BC land surveyor’s qualifications is unusual, Johnson says — except in Nelson, where he’s one of several with that distinction.
Asked whether he considers himself more a surveyor or an engineer, he replies that he is primarily a planner. “The two professional registrations back up being able to plan,” he says.
Among the major projects on his resume: Kokanee Springs, Fairmont Hot Springs resort, rebuilding the tailrace at the city power plant, and creating the most reliable control survey of Nelson. (He placed 98 concrete monuments, accurate to better than a quarter of an inch.)
But he’s most proud of the impact he had on the Nelson waterfront, something most people probably aren’t aware of. He was heavily involved in building the airport runway, arranged the sale of property to the school district for their operations yard, and helped broker the deal that resulted in the Chahko Mika Mall and public works yard being built where they are.
Johnson recalls a soccer field was originally going to go where the mall ended up. The city hired him to design the field but he determined the slope made it an unsuitable site.
“Constructing a proper soccer field was going to be a hell of a job,” he says. “The city didn’t have enough money for the amount of fill required to level the area.”
Over objections from city councillor John Neville, he convinced the prospective mall site’s owner to trade land where the public works yard was later built to the city plus cash for the proposed soccer field site.
Johnson then arranged and supervised construction of the the access road. He defends his decision to set the mall back from the water and put the parking lot in front, which he says saved several hundred thousand dollars in fill costs and provided a future road allowance.
“I still think that’s a lot better site, open at the front,” he says.
Never wanted to leave
Now 81, Johnson is finally wrapping up his practices — something he didn’t even consider at 65. Although he sometimes went as far as Golden or Fernie to work, he never thought about leaving Nelson.
When the Nelson bridge was completed, he declined an invitation to be the resident engineer for the Alexander bridge in the Fraser Canyon. The primary consultant came to town to try change his mind.
“He couldn’t believe that I couldn’t be talked into it. He wanted to know if he had to offer more money. I said no, I’m not leaving. His parting comment was ‘Well, sonny, you’re going to starve in Nelson.’“
Yet, even when there wasn’t much going on, and when Nelson suffered economic downturns while Okanagan cities grew, he never regretted staying put: “I was just nicely able to handle whatever was developing. It was a great time to be around.”
Watch for a booklet collecting all of the pioneer profiles in early 2013.
Previous instalments in this series