Stillmen, gaugers, machinists, boilermakers, pipefitters and general labourers either hiked six kilometres into work, hailed a water taxi or rowed themselves across the inlet to get to Ioco. But in the early days of the refinery most of them lived in tents.
In Townsite Tales: The History of Ioco, Anmore Valley & North Shore of Port Moody Arm, author and former Belcarra mayor Ralph Drew paints a grim picture of the days when Ioco was a company but not a company town.
While there was a boarding house for skilled workers, the bulk of the employees lived in shacks along the railroad tracks. They warmed themselves with coal oil lamps and scooped up drinking water from nearby creeks. There was no sewer system.
So, looking back over the last century, it behooves us to ask how this shantytown on the water transformed into a thriving community? But before we explore that transformation we’re going to have to strain our imaginations to envision Vancouver, only without cars.
When Oldsmobile was new
For cyclists, Vancouver must have seemed like utopia.
In the entire city there was only one car: an Oldsmobile that looked like a porch swing with delusions of grandeur. Sitting over the steering wheel shaped like a joystick, sawmill manager John Hendry lurched and popped and manoeuvred the beast through the streets and, in the year 1904, he did something no one in Vancouver had ever done before: he ran out of gas.
In his History of Metropolitan Vancouver, Chuck Davis chronicles the indecision that rippled through Imperial Oil upon getting Hendry’s call.
“He needs what?”
“For his which?”
Eventually, they schlepped over a type of gas that was generally used to clean ladies’ gloves.
It was the first automobile gasoline sold in B.C. However, the captains of industry at Imperial Oil soon realized that schlepping sloshing gas in buckets was bad business. Perhaps, they reasoned, the customers could come to them.
By 1907 they were running a gas station at Cambie and Smithe and by 1911 they were looking to break ground on a refinery – but not quite where it ended up.
Ioco misses Burnaby, Burnaby doesn’t miss Ioco
Imperial Oil had cleared the land and built the tanks. They were set to build a refinery when Burnaby council said something oil companies aren’t generally used to hearing. They said, “No.”
With council uncooperative, Imperial Oil looked far and wide and found deep anchorage and a motivated seller.
Like any self-respecting but penniless aristocrat, Alvo von Alvensleben spent much of his life chasing the fortune he’d lost. He shot game, caught salmon, picked up one of the first seats on the Vancouver Stock Exchange and took the longest line of credit he could lay his hands on before eventually realizing a great truism about his new city: the big money is in real estate.
Alvensleben was planning to build a sawmill on that chunk of land tucked over the northeast nook of Burrard Inlet. If he’d completed his work, we might say things like: “Take a left on Alvo Road and the rec centre’s right there.”
Instead, Alvensleben decided that the best way to weather the recession was to unload his 83 acres to Imperial Oil for $175,000, according to Drew. And instead of Alvo, we got Imperial Oil Co., or Ioco.
Drew describes 600 workers and 10 teams of horses clearing and destroying and building until, in 1915, the refinery was finished. They were just in time for the First World War.
While the first shipment of crude from Peru ended up captured by the German navy, the refinery ginned up production throughout the war until the corporation faced something as terrifying as any foreign adversary: organized labour.
They worked 84 hours a week. Some workers got one day off every 13 days. And on Feb. 15, 1918, they decided they’d had enough.
After a 12-day work stoppage, the 170 refinery workers got more money (including union rates for skilled workers), the eight-hour day and a day off every week. But the long-term effects of that work stoppage were even more impactful.
In a bid to keep workers working, Imperial Oil launched an Industrial Relations Plan. It meant employee-manager councils and programs designed to, “increase the company’s influence over workers’ lives both inside and outside of the workplace,” Drew writes.
Imperial Oil built a community centre, a school, playgrounds and a bowling green. They also pioneered the Ioco Housing Committee, building 83 houses in four years and putting an eventual end to the shantytown.
“The company was prepared to finance the employees under an installment plan, without profit to the company,” Drew writes.
Imperial Oil’s new direction was either a bid for “harmony and mutual profit” or a “scheme to break unions,” according to Trent University professor emeritus Graham D. Taylor, who writes about the labour strife in Imperial Standard: Imperial Oil, Exxon, and the Canadian Oil Industry from 1880.
The company opted to build a “model town,” Taylor writes, noting the utopian community became “a hotbed for labour militancy.”
However, it would be more than 40 years before that militancy bubbled up again.
The bomb (metaphorical)
With automation allowing companies to cut their workforce without sacrificing production, Imperial Oil suspended 35 workers.
In response, labour leaders planned “the first general strike in B.C. for close to half a century,” writes Rod Mickelburgh in On the Line: A History of the British Columbia Labour Movement.
A Vancouver Sun article called the general strike: “the hydrogen bomb in organized labour’s arsenal.”
Hoping to defuse the situation, W.A.C. Bennett proposed six-months notice of layoffs, re-training, and severance of one week’s pay for every year of service. Oil companies “reluctantly said yes,” Mickelburgh writes.
It also marked a major change in labour negotiations, according to Mickelburgh: “automation was now on the bargaining table.”
The bomb (literal)
No retelling of Ioco would be complete without discussing the morning the refinery just about blew the whole place to smithereens.
During the war years submarines and ships safely fueled up at Ioco but on June 15, 1953 there was a problem. Two, in fact. And, luckily enough, they just about cancelled each other out.
A tanker was taking on 909,200 litres of high-octane gas and fuel oil when there was a glitch in the pump room. The oil stopped pumping. It only stopped for a few minutes but that was enough.
“The time of that interval was miraculous. It saved the town of Port Moody and the entire eastern end of Burrard Inlet,” writes Doreen Armitage in her book Burrard Inlet: A History.
It was during that interval that an explosion rocked the tanker and injured four of the crew. Captain Bill Boyce, displaying a heroic ability to suppress his survival instinct, hopped on board the ship he would later describe as a “floating bomb.”
“In spite of flames blazing near him, he cast a line to the tug Sea Chief and steered the Argus while she was towed out into open water. With perfect timing, he then cut the tow rope and jumped onto the tug,” Armitage writes.
Vapours filled the cabins and likely caused the series of explosions that could be heard eight miles away, according to Drew. And while streams of water kept the fire from reaching the gas, the sight was harrowing.
“The ship sat in the middle of the inlet like a bright orange moon, with fingers of flame shooting-out spasmodically . . . Houses four miles away were shaken,” Drew writes.
Leduc spells la fin
In 1948, one year after the discovery of crude oil deposits at Leduc, Alta., Imperial Oil built a refinery east of Edmonton and effectively began the process of turning Ioco into a waystation.
By the early 1950s Imperial Oil started “moving, or demolishing the homes as workers retired, died or moved away,” Drew writes.
The refinery ceased operations in the 1990s, converting into a distribution facility.
“The Ioco Townsite flourished for almost 50 years, but the evolution of industrial operations coupled with a more mobile labour force brought an end to the era,” Drew summarizes.
But while the company town is no more, it’s imperative we hold onto our history, explains Port Moody Station Museum executive director Jim Millar
“Overall, we’re trying to preserve the townsite. Somehow.”
Speaking to city council on behalf of the Port Moody Heritage Society, Laura Dick discussed the history of Ioco before asking council a question.
“So,” she asked. “What’ve you done?”
The future of history
Fundamentally, Port Moody needs some type of economic development in Ioco to help hold onto the history, explains Mayor Rob Vagramov.
“We’re just fighting the market on this one,” he says. “The open market doesn’t really have a place for things that can’t be quantified in cold hard cash. Heritage preservation is one of those.”
To mark Ioco’s centennial, Millar is planning a digital book packed with stories of the town’s residence, a historical walking tour and a Google Map of Ioco in 1921.
It’s important, he says.
“You need to know a little bit of your history so you don’t make the same mistakes again.”