Community Memories from Ken Bigalow

Ken Bigalow arrived in Thompson in Oct. 1960. Ken lived on the plant site in what he describes as a tent city. There was an H-hut for some of the staff, but there were a lot of men living in tents that were constructed with plywood floors, four foot plywood walls and a double canvas tent over top with oil heaters. Ken thought it was quite primitive. The food was excellent—nothing but the best, he says  Ken didn’t think anyone ever complained. Ken thinks that's probably true in most mining camps—they know if they want to keep people satisfied they have to have a good cook. Living in the camp might have been difficult if you weren't busy. They worked 16 hours a day, six days a week. For those inclined, there was always a poker game going on. There was a Hudson Bay store on the plant site, a theater in town, and a bar room—the Thompson Inn—said to be the largest beverage room in Canada at the time. Some of the rules at the bar were that you had to be seated to be served. If there wasn't a chair available, men would buy a 24 of beer, move it up around a table, and sit on it. Arguments might break out in the bar room, and they would try to settle them with fisticuffs. The R.C.M.P. would be called. They would usually watch the fights for a little while and then escort the men out. There was little room for more than eight people in the jail, so the police would call a cab and send those guys back to the plant site.

Although there were not many aboriginal people employed at INCO, mining being an unfamiliar form of employment for them, Ken was impressed with those he knew.  He describes his association with Henry Linklater who started out in exploration at Moak Lake.  In those days the company was called Canico but later became INCO Exploration.  "These fellows ended up as underground surveyors and engineers.  Henry worked there for over thirty years.  After he retired he was brought back as a consultant." 

Ken started his work at the Thompson plant as a shift boss, and later became a general foreman in the refinery. "INCO was paying the best wages in the whole province so the standard of living was and is quite high. Men working underground were paid a bonus."  Ken felt that INCO had an excellent safety record in spite of some of the hazards pertaining to the mining industry. Ken found it easy to make friends here.  There were no cliques or small groups such as you would find in big cities. "Everyone came from somewhere else so you were a closely-knit community.”  Ken feels that Thompson has changed and matured as a community.  "Most of the guys who came to work with me have all retired. Now there is third generation Thompsonites. Now you see people coming 'home' to Thompson—people who have gone off to university, have tried other things and came back here.  To them it is home."

Ken considers the farm boys who came to work here the backbone of the INCO operation. "Most of the turnover in the early days was due to city people being hired from Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal.  Inexperienced in the type of work expected of them, and unable to cope with isolation, they soon left. Men from farming communities had experience operating equipment, maintenance, etc, and required less training."

Ken was quite satisfied with the local government during the early '60's.  "Under the administration of Carl Nesbitt, the town was clean; there weren't any welfare cases as there weren’t any reasons not to be employed with the degree of development going on."

On the topic of religion, Ken felt that because of the diverse population, there were many denominations, and many churches built—perhaps too many buildings that are underutilized.

Ken has no regrets about his life in Thompson. There was a high standard of living, a lot of recreational opportunities and ready access to lakes and rivers. After retirement, Ken has done some outfitting, guiding on bear hunts, taking people fishing etc. His feelings about his life here are poignantly expressed in a poem that he wrote and was willing to share.

We wanted the nickel and sulfur,
Men scrambled and mucked like a slave.
Mosquitoes and black flies, they puttered,
And some young men went to their grave.

They wanted the nickel and got it,
It was worth a fortune last fall.
Yet somehow life's not what we thought it,
And surely nickel's not all.

No, there's this big land out there,
Have you seen it?
It's the strongest land that I know,
From the top of the Mystery Mountain,
To the Burntwood, and muskeg below.

Some think God was tired when he made it,
Some say it was a good land to shun.
But others would not trade it,
For any other place, and I'm one.

We came here to get rich, damn good reason,
We thought we'd succeed at first.
We hated it like hell for a season,
And the first six months were the worst.

But it grabs you like some kind of magnet,
And turns you from foe to friend.
It was that way in the beginning,
And will be that way till the end.

I've started down that pit a big hollow,
With no more equipment therein.
It looks lonely, and empty and shallow,
To leave it like that seems a sin.

The summers are sweeter than ever,
The rivers are flowing still.
With the moon eyes a leap in the river,
And everything quiet on a hill.

The river breaks loose from its harness,
And the lonely timber wolves call.
I stand here amazed with this beauty,
And it's truly God's work after all.

In winter, the brightness blinds you,
And the white land loaded tight as a drum.
And the cold and the wind it finds you,
And you move or you freeze and grow numb.

For man to stay here in winter, 
it surely must be quite dumb,
But when the harshness of winter is over,
Its over, its back to old Thompson we run.

When the days start to shorten,
And the sun comes in on a slant.
I want to say goodbye to Thompson,
I want to say goodbye, but I can
t.