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dave obee Ripple Rock's blast heard for miles

By Dave Obee

It's one of the most famous photographs in British Columbia history, and it was taken with a remote-controlled camera 50 years ago next Saturday.

It shows the top of Ripple Rock being blown sky-high. The blast cleared a serious hazard from just below the surface of Seymour Narrows and eliminated the best location for a fixed link between Vancouver Island and the mainland.

The explosion brought an end to years of efforts to eliminate the twin-peaked hazard, which had claimed 114 lives, more than 100 small coastal vessels and 15 large ships over the years.

The top of the rock was just three metres below the surface at low water, in the middle of the narrowest waterway between the Island and the mainland. Tides could reach 14 knots, and the rock caused overfalls and whirlpools seven metres across.

All that said, the notion that the rock could be removed was not embraced by everyone. There had been hopes for years that a railway could be built along Bute Inlet, crossing to the Island using Ripple Rock, and then connecting with the Esquimalt and Nanaimo line.

Old issues of the Daily Colonist and Victoria Daily Times help to trace the history of the attempts to deal with the rock. In 1919, after the loss of the Princess Ena, the Colonist asked whether it was possible to do away with the rock.

The federal government decreed in 1931 that the rock must go. In the 1940s, the federal government spent more than $1 million drilling hundreds of holes in Ripple Rock that were to be filled with blasting powder.

The idea was to chip away at the top of the rock, slowly taking the peaks down to size. The American government became involved as well, because during the war it seemed that a route to Alaska on the east side of the Island would be safer than one on the west side.

A special barge was designed to carry drilling and blasting equipment. It was held in place with six huge concrete anchors, but those anchors proved no match for the rushing waters of the narrows. The next idea was to anchor the barge using cables suspended across the narrows. It, too, was a dud.

"The cable project reached a point where it was obvious some other method of removal would have to be sought," a federal official said in 1946.

In June 1952, the works minister told the House of Commons that the government was giving up on plans to remove the rock. Four months later, however, the project came back in a big way when the speech from the throne included a promise to remove Ripple Rock.

By the fall of 1954, the thinking had progressed to an underground tunnel, thanks to geologist named Victor Dolmage. His idea was to drill in from Maud Island, under the narrows, and then up into the heart of the rock. The rock could then be blasted to smithereens, in theory at least.

The Colonist supported the big bang theory. "Pecking at the site will never get it done," the newspaper said in an editorial in November 1954.

Dolmage's idea was not the only one circulating. Someone else suggested dropping an atomic bomb on Ripple Rock, but concern about collateral damage worked against the suggestion.

As it was, the Ripple Rock blast was designed to be the largest industrial blast ever fired in North America. A total of 750 tons of an explosive called Nitrone would be used to lift 65,000 tons of rock off the top of Ripple Rock and into the deeper water on either side.

Even with this plan, there was concern about secondary damage. The talk was that any fish in the area would be instantly killed by the blast, and that Campbell River and adjacent communities could see heavy damage. It was noted that the 1883 volcanic blast on Krakatoa had caused a tidal wave about 16 metres high. Experts said the Ripple Rock wave would probably not be noticeable.

Finally, after 30 months of work, the government announced that the explosion would take place at 9:31 a.m. on April 5. The time was based on the tides, and officials warned that bad weather could delay the blast. The wind had to be blowing away from Campbell River, after all.

To be on the safe side, the federal government took photographs of all important buildings and industrial sites in the Campbell River, just to make it easier to deal with damage claims after the fact.

And also on the safe side, many Campbell River residents made plans to be somewhere else when the explosion took place. On the curious side, many people from elsewhere in the province made plans to get to Campbell River for an event that promised to be a real blast.

They were warned that they would have to stay outside the three-mile evacuation area and would not be able to see anything anyway.

Right on time at 9:31 a.m. on Saturday, April 5, 1958, Dolmage pressed the button to trigger the explosion. The blast was broadcast live by CBC television, and dozens of government officials and news photographers went through their film as fast as possible.

The classic photograph was taken by a remote camera set up by the DuPont Company. It was on Maud Island, about 800 metres from Ripple Rock.

The blast lopped 13 metres off the rock. The narrows were still narrow, the tide still strong, but the "old enemy of mariners," as federal Works Minister Howard Green described Ripple Rock, had been taken down to size.

Posted March 30, 2008


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