Former Quesnel and Penticton mayor Mike Pearce was in office when Quesnel received the historic steam shovel from the Likely bullion pit. (Photo submitted)

Steam shovel came to Quesnel above board

Ex-mayor Pearce refutes rumours of past controversy

On May 16, citing new information, Quesnel city council voted to withhold the historic steam shovel instead of trucking it back to its original home at the Likely bullion pit (now a historic site) where it worked in the early 20th century. Likely community interests had negotiated its return more than a year ago. Some on Quesnel council cited unofficial accounts that the shovel had been dubiously obtained by Quesnel interests in the mid-1980s. The mayor at the time disputed that in a call to The Observer.

Mike Pearce was a local lawyer and mayor of Quesnel from 1980 to 1990 and was at the council table in 1985-86 when the idea first came up from some motivated industrialist volunteers to piece the ramshackle thing back together again in a prominent tourist place, ideally Quesnel. “I remember it as clear as clear can be,” said Pearce, 76, now living in the Lower Mainland.

The story started, for him, with dismay at the downtown litter along the riverbank, and the sani-dump (still in the same spot today) area. A trail was needed, he thought, to perk up the neighbourhood.

He remembers strong council starting from that idea.

“We thought a park would be helpful and we named it after the prior mayor (from 1970-76), Ceal Tingley and his family, and create a pioneers’ park,” Pearce told The Observer. “We also knew we needed a fifth cell on the sewer plant, which is right across the road there, but we couldn’t because there really wasn’t enough room in there. So Cariboo Pulp came along with something really innovative. They said you dump your nutrients, ie. sewage, into our chemical plant, and we won’t have to buy nutrients and you can get rid of your sewage. Then the idea came that we should build a walkway, and it exists today, and it is one of the best things I was ever involved in. The anchor was going to be Ceal Tingley Park.”

But something was still missing.

“We thought there should be some stuff there of interest – things to look at that were important,” Pearce said. “So I started the program with council and City staff around ‘85, ‘86 or so, where we got these pieces of machinery. We really only got a couple done. The greater vision that I had was to put some other things on that trail to talk about the history of Quesnel and make it an interesting walk.”

Ray Commons and John McKelvie were two of the leaders who came forward with a complementary idea.

They had access to a derelict steam shovel out in Likely. (An Observer article from Jan. 28, 1987 also names Dave Ross, Bill Richter, Jack Ives, Martin Richie, Art Duclos, Norm Purmal, Al Delehay, a Likely-based D8 Cat driver who pushed a trail through 18 inches of snow to get it out, Cariboo Crane Service and “Bud” for hoisting the shovel boom off on day three of the effort, and Turbo Transport along with two loader operators who hauled it out on the fourth.)

“It was an abandoned piece of junk, to the best of my recollection,” said Pearce. “Now, in law, when something is abandoned, nobody really owns it. A lot of that equipment all over that part of the country was owned by companies that were broke, they weren’t even in existence anymore, so there was no real owner,” and his understanding is that steam shovel was such an abandonment.

“Look, I was a lawyer for 42 years, and I would never steal anything or take part in anything that broke any law. Once you abandon something legally, it isn’t stolen anyway.”

Giving credence to this was a notice in the Dec. 3, 1986 edition (page 12) of The Observer in which the City of Quesnel announced that it had paid the sum of $1 to the Province of B.C. to take ownership of the item, seemingly as legal acknowledgment that it had become an asset of the province and turned over to the Quesnel municipality.

“At the time, Likely was all in favour because it was probably an eyesore. It was peaceful as hell, peaceful as hell, not anything about what they’re saying (about dubious dealings),” Pearce said.

It’s really no wonder that current mayor Ron Paull came up with research to back all this up, and had people coming forward to him when the steam shovel was on the brink of being shipped off. Pearce said Paull was his deputy clerk at the time, so would have recollection of some these goings on, and would be known to those past participants who still remain able to discuss it.

Paull’s idea for the artifact today is for Likely’s benefit as well as Quesnel’s. He told The Observer, “Think about this: rather than having that steam shovel hidden off in the bush at the bullion pit, where not too many people visit, why not have that steam shovel downtown in Quesnel in the sani-station RV parking loop (only a short distance away from its prominent display spot up till now)? It would be so simple to do that: set it up on the railway track foundation, and invite Likely to put up their own interpretive signage. ‘Come to Likely and see the bullion pit.’ ‘Come to Likely and see the sister steam shovel.’ It could be two things: a major draw for downtown Quesnel, because it is so iconic, and it also could be a huge tourism advertising opportunity for Likely.”

Pearce, who went on to become mayor of Penticton and in 2018 came a close second in the race to be the mayor of White Rock, hopes Quesnel puts the stream shovel somewhere prominent, now that the decision has been made to turn the previous Ceal Tingley Park space over to Indigenous purposes.

He also hopes the Ceal Tingley name is applied well for some other memorial purpose.

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