The BC mega-project that dwarfed all others

Wacky Bennett’s monorailmania. Latest in our look-back series ‘Some Honourable Members’.
By Tom Barrett
TheTyee.ca

This is the fifth in our “Some Honourable Members” series, depicting the more dubious moments in B.C.’s political history, brought to you by Tom Barrett and Tom Hawthorn, one a day until election day.

Axel Wenner-Gren. Source: Wikipedia Commons
Axel Wenner-Gren. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Even in an era defined by grand schemes and rip-roaring resource exploitation, the dreams of Swedish vacuum cleaner tycoon Axel Wenner-Gren stood out.

The international financier, who produced among other things the Electrolux vacuum cleaner, sold W.A.C. Bennett’s government on a massive plan to develop a 10-million hectare swath of B.C., through the Rocky Mountain Trench from the Yukon border to Prince George. It would feature mines, pulp mills and hydro dams, tied together with a 290 kilometre per hour monorail that would cost a billion dollars. (That’s more than $8 billion in today’s money.)

The plan caught the attention of Life magazine, which wrote  in 1957 that “the land that Wenner-Gren would develop, now locally known as Wenner-Grenland, is an area of awesome beauty, of brilliantly coloured lakes, set in primeval forests of poplar and pine. The backed-up waters of the Peace River which runs from west to east would form the largest man-made reservoir in the world, 260 miles long and taking up to seven years to fill.”

The wilderness area — “almost the size of Ohio” — would be populated with “a string of 10 to 15 towns”; work on the dam would start in two years, the magazine reported.

Bennett and Wenner-Gren signed a deal that reserved the lands for the Swede’s company. Critics called it a giveaway; they were even more upset when they discovered that Einar Gunderson, a crony of Bennett’s and a former finance minister, was a director of the Wenner-Gren B.C. Development Co.

‘You will rue the day’

Opposition member Ran Harding called it “the biggest blunder ever committed by any government in B.C.’s history.” Harding warned Bennett: “You will rue the day you ever heard the name Wenner-Gren. The project will be the ruination of the Social Credit government.”

Wenner-Gren eventually lost enthusiasm for the potential of Wenner-Grenland and the monorail was never built. But Bennett’s government would dam the Peace as part of its “two rivers policy” that also saw development of the Columbia River’s power potential.

The Peace River power project is one of the biggest mega-projects in the history of B.C. It’s a measure of the times that the final outcome of Wenner-Gren’s vision pales in comparison to the original fantasy.

Find Tyee election reporting team member and contributing editor Tom Barrett’s previous Tyee articles here.  Find him on Twitter or email him.

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