October 30, 2006

Vulcan, Alberta

The town that’s out of this world

More than many other pop culture phenomena, Star Trek seems to inspire the most extreme displays of fan commitment. From Star Trek conventions, to the perennial popularity of Trek movies and TV series, on through the huge success of Star Trek: The Experience in Las Vegas (a town with no shortage of other entertainment options), Trek fans have an intense interest in replicating (so to speak) the world of Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and all the other distinguished members of Starfleet.

A sociologist might find it interesting to study this devotion; what is it about the Star Trek universe that compels ordinary people to live large parts of their non-virtual lives in its sway? Paradoxically more adult and yet less dangerous than the Star Wars universe, one answer may be that Star Trek predicts a future that seems to make sense, with science and reason in ascendancy.

And yet, this even-keeled vision of what the future may look like is at odds with the sometimes obsessive response from its fans. As the documentaries Trekkies and Trekkies 2 amply illustrate, Star Trek fans have incorporated this TV and movie franchise into their lives in surprising and sometimes disturbing ways. From the woman who refused to remove her “Starfleet” uniform when reporting for jury duty to various people who have converted homes and offices into exact replicas of portions of the USS Enterprise, there seems to be an extreme literalism at work. Instead of merely making the positive aspects of the shows and movies part of their lives, these fans work instead to make their lives as much like the shows and movies as possible.

While this trend is perplexing, the vast majority of fans can tell the difference between a TV show and real life, and pursue their interest in Star Trek purely for their enjoyment and entertainment. In that spirit, the residents of a fortuitously named town in the Canadian province of Alberta have capitalized on this interest by creating a bastion of Star Trek fandom amidst the rolling wheat fields of the Canadian prairie.

Going Towards the Grain
The town of Vulcan, Alberta first came into being with the expansion of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) into the area in 1910. Vulcan grew up around the grain elevator built to store local farmers’ crops until the train came through to collect and then transport them on to other markets. At one point, the town had nine elevators, known as “Nine in a Line,” that collectively had the largest storage capacity in the country (750,000 bushels of grain) before the elevators were destroyed by fire in 1971. While the town started small, with 28 residents and 14 businesses, it has now grown to a population of 1,700.

Vulcan was given its name by a surveyor for the CPR; since at that time the town sat at the highest elevation of the railroad in the prairies, he wanted to name it after one of the Greek gods from Mount Olympus. However, Vulcan is actually the Roman god of fire and volcanoes, said to live beneath Mount Etna in Sicily or under the island of Vulcano.

Live Long and Prosper
While the CPR surveyor got his ancient gods confused, his error has worked to the town’s great advantage in recent years. Looking for a way to boost tourism, in 1995 the residents of Vulcan decided to capitalize on their town’s link to the Star Trek franchise. In the Star Trek movies and shows, Vulcan is used as the name of both a planet and the race of people who developed there. The best-known member of this race in the shows and movies is Mr. Spock, portrayed by Leonard Nimoy.

The town of Vulcan pursued two strategies for drawing tourists to the area: the creation of structures related to Star Trek and the organization of events with a Star Trek theme. The first thing to be built was a large replica of the USS Enterprise, named the Starship Enterprise FX6-1995-A, based on the airport code for Vulcan (FX6) and the year it was created (1995). Measuring 31 feet (9.5m) in length and weighing five tons, the starship sits at the entrance to the town and has a plaque on its base welcoming visitors in the English, Vulcan, and Klingon languages.

The second major construction project was a visitors’ centre built in the shape of a landing spaceship. The Vulcan Tourism and Trek Station opened to the public in October 1998, and provides brochures and information to visitors, as well as offering Star Trek-related souvenirs.

Vulcan hosts two annual events with a Star Trek theme: GalaxyFest (formerly known as Vul-Con) and Spock Days. In 2006 these events were combined into a single long weekend of Star Trek entertainment, and featured appearances by cast members from Star Trek shows, as well as a costume contest, a Klingon Fear Factor competition, and a Galaxy Awards Banquet.

All of these elements combined have made the town of Vulcan a tourist destination for avid Star Trek fans. According to a plaque greeting visitors to Vulcan, that destination is “Third Planet from the Sun, North American Continent, Province of Alberta, County of Vulcan.” Star Trek has put Vulcan on the map, so to speak, and the town has taken to heart the Vulcan mantra to “live long and prosper.” —Morgen Jahnke

More Information about Vulcan, Alberta…

The official site of the town of Vulcan has photos and information about the attractions and events on offer.

The Canadian Web site Deep Space 93 has a good entry on the town of Vulcan.

To learn more about Vulcan, the Roman god of fire, or to find out (much) more than you ever wanted to know about Vulcans on Star Trek, visit Wikipedia.

Star Trek: The Experience is located in the Las Vegas Hilton.

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Trekkies and Trekkies 2 are available from Amazon.com.