Canadian Ingenuity: Booming Copper Mine, Major Community Disasters

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Say “the hub” in a deep voice. It could be a menacing caped character from an action movie. It could be a contemplative person, posed like Auguste Rodan’s bronze sculpture, The Thinker. However, a concentrator was less intense and more practical. Part of a large mine at Britannia Mines on Howe Sound, British Columbia, about 55 kilometers north of Vancouver, the concentrator processed thousands of tonnes of copper ore daily.

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Several prospectors found copper ore in 1888 in the Britannia Range, part of the North Shore Mountains. Dr. AA Forbes visited Mount Sheer to mine the ore every summer for almost a decade. He didn’t care if anyone else staked claims; gold was the sought-after commodity. In 1893, Forbes applied for government development assistance. At that time “the Ministry of Mines provided geological reports which found no commercial mining interest in Britannia”, according to the Britannia Mine Museum. Forbes gave up.

Over the following years, the assessment of the site changed. In 1900 the Britannia Copper Syndicate was formed. Within a few years, tram lines to transport crushed and sorted ore were installed, poles and power lines were added, “as well as a concentrator at the beach (Britannia),” said “Summary of the History of Britannia Beach Mining Operation” (BC Mining Museum). “Then an office, shops, hotel and some houses were added – also at the beach.”

The first shipments of ore were shipped to Crofton Smelter on Vancouver Island in late 1905. Growing holdings, “this smelter and a lease on the Mount Andrew mine on Prince of Wales Island, were purchased by the Britannia Smelting Company”.

While digging tunnels to replace streetcars, another camp was established at Jane Creek Flat on Mount Sheer. “The camp consisted of four dormitories and a large kitchen, a (Japanese) dormitory, a warehouse, a stable, a tram terminal, a crusher house, a office,” according to the summary. There was a “compressor and power station, a blacksmith shop, a candle house and a powder magazine”. Developing a small community, “there were many single family homes, a small school and also a tennis court”. The wooden walkways connecting the buildings were covered with a roof to block heavy snowfall.

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To get to work and home, employees and families traveled several miles, climbing a steep and rugged trail for the last 376 meters. Once there, they didn’t venture out often. Working three shifts, seven days a week, the Britannia mine was operating at full capacity.

Processing the ore with a froth flotation technique developed commercially in 1869 in North Wales, the minerals were finely ground and mixed with water. A foaming agent and a collecting agent were added and air was introduced. “Ore particles join with ‘collectors’ and stick to bubbles as they rise, while waste particles sink,” according to the museum. “The ore-laden froth is skimmed off and the ore is separated.”

The business flourished, with the plant producing over 6.35 million kilograms of copper. New campsites were built with another mill, wharf improvements and a telegraph office.

After midnight on March 21, 1915, heavy snow, boulders, trees, and debris fell on the northeast side of Mammoth Bluffs, burying nearby Jane’s camp. The site was packed with 1,000 workers and families and, Vancouver Sun columnist John Mackie noted, “hundreds were sleeping in their bunks, and it is feared that dozens were crushed in the terrible rush of debris or smothered by snow”. The downstream crew knew something was wrong around 12:45 p.m. “when the hoppers supposed to be filled with ore arrived empty.”

Survivors reported hearing a wild wind and, seconds later, a huge noise like “300 cases of explosives exploding in the store”. Most of the buildings have been demolished; 56 workers, women and children were killed under the crushing weight of the debris, reaching 15 meters deep. The heartbroken community picked up the dead and after three months of restructuring, Britannia Mines reopened.

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Mining fluctuated during World War I and hard times lay behind. The Spanish flu pandemic killed many miners living in cramped quarters. “At night, the aerial tram – which carried ore from the mine – became a makeshift hearse,” according to the summary. “As many as a dozen bodies at a time were taken down to await the steamer bound for Vancouver.”

The Depression crushed copper values. The mine “payroll was reduced from 1,000 to 250”, according to the summary, and in 1921 a fire devoured No. 2 mill. In the same year, heavy rains and melting snow created a flood deadly. “This great wall of water swept away everything before going towards the sea. Thirty-seven were killed, 15 seriously injured and more than 50 houses destroyed.

Britannia executives have remained positive about the mine. Through innovative processes, the staff developed the Britannia Deep Cell system, which tripled the concentrator’s capacity and enabled the then remarkable copper recovery rate of over 90%. The mountain was rich in minerals and the company added to its profits by mining silver, gold, cadmium and zinc.

In 1922-1923, the company replaced its initial gravity concentrators with a state-of-the-art concentrator. Known as Mill No. 3, the pioneering concentrator resembled a nine-story office building towering over the face of Mount Sheer.

“This steel and concrete structure incorporates new milling and processing techniques,” said National Historic Sites Canada. “Designed to process 2,500 tonnes of ore per day, it made Britannia the largest producer of copper ore concentrate in the British Empire between 1925 and 1930.”

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Designated a Canadian Historic Site in November 1987, the concentrator was recognized for its large front windows and small side windows, for “its industrial forms and materials, including concrete platforms, steel, wood and corrugated iron siding, iron roofing,” according to the NHSC.

Other elements included “the visibility of functional additions to the exterior of the building (such as a fan shed, trestle, and dumpster)”, as well as tank locations and specific areas. The heritage value of the concentrator’s equipment has been identified, “the remaining machinery inside the building, particularly that associated with the innovative gravity concentration process and bulk flotation that it used”.

Single workers moved into dormitories, two to a room, and in 1950 paid $2.30 each per day. Dining in kitchens, the men spent free time in a company clubhouse. The workforce was international, but not without discrimination.

Japanese employees lived in separate dormitories and worked by the day and on the tracks, with no underground duties. “They worked hard, but were paid less than ‘white’ workers,” according to the museum. They obtained better working conditions thanks to a strike in 1931, but the salary was not increased.

The families lived in a corporate community with a high school and a hospital. “They also had a ball diamond, a billiard room, a ski slope, tennis courts, a library, a bandstand and even a heated outdoor swimming pool”, illustrated the museum. Residents took part in competitions, organized dances, concerts and parties, and rejoiced in the frequent celebrations. The good times did not last and “the town was abandoned in 1958 when the mine temporarily closed”.

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The buildings were demolished in the 1960s and new owners, Anaconda Copper Corporation, took over operations in 1963.

Mining has caused serious pollution in Howe Sound. Discharged acidic water flowed into streams and flowed into larger waters. “When the mine was in operation, 40 million liters of mineral-laden water were discharged daily into the strait,” said the Pelmorex group on MétéoMédia. The ecosystem was threatened; Squamish members and the community have been pressing for help. Owner EPCOR and the Government of British Columbia have made progress in cleaning up the environment.

At its peak, Britannia Mines produced 17% of the world’s copper. Closing in 1974, the intriguing mine site has been used as a filming location for television productions such as X-Files and Scooby-Doo 2, as well as other ventures. Preserving the historic significance of the mine, the Britannia Mine Museum offers tours and award-winning experiences.

Visit britanniaminemuseum.ca for a ‘concentrated’ taste of life on a mine site.

Susanna McLeod is a writer living in Kingston.

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