In 1888, Alexander Forbes, an enterprising doctor from Scotland, arrived in Vancouver. Eager to make his fortune in the local area, he met with prospector Granger who showed him some promising rock samples. On a trip to the Howe Sound area to research further, Forbes shot at a buck deer and the deer's flailing hooves exposed some mineralized rock below the moss. As they cleared away the undergrowth, Forbes and Granger discovered what was soon to become one of the largest deposits of copper in the world.
A Discovery to Bank On
The prospect was slow to attract attention, but in 1899, mining engineer George Robinson convinced financial backers of the property's great potential. Companies were formed, merged and dissolved in efforts to raise capital.
The Britannia Mining and Smelting Company, a branch of the Howe Sound Company, eventually took control of the site, and under Robinson's direction, the first ore was shipped to the Crofton Smelter on Vancouver Island in 1904. The next year saw the mine achieve full production and the construction of the first ore processing plant - Mill 1 - in what was becoming the bustling coastal community of Britannia Beach. The actual mining operations took place higher in the mountains.
In 1912 General Manager, James W.D. Moodie, was authorized to upgrade operations and increase production. Improvements in the techniques of the mineral separation processes stimulated plans for Mill 2. Completed in 1916, it was capable of producing 2,000 tons of ore per day. Thanks to the increased demand for copper in WW 1, the price rose sharply and the mine became even more prosperous.
On March 21, 1915, a rock and snow slide destroyed what was called 'Jane Camp', killing 56 men, women and children. It was a terrible blow to the tiny, close-knit community. Construction began immediately on a new, safer town 2,000 feet lower down. This became known as the 'Townsite' or 'Mount Sheer'.
With the end of the war, copper prices fluctuated, and during a brief shut down in 1921, Mill 2 burnt to the ground. In October of the same year, a massive flood destroyed the small community on the banks of Britannia Creek, killing 37 people. General Manager Carlton P. Browning directed the construction of another new town and the new Mill 3, which still stands today.
Strength in Community
Although Britannia was an isolated community that could only be accessed by boat, life in both of its towns was never dull. Facilities included libraries, clubrooms, billiard rooms, swimming pools, tennis courts, a roller-skating rink and a bowling alley. A thriving social calendar saw sporting events, theatrical productions, dances, movies and parties held throughout the year.
By 1929, the Britannia Mines were the largest copper producer in the then British Empire. Over the next 10 years, the first zinc was extracted and sold and later lead was also produced. Gold, silver and cadmium were also extracted. Copper prices rose again during World War II leading to even greater profits.
In 1946, the Britannia Mines unionized and suffered a major labour strike. In 1956, the railway was completed from Squamish to North Vancouver, and two years later the Sea to Sky Highway was completed.
The End of an Era
Low copper prices and the lure of the city life soon saw the Britannia Mining & Smelting Company reduced to seven employees, and in 1959 it went into liquidation. In 1963 the Anaconda Mining Company bought the property. A new ore zone and a new contract for the miners saw increased production for the next eleven years.
Operating costs and taxes rose and eventually the mine was shut down on November 1,1974. Fifty-five men went underground on the last shift as the whistle blew a three-minute requiem for the Britannia Mines.
A Mining Legacy
During the seventy-year life of Britannia Mines, 60,000 people of many races, languages and religions, worked and made their homes in the area. In 1975, the Britannia Mine Museum was opened to the public, and in 1988, Mill 3 was designated as a National Historic Site. The following year, the Museum site was designated a British Columbia Historic Landmark.
In the words of former resident Olive Baxter:
"...As long as the Museum remains open, the grand old mine will always be with us."
For a varied and interesting look at what Britannia is all about, check out our A to Z of the Britannia Mines.
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