In 1888, Dr. Forbes, a man of many talents including prospecting, arrived in the town of Vancouver. After seeing some promising rock samples, Forbes made a trip to the Howe Sound area to research further. One afternoon just before sunset, Forbes shot at a buck deer. The deer?s flailing hooves exposed mineralized rock below the moss, and copper was discovered at Britannia Mountain.
The prospect was slow to attract attention, but in 1899, a mining engineer named George Robinson was able to convince financial backers that the property had great potential. For several years, companies were formed, merged and dissolved in efforts to raise capital. Eventually the site was controlled by the Britannia Mining and Smelting Company, a branch of the Howe Sound Company, which owned the site for the next sixty years. 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.
In 1912 James Wedderburn Dunbar Moodie was authorized to upgrade the operation and increase production from the mine. Improvements in the mineral separation processes stimulated plans for the No. 2 mill, which was completed in 1916 and was capable of producing 2000 tons of ore per day. World War One increased the demand for copper and the price rose sharply.
On March 21, 1915, an avalanche destroyed the Jane Camp; sixty men, women and children were killed. It was a terrible blow to the tiny community and construction began immediately on a new, safer town at the 2200 foot level. This became known as the ?Town site? or ?Mount Sheer?. With the end of the war, copper prices began to fluctuate, and during a brief period of shut down in 1921, mill No. 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 thirty-seven people. Carlton Perkins Browning directed the construction of the new town and the new No. 3 mill, which stands today.
Being an isolated, close knit community which could only be accessed by boat, life in both of Britannia?s towns was never dull. Facilities included libraries, clubrooms, billiard rooms, swimming pools, tennis courts and even bowling. A thriving social calendar saw sporting events, theatrical productions, dances, movies and parties held throughout the year.
May Day celebrations, c.1930Click image for larger view
By 1929, the Britannia mines were the largest copper producer in the British Commonwealth. Over the next 10 years the first zinc and pyrite productions were implemented. Copper prices rose again during World War Two, and in 1946 the Britannia mines were unionized and suffered through their first strike. The rail line was completed from Squamish to North Vancouver in 1956, and two years later the Squamish highway was completed.
Low copper prices and the lure of the city life eventually saw the Britannia Mine Company reduced to seven employees, and in 1959 it went into liquidation, its assets taken over by the Howe Sound Co. In 1963 the Anaconda Mining Co. bought the property from the Howe Sound Co. A new ore zone and a new contract for the miners saw increased production for the next eleven years. 300 employees managed to produce 60,000 tons of concentrate each year.
Operating costs and taxes rose and eventually the mine was shutdown 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.
During the seventy year life of the mine, 60,000 people of many races, languages, and religions, worked and made their homes in Britannia. In 1975 the B.C. Museum of Mining was opened to the public, and was designated as a National Historic Site in 1988. The following year, 1989, the Museum site was designated a British Columbia Historic Landmark.
In the words of long time resident Olive Baxter,…?as long as the Museum remains open, the grand old mine will always be with us.?