Mining Whistler’s Past

9 07 2011

This is a re-post that I originally wrote for the Whistler Museum blog.

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Whistler draws people from around the world for any number of reasons: skiing, biking, wildlife viewing, night clubs, fine dining, mining… wait, mining? Although a largely forgotten aspect of our region’s past, the (mostly unfulfilled) promise of underground riches was one of the Whistler Valley’s main draws in the days before “world-class shopping.”

Our local mining industry is actually 10,000 years old. Squamish archaeologist Rudy Reimer has found obsidian quarries in Garibaldi Park that were in use shortly after the retreat of continental ice sheets permitted the initial peopling of the region. Used for razor-sharp blades and fine jewellery, this volcanic glass can still be found among Garibaldi Park’s ancient lava flows.

Because each obsidian quarry has a distinct mineral composition, scientists are able to “fingerprint” fragments found at archaeological sites and trace them back to their source. Garibaldi obsidian, a valuable trade item, has been found throughout southern B.C. and Washington state.

The first non-indigenous visitors to Whistler–William Downie, a Scottish veteran of the California  gold rush (a “49er”), and Joseph Mackay, a former Hudson’s Bay Company employee (a fur trader, not a retail clerk)–were commissioned by the colonial government to explore the territory between Lillooet Lake (Pemberton) and Howe Sound (Squamish) in September 1858, hoping to find a better coastal access route to the booming gold mines of the B.C. interior. Dwindling rations forced Downie and Mackay to press on to to the coast before exploring the surrounding mountains.

Scouring our archival holdings is a little like exploratory mining. Our archivists recently uncovered a gem, this massive 1916 map of recorded mining claims in southwestern BC.

Following on their heels, tens of thousands of goldseekers rushed into B.C. during the 1860s. While the majority of them travelled along the Douglas Route up Lillooet Lake then northwards beyond Pemberton,  many other prospectors came up from Howe Sound and rooted around the surrounding creeks and mountains en route. Since mining men are notoriously secretive, however, very few records survive of prospecting activity prior to the twentieth century.

Among Whistler’s earliest known commercial mining operations was the Green Lake Mining and Milling Company, beginning operations at least as early as 1910. Run by Mr. A McEvoy of Vancouver, the Green Lake Co. worked 10 small claims at the 1000 – 1300 metre level on Whistler Mountain above Fitzsimmons creek. The workers lived  on the mountain’s lower slopes in cramped, drafty housing with a regrettable male-to-female ratio. Sound familiar? They found gold, silver, and copper, but never in commercially viable quantities.

Harry Horstman, a lanky prospector from Kansas, was to have greater staying power but similarly meagre returns. Despite his prairie roots, Horstman was at ease up high, living for decades in a log cabin near the 1600-metre level on Mount Sproatt. Digging several tunnels, Horstman found enough copper to eke out a modest living (supplemented by trapping), but he never struck a major load.

Harry Horstman at his Mount Sproatt cabin.

The Horstman Glacier on Blackcomb is named after this pioneering local. Horstman was a fixture in the Alta Lake community for decades, but still appreciated the seclusion of his mountain-top retreat. I wonder what he would think of the neon circus that goes on every summer on his namesake glacier!

Beginning in 1916, a group of twenty-odd men began operations as Alta Lake Mining near today’s Alpine Meadows neighbourhood. They excavated bog-iron ore, which occurs when iron dissolved in run-off water forms deposits in bogs or swamps. At their height of operations they sent 150 tons of bog iron a day down the PGE railway to Squamish, where it was then shipped to the Irondale smelter at Port Townsend, Washington.

Other locals also pursued small-scale prospecting and mining. Fitzsimmons Creek, which runs between Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains, is named after  Jimmy Fitzsimmons, who prospected throughout his namesake valley. Mining shafts that resulted from his exploration can still be found along the Singing Pass trail.

In the 1930s, locals Billie Bailiff (who also kept a trapline in the Singing Pass/Cheakamus Lake area) and Bill “Mac” MacDermott also dug mine shafts on the north side of Whistler Mountain, hoping to find the north end of the Britannia Mine’s massive copper vein. They didn’t succeed, but interest in Whistler Mountain’s underground remained.

Most of us know that the first ski lifts on Whistler Mountain started from Creekside. Fewer realize that the original plans included lifts and runs on Whistler’s north side, rising from near the present-day village. These plans had to be abandoned, however, because the provincial government chose to protect mineral claims on that side of the mountain now held by two companies, including the Canadian giant Noranda.

Unsurprisingly, mining claims didn’t interfere when plans to develop the north side of Whistler Mountain resurfaced in the late-1970s, as the provincial government was now a key investor in the planned resort expansion.

While never developing on a comparable scale to the Coast Mountain mega-mines at Brittania Beach or the Pioneer Mine, the quest for underground riches still played a formative role in Whistler’s early days. If one knows where to look, traces of this past mining activity can still be found throughout the local landscape. Local whitewater folk are familiar with the abandoned Ashlu gold mine because it is the drop-in point for a popular kayaking run.

Kayaker at the entrance to the abandoned Ashlu gold mine.

Though interesting to history buffs, this hidden legacy also poses significant physical and environmental hazards. For more on this context, track down the Summer 2011 issue of Kootenay Mountain Culture Magazine  for a short article on this titled “Rider Dun Gone.” (The article isn’t available on-line, but the magazine is free and can be found here.) For more info on industry and government efforts to track down and regulate Canada’s thousands of abandoned mines, check out the National Orphaned Abandoned Mines Initiative.

Want to learn more? Book an appointment to come mine our archives which contain old reports from the provincial Ministry of Mines, among other records. If you’re really keen you can even take your new knowledge into the woods and find some old mining ruins that haven’t yet been completely overtaken by the relentless coastal rainforest. But be careful! And remember, although relatively young these are archaeological sites; try to leave them undisturbed for others to enjoy.

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