One of the questions we get asked all the time at the Museum is what is up those impressive stairs in Mill 3. For those that haven't been in the building, it's one of the most impressive buildings around - 26 storeys of intertwining rusting pipe and concrete formwork, that simply oozes history and atmosphere. We challenge anyone to step inside the building and not be wowed!
Mill 3 was completed in 1923. It was constructed following the destruction of Mill 2 by fire in 1921. As a gravity fed concentrator (to concentrate, or process, the ore extracted from the mine), it towers over the community of Britannia Beach, built on the side of the mountain to make the most the steep natural landscape. Built by hand with steel and concrete - it was an incredible feat of engineering and architecture for its time. It was reported that engineers came from all over the world to check it out.
Over the next seventy years the Mill was the heart and soul of the community. Dusty, noisy and dominating, how could this be? The answer is simple really. When the Mill was operating, the Mine was making money. When the Mill was quiet, there was no ore being processed and so none to sell. As this was a company town, the rise and fall of the company's wealth fed directly into the financial wealth of all the residents. After the closure of the mine in 1974, one resident was on a journey back from Squamish. When she came over the bluffs to the north and heard the Mill quiet for the last time, she sat down and "cried her eyes out" for she knew that it really did signal the end.
Today though the Mill is a National Historic Site and a centrepiece to the Museum experience. Following a $5 million exterior renovation completed in 2007 it once again stands proud on the Sea to Sky Highway. Inside though, the building has not been refurbished. It is structurally sound but thirty plus years of cold and damp have taken its toll on the steelwork and concrete - leaving us the building we have today.
There are eight main levels, though many sub-levels and mezzanines. The principal of how it operated was simple. Ore came in at the top of the Mill and travelled down, propelled by gravity, through a series of crushers and grinders to reduce it to the size of fine sand. It was mixed with water and went through a process called froth flotation. Flotation - a process still used in mining today - uses bubbles and chemical 'collectors' to separate the valuable minerals from the waste rock. Once separated, the concentrated ore was dried out before being sent by ship to the smelter.
When the Mill closed, the company sold off much of the equipment. What is left today is the infrastructure as well as a few remnants of equipment. The giant ore bins at the top are still full of ore, now set like concrete. Like tombstones, they stand tall above the rest of the building, a signal of what is to come below. As you descend through the levels the quietness is far from eerie, yet it does have presence. You know that this building was once a hive of activity and that today it is a ghost of its former self.
From ground level, our visitors look up the steep 375 stairs and are surprised to find out that this is only half way. The route through the top half of the building winds its way down through the crushing levels, past the remnants of conveyors, chutes and cranes. You can peer into cramped nooks and crannies or gaze up into the cavernous roof spaces. From here though you can't see the ground level, as another series of ore bins (for the crushed ore) block your view and your route. It is only once you climb down the narrow stairs between two of the bins that the view below opens up and you realize just how high up you still are.
Now on the grinding and flotation levels, this is where the real business took place. Some of the old ball mills are still in place - giant drums full of steel balls and ore slurry that spun around, to grind the ore into a fine paste. This was the last grinding stage before flotation.
Flotation happened in long troughs. Numerous pipes blew air into the ore/chemical mixture to create bubbles that helped the separation of the ore and waste rock. Today some of the troughs and pipes remain. An intricate maze of pipes can be traced up and along the roof space. Here you can also see the old lab and foreman's office - the latter seemingly perched precariously above thin air. They did an amazing job of making the best use of space and were never afraid to experiment with the process to improve efficiency.
The route from here takes you down those 375 steps, alongside the rails of the old skip cable car. And yes, they are as steep as they look from the ground. And uneven! When the Mill was operating there was no handrail on the steps...just imagine. The skip was only for supplies, not staff. We've had former residents tell us that it was more than your job was worth to ride the skip, and others that said they would ride it when the boss wasn't around. If that's true - brave souls!
On the ground floor it is the giant platforms that held the dewatering tanks that dominate. Here you get the best appreciation of how the building clings to the bare rock of the mountain, and see the beauty in the moss and copper mineralization that grows on it.
Once back down you feel a sense of accomplishment and can also feel a new connection to the building. It might be a shadow of what it was, but it's still a leviathan.
To find out more about the building, check out the Beauty in the Beast virtual exhibit. In this site you can find some interactive panoramic photos from each level as well as interviews with former mine workers.