I started working at the Britannia Mine Museum at the end of
September and my first project involved creating an online exhibit about the
community of Mount Sheer located 4.5km from the Museum. I quickly realized that
like many other towns that rose in BC’s early history, Mount Sheer is a company
town. The concept of a company town is simple. It is a community that depends
on one company for most if not all of the necessary services like employment,
housing and shops. Here in Britannia, that company owned the copper mine, which
makes both Mount Sheer and Britannia Beach two parts of the same company town.
I began this job with little knowledge of the area, the buildings or the industry, but I felt comfortable with the social and economic themes that emerged because I was familiar with the concept of a company town. Three years ago I had the chance to work on archival material from the company town of Ocean Falls, located approximately 480 km north of Vancouver. Much like Mount Sheer, Ocean Falls depended on a company that specialized in resource extraction – there, the resources were timber and the mill processed pulp and paper.
Although forestry and mining are two very different
industries, the company towns they produced are eerily similar. Both towns were
isolated and accessible only by water and this isolation meant that the
residents were wholly dependent on the company and each other for
entertainment, support and services. This resulted in a tight-knit community –
when you live in a town of 1000 people like Mount Sheer, you get to know your
I remember going through the Ocean Falls archival material –
the majority of it was blueprints for machines, site plans for buildings and
the town and other “official” documentation from the company, Crown Zellerbach.
We carefully documented plan upon plan of the material that was in our hands
only after being desperately salvaged from the town and placed on a barge to
float down the west coast of BC years earlier. Although I was excited to jump
into the world of archives, these industrial documents didn’t give me a good
understanding of Ocean Falls as a thriving town full of living people.
It was when I began re-housing school newsletters and
photographs of social gatherings that I finally began to understand what it
would be like to live in Ocean Falls. Similar material can be found at the
Museum about Mount Sheer. Although both towns were so disconnected from the
rest of the world, the daily lives of the families were similar to my life
growing up in BC. There were notices about holiday parties, special
performances and even mandatory meetings in the gym. Photos of residents
playing in the snow, competing in sports day activities and participating in
plays all gave me a way to understand how their community functioned and a way
to connect to the people of the past.
Think of all the bits and pieces of paper that you’ve
collected over the years – ticket stubs for concerts, receipts for online
purchases, programs for graduation ceremonies – and the value that they hold.
While some of these documents are just bits of paper, some of them help you
recall a memory and for a second you’re transported back to the day you
collected it. The next time you tuck something in a drawer, file it in an album
or toss it on your coffee table, just think that in the future it could be
located in the BC archives or at the Museum and used to paint a picture of life
in another time and place.
Check out Britannia’s very own company town, Mount Sheer, in our new online exhibit, Mount Sheer, "Company Town".