This summer the Museum will be hosting Homecoming to celebrate 110 years since the Britannia Mine began. As a part of this event the Museum will be staging a temporary exhibit called ‘The Best of Britannia’ which will capture elements of life, leisure, and labour in the towns and camps of the Mine. One of the challenges in preparing this exhibit has been deciding what best captures seventy years of mining and mining life history, which brings us to the purpose of this blog post – the one thing that united everything was copper production.
The Mine’s annual copper production numbers reflect what it meant to live and work at Britannia. Of the seventy years of operation, some years stand out as representative of the challenges, successes, and failures the Britannia mine and its people experienced. Here we present 10 of those years and what they capture.
Those ten years are highlighted on the graph of annual copper production below.
As with most mines, this one took some time to get going and to become profitable.
From 1902, when George H Robinson took his first stake in the property through to 1910, there is only one year of recorded production levels. This is 1906.
In 1907, the Mine stopped production to address issues with milling. The Mine did not go into production again until 1910.
One thing about Britannia and its people – they did not give up easily. Persevering through these first years began to pay off in 1911.
In 1911 the Mine once again reports an annual copper production value. A new mine engineer named J.W.D. Moodie has taken the helm of the operations at the Mine site. Moodie introduces improvements to the Mine’s operations that will set the stage for the Mine to become a big producer. Among them is construction of Mill 2.
Unfortunately, several factors are going to challenge the Mine’s perseverance.
In November 1920 the Company shuts down Mill 2 and reduces its payroll to 40% as a result of a soft copper market (there is a copper surplus following World War I).
On March 7, 1921, the shut down Mill 2 caught fire and burnt to the ground. In the subsequent fall, a flood washed a portion of Britannia Beach into the Sound.
Overcoming these disasters, Britannia Beach was rebuilt on the elevated plateau on the north side of the creek and a fireproof mill was constructed next to where the old one stood.
While the Mine records a small production of copper, it is derived from stockpiles from 1920.
During 1921 and 1922, the Mine continued to operate, stockpiling ore for the yet-to-be-completed new Mill.
Britannia hits its highest annual copper production. The Mine grew steadily since 1923 when Mill 3 opened, but global economics would challenge Britannia once again.
When the Great Depression began, Britannia was not as severely impacted as Vancouver. Copper production did slow, however, and in 1932 layoffs began.
As with 1921, this year marked the beginning of an upward trend in production levels. While this run would not see Britannia reach its previous peak, it demonstrated the Mine was still a significant copper operation.
The second, and last of Britannia’s significant peak years would lead to a production decline spurred by World War II.
By the time Canada joined the war, many of Britannia’s miners had already left to enlist. The Mine was left with a reduced workforce by the time copper mining was declared an essential service for the war effort.
The shortage of skilled miners led to an increase in workers with no mining experience, and a subsequent increase in accidents.
While the Company had already established a long track record of taking safety seriously, the miners were dissatisfied with the increase in injuries. As a result, they unionized in 1943.
In 1946, a province-wide strike at producing mines brought Britannia to a halt from July 3 through the end of October. The demands were for wage increases, the 40 hour work week, and union recognition.
While the Mine survived this strike, the glory days of Britannia were now in the past. The next decade brought fairly consistent production levels against a constant challenge to remain profitable.
After several years of struggling to be profitable, the decision was made to close the mine.
At the time it was not believed it would re-open.
The Mine re-opened in 1959 with the aid of the federal and provincial governments, and in 1960 its production levels had returned to pre-closure levels.
Unlike the 50s, the 60s had big ups and downs in production levels. The low came in 1964 with another strike that almost brought the mine to permanent closure. The high came in 1973, the year prior to closure.
The end came swiftly in November of the year. The Mine was facing an uncertain future when copper prices plummeted, resulting in permanent closure.
It is often asked if there is still copper in the mountain and if the Mine could one day open again.
Yes, there is still copper in the mountain, and unlike most company towns of the past Britannia lives on, looking forward to welcoming former residents back one more time, but 40 years since closure, it looks rather unlikely the Mine will open again.