When most people drive by Britannia Beach today they have little sense of how massive the Britannia Mine was. At the height of production in the late 1920s to early 1930s, it was supplying an impressive 17% of the world's copper. By the time the mine closed, it had 210 km of tunnels and stretched over 1750 metres of vertical distance (from 1100 metres high in the Britannia mountains to a depth of around 650 metres below sea level).
A century - and more - ago in BC, amateur prospectors were only looking for gold. With the technologies of the day, what they found on the surface of the ground was really all they could rely on. At Britannia, the surface ore was to be found high on the mountains, far, far away from passing foot traffic. So it is probably only by a stroke of luck that the ore was found at all.
The discovery of the ore is usually accredited to Dr. A. A. Forbes, a physician to the local First Nations. The story goes that he found surface ore after shooting a buck and it is true that he was the first to recognize the importance of his find, but he was not the first to find ore there. That credit goes to a local fisherman named Granger. In 1888 he met Dr. Forbes at Hopkins Landing on the Sunshine Coast, looking for $400 in return for the samples he had found.
In 1931, Dr. Forbes was interviewed by the Vancouver Province and this is our best record of what happened in 1888.
"Granger showed me some barren rock on which there was chlorides of copper or nitrate. I told him that was not very encouraging, but there might be some better showing of copper in the vicinity of his find. He was very anxious to buy a boat with his $400 and go to Alaska."
"I'll show you the place for $400," he proposed.
"Well, I told him that if I didn't see better mineral than he had shown me I could not give him anything, but if we found mineral in place I would give him $400. In a few days we made the trip, landing on the other side of the ridge north of the present landing. He was no woodsman and we had a terrible time over that ridge. He took me almost to the summit of the mountain and showed me the spot he had broken the rock from.
"There were few places not covered with snow, but we slept that night on the summit. Next morning I began prospecting around the summit, gradually descending towards the valley, without success. About an hour and a half before sunset I saw the famous buck. I shot him in the neck and he kicked around considerably and when I finally got him killed I found he had kicked the moss and rubbage off the rock and there was some good showing on the surface. It was getting too dark that night to do anything more, but in the morning I put a shot of dynamite I had with me and found I had got a good showing in place. I then and there paid him the $400 on the condition that he would not speak to anyone in Howe Sound or Vancouver about it. He agreed and in a few days he bought his boat and went to Alaska.
"So," Dr. Forbes continued, "the first discoverer of copper on Britannia was Mr. Granger, the second was Mr. Buck and the third was Dr. Forbes."
"When I found the mineral on Britannia Mountain and for many years afterward, there was little danger in leaving the claim open as no one was looking for any other mineral but gold. As a matter of fact, I was perfectly right in leaving it open, as no one did disturb it for ten years. I visited the property every summer for eight years, working on it for a week, and never saw a human being on or near that mountain except when Mr. Granger was with me."
In 1893, Dr. Forbes (who had prospecting interests in two other locations) sought government aid in developing either Britannia or either of the other two properties (Texada Island and Mount Elphinstone). The Ministry of Mines supplied geological reports which found no commercial mineral interests at Britannia. And that was that. Dr. Forbes lost interest in the property and for a few years, it seemed as if no development would be made.
In part 2 we will look at the next part of the story, ten years later, when the first claims were staked and the investors came on board.
In the time of COVID-19, when our lives have been turned upside down, it can help to reflect on what has gone before, in order to find hope for what may come.
One of the most important minerals in human history, copper was as important for medicine and early technology as it is for us today. This blog discusses the use of copper, from ancient times down to the present.