A century ago in Britannia Beach, it is entirely possible that loved ones, friends or coworkers uttered the phrase “This too shall pass”, just as many of us may try to find some peace or hope by uttering the phrase today.
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.
A century ago, the little mining town of Britannia Beach, and its nearby mining camps found themselves in a series of events that brought tragedy and financial hardship to the community and the Company that gave them work and a home - not just over one event, but several. Yet within a few short years the town had rebuilt and rebounded. Within a decade it went on to have its strongest period ever - a Pheonix rising from the flames.
The Great Flu
The end of World War I brought renewed hope, followed quickly by the arrival of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, brought from Europe in part by soldiers returning from the trenches. Like some smaller communities today, Britannia stayed virus-free for a period, while Vancouver was ravaged. But before long, flu hit the community hard.
Work largely stopped as this deadly respiratory virus took hold. In Bruce Ramsey’s book Britannia: Story of a Mine, he said that the men ‘died like flies in the bunkhouses’. Small wonder, as the bunkhouses offered little opportunity to isolate. The largest bunkhouse - the Big Ship - up at the ‘Townsite’, had upwards of eighty rooms, with two to four men to a room. The hospital at the ‘Beach’ was full. In the temporary hospital set up at the ‘Townsite’ higher on the mountain, the nurse fell ill. Years later, former resident Archie McPhee talked of the community rallying together because “they had to”. At the ‘Beach’, worker Bing Yip was given the nickname Dr Y. B. for his selfless rounds delivering soup to the sick.
Left: With limited medical equipment, this nurse must have felt quite helpless in the face of the Great Flu.
Right: The Big Ship Bunkhouse was the largest the Mine had. Living here during the Great Flu must have been a worrying time.
The tale of the flu in the community, and how the community responded, is uncannily similar to what is happening around the world now. But a century of medical advances gives more hope. For back then, soup and whiskey was apparently the best that the doctor could offer to the sick at Britannia.
Copper Prices Sink
The high prices of copper during World War I - a result of the demand for brass ammunition shells - could not be sustained. On the back of the pandemic, and over the next two years, copper prices in North America dropped significantly.
At Britannia, 1919 was spent with much reduced operations. Some ore was still mined, but stored for later processing. However former resident Hannah Swanson later recalled that the ore set like concrete in the storage bins, a result of being stored too long in a moist atmosphere. Instead of being able to use the ore, they had to blast it out.
Still, the Company made investments in its employees. Reading it now, it seems a goal may have been to help boost morale. In an extract from the 1919 Minister of Mines Annual Reports it states that:
“There have been several improvements made in the camp at Britannia Beach, the most important being the tearing-down of the old concentrating and vanner buildings and the erection of a recreation-hall building…On the second floor of this building is a large dance-hall, which is also used for moving-picture entertainments. On the first floor is a very modern billiard-hall, furnished with an English billiard table and three pool-tables, also a barber-shop. This building was erected at the expense of the company, and illustrates the practical way the interest the company shows in the welfare of its employees.”
Despite investment and perhaps hope that things would improve, by late 1920, as the price of copper dipped to its lowest level, production was halted and the payroll reduced by seventy five percent. At Britannia, if you were laid off, you also lost your home as this was a CompanyTown and only employees and their families could live there.
Therefore, for those who lost both job and home, it also meant losing their community. It would have surely been hardest on the married men and families who had built lives there - friends, social lives and a sense of home.
However it was not just the families that lived in this Company Town. Today we often hear of the plight of the gig-economy workers, who are being hit particularly hard by COVID-19. A century ago it was the single men who were transient miners that were in a similar boat. For mines like Britannia, when metal prices were low and production had to be slowed, it was these miners who were laid off, or not replaced when they left by choice. There are no records of how many of these miners lost their jobs in the downturn compared with the married men with families, but it seems a safe assumption that they were hit hard.
With the pandemic likely being fresh in the memory of many residents, this may have seemed to some like a cruel twist of fate. Yet worse was to come.
Fire and Food in 1921
This was Britannia’s darkest year.
In March, fire took hold in Mill 2. Despite valiant efforts to control the flames, the building could not be saved. We can only wonder at the thoughts of the residents who must have stood and watched, feeling helpless. Thankfully no one was injured, but the lack of a mill to process the ore was momentous. With no ore to send to smelter, the Mine lost its income. Work started on a new Mill but that took almost two years to design, build and open.
Then on October 28th, on a dark, stormy night, a tragic flood overtook the main residential area of Britannia Beach. Homes were swept into Howe Sound, carrying men, women and children with them. In all, thirty six lives were lost. Buildings were smashed like matchsticks and debris blanketed half the town.
Hannah Swanson was a young teenager at the time of the flood. In later years she described the aftermath in an aural history interview:
“…it was a pretty little town before the flood… But what did most damage was the huge boulders half as big as this room and huge trees and of course that’s what was devastating. In the house we were in it got…pushed into another house. We got out through the roof. Fortunately these men helped us out…down to the Manager’s house where we spent the next couple of days until we came to Vancouver. Everybody that was rescued on the one side of the creek eventually landed down there [at the Manager’s house] and it was full…There must have been well over a hundred…And then they brought in the wounded there and my sister and I would be 12 and 14 and we helped look after the children and identify some of them…It was the next day when they went out and for days afterward that they started digging up some of the bodies, not anybody alive after the next day, I don’t think.”
Britannia Beach before and after the flood of October 1921
Left: The Administration Building which still stands today, next to the debris from the 1921 flood.
Right: A jet of water on the ruins of Mill 2. The Powerhouse was saved.
To recap what hit Britannia over four short years - the flu pandemic, mass layoffs, a devastatingfire, tragic deaths, over fifty homes destroyed and a town in ruins. Surely it was time for fate to give this community a break. Thankfully it was.
Recovery would take resiliency and resolve.
With no mill to process ore, the existing mining operations were all but halted. Instead, the Company focused its efforts on the development of the Victoria Mine, in the ‘South Valley’ at Furry Creek. Development work brought in no revenue, but as the saying goes ‘you have to speculate to accumulate’. It would also have allowed them to keep workers on the payroll that may otherwise have been let go. A calculated risk and an example of adapting operations tomeet an unfortunate situation head on - as is happening across the world today - and one that was to pay off.
After Mill 2 burnt down, efforts began in earnest to design and build a fireproof structure. The result was Mill 3, otherwise known as the Concentrator. It was not just the Company and community that looked forward to its opening. The BC Minister of Mines states the following in its 1922 Annual Report:
“The operations of this company are of the greatest importance to British Columbia, because when the new concentrating-mill commences operations early in 1923 it will mean that the production of copper will be increased by about 30,000,000 lb more than 1922. The capacity of the new mill is 2,500 tons of ore a day, and, as the bulk of the ore treated will be mined from the new Victoria mine, carrying considerably higher values in copper than either the Jane, Empress, Fairview or Bluff mines, it is practically certain that the production of copper for 1923 will reach the figures mentioned.
The company has set an example to other corporations and established aprecedent by reason of the courage and persistence practiced by the company, not only since the disastrous fire and flood during 1921 and consequent closing-down of the mill, but also during years gone by when the late G. B. Schley, of New York, the then president of the company, insisted on expending large amounts monthly for development-work in the mines contrary to the advice of technical advisers, alsoin being the first company in British Columbia to adopt the oil-flotationconcentration process on a commercial scale in 1912, when that method was in the experimental stages.”
During the time that Mill 3 was being designed and built, work proceeded to clear the flood debris and rebuild homes. Before the flood, both homes and industrial buildings lay on the alluvial fan at the base of Britannia Creek. After the flood, a wise decision was made to relocate and build homes to the north side of the creek, above the fan. The houses were built with the modern conveniences of hot and cold running water, electric lights and heat.
Elsewhere in North America, the copper market was improving. In 1921, as a response to the drop in prices, copper producers cut their supply by about twenty five percent (if they had not shut down entirely). Copper surpluses were used up and by 1923 prices were returning to what the BC Minister of Mines Annual Report states to be a “living price”. This was good news forcommunities like Britannia, especially at the time when its new Mill 3 had come online.
1923 was a turning point for Britannia, not just for the return of viable copper prices and a new Mill. A “safety-first” approach to operations was implemented, with the formation of safety committees and a safety bonus for the shiftboss with the least number of injuries per shift. From this point, Britannia continued to improve its safety record, bringing in a new era of concern for the wellness of its employees.
In addition, Carleton Perkins Browning had been in the job as General Manager for a year. This was a man who became respected by many; he went on to be GM until retirement in 1946. One of this first big changes was to turn the Company Store into a cooperative, where residents could play a part in store direction, air grievances and receive a dividend from profits. Over the next few years, the company invested further in amenities for residents including two new gymnasiums and a movie hall.
The Mill continued to improve efficiency and increase production. So much so that from its initial 2,500 tons per day of ore processed, by the peak year in 1930 it was processing 7,100 tons per day.
They were also becoming adept at making the most of what they had. Sustainability was the name of the game. They invented a method to use old rails to make steel balls used in the Mill, and built their own foundry to make and repair their own tools and machine parts. This helped greatly reduced operating costs, making the Mine more profitable.
Left: Mill 2 opened in 1923 and took the Mine to new greatness.
Right: A cooperative Company Store opened in 1923 helped build a new relationship with residents.
As mentioned, the Mine’s peak year of production was 1930. From here, no, it was not all roses. Within three years the Depression hit and the payroll was again reduced by more than half. However during this time, those still at Britannia were considered to be lucky, still having a job and a home, when others in Vancouver waited in line at soup kitchens.
The decade between its four years of hell and the onset of the Depression had perhaps ensured its survival. It had fought back with determination and innovation, curtailing revenue generating operations and focusing on development instead which brought in no revenue during those hard years. And the risk paid off.
The Company also continued, where feasible, to invest in employees welfare. Their goal was to attract and retain good workers. Yes there were still grumbles and complaints, most noticeable historically in the form of the men seeking unionization. But overall, they ensured their survival and kept their community going.
Reflecting on the Past
There were some long time residents at Britannia who lived there through those times. In later years, some were interviewed about their memories from Britannia during a UBC Aural History Project. Snippets of stories from the flood or flu emerged, and one can imagine the feelings of anxiety, loss, grief or fear that they must have felt when exposed to tragedy or the prospect of job loss and homelessness.
But overall, their memories were often about the positive, about the community spirit, the social events, the camaraderie. Those enduring emotions put those four years into a biggerpicture, not just of a community tale, but the tale of individuals’ lives.
Therefore, as we look to our future from our current vantage point, where we too have feelings of anxiety, fear or grief, we should remember to also take a moment to breathe, tell ourselves that this too shall pass, and ask ourselves what stories will come back to us in the years anddecades to come. For surely it will be more than just of our time in COVID-19?
By Diane Mitchell
Curator of Education & Collections
Britannia: Story of a Mine: Bruce Ramsey, ISBN-13: 978-1412028363 (available from Museum Gift Shop)
BC Minister of Mines Annual Reports
Britannia Mine and its Several Communities: Western Miner, 1970
Bunkhouse & Home: Company, Community & Crisis in Britannia Beach, British Columbia: Katharine Elizabeth Rollwagen
Oral history tapes from UBC Britannia Mine Oral History Project
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.