The story of Britannia’s discovery is a story of legend. Told countless times is the tale of how Dr. A.A. Forbes first found copper ore at Britannia in 1888. Told less often is the story of what followed.
In the last years of the 1800s, Dr. Forbes ended his efforts to start at mine at Britannia. In his place, other prospectors ventured into the mountains around Britannia in search of minerals. Among them was Oliver Furry – the man who staked some of Britannia’s richest mineral claims, including the Jane deposit.
Oliver Furry was not working alone, however. His partners at the time, the Boscowitz family, provided the funding while Furry carried out the work on the ground. With the Jane deposit, the Boscowitzs established a camp in order to develop a mine. This first camp, established before the turn of the century, became Jane Camp, also known as the ‘1050 Camp’.
Built close to the deposit and the top of the mountain, it was small and isolated. When the deposit did finally become an operational Mine in the early 1900s, Jane Camp grew into a community home to men, women, and children. Thus, Jane Camp was the original mining community of Britannia.
As the Mine grew, more camps were constructed. In each case, they were built close to where the men were working. In 1914, construction on the Tunnel Camp began. It was located over 1000 feet lower on the mountain than Jane Camp. Tunnel Camp was more than just another camp, however. After almost a decade of mining, the Mine was reaching farther and farther down into the mountain. Having the Mine’s headquarters near the top no longer made sense. Tunnel Camp was built to be the new headquarters.
The following year, the Mine faced its first big test by facing its biggest disaster.
It was just past midnight on March 22, 1915 when the first signs of trouble were noticed. Workers in the Tunnel Camp noticed a sudden drop in power usage, indicating that something had gone wrong in one of the other camps. Calls were made to the other camps. Jane Camp did not respond.
An emergency crew immediately set out from Tunnel Camp by candlelight. It did not take long to realize the immensity of the disaster. After travelling only 100 feet, they came across a 1000 foot wide swath that had been cut down the mountain by a rock and snow slide. From the darkness came two survivors who told of the tragedy above. Armed with the knowledge of what had happened, the rescuers hastened their trek to Jane Camp. When they arrived however, even the knowledge of what had happened did not prevent them from at first becoming almost frozen with shock. Buildings were smashed and buried. Debris, mud, rock, and snow, in some places 50 feet deep, stood where houses and bunkhouses once stood. The only clue as to where to look for those trapped was the moans that echoed through the night.
Two hours after the tragedy occurred, news of the incident had reached the Beach. It did not take long for people to begin gathering in the streets to organize further relief work. By the time the Beach rescue parties reached Jane Camp, every available man from Tunnel Camp was already hard at work digging out the survivors and the dead.
Rescue and recovery efforts went on through the night and into the morning. Meanwhile, news of the disaster had reached Vancouver. In response, doctors, nurses, police, and a journalist with the Vancouver Sun, Bruce A. "Pinkie" McKelvie, left for Britannia aboard the SS Ballena.
The words of McKelvie describing what he saw captures the enormity of the disaster.
"It is impossible to convey on paper the awfulness of the tragedy. The residents of the camp here do not realize the full significance of the catastrophe. They are stunned and dazed by its terrible suddenness and have not yet had time to grasp the enormity of the disaster. Every person is engaged in some task. Women are making bandages, while those men who are not up the mountain at work digging for bodies are constructing coffins or preparing supplies. The company's great department store here has been a hive of activity ever since the first news of the disaster was received and not only has Mr. Donahue been busy directing the work, but Mr. Miller, the post master, has been engaged in getting out casualty lists and sending out tidings over the wire to anxious relatives."
On March 24, twenty six of those who lost their lives departed for Vancouver in makeshift coffins aboard the SS Ballena. That evening, two thousand people watched as the funeral ship arrived in port. While over fifty men, women, and children were lost to the slide, the actual number of deaths is unknown. It was the largest disaster to strike the Mine and its communities. It remains one of the largest natural disasters in Canadian history.
It took months for the Mine and the community to recover from the slide, but recover they did.
Jane Camp was not reconstructed. Rather, Tunnel Camp was expanded to provide housing and services for the survivors displaced by the slide. To meet the needs of the growing community, the Company subsequently built schools, gyms, tennis courts, a pool, and a theatre in the camp.
As with all mining camps, Tunnel Camp was born out of need. The Mine needed a new headquarters. Jane Camp, the Mine’s original headquarters, was located near the top of the mountain. This location worked at first, but as the Mine grew and went deeper into the mountain, it became increasingly inefficient. As it grew into a town, Tunnel Camp became known as the Townsite. This name was later changed to Mount Sheer out of the need to have a unique name for the postal service. At its peak, it was Britannia’s largest community with a population of more than two thousand people.
Its size did not save it from its dependence on mining however. When the Mine shut down in 1958, so did Mount Sheer. While the Mine reopened the following year, Mount Sheer did not. While a few houses were moved to Britannia Beach at closure, the majority were torn down a few years later.
Mount Sheer, like Jane and the other camps, have long since been reclaimed by nature. What is not forgotten however is the significance these remote communities played in the history of Britannia, and the history of British Columbia.