STEEP AND CROOKED … by Late Writer, Artist & Castle Builder Bill Laux

THE MINING RAILROADS OF THE CANADIAN BORDER

 By Bill Laux

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

TWO RAILROADS; FIVE SMELTERS 1905 – 1921

Phoenix,_British_Columbia
Phoenix BC 1905 – Once the Highest Town in Canada (4610 ft)

Having bought Granby for $4.00 a share, William Nichols and his associates in the copper refining and marketing business, got up a special train and traveled west to see for themselves what they had acquired.   At Grand Forks, Jay Graves, Stephen Miner, and Aubrey White toured them through the smelter.   Then the CPR put on two locomotives and pulled their train up the steep grades to Phoenix where they stepped out in the highest town in Canada at 4610 feet.   There they were shown the claims and the producing mines of the company.   These were knowledgeable men, and they were enthusiastic at what they saw.   Analyst Stanton admitted, “Nowhere have I seen superior methods.”   J.B. Hereshoff, perhaps a rendered a bit light-headed by the elevation, rhapsodized, “…a magnificent, monotonous mass of homogeneous ore…”

These men, now his bosses, instructed Jay Graves to do two things.   First, pay a dividend.   Second, do more development work to determine precisely how much ore they had.   He did both.   A modest dividend was forthcoming, and he had his men begin a tunnel from the 4400 foot elevation at the foot of Church Street in Phoenix, to burrow under the town and tap the ore body 400 feet beneath its discovery point.   He ordered that the shaft from the Victoria be deepened as well, to meet the tunnel on the 400 foot level.   Then crosscuts were to be made to explore the ore body from end to end and side to side to discover its extent at the deep levels.

Eholt had become a busy railroad town with a five stall roundhouse, five tracks, four hotels, 25 houses, and half a dozen commercial establishments.   Switchers bustled around the small yard day and night, making up cuts of cars for the five smelters the mines were serving, the Granby in Grand Forks, the B.C. Copper in Greenwood, the Dominion Copper in Boundary Falls, the Trail smelter and the Northport smelter.

For passenger service to Phoenix , the CPR ran a mixed train from Eholt.   The ten mile trip uphill took 50 minutes, but downhill, with a heavy train of ore cars and the passenger car trailing, the time was an hour and twenty minutes, though the timetable suggests otherwise.   Mixed trains were obliged to stop and cool brakes on the way down, and limited to ten miles per hour.   Pure passenger consists could keep the published schedule.

The 1:55 PM train leaving Eholt boarded passengers from westbound CPR train No. 41 from Grand Forks, Robson West, Castlegar and Nelson which had arrived at Eholt at 1:55 PM.   Obstreperous miners returning from alcoholic and other endeavors in Grand Forks could be a problem on the trains.   Conductors learned to turn the train heat control wide open.   In ten minutes, they reported, the cars would be hot and the miners snoring peacefully.   Awakened in Phoenix, they would be bundled out into the cutting mountaintop winds to find their way to the “Rampasture,” their name for the Granby Company’s large employee boarding house at the top of Second Street.

With the steep, 3.4 percent grade and 600 tons of ore behind the locomotive, a brake failure on this line could be disastrous.   On the 23rd of August, 1904, Shay 1901 (formerly No. 111 from the Rossland branch) lost train brakes half a mile above B.C. Junction.   Engineer Alf Kenward and Fireman Charlie Haggart jumped and escaped injury, but the Shay left the tracks at the curve just above the Oro Denoro mine and the following ore cars piled up on top of it.   Fortunately, this was not the afternoon mixed; no passenger coach was attached.   So imperative was it to restore service at once, that a short trestle was built around the wreck and traffic went on while the mess was cleaned up.   It was crucial not to interrupt the flow of ore to the smelters, as shutting down the furnaces and restarting them was both costly and shortened the life of the furnace linings.     Shay 1901 was repaired and put back into service.

On February 2, 1907, CPR Consolidation No. 1384 with a heavy train of ore wrecked a short distance below the Rawhide mine when it spilled a switch.

The VV&E had its share of wrecks as well.   On Sept. 20, 1909, both the engineer and fireman were killed at Phoenix when their locomotive overran the tail of switchback and rolled down the mountainside.   Just one month later, Engineer McAstocker was killed and Fireman Beatty injured when their locomotive derailed and rolled coming down the 2.2 percent from Phoenix.   Snow on the rails was believed to be the cause.   1909 was an unlucky year for trainmen; a week after the VV&E wreck just mentioned, CPR engine No. 1385 running light, Phoenix to Eholt, left the rails just below B.C. Junction and rolled.

The VV&E service did not require a change of trains.   Still, it was one hour, 25 minutes, Grand Forks to Phoenix, and one hour, 20 minutes, Phoenix to Grand Forks.   These were mixed trains, trailing a coach behind the ore cars, with a stop for water at Hale, and on the downhill run, one or more stops to cool brakes.   Weston station served West Grand Forks, the former Columbia.   The Spencer flag stop served the Athelstan and Jackpot mines, as the CPR spur line to them did not have passenger service.   The Hale flag stop served the Summit Camp including the B.C. Copper mine.   Glenside served the Tiger mine.

By 1905, Granby and the Phoenix mines were in full bonanza.   Jim Hill himself came out by special train on those VV&E tracks that had cost him so much ire and invective to build.   His seven car train came snorting up its spiral grade to Phoenix.   Down from its platform stepped the short, broad, and scowling Cyclops of St Paul.   Behind him came a hunched Jay Graves and a young and athletic George Baker Jr. who danced about in a series of hopping and arm swinging Swedish exercises popular at the time, all the while praising the invigorating qualities of mountain air.

While Director Baker danced and inhaled his mountain air, a driving rain commenced, and J.J. Hill, watching these antics without comment, allowed a company slicker to be draped around him and be led off for a tour of the property.   The party inspected the mines, watched one of the Thew steam shovels loading Granby ore into Granby patent cars, and then retired to one of the Granby offices for confidential talks.   Graves was in an ambiguous position with Granby.   He was vice President and General Manager, but a second to Abel Hodges.   The New Yorkers preferred to keep control in the hands of their own men.   Graves owed his position to the influence of J.J. Hill who as now a major shareholder in Granby.   Graves must have had something he wanted to discuss with J.J. Hill as well.   He had incorporated The Spokane and Inland Railway the previous December and had been trying to convince New York investors that Mr Hill was behind him in this enterprise.   Hill was not; his son Louis was trying to persuade him to break with Graves whom he did not trust.   Graves certainly, on his own ground in Phoenix, must have tried to persuade Mr Hill to grant his new railway some sort of public approval.   There is no evidence that he was successful.

When, by 1905, electricity reached Phoenix from Granby’s Cascade Power development, it replaced steam for haulage and underground work.   The three Davenport saddle tank 0-4-0s then moved ore and waste on the surface while a fleet of 4 wheel Baldwin electric ‘mules’, taking 600 volt power from trolley poles, moved the ore underground.   The locomotive fleet, divided among the five big Granby mines, comprised 3, 36” gauge Davenports, 3, 36” gauge electrics, nine 20” gauge electrics, one 20” gauge Baldwin steam locomotive, one 18” Baldwin steam loco, and two Thew 36” gauge steam shovels converted to electricity in 1905 to work underground.

The multiplicity of gauges reflects the five different mines, each with its own choice of track gauge, that now comprised Granby.

At the smelter the service tracks were 3 foot gauge with a Davenport 0-4-0 saddle tanker and five Baldwin electric mules handling the coal, ore, and flux to the furnaces. A standard gauge Davenport, piloted by Bill Euerby, moved cars on the elevated ramp over the receiving pockets and hauled the huge 6 ton slag pots loaded with red hot molten slag to the slag dumps along the riverbank east of the smelter.

The furnaces roared day and night and Grand Forks old timers remember how the dumping of the pots of molten slag at night would light up the skies with a red glow over the river.

Ore trains coming from Phoenix and Republic would leave their cars on the yard tracks, and depart with strings of empties.   Bill Euerby would sort the loads out and move them with his Davenport to one of the five elevated tracks on the north side of the smelter, and spot each car over the appropriate bin below.   Ore from each mine had to be kept separate, as each carload had to be assayed for metal content so proper payment could be made to the shipper.   Custom ores were blended by the smelter men with the Granby ores, depending on which of their individual contents was desired in the furnaces.   Republic ores, with their high lime and silica content, were used to flux the more sulfurous of the Phoenix ores.

Up at Phoenix, at the urging of the new American directors, production was pushed.   300,000 tons of ore were produced in 1903, 500,000 in 1904, and 550,000 tons in 1905.   Beginning about 1904, the price of copper was manipulated to 25 cents a pound by the Amalgamated Copper Trust ( Standard Oil) which had captured all but Fritz Heinze’s mines in Butte.   Amalgamated was withholding 7,500 tons of copper from the market to drive the price up Granby was engineered to produce copper profitably at 12 cents; at 25 cents, it was paying liberal dividends and ores previously thought too lean to mine were now commercial.   The smelter’s eight furnaces were smelting 80 carloads of ore every day.   Three GN ore trains brought down most of the Granby ore and two CPR trains hauled the non Granby ore destined for the Trail and Greenwood smelters.

In spite of the boom in the copper market, Granby’s exploratory tunnel and shafts probing the 400 foot level of the great Knob Hill ore body were returning troubling news in 1905   On the 200 foot level the ore deposit was 300 x 300 feet.

But down at 400 feet the ore body had shrunk to 150 x 150 feet.   Worse news was to come.   At 430 feet down, the ore bottomed out.   This was kept a close secret between Yolen Williams, Graves and Abel Hodges, all of whom had substantial stock holdings in Granby.   Graves quickly bought the Gold Drop, Curlew and Monarch claims, on the east side of Knob Hill for Granby and opened them.   The extent of their ore bodies were unknown, but Graves hoped they would keep Granby going when the Knob Hill was exhausted.   As a further precaution, Graves sent Yolen Williams out to find other copper claims that Granby might buy into.   Williams found three promising deposits, and Graves presented them to the New York Directors, who were being kept in ignorance of how near the big Phoenix ore body was to exhaustion.   The Directors chose the Hidden Creek deposit, on the Alice arm of Observatory Inlet, just north of Prince Rupert, B.C.   It was purchased for $400,000, and just in time, for in 1910, the storm broke.

In 1909 Abel Hodges had stated in the Granby annual report to its stockholders, that, “Our ore reserves are largely increased and we have ore in sight for many years to come.”   Still, in Grand Forks, the local rumors could not be silenced.   Miners working at Phoenix knew what the exploratory tunnels had found.

In 1910, Abel Hodges, Granby’s Superintendent and the most important person in Grand Forks, unexpectedly announced that he was leaving to take a position in Peru. A great farewell banquet was mounted. Hodges was toasted in champagne and presented with a gold watch, his wife with a diamond ring.   But as the celebrants made their way home through the windy March streets, certain suspicions crystallized.

The next morning, those who held Granby stock, quietly instructed their brokers to sell.

The rumors from Phoenix, the stock sales, reached the market in New York and Granby prices began to sink.   The directors sent a geologist, Otto Sussman, to Phoenix to take over from Hodges and investigate. His report exploded on the boardroom table like a bomb. Hodges had high-graded the mine, he reported; Granby ores would be mined out in five years.   The mining industry raged.   Granby, capitalized at $15 million in 1905, was a bust, five years later.   Hodges was blamed, but he was unreachable, safe in Peru.   Jay Graves was summoned from his comfortable wintering spot, the Hotel Maryland in Pasadena where he spent his days playing poker with Otto Mears, the Colorado mining and railroad entrepreneur, also a winter resident.   Busy with his Inland Empire Railroad, Graves had not been to Phoenix for 18 months; he disclaimed any knowledge of Hodge’s deception.   After all, he had been cut off from the board, by the 1905 reorganization.

The mining world was deeply shocked by the disclosures.   The Engineering and Mining Journal editorialized, “No event has done so much to destroy public confidence in mining investments.” The company was obliged to bare the facts to the public.   Its 1910 report advised stockholders that but 4-1/2 years of ore were left.

Howls of outrage went up from the stockholders and the Granby share price plunged.

Jay Graves, again, was phenomenally lucky.   He was able to calm the storm with the Hidden Creek property, an ore body richer than Phoenix, which had been bought on his urgent recommendation.   Granby was saved by Graves’ perhaps not so innocent foresight.   Plans were made to develop Hidden Creek as the Phoenix ores were exhausted.   The crisis passed; Graves and Aubrey White buying all the Granby stock they could manage at its low level.

The massive tonnages being mined, feeding five smelters, would have indeed exhausted the ore bodies along the crest of the Boundary Range if it were not for the outbreak of World War I.   The copper price in 1914, which was between 11 and 13 cents per pound, rose precipitately, climbing steadily to an unprecedented 26 cents in 1918.   This meant that lower grade ores, below the 1 percent copper, that Granby had been mining, were now commercial.   The 4-1/2 year deadline could be extended. Old workings were reopened and new mines were brought on line.   The depressed Granby stock, which Graves had bought on credit in 1910, rose to $120.   Jay Graves, grasping once more for control of Granby, approached Jim Hill.   Many of Nichols’ associates had either died or disposed of their Granby stock in the debacle of 1910.   If Mr. Hill would supply him with money Graves, argued, he would now be able to acquire a majority control of Granby for himself and Mr. Hill.   Graves suggested that he then “…might be elected president and be a dominating influence in the company.”   Hill refused the bait.   As previously, Jim Hill would use Jay Graves where he could, but he would not permit himself to be used by Jay Graves.

The 0-4-0 Davenports working at the smelter were now needed at the Curlew and Gold Drop mines as they went into full production.   An Alco 0-6-0T, No. 20, was bought for smelter switching duties.   Two more 0-6-0 switchers appear on the roster, but they were evidently sent to work the new Hidden Creek mine and its smelter at Anyox.

The end for Phoenix came in 1919.   Copper prices plunged with the end of the war, and the low grade ore Granby was mining was now uneconomic.   Worse, a persistent series of strikes in the ill-managed Crowsnest mines shut off the supply of coal and coke.   Coal could be obtained from other mines, but Crowsnest had the only coking ovens in the Northwest.   As well, Jim Hill was dead.   His son, Louis, taking over, could see no reason for continuing the feud with the CPR , and began closing down the uneconomic British Columbia lines.

There were vast reserves of low grade copper still under Phoenix, the rail network was in place, the miners and the machinery were at hand.   With careful management and an ore concentrating plant, the low grade might still be smelted at a profit.   The strike in the coal fields, however, continued unresolved, and in Grand Forks the smelter furnaces went cold for lack of fuel.   The directors decided to move everything to Anyox and close the Phoenix mines.

The town of Phoenix, 1750 inhabitants, emptied at once.   People simply took what they could carry, walked out of their houses, and boarded the train, thankful that the tracks were still in place.   Many expected to return when the strike in the East Kootenays was settled and the coke began to arrive again.   But the strikes continued, and in Phoenix neither houses, stores or businesses could be sold.   Most of the miners who remained moved to Greenwood where electricity and other amenities were to be found.

At this time, the Canadian Pacific, remembering the old Columbia & Western location along the Kettle River in the U.S., queried the Great Northern about using their water level grade from Grand Forks to Midway.   This would eliminate the helper grades over the Eholt summit.   But the Great Northern, even with the great Empire Builder gone, was still infected with his dark suspicions of the CPR.   If the CPR transferred their Boundary service to the GN tracks, they reasoned, then they might be permitted to abandon their Phoenix line at once and leave the GN with a legal obligation to continue a Phoenix service.   The Great Northern refused, and hastily pulled its Phoenix rails.   By the end of 1919, they were gone, removed back to Copper Junction.

The spur to the smelter was kept for another year in case it should open again and receive Republic ores.   In 1920 it was pulled and the tracks cut back to the Weston yards and the Grand Forks station.   The CPR, as the last rail link, was obliged to continue service to Phoenix until the government convened hearings on abandonment.

In the thirties, with traffic diminishing on its Curlew – Oroville line, the Great Northern reversed itself and opened discussions with the CPR about leasing them the Kettle River Line.   But the CPR remembered the 1919 snub, rejected the idea.   It would be better, they believed, to let the GN abandon its Curlew – Oroville line, and leave the CPR as the sole railroad serving the Midway – Rock Creek district.   In 1935, the GN pulled its rails back to Curlew and the subject was closed.   The old antagonism between Van Horne and Hill still hung ghostly over railway policy in the Boundary district.

The smelters at Greenwood and Boundary Falls were closed at the end of the war and their machinery moved out.   Up in Phoenix the CPR hung on for a few years, moving small lots of ore from local miners leasing the old diggings.   All those pillars of ore that had been left underground to support the roof of the workings were mined out, one by one, with wood cribbing put in place to hold up the roof.   The cribbing was intended only as a temporary measure while the miners removed the last bits of commercial ore.   After that, the wood slowly rotted and collapsed, with the abandoned town of Phoenix above sinking slowly into the old pits.   The buildings first sagged, then leaned, and finally, year by year, sank into the flooded workings below.

By 1921, the CPR had won permission to pull its tracks.   The last train left Phoenix forever with engineer, Thomas Needham pulling the throttle.     Needham, who had brought the first train into Grand Forks twenty years before, sounded a continuous note of farewell on his whistle as he brought his cleanup train of miscellaneous cars down the steep grade past a score of abandoned mines and through a young forest growing up on the mountainside so laboriously cleared by the woodcutters of 1900 – 1905.   Like mining camps all over the West in the post war years, it was finally all over.

Well, not quite. William Bambury, Robert Denzler and some 30 miners moved into the best houses in town and stayed, leasing old pits and working outlying pockets of high grade ore too small to have been of interest to the large mining companies.   Adolph Sercu, known as “Four Paw,” or “Forepaw,” for the iron hook he had in place of an arm, closed his livery stable and moved into the old City Hall.   There he appointed himself constable, and with a large billy club and a tin star cut from the bottom of a tomato can pinned to his shirt, he patrolled the sagging, sinking buildings until his death in 1942.

Phoenix was now mined for boards, windows, doors and plumbing fixtures.   Over 200 buildings had been salvaged for their lumber or moved away by 1927.   As one hotel was being stripped for its fine interior paneling, a hidden room was discovered with full gambling equipment in including a roulette wheel.   The gamblers had been in too great a hurry to leave to bother taking it with them.   The indoor skating rink was sold to a Vancouver buyer.   With the proceeds, a cenotaph was commissioned to commemorate the Phoenix war dead of 1914 – 1918.   It still stands on the road overlooking the site.

William Bambury, a genuine eccentric, “a man of polished education and widely read,” remained in Phoenix, its last inhabitant.   He had come from England as a carpenter and located in Phoenix in 1902.   He had seen the entire rise and fall of the town, and now, as a pensioner, was determined to stay.   With he departure of the population, he had the pick of the houses in Phoenix, and chose to live in Dr. Boucher’s fine home rent free, his presence a guarantee to Mrs. Boucher that the building would remain unvandalized.   An omnivorous reader, he made minute corrections in the margins of everything he read, and carried on a voluminous correspondence, sticking stamps with the likeness of King George VI on his envelopes upside down as a mark of loyalty to Edward VIII, “the true King of England.”    Daily, he observed the slow caving of the abandoned town into the underground workings.   His diary for May 28, 1950 reads,

“Little traffic besides a Grand Forks boy named Cochrane, who came up with his girlfriend on a motorcycle. “In strolling around this morning I observed the wreckage of the King’s Hotel with that of the Bolivia Hotel seems to have sunk considerably, giving the impression that a mine cave-in has caused the subsidence. Water not far below apparently.   No sign of a break in the ground outside the wreckage.   Cut some wood.”

Local miners bought the Granby claims and continued to pick at the remaining pockets of ore.   In the 1950s, with copper prices over $1.00, the Granby Company bought back its claims from W. E. Mc Arthur and dug out a huge open pit under what had been Phoenix. The ore went out through a tunnel to a concentrator on the east slope just below the old C&W grade.   The Phoenix ore was supplemented by ore trucked from the Lone Star mine across the border on what was to have been the C&W spur surveyed to that mine in 1905.   The open pit operation closed in 1978.   There still remain a million tons of low grade in the Monarch and Rawhide claims awaiting exploitation.   Nothing whatever remains of Phoenix but the cenotaph.   Where the town existed, is now a huge, raw hole in the ground half a mile across and 400 feet deep.

 

Canada Kootenays Local History Writing

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