The Peter and Gertrud Klopp Family Project

Reflections on Life, Family and Community

THE MINING ERA ON THE CANADIAN COLUMBIA by Late Local Author Bill Laux

7

My apologies for having missed publishing Bill’s introduction to his book: The Mining Era on the Canadian Columbia. It is a part of Bill’s work and should be published before I continue with Chapter 2.

THE MINING ERA ON THE CANADIAN COLUMBIA

One must take the trouble to find out what is peculiar in each nation; and do it without being infected by its greed.   One must stand apart, a devotee of none, but profoundly and honestly interested in all of them.” 

Elias Canetti

INTRODUCTION

The Columbia River and it tributaries drain the mountainous southeast corner of British Columbia, an area roughly the size of Nova Scotia or the state of Maine.   This triangular region, of some 26,000 square miles, comprising the present East and West Kootenay districts plus the Boundary District, is closed off by the Rocky Mountains on the east and the Monashee Mountains on the west and north. Only to the south, along the international boundary, does the Kootenay-Boundary region lie open to easy entry up the river valleys which drain its mountain slopes.    Within this great triangle, moated by the encircling Kootenay and Columbia Rivers, the space is wholly filled by closely spaced, north-south trending mountain ranges, from east to west the Selkirks, the Purcells, the Valhallas, and the Rossland and Boundary Ranges of the Monashees, with their intervening lakes and river valleys.    It is a folded and crumpled landscape of high, forested mountains, and deep, narrow valleys with but very few riparian strips suitable for farming.     With scant agricultural potential, and formidably difficult of access, except from the U.S., it has always been one of the hinterlands of British Columbia.   Indeed, it should have remained as empty as the Omineca, but for one circumstance it contained rich deposits of valuable minerals.

Had it not been for the presence of gold, silver, copper, and coal in quantity, costly mountain railways would never have been built into Kootenay-Boundary.   Nor would the Americans have been interested in entering this isolated region to prospect and mine.   Without the mineral wealth which brought the railways, there would have been no settlement at all, save for perhaps a few ranchers shipping cattle into the Spokane market.      

The Mining Era on the Canadian Columbia, the period from 1854 until 1929, was largely  American inspired, American financed and supplied.   The mineral deposits of the Kootenay and Boundary Districts were close to the border, in some cases straddling it.   They were relatively easy of access by American trails, roads, steamer routes, and railroads from the growing inland entrepot of Spokane.    Capital to open and develop the mines was available in Spokane at a time when the coastal merchants of British Columbia had turned their backs on the Kootenays after two unfortunate experiences.   For them it was a district too isolated behind its mountains, and too dominated by Spokane interests to make it a worthwhile risk for their capital.

Only when Canadian railroads and steamer lines penetrated this mountain-ringed fastness did Canadian and British investors enter to buy back its mining assets from the Americans who had been first on the scene.

The period of American incursion and the great mining boom left its mark on the Kootenay-Boundary.   As the automobile era began in 1920, Interior British Columbians were driving on the right hand side of the road, as did the Americans, while motorists in Vancouver and Victoria drove on the left.   Kootenay and Boundary families did their Christmas shopping in Spokane, a few hours away by train or down easy roads, rather than take the longer train trip  to Vancouver.   If an auto trip to the Coast was necessary, one crossed the border, and used the U.S. highways.   There was no road connection at all between the Interior and the Coast until 1927.      

The easy entry into Interior British Columbia from the U.S., and the commercial aggressiveness of the Americans had always been a matter of anxiety to British Columbia governments, both Colonial and Provincial.    From the year the first group of Oregon-bound settlers laboured across the summit of the Blue Mountains in 1820 into the vast basin of the Columbia River, the Colonial officials of the British lands in the Northwest began to fear an American invasion and possible annexation.    These armed and often unruly American settlers were steeped in the doctrines of Republicanism, self government, and, especially dangerous in the British view, “Manifest Destiny,” the assertion that Americans alone had some special, quasi-divine right to rule and enlighten the entire North American continent, from the North Pole to Panama, and from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific.     In the mouths of their jingoistic politicians, “Manifest Destiny” became an incitement to military conquest, and a continuing nightmare to the rulers of British North America.

 Had the British reflected, they might have seen that “Manifest Destiny” was simply the American version of their own Imperial Doctrine, which held that the English, by virtue of their uniquely stable government, and supposed talent for wise rule, were favoured  by God as the prime civilizers and most capable administrators of the globe.

The lands that became the Colony and later the Province of British Columbia never suffered the feared American invasion, but were subject to successive incursions of preponderant numbers of  Americans with a single object in view the availability of gold, silver, and copper to the man who would dig it.     These sudden rushes of armed and populist Americans across the line, mouthing the slogans of greed, and ruthless exploitation,  changed the culture and customs of British Columbia.    From a lethargic Crown Colony, with a British Naval Base, ruled and dominated by a single London trading corporation, autocratic, class bound, and unashamedly monopolistic, British Columbia was suddenly plunged into a wild, fast-profit mining economy.   Its citizens,  influenced by the get rich quick values of San Francisco, became fierce exploiters of the hinterlands, grasping for huge, unrepeatable profits in minerals, fish, timber and ranch lands.  The province, for its first fifty years was a turbulent, unruly, scarcely governable region of unrestrained private plunder and  official corruption, obsessed by a piratical fever to rush in, seize the resource, and get out swiftly with the gains.

The Colonial Governments were obliged to bend their laws, and even to recast them to accommodate wishes of the overwhelming number of American miners moving onto their soil.        Imperial mining laws were revised to conform with those in the U.S.    In all but one of the the rushes, Americans outnumbered  British fifty to one, and were accustomed to making their own law as they had in California.   The Colonials had to accede or risk a confrontation with a superior force.   To the horror of the Colonial Office in London, coins were minted of miners’ gold in American denominations.    American dollars were the universal medium of commercial exchange, only the Government and the Hudson’s Bay Company kept their accounts in pounds sterling.     Further, as the merchants found their own bonanzas in provisioning the successive gold rushes, they actively catered to them, subsidizing ship passage for gold seekers, circulating handbills and advertisements in California and Oregon cities to solicit placer miners, and promising easy and well traveled routes to the gold fields.    To accommodate the miners and the B.C. merchants’ efforts to supply them, the government built roads and trails to the mines, and an armed Gold Escort service was maintained to transport the miner’s bullion to the B.C. mint.     

The scarcity of arable land and the severe disincentives put in the way of independent agricultural immigration by the Colonial Government prevented the Nineteenth Century province from developing a typically Canadian political base of independent farmers, stable and conservative.    Instead, a wholly exploitive society of speculators evolved, not seeking land, but rather its plunderable resources.   Miners, gamblers in their souls, later fishers, mining the coastal waters,  ranchers, exploiting ever larger acreages of public grasslands, and lumbermen, stripping the mountains of their forests, created the buccaneer values of this isolated Province, values which still dominate its turbulent and murky politics.

The first Colonial Governors had apprehended an American attempt to seize their Colony by force, and discouraged by restrictive legislation, any American immigration which they feared might lead to annexation.   The later Governors and Premiers sought to cash in on the gold rushes by advertising them in the manner of a World Fair.   Miners, they learned with relief,  seldom settled, and could be counted on to safely leave when the gold ran out.   Meanwhile they could be provisioned at great profit.    This continuing obsession with easy riches, with the high stakes gambles of mining, fishing, and lumbering, left an unacknowledged  mark, a looter’s mark, on the consciousness of British Columbians.

In the great railway building era from 1896 until 1916, the Provincial politicians dangled railway charters with huge land grants to entice Americans and Canadians alike to build a railway network into the southeast of the Province to develop the mineral potential there.    It became a somewhat cynical game, baiting with grants of cash and lands the American companies to build the lines which would force Canada’s reluctant national railway to extend its own competing tracks into the area.   The always commercially aggressive Americans built quickly; the more deliberate Canadian Pacific was forced to respond with tracks of its own.

  In the Kootenay-Boundary districts, the American incursion and the inauguration of the mining industry by American capital was chauvinistically forgotten as British and Canadian financiers after 1895 bought back the industry from the Americans, and with the exodus of U.S. mine owners, Kootenay-Boundary society became, for the first time, Canadian, only its distinctively U.S. architecture betraying its origin.

The mining era had brought in the costly railroads to move the ores out and coal and merchandise in.    With the decline of mining, the presence of this rail network on the ground encouraged the development of a forest industry utilizing these easy export routes to U.S. markets.     In a reversal of mining history, the major forest enterprises begun by Canadians in the 1920s were acquired by American firms in the 1950 – 1990 period.    When, as is bound to happen, the profitable timber is gone and the American firms, like their mining companies, leave, the Kootenay- Boundary will likely become another Yukon, living on seasonal tourist catering, and romanticized versions of its past for the entertainment of visitors.

It was the exploitation of minerals, and nothing else, that brought the railways, the population, and supported the tiny pockets of agriculture in this sea of mountains.   How that mining era began, flourished and declined, and the changes it wrought along the Columbia, the Kootenay and the Kettle Rivers is the subject of this work.    

7 thoughts on “THE MINING ERA ON THE CANADIAN COLUMBIA by Late Local Author Bill Laux

  1. Amy

    Interesting that our blogs today both focus on mining and greed. It’s embarrassing, but not surprising, to read about American greed and imperialism. Some things haven’t changed….

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ankur Mithal

    Very informative. I am not at all familiar with Canadian history. Also seems strange that two geographically massive countries have a border which is almost a straight line that seems to be manually drawn and not on account of a natural separation. But I guess the main point is that most exploration has been the result of greed and led to exploitation.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Peter Klopp Post author

      Drawing up the map for these giant countries was easy, since there are no real natural borders except for the Great Lakes in the east. So when all the disputes were settled (not all of them peacefully) the 49th parallel was taken as the straightest and longest border between any two countries. Thank you for your interest, Ankur!

      Liked by 1 person

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