Daniel Corbin had invested in the Jumbo mine in the Illecillewat district in the 1880s.  He had built a narrow gauge railway line in 1886 to tap the Coeur D’Alene mines in Idaho, which had been an instant success.   The mining men of Stevens County, Washington, wanted a rail connection to the NP for their ores, and to bring in coke and coal for their smelter near Chewelah.   Several Northwest lines had expressed interest in building to Colville.   The Klickitat and Golden was interested, but had no money.   The Seattle, Lakeshore and Eastern, locally called “The Seattle and Elsewhere” for the unconnected bits of lines it had commenced in various parts of the State, was drawing lines of track on its maps.    Even a Victoria group had proposed a narrow gauge line from Little Dalles on the Columbia to the mines at Chewelah.    The Stevens County people were prepared to accept any but a Canadian Pacific line.    The CPR was out of favour because of its high rates and monopoly tactics, insisting on guarantees it would be the sole railroad permitted in the area before it would build.

A consortium to build a line from Spokane to Colville was formed by Helena banker, James Monaghan, and James Golver, A.A. Newberry and Frank Moore.   Daniel Corbin was brought in by his friend Monaghan as the man to construct the line.   Corbin was a man with Kootenay mining properties, and had learned from his profitable little narrow gauge in Idaho that mining railroads were as good as gold mines.    General William J. Palmer, who had built more mining railroad mileage than anyone in North America put it, “A population engaged in mining is by far the most profitable of any to a railway.   A hundred miners, from their wandering habits and many wants, are better customers than four times that number otherwise employed.”     Corbin saw farther than Colville.  He wanted a line to Kootenay Lake to serve those profitable miners and to seize the ore and trade for Spokane.   The first link would be a line from a NP connection at Spokane to a steamer landing on the Columbia.   If he could link the CPR at Revelstoke with the NP at Spokane by a rail-boat service he could offer shippers of ore the option to ship via either line for the best rates.    This would introduce the first freight rate competition into the Kootenays, and it won him the enthusiastic support of both Canadians and American shippers frustrated at the monopoly rates of both transcontinentals.   

The Spokane investors were unable to raise the financing necessary to begin the line, and they were displaced by New York financier, Horace Thurber, who was able to place $2,500,000 in bonds for the line.   Eastern investors were beginning to hear the name, Kootenay, and were willing to risk their money in a railroad line which, if the mines prospered, would find a ready sale to the Northern Pacific.

  Corbin agreed to build the line himself for $40,000 per mile to be paid by Thurman in half shares and half bonds.   He  hired, E. J. Roberts, who had been Chief Engineer for Jim Hill’s Great Northern extension from Minot, North Dakota to Great Falls, Montana, to be his engineer and to build the line as quickly and cheaply as possible.    When the country was settled up, there would be time to upgrade the track.   Meantime, he said, the trains would run slowly and carefully.    Roberts agreed, saying, “I’ll build it cheap, and you run it cheap.”    

Construction of the Spokane Falls and Northern  got underway in 1889.   Roberts laid out a sinuous line avoiding all difficult rock work, and reportedly going around big trees rather than digging out their stumps.    He claimed to have saved Corbin $1000 per mile by this means.    

The SF&N climbed from Spokane at 1900 feet to cross the low Huckleberry Mountains at 2432 feet and then descended down the valley of the Colville River to Colville at 1500 feet.  Two Baldwin 2-6-0 Mogul locomotives arrived in April to operate the line, and by October 18, 1889, the first train arrived in Colville.   It was a remarkable feat, to have built 100 miles of railroad in a single season.   

Colville the seat of Stevens County, had already a population of miners and prospectors working the silver-lead mines in the region and prospecting for more.   The Old Dominion mine and the Mutual Smelting Company were the chief operations.    From its beginning Colville had been a somewhat rowdy place.   The Silver Crown Hotel, described as “a bar that had a hotel attached,” erected a veranda out front so that patrons could watch the street brawls from the comfort of armchairs and not need to muddy their feet.   

The next year the track reached the Columbia at Marcus with the first train arriving on the river on April 20.    Work was underway to extend the line to the ghost town of Little Dalles to bypass navigational hazards in the river, and Corbin now sought a steamer connection with the CPR at Revelstoke.    The trio of Hume, Cowin and Sanderson with their cranky Dispatch, did not have the financing to build new boats and  provide a scheduled service to Corbin’s railroad, so a new company was formed to take over the old one, with substantial backing from men long in the B.C. transportation business.   These were Captain John Irving, son of the famous Fraser River boat owner;  Member of Parliament, J.A. Mara, a Kamloops businessman, who had run the old HBC Marten on the Thompson; and Frank S. Barnard whose father had founded the B.C. Express Company with its service to the Cariboo.    These men had steamboat experience, political influence, and the funds to expand the Columbia River service.    The new company, the Columbia and Kootenay Steam Navigation Company (CKSN), was funded with $100,000 to build and operate steamers on both the Columbia and Kootenay Lake.

  In July, 1890, in Victoria,  Daniel Corbin signed an agreement with the new CKSN for a through service connecting the two transcontinental railways via the Columbia River and his SF&N stump dodging railway.  It was a superb coup.   At one stroke, Corbin had put the growing railroad town of Spokane,with its population of 7,000, in a position to control the trade both of the new mining districts in Stevens County, Washington, and of the Kootenays of British Columbia.   

The total cost of building the SF&N had been $1,297,842.    By agreement with its owners, who were to pay Corbin $40,000 per mile in bonds and shares, he received $3,524,000 worth; this made him the nominal owner.   The SF&N, with E.J. Roberts’ pioneer construction methods, had cost him but $8,604,50 per mile to build.    It was an extremely profitable method Corbin was to use successfully in subsequent railroad construction: contracting to build for an inflated sum in bonds and shares per mile, thus earning equity in the road he built as cheaply as possible.   Passengers were to curse Corbin’s jerry-built constructions when in later years, they had to be strapped into their sleeping car bunks to keep them from tumbling out into the aisles on his rough and crooked  track.

Now, with the substantial profit he had made, D.C. Corbin was ready to extend his line.

The engineer, John F. Stevens, another graduate of the CPR’s Selkirk crossing, was hired by Roberts in 1889 to survey a possible line to Metalline Falls where extensive silver-lead ore bodies had been found.   This was never built.  Another undefined right of way was applied for to cross the Columbia at Marcus and run up the Kettle river through both countries, to cross into the Okanagan and run to the new silver mines being opened at Ruby City in Washington.   But it was Kootenay Lake that was Corbin’s immediate goal.   To cross the border with his line he would have to obtain a B.C. and a Dominion Government charter.

At the same time the CKSN let a contract to the shipbuilder Alexander Watson of Victoria, to build a first class passenger and freight sternwheel steamer at Revelstoke for the Columbia River run.   While she was under construction, the syndicate bought the old Kootenai for $10,000.    The Kootenai was at once put to work hauling materials and supplies for the American contractor building the Ainsworth’s portage railway, now the CPR’s Columbia and Kootenay Railway, from Sloat’s Landing to Nelson on Kootenay Lake.    These supplies and provisions, of course, came up Daniel Corbin’s SF&N line from Spokane.    His gamble was proving profitable from the very beginning.

At Revelstoke, the new sternwheeler, Lytton, was launched in May, 1890.  She was 131 feet long, by 25 feet wide, 284 gross tons, and drew but 19 inches of water light.   With a load of cargo she drew but 2 feet, ideal for the narrow, twisting channel of the Columbia.    She was powered by two 16 x 62 inch cylinders, a powerful engine for her size, and giving her a speed of 12 miles per hour.    She had cost $38,000, and with a good depth of water in the river, could crowd on board 200 passengers and 125 tons of freight.

Her first trip began on July 2, 1890 with Captain Frank Odin in command..  Aboard at Revelstoke were 65 tons of railroad rails and iron fittings for the new Columbia and Kootenay Railway.    Among the passengers were owners Frank Barnard and J. A. Mara, joined by CPR president William Van Horne and Director R. B. Angus who were on their way to inspect the work on the C&K.   Departure was delayed by a crowd of excited prospectors anxious to get to the new gold-copper strike at Red Mountain.   

Sproat’s Landing, at the confluence of the Kootenay an Columbia Rivers,  was reached the following day where the men of substance took horses to inspect the C&K construction.    Sproat’s Landing, a townsite laid out by Gilbert Sproat and managed by his brother, consisted of the Genelle sawmill with cabins for its employees, a depot for the railway under construction, an express office, Lemon’s General Store, a drug store, a government building with a post office, the Kootenay House hotel, and three restaurants.    A few frame houses and a number of tents and log cabins plus Joe Wilson’s corral for his pack stock, completed the town.    Today it is altogether gone.

The Lytton, like all the river steamers at this time, burned wood, and each trip up or down the lakes required a number of stops to “wood up” where men under contract were clearing land and piling cordwood on the beach for the steamers.    On August 15, the SF&N was complete to Little Dalles, which was enjoying an unlikely second boom, and Corbin ran a special train to meet the Lytton and inaugurate through service from the NP in Spokane to the CPR in Revelstoke.    The first published timetable listed departures from Revelstoke on Monday and Thursday with arrival in Little Dalles on Tuesdays and Fridays.    The one way, combined fare from Revelstoke to Spokane was $13.50.

  J.A. Mara was amply satisfied with the progress of the new company and recorded,

“Business has been good, fully up to our expectations, although the river did not open as early as usual.   We have taken to date, passengers, 1325, animals 63, tons of freight, 1275.   Future prospects are


The 1325 passengers carried by the two boats, Kootenai and Lytton, exceeded the entire population of the Kootenays at that time, and his remark about the late opening of the Columbia was to be prophetic of future problems.    Winter ice on the Columbia would disrupt schedules and enforce cancellations of steamer runs from their beginning in 1890 until the end in 1954.

In 1891 the CKSN launched their Kootenay Lake sternwheeler, the Nelson, at that town. She was a near duplicate of the Lytton, at 131 feet and 496 gross tons.  She had the old engines of the Skuzzy II, and SkuzzyI, not quite as powerful as those of the Lytton, but adequate for the lake and the slow waters of the Kootenay River.    She made her maiden voyage in August and was put on a schedule leaving Nelson every Monday at 8:00 AM for Pilot Bay, Ainsworth and Kaslo and return.   On Tuesdays and Fridays she left Nelson at 3:00 AM for Pilot Bay, Ainsworth and up the Kootenay River into the U.S. for Bonner’s Ferry.   On Wednesdays and Saturdays, leaving Bonner’s Ferry at 3:00 AM for Pilot Bay, Ainsworth and Nelson.   With its two new boats the CKSN controlled both the Canadian gateway to the Kootenays  via Revelstoke down the Columbia, and the American gateway via Bonner’s Ferry, to Kootenay Lake and Nelson, while the CPR’s subsidiary, the C& K railway hustled passengers and freight from lake to river down its 28 miles of track.   

A unique and isolated community was now forming in the Kootenay mountains, centred on Nelson and almost exclusively busied with mining.    The ore came down from the mountainside mines in sacks carried on horses, and was piled on the wharfs at Ainsworth, Bluebell, Crawford Bay and Nelson.   The Nelson on her twice weekly rounds, would pick up these sacks and take them to Bonner’s Ferry and the wagon haul to the NP at Kootenai Station, bringing back provisions, liquor, tools and miner’s supplies from Spokane.     Over on the Columbia at Revelstoke the CPR dropped off passengers and freight for the Lytton which took them down the Arrow Lakes to Sloat’s Landing and the C&K cars to Nelson. 

The Revelstoke route was suspended in winter when low water and ice closed the Columbia and Arrow Lakes.   The Bonner’s Ferry route operated most of the winter, sometimes having to be suspended when ice formed in the shallow West Arm of Kootenay Lake.


Daniel Corbin had gone to Victoria in 1889 while his graders were beginning his line out of Spokane, to petition the Legislature to grant him a charter for a Canadian railway from Waneta at the border to Nelson, B.C.    A railway needed a government charter to give it the power to expropriate rights of way across private property in cases where the owner refused to sell at a reasonable price.   The court would set a price and the graders could then enter private property to build the line.   Just as important, was a grant of public land to the railway, in addition to the the right of way, which the Legislature might be persuaded to give.   Few men, and certainly not Daniel Corbin, would build a railroad with their own money.   A grant of public lands could be used to back the bonds issued by the company to raise construction money.     These lands could be chosen by the railway officials; they did not have to be adjacent to the track.   Then, when the track was laid and inspected by the government, the lands would be transferred as a bulk grant.

It was the responsibility of the grantee to have them surveyed and measured.  When this had been done, title could be issued.   These grants of Crown Land were the necessary inducement to financiers to build railways into empty country where costs could only be recouped if the land could be sold to settlers.

Corbin’s proposed Nelson line would ascend Beaver Creek from the Columbia and alongside the Dewdney Trail run through an easy pass to the Salmo River and follow that stream to its source.   From there, it would descend Cottonwood Creek on a 2 per cent grade, reaching  Kootenay Lake at Five Mile Point.   Here it would reverse and run back along the lakeshore to Nelson.   Corbin knew the objections  British Columbians had to an American railroad entering the Kootenays and draining its traffic south to Spokane.    So he sweetened his proposal with a second charter request for a “Coast to Kootenay” railway which would run from Vancouver eastward to the Okanagan and then over the Monashee Range to the Kettle Valley and connect to his line at Marcus Washington.   This was the line coastal merchants had been soliciting the CPR to build.   Perhaps this American’s proposal, some thought,  was just what was needed to goad the CPR into action.   

Corbin was very vague about the route of this “Coast to Kootenay” line; he did not have a survey to present.   He said only that the Nelson line and the line to Vancouver “…would form one continuous line of railway from the south (sic) end of Kootenay Lake to the Coast, with a short detour into American territory, rendered necessary by the difficulties of penetrating the chain of mountains on the west bank of the Columbia River.” 

The people of Nelson and the Kootenays generally, a majority of whom were Americans pursuing their fortunes in the mines, were strongly in favour of Corbin’s lines.   Any railroad, by whomever built, with dollar a ton rates on ore and coal would boom Kootenay commerce and mining.   But the merchants of the Coast remembered Captain Ainsworth; this appeared to be just another plan to divert B.C. Interior trade to the U. S.   Corbin already controlled the Columbia trade with his railhead at Little Dalles; the new line would put him on Kootenay Lake and with his ally, the CKSN which was building a sternwheeler for that trade, he would control commerce there as well.

The distrust of the coastal merchants convinced Corbin that he needed a Canadian ally to front for him.    The ally presented himself in the person of Colonel James Baker, member of the Legislature for East Kootenay.   Colonel Baker was a flamboyant personality, the brother of the famous British Imperial official, “Pasha Baker.”   Baker had extensive claims to the coal lands of the Crowsnest Pass region and needed a railroad to develop them.   He proposed his own paper railroad, the B.C. Southern, to run from the town he was promoting, Cranbrook, to the Coast, but he lacked the funds to build it.   He was willing to trade his political influence in the legislature for Corbin’s financing of his B.C. Southern.   Corbin accepted, but when he saw the railway bill Colonel Baker had introduced, which gave the land grants to Baker, while Corbin was to build the line, he quickly backed out.   Without B.C. backing, Corbin’s two charter proposals were voted down.

CPR President, William Van Horne, had been giving consideration to a line entering the Kootenays from the east through Crowsnest Pass in the Rockies but would not begin  construction until government subsidies and land grants could be obtained.   On the 20 August, 1890, the Dominion Cabinet authorized the CPR to lease the Columbia and Kootenay Railway for 999 years, just as Daniel Corbin was signing his agreement with the CKSN for joint rail, steamer service from Rovelstoke to Spokane.   Some writers have thought that if Corbin chose to abandon his plans to build across the border into B.C. he might have negotiated use of the Columbia and Kootenay Railway to reach Kootenay Lake with a steamer connection from Sloat’s Landing to Little Dalles.    This would most probably have resulted in the CPR leasing or buying the SF&N.  The Canadian Pacific, as future developments were to show, was not willing to share the Kootenay trade with any other railway.    The CPR began construction of the C&K in 1890, and Corbin went to Ottawa to present his dual charter petitions to the Dominion government.  The Coastal B.C. opposition followed him.   Premier Robson, deeply suspicious of American schemes telegraphed the parliamentary Railway Committee insisting that the charters, if granted should insist that both railways be built simultaneously.   The City of Vancouver opposed Corbin’s charters as well, suggesting that the vague “Coast to Kootenay” line was merely bait to get the lucrative Nelson to Spokane line.   Finally President Van Horne of the CPR weighed in and promised that if Corbin’s charters were rejected, the CPR would build its own line into the Kootenays from Lethbridge.   This was what most parliamentarians wanted, and many admitted they had entertained Corbin’s proposals only to force the CPR to commit itself to build the Crowsnest Line.

Back in Nelson, the residents, mostly Americans, were outraged at loosing a potential rail connection to the outside and vented their anger by boycotting Canadian goods, and continuing to send their mail out via the U.S.A.

Corbin now called on his partners in the CKSN, John Mara, Frank Barnard, and Captain Irving.   If he could get rails to Kootenay Lake, they would be able with the boats they planned to put on Kootenay Lake, to move ore to his railhead, rather than to Bonner’s Ferry and the wagon haul to the NP.   This steamer-rail route with no wagon haul, would mean a lower rate for ore moving out and coal moving in.   

Again the B.C. legislature was asked for a charter for a Nelson and Fort Shepherd Railway.   This time, however, it was presented by five well respected British Columbians as a British Columbian line.   Very cleverly, Daniel Corbin presented his Marcus to Vancouver charter application at the very same time.  The legislators were so righteously preoccupied with turning down the American’s charter flat, that they granted the Nelson charter to the five British Columbians without a thought.

  The next year, 1892, Corbin bought the N&FS charter from his CKSN allies and got the legislature to give it a land grant of  10,240 acres per mile.   The year following, he persuaded the Dominion parliament to add a federal cash subsidy of $3,200 per mile, and permit it to connect to the American rails of his SF&N at the border.   This seeming reversal of policy by the B.C. and Ottawa legislators reflected the fact that the CPR had completed the Columbia and Kootenay line in 1891 to serve Nelson from Revelstoke via boat and rail;  Corbin’s line was welcomed as a desirable competition to break a CPR monopoly and keep rates down.   The same thing happened all over the Canadian west:  the Canadian Pacific would be lobbied to build a line into a district, but no sooner was it in place than the agitation began for a competing railway to come in and force down the CPR’s monopolistic rates.

Corbin had located his own townsite seven miles north of Little Dalles, called it Northport, and extended his rails to it in 1892.   This was now his wholly owned Columbia River Port and gateway to British Columbia.   Without telling Washington D.C., he had the Little Dalles Post Office, put onto a flat car and hauled to Northport and set out there with its new name lettered on.    As Little Dalles, without a steamer connection, collapsed, a ghost town for the second time, the Washington D.C. government recognized  reality, and Northport, Washington was in business.     

With his way cleared into Canada, Daniel Corbin pushed his rails from Northport to the border at Waneta and let a contract to Peter Larsen and Patrick Welch of Helena, Montana to grade his line to Nelson.    Chief Engineer Roberts, reported indignantly that each morning when  his steam shovel crossed the border to begin making grade, the Canadian Customs agent demanded he pay duty on it.   This problem was eliminated by moving the construction camp to Sayward, across the border into Canada.    To avoid paying duty on American rails for the line, Corbin had English rails shipped as ballast in empty grain ships to Portland.   These, in bond, were allowed across the line into Canada.    Speedy construction was essential, the charter required completion by the end of 1893.   The steep, 2 per cent grade down to Kootenay Lake was put on trestles for much of its length to eliminate the need for time consuming and costly drilling and blasting of the rock bluffs.  However, when the graders reached the lakeshore, they found their way blocked by the CPR.

Van Horne had not forgotten his promise to the Dominion parliament.   He was determined to shut Corbin out of southern B.C. and monopolize its trade for the CPR.   He sent out surveyors to discover whether the much discussed, “Coast to Kootenay” railway was feasible, and what route it might take.    They reported, that though costly, such a line was possible.  The C&K portage railway would be its center segment.  A line in from Lethbridge, Alberta over Crowsnest Pass would join it at Nelson, and from its terminus at Sloat’s Landing on the Columbia, a line could be built west to the Okanagan and on west to rejoin the CPR main line at Hope.   To block Corbin, Van Horne, working through Harry Abbott in Vancouver, presented his proposed line to the B.C. legislators and got them to establish a “CPR Railway Reserve” on the lands covered by the route.   This reserve now covered the south shore of Kootenay Lake from its head to Nelson, and E. J. Roberts, who had intended his line to run back to Nelson from Five Mile Point, found the lakeshore preempted and was obliged to end his railway at the water’s edge.   However, an arrangement was made for the CKSN’s new sternwheeler, Nelson, to meet all trains at Five Mile Point and transfer freight and passengers to the Nelson dock.   With a daily train service to Spokane on Corbin’s line, the run up the river to Bonner’s Ferry was discontinued.  The old charge on ore for the smelters had been $30.00 per ton, largely owing to that awkward wagon haul from Bonner’s Ferry to Kootenai Station.  Now Daniel Corbin offered a $9.00 per ton charge on ore from Nelson all the way to the Tacoma Smelter.   This rate meant that lower grades of ore were now suddenly commercial.   No longer did the output of each mine have to be sorted by hand to pick out the high grade which would pay its transportation to the smelter.   Since now fifteen dollar ore would return a profit, investors from Spokane took the train to the Kootenay mines to buy properties that previously were too low grade to mine.

That first winter of N&FS operation, 1893, the Columbia froze solid from Revelstoke down the Arrow Lakes, severing the CPR’s Canadian connection until May, while Corbin’s trains ran daily to Spokane.   With nothing moving on the Columbia, the C&K line with its one locomotive and 19 cars, shut down operations until Spring.   Mail had to got out via the U.S. and a letter to Revelstoke travelled to Spokane, Tacoma, Vancouver (by water) and back to Revelstoke, 10 days in all .   The CPR’s water route into the Kootenays had proved an admirable  tourist attraction, a delightful trip in the summer, but not dependable, year round transportation.  That severe winter, and Corbin’s railway, rough and crooked as it was, definitively attached the Kootenays to Spokane.   

The Kootenay Lake silver-lead mines were not the only beneficiaries of Corbin’s line with its new, lower freight rates.   With rail transportation now a reality, the prospectors in Colville were taking another look at other mining discoveries that had been neglected in the pack horse era.   Newlin Hoover, of Toad Mountain, and Oliver Bordeaux of Colville in the enthusiasm of the railway’s arrival in Colville in 1889 restaked a claim that had been abandoned along the Dewdney Trail west of the Columbia, believing its ore might now be commercial.   It was an act that would have enormous consequences for all of Northeast Washington and the Kootenays of B.C.

11 thoughts on “THE MINING ERA OF THE CANADIAN COLUMBIA by Bill Laux – Chapter 17

  1. I’ve loved riding on narrow gauge railroads, like the Durango & Silverton line in Colorado, but sometimes they’re kinda scary, if you don’t like heights, a real vertigo-inducing experience – – so I can imagine what these budget mining lines were like, cheaply-built and winding around rocks and trees – – probably not for the faint-hearted!

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  2. Great post with rich history. I recall all the old silver and gold mines in Colorado and the single gauge railroads. One of my favorite “roads” in Colorado winds around the stream and ends above Colorado Springs, CO. The railroad used to travel this very challenging single lane road. It is called the Gold Camp Road and one literally need to drive with a Jeep. When you encounter traffic in the opposite direction, be prepared to back up to one of the spots where you can pull over to allow the other car to continue. What an adventure for us as children when our family took this trip.

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    • Entering an abandoned gold or silver mine shaft has always been a great excitement for my intermediate class. Good exercise too to hike up the long trail to the mine! Thank you for your kind comment, Mary Ann!

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      • I think abandoned mine shafts are dangerous; nonetheless, that didn’t stop our father from having us enter one after hiking several miles up. Our mother was pregnant and stayed in the car waiting all day for us without knowing what we had done. I can only imagine the conversation she and my father had when we got back home. You were very brave to take a class there too.

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      • I recall as a Fulbright teacher in Germany, I had to get personal liability insurance while there. The example given was if one of my children rode a bike and accidently scraped against an expensive parked Mercedes. Well I had to get the insurance even though I never had to use it. My school district would never approve such a field trip for many, varied reasons. Glad nothing happened and that you enjoyed the adventure. Your students will remember that always, believe me.

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      • The same strict rules are being applied here too. It starts with a law suit and all the rules are tightened. Now you can’t take your class to the hot springs, without getting first a minimum of half a dozen parents to help with the supervision. Thanks for your interesting comment, Mary Ann!

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  3. Every other year I took my intermediate class to one of the abandoned silver mines in our area. That was possible before they came up with all those safety regulations. For the kids it was a great adventure. Have a great week, Mary Ann!


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