From mining to skiing, the past looms large at Red Mountain, British Columbia.
Online data mining offers a motherlode of information for historians.
RED MOUNTAIN, ALTHOUGH SMALL IN stature — its summit is only 2,027 metres — can lay claim to being one of Canada’s most historic peaks … not once, but twice.
Tucked away in southeastern British Columbia, about 120 kilometres southeast of Kelowna, Red Mountain gained initial fame from the incredibly rich network of gold and copper veins it contained. On July 2, 1890, Joe Moris and Joe Bourgeois staked the first successful gold claim. A frenzied rush ensued, for the yellow metal cast a magical spell luring thousands of prospectors.
A roistering camp, christened Sourdough Alley, sprang up beside the mountain. The camp grew from a jerry-built collection of shacks into the town of Rossland, named after Ross Thompson, a prospector who purchased 160 acres of public land in 1892 that he turned into the townsite. At its peak, Rossland boast- ed forty-nine saloons, seven newspapers, and an opera house. At the end of 1893 99 claims had been staked, and by 1895 the number had soared to 1,997. The rush was in full swing, and huge fortunes were scrabbled from the mountain. Rossland became known as the “Golden City,” and in 1895 its population was three thousand, making it the fifth-largest community in British Columbia. By 1897, seven thousand residents were listed.
The richest mine was Le Roi (pronounced like the name Leroy). Other mines on Red Mountain included Centre Star, War Eagle, and Josie. The shafts, the first underground mines in British Columbia, included the deepest shaft in Canada at that time, which penetrated to a depth of 670 metres.
Fritz Heinze, a brilliant young American mining engineer and entrepreneur who made a fortune in Montana, was lured by Rossland’s gold. Since shipping ore to distant smelters was not cost-effective, he built a smelter in nearby Trail and also a railroad to transport the ore. The new smelter poured its first gold brick in August 1897. With so much at stake, competition was fierce, and controversy and feuds were frequent. In particular, the Canadian Pacific Railway did not take kindly to its cross-Canada monopoly being challenged by Heinze, whose charter gave him railway rights in much of southern British Columbia.
The CPR wanted those rights, and a long, sometimes bitter negotiation ensued. The flamboyant Heinze felt CPR’s offer was too low and suggested a game of poker to decide the price.
Finally, after rousing Rossland’s Bank of Montreal manager in the middle of the night to act as arbitrator, the CPR in 1898 bought Heinze’s railway and smelter for $800,000. Heinze left shortly after for Montana, where he achieved even greater triumphs. Unfortunately, he later lost his fortune on the stock market and died broke at the age of forty-two.
Mines, of course, need energy to op-
erate. Headquartered in Rossland, the West Kootenay Power & Light Company harnessed the waters of Bonnington Falls and delivered electricity over the first long-distance (51.5-kilometre) high-voltage transmission line in North America. On July 15, 1898, electric lights began to shine in Rossland. Needless to say, the influx of population and the building of infrastructure had an enormous impact on the development of the West Kootenay district.
In 1906, several mines amalgamated to form the Consolidated Mining and Smelting Company of Canada (Cominco), now named Teck Resources. Thus, Red Mountain was the birthplace of a major mining conglomerate that today has operations around the world.
Mines, however, are ephemeral. The extraction of gold and copper lasted from 1894 to 1929 with minor work continuing during the Depression. In 1927 and in 1929, Rossland was struck by major fires.
Although mining in Red Mountain became a memory, Cominco’s smelter in nearby Trail continued to prosper with lead and zinc ores from the Sullivan Mine in Kimberley. Rossland, although diminished, continued as a bedroom community for Trail.
Red Mountain also gained fame, and made history, with a completely different commodity: snow, or “white gold.” The northerly climate and steep mountain slopes, combined with an influx of Scandinavian miners, created the perfect conditions for the introduction and growth of winter sports. In 1896, Olaus Jeldness, a Norwegian mining engineer, formed the Norwegian Ski Club, introducing skiing and ski jumping to the area.
The first downhill ski championship in Canada was held on Red Mountain in 1898. Jeldness won the event and repeated as champion the following two years.
Skiing’s reputation for partying received an early boost in 1898 when Jeldness hosted his legendary “tea party” on Red Mountain. Twenty-five guests climbed to the summit, where a bonfire and bountiful alcoholic refreshments awaited. The difficulty came in returning on skis in the dark. According to folklore, a doctor and an ambulance were waiting at the bot- tom, and few escaped without injury.
Skiing’s popularity continued to grow in the region, and in the mid-1940s Canada’s second chairlift was built there (the first was at Mont Tremblant, Quebec) using equipment from old mining tramlines and knowledge gained from building ore tramways. The first ride up the mountain took place on December 16, 1947.
In 1968, Red Mountain hosted the first World Cup ski competition to be held in Canada. Rossland’s Nancy Greene, fresh off a gold medal in the giant slalom at the Grenoble Winter Olympics, won the same event at Red Mountain.
In 1988, Red Mountain again hosted World Cup ski events. The Red Mountain Ski Club has placed more racers on the national ski team than any other Canadian club. Kerrin Lee-Gartner, another Rosslander, won the downhill gold medal in the 1992 Olympics.
Today, many skiers slalom down Red Mountain unaware of the enormous network of abandoned tunnels and shafts that lie below, or of how significantly the steep little mountain has impacted Canada’s mining and skiing history.
Downtown Rossland, British Columbia.
Above: An assortment of mining tools on display at the Rossland Museum and Discovery Centre.
Right: A statue in Rossland celebrates Olaus Jeldness, the Norwegian mining engineer who introduced skiing and ski jumping to the area.