Similkameen’s Red Mountain has seen boom and bust

Even the legendary ‘Volcanic’ Brown struggled to find investors for Copper Mountain.

Copper Mountain, 12 miles south of Princeton, has long lived up to its name. It really is a mountain of copper. For all its natural wealth, however, its career as a copper mine has been chequered with failures.

In 1932, James Jameson Jr. recalled the memorable day in October 1884 when he, then 14, and his father "were out hunting. We both shot at and hit the same deer. It ran a little distance and fell. We went to dress the deer. It was lying on some outcroppings of copper, on what is now called [the] Sunset claim." After packing out the buck, they filed a claim, only to find that gold was the only attraction to those then prospecting the Similkameen Valley.

It was R.A. "Volcanic" Brown, one of the most colourful prospectors ever to dip a gold pan into a British Columbia stream, who started the ball rolling on Copper Mountain. Even he, described as being "as long on enterprise as….Jameson was short," initially couldn’t do anything with the claims he staked in 1892. He returned to the Red Mountain four years later, determined to blast his way into the Sunset seam.

In 1913, two company reorganizations and name changes later, South Yale Copper Co. began to seriously develop both the Sunset and Princess properties. Although, by this time, the mountain was alive with activity and the CPR’s Kettle Valley line had been built as far as Princeton, all activity was brought to a standstill with the outbreak of the First World War. In 1916, because of the need for copper, a townsite was built near the mine and at Allenby, halfway down the mountain, and a railway extension from Princeton was begun.

Despite their $4 million investment, Armistice came before the mine could enter production, the price of copper plunged to 13 cents a pound, and Canada Copper Co. shut down operations.

Allenby Copper, a subsidiary of the mammoth Granby Consolidated Mining, Smelting Power Co. of New York, acquired the mountain in 1925, reactivated the mine and redesigned the concentrating plant – then ceased operations while it underwent a reorganization of its own. Not until late in 1926 – 42 years after the Jamesons’ discovery – did Copper Mountain finally enter production.

Less than two years later, tragedy struck the mountain when fire engulfed a bunkhouse, killing nine and severely burning 11 men.

Then came the Depression and work was suspended in 1930. It was in 1936, after the Granby Co. permanently closed their other B.C. properties, that work at Copper Mountain resumed. This time it was for real, mining, first underground, latterly by open-pit method, continuing uninterrupted (but for a strike in the 1940s) until 1954 when it was announced that the historic operation, which then employed 600 men and which had paid its shareholders millions of dollars in dividends over 30 years, was nearing exhaustion. In April 1957, after producing 35 million tons of ore, the last of 300 employees were laid off. Although considerable low-grade ore remained, the price of copper made further production uneconomical.

Some employees met the news with shock and disbelief, pointing out that the ground beneath the town of Copper Mountain, whose mountainous setting was described by a Vancouver Province reporter as "almost incredibly magnificent," hadn’t been mined.

They were ignoring the fact that, for 20 years, the Granby Co. had had to exercise great ingenuity to remain viable while mining copper ore that was "among the lowest [grade] of any underground metal mining operation in the world".

When, in the 1960s, increased world demand for copper made the mining of such inferior ores feasible, Granby resurrected its historic Phoenix property as an open-pit mine and sold Copper Mountain to Newmont Mining Co. for $12 million.

That firm’s anticipated eightyear operation was to extract an estimated 50 million tons of ore; this was soon upgraded to twice as much ore and up to 20 years.

Incredibly, half a century later and despite fluctuating metals prices, mining on Copper Mountain goes on. Present owners Copper Mountain Mining Corp. have a long-term sales contract with Mitsubishi Materials Corp. of Japan and, in January, it was reported that the Copper Mountain operation was expected to produce 80 million pounds of copper concentrate this year.

Proving that previous predictions of the Red Mountain’s demise as a major B.C. copper producer were short of the mark. All of this too late, of course, for the Jamesons, Volcanic Brown and others.