Having grown up with American magazines and television, I’d been enthralled by images of abandoned and intact mining camps in the American Southwest.
Had an interesting chat with Mark Hume of the Globe Mail last week. He’d phoned to ask me about B.C. ghost towns.
Now there’s a subject dear to my heart. Not only were ghost towns, even the pale imitations such as we had on the Island, among my first field expeditions but they’d fascinated me from childhood. Having grown up with American magazines and television, I’d been enthralled by photos of abandoned mining camps in the American Southwest. There, preserved by the desert aridity, these camps, some of them of legendary
Wild West status, had survived the elements and, it seemed, vandalism. Why, some photos even suggested the Mary Celeste with the dishes and cutlery still in place as if their owners had just left the tables, mid-meal.
Yeah, right. That was one of the first things I learned about "ghost towns."
If you wanted to see one that was intact you had to go to Barkerville or Fort Steele. Everywhere else it was encouraged devastation. I say encouraged, because almost always there was a property owner, individual or corporate, who, likely afraid of insurance liability, didn’t want interlopers poking about their old buildings. And the easiest way to discourage visitors was demolition.
As one man who spoke from bitter experience politely explained to me in the early ’60s:
"Son, I really wouldn’t mind your looking around. But then others would see you and start poking about. Then my tools would begin disappearing and my equipment vandalized. It’s happened before. Sorry."
Sorry. I heard that more than once in my travels, never mind the no trespassing signs. But, for all that, I did manage to explore many a ghost town site on the Island and in southern B.C. One result of this was my book on Vancouver Island ghost towns that has been in continuous print now for 40 years, and still selling. And still intriguing succeeding generations of readers who, like me, find something irresistible in communities which have all but vanished.
Which brings up the point that not all ghost towns have, in fact, vanished. Many of them survive as viable if not thriving rural communities.
Yes, the economic raison d’etre for their founding and original existence has long passed, but their surviving infrastructure has attracted newcomers, many of them pensioners who accept living somewhat off the beaten track in exchange for a lower cost of living.
Or because they want to live in peace and quiet.
One of the ghost towns that Mark asked me about was Leechtown whose mini-gold rush celebrated its 150th anniversary last July. Alas, there was nothing of the original townsite even when I first visited it, about 1962 or so. Oh, there were some cabins and ruins but not of the original stampede that, for a time, had threatened to depopulate Victoria. Few of those structures still standing dated beyond the dirty ’30s when unemployed veterans supplemented their military pensions by prospecting. However, as this entire area is privately owned, all of their rustic dwellings have been demolished to discourage not just visitors but squatters.
Which isn’t to say that I haven’t had some great times scratching about some of these historic sites with the help of my metal detector, even here in the Valley, on Mount Sicker.
I began my bottle collection at Cumberland’s Chinatown, scene of a collecting frenzy in the early to mid-’60s.
I’ve never seen anything like it before or since. Wide open to exploitation – I saw licence plates from as far away as Vermont – and so many bottles, many of them of beautiful teal blues and greens and highly collectible, that at the end of a day’s digging you had to cherry-pick your finds.
Not so today, regrettably, at Cumberland or anywhere else that I’m aware of. Now, to find a site worth digging requires research and serious bushwhacking.
Even then the rewards are spotty although my museum does continue to grow ever so slowly. So I go on, seeking out abandoned town sites, mining or logging camps.
But, as I say, they’re few and far between – or on someone’s property and off-limits. Sigh.