“When you pick something you wonder who was the first one to hold it in his hand?”—Gary Britt.
Why oh why do we do these things? It was pouring. It was blowing an icy gale, more like a November day than one in April, and the mud was clinging to our clothes and boots, and my nose wouldn’t stop running.
But there we were, last Saturday, with a lonely mountaintop to ourselves as we scratched in the muck looking for treasure.
Not treasure in the normally accepted sense, but historical treasure. In other words, what is, to most people, plain old junk: rusted bits of iron mucked from this long abandoned copper mine and hardly exciting even to two die-hards such as us.
But you never know; we’d scored here before and every so often a revisit also pays off. That eternal flame of hope is what drives us on after all these years. And we’re not the only ones although we appear to be part of a small flock.
There’s a retired chap in Victoria who’s made a career of researching old industrial sites, mines, logging camps, bridges and trestles, railway grades — whatever and wherever there’s something to be learned of previous industrial activity. He’s become the leading authority on the VL&M (Victoria Lumber & Manufacturing Co.) lands between Chemainus and Ladysmith.
Depending upon preference, other researchers regularly ramble about the mid-Island outback, following abandoned logging and mining railway grades, checking out old mine sites and logging camps. They, too, drag home various bits of rust and laboriously clean them up with wire brush, oil and/or paint.
You’d be amazed what a little TLC and effort can sometimes do for what seems, at first appearance, to be just junk. Often the maker’s name and year of manufacture appear like magic when hit with a spray of WD40.
On a much more ambitious level is Gary Britt of Extension. Visitors do a double-take when they see his front yard. It’s not that it’s just landscaped like a park, with hardly a blade of grass out of place. It’s the ore cars — three of ‘em — his Chinese gazebo built to resemble a shrine, and a collection of mining tools and artifacts that catch and hold the eye.
They’ve been a labour of love for the longtime resident of this former coal mining community in South Wellington.
Once the Extension mines were the crown jewel of the fabled Dunsmuir Collieries; today, this quiet residential community, just south of Nanaimo, has a towering pile of coal waste and a mini-historical park to show for its ‘black’ past. And Gary’s open-air museum.
The ore cars, painstakingly rebuilt from original plans and parts salvaged from the bush, make a fine tribute to the old-time miners. Gary has also dedicated one of them with a plaque to the memory of the late Ray Knight who spent much of his lifetime gathering and saving mining artifacts which became the nucleus for Ladysmith’s museum.
Gary, who once was pinned beneath his motorcycle when he tried dragging out a heavy piece of rusting mining equipment (he uses a four-wheel quad today), still pokes around the back country and still hauls home his treasures. Years ago, he explained his passion for the past this way: “When you pick something you wonder who was the first one to hold it in his hand?”
Gary Britt isn’t the only amateur archaeological anthropologist working this part of the Island.
Why do they do this? “I’m saving history,” a Nanaimo bottle collector declared when asked why he was digging in the former dump of Nanaimo’s Chinatown. “Because each and every [bottle] tells a story,” said another while giving a show and tell demonstration to a rapt audience of Ladysmith antique collectors.
As proof, he held up a piece of rusted iron, heavily riveted. It was bent and twisted, indicating that it had been the victim of some cataclysmic force. What was so powerful that it had pretzled this heavy metal? It’s from the tender of a steam locomotive that was involved in a head-on collision just north of Ladysmith, more than a century ago. Archival photos show the two coal trains in a jumble of debris that ran for hundreds of feet and, in some places, reached as high as the telegraph line running alongside the railway tracks. Four men died in that horrifying jumble of metal, wood and flesh.
When this anthropological sleuth said that “hunk of junk” could talk, he wasn’t whistling Dixie!
An interesting adjunct to Vancouver Island railway history is that many of the logging contractors, the so-called gyppos, often bought their rolling stock at auction and distress sales. In other words, much of the equipment was pre-owned. There’s a now buried jumble of railway trucks (undercarriages) beside the former E&N Railway grade (now the Cowichan Valley Trail) near Paldi that contains relics from the Southern and Union Pacific Railroads (as they term them below the border), with dates gong back to the 1870s.
To put this in context, the E&N wasn’t completely until 1886. A tie plate found over the embankment near the Kinsol Trestle is marked CN 1913. That’s for the ill-fated Canadian Northern (Pacific) Railway that predated Canadian National Railways which was organized by the government to salvage it and other lines from bankruptcy.
That’s real history and, as often is the case, the plate was virtually underfoot.
The Extension, Nanaimo and Wellington collieries still have their historic sites although logging operations and development are rapidly chipping away at many of them. As much as anything, it’s this sense of urgency that motivates these historically minded scavengers. Almost daily, it seems, our history is disappearing under hardtop and concrete, with more being threatened as our building boom and urban sprawl continue unabated. There’s rarely little or anything of interest left after the bulldozers have done their work.
And don’t kid yourselves: some historical sites, even those of First Nations, have been obliterated by government order during the construction of highways, for one.
As I’ve said before, you can learn a lot about our pioneering forefathers (OK, and foremothers) by what they ate and what they drank and smoked by scratching in old dumps. Vivid proof of this is a 1920s logging community on the CNR (Trans Canada Trail), towards Lake Cowichan. On the west side of the grade were the married quarters; on the east side, were the bachelors.
How do I know? Because the west side yielded women’s cream jars and baby bottles, the east side was an underground sea of booze bottles and ‘bacca tins!
The sites of logging and mining camps are still out there but they’re becoming fewer and fewer. And you have to move quickly these days because ‘progress’, like time and tide, waits for no one.