It is at moments such as these, when writing about people and places of yesteryear, that I wish could go back in time and witness things first-hand. Those tales riddled with specific details that are passed down from generation to generation rarely seem to make it into the history books. It would sure be handy to have the keys to Doc Brown’s plutonium-powered DeLorean time machine.
If powder skiing or mountain biking is what you live for, then you’ve surely been to, or at least heard of, Rossland, British Columbia. A mere six kilometres from the US/Canada border, it is almost at the midway point between Calgary and Vancouver. Although reputed as Canada’s Alpine City, Rossland’s history is steep in mining.
Build it and they will come
Ross Thompson arrived at Red Mountain with aspirations of striking it rich. After a year of back-breaking labour at the camp, he thought of a better way of making his dreams a reality—he would build a city. When a wagon road was built to Trail Creek Landing in 1893 and close to 2,000 mining properties had been staked in the area by the end of 1895, things really began booming. That same year, a $2 fare would secure you a spot aboard a coach that ran between Trail Creek Landing and Rossland.
Once referred to as ‘the Golden City,’ Rossland initially answered to the name Thompson, after its founder. However, it was soon renamed, as a ‘Thompson’ already existed in British Columbia.
Once they stepped off the coach in Rossland, the new visitors were probably a little taken aback as, unfortunately, by 1895, with no police force to speak of, violence quickly escalated. One such example is on Sourdough Alley, where a dispute ended with James Westgate axing Hugh McLaughlin to death.
The first issue of the The Rossland Miner was published on March 2, 1895. Within two years, it was also publishing The Weekly Miner. The City of Rossland was officially incorporated on March 4, 1897.
That year, the population had grown to about 7,000, and boasted 42 saloons, 17 law firms, a banker, three doctors, and one Justice of the Peace.
Electricity made its way to certain areas of Rossland in 1896; it was only two years later that power was being supplied to the entire town by West Kootenay Power. The Misericordia Hospital opened on June 4, 1897, taking over for the infirmary that had become incapable of handling the demand. The town’s infrastructure needed to catch up with the growing community. After a couple years of pleading with the provincial government to fund the construction of a new school, the contract was finally assigned and 500-plus students entered their classrooms in the fall of 1898.
Stake it, just stake it
In mid-1890, Joe Morris and Joe Bourgeois attempted to register the Center Star, Idaho, Virginia, and War Eagle claims. As there was a two-claim per person limit, they convinced Colonel Eugene Topping to purchase the Le Wise (renamed Le Roi) claim from them and register it himself. Little did they know that it would become the most profitable of the five claims.
Topping met with Colonel William Ridpath, who along with his business associates, purchased 53 per cent of the Le Roi property for $16,000. The tons of ore extracted and shipped to the Colorado Smelting and Mining Company proved that Le Roi was a worthy investment, and resulted in the creation of the Le Roi Gold Mining and Smelting Company in June 1891. Colonel Topping sold the remainder of his share in Le Roi for $30,000.
A mere four years later, in 1895, the Le Roi mine paid out its first dividend. Upon entering production, the company’s stock had jumped from $0.50 to $40 a share. Yet workers were still only being paid, at the most, $3.50 for a twelve-hour shift. Not one to miss out on a profitable opportunity, F. Augustus Heinze built a smelter at Trail Creek Landing and laid down tracks to Rossland, which he dubbed the Trail Creek Tramway. The following year was significant; the smelter entered operation and the West Kootenay Power and Light Company began supplying electricity to the mines.
The Canadian Pacific Railway Company purchased Heinze’s smelter in 1897, after the Le Roi Gold company built their own in Northport. Soon after, the Le Roi Gold company was sold to the British American Corporation for over $3 million. In 1901, a union strike paralyzed the mine. Unfortunately, in the end, the workers returned to work no further ahead.
Five years later, the Center, St. Eugene, and War Eagle mines, along with the Trail smelter, joined to form the Consolidated Mining and Smelting Company of Canada Ltd. However, it was only in 1911 that the Le Roi mine ceded. This resulted in all four being linked underground and run as a single large mine, which would later grow into the Cominco metallurgical operation.
A ghost town this is not
As production declined at the mine, so did the town’s prosperity. In 1922, the railways were pulled up and before the end of the decade, the business district in Rossland was hit with two major fires. By 1930, the population had dropped to 3,000. However, with the Cominco operation at Trail, as well as the arrival of a modern highway system, Rossland seemed destined to become a residential city.
The Le Roi gold mine consisted of 130 kilometres of underground workings, and its ore averaged 0.5 ounces of gold and 0.6 ounces of silver per ton, and 1% copper. The mine shut down in 1929 and after 40 years in operation, had a combined output nearing $165 million.
This year, Rossland turns 110 and is home to about 3,600 residents.
Now, how do I get my hands on the keys to that DeLorean?
Did you know?
There was a strong Chinese presence in Rossland and the West Kootenays as of the mid-19th century. Approximately half of the 200 men hired to work on the Dewdney Trail in 1865 were Chinese. In 1866, 40 Chinese men versus only 14 Causasians were reportedly mining Rock Creek. In the early 1890s, the only two stores in Rock Creek were Lum Kee General Store and Ah Kee General Store. According to the Rossland Miner, 200 Chinese men and one Chinese woman lived in Rossland in September 1897. By 1931, the number had increased to 231.
The Chinese were prohibited by law from working underground in the BC mines. Alternately, among other things, they created extensive vegetable gardens and supplied fresh produce to the townspeople for close to 50 years.
The Chinese Masonic Lodge officially opened in October 1903 and had 100 members. In the early 1920s, a fire destroyed the area referred to as ‘Chinatown.’ The Masonic Lodge was torn down around 1950. No traces of Chinatown exist today.