Most tourists travelling along the Sea to Sky Highway between Vancouver, BC, and the Whistler ski resort are unaware that their route is taking them past one of the worst polluted mine sites in North America. Seventy years of mining activity has exposed the ore to air and water, resulting in chemical reactions that create concentrated acidic, metal-contaminated water. From the mine, this water, or acid rock drainage, made its way down to Howe Sound, killing marine life in the immediate vicinity. But just like the tragic shipwrecks that provide divers with interesting dive sites, the historic and infamous Britannia mine operation has left a wealth of mining remnants for four wheelers and other back country explorers to find.
Jarod fixing the sign at the trail head.
The mining operation consisted of two major areas. The first and most easily reached is the mill and lower tunnels at Britannia Beach, right along Highway 99 (the Sea to Sky Highway). This is now the site of the BC Mining Museum and is well worth a visit. The other area is the Mount Sheer town site, which is approximately 5 km due east of Britannia Beach. I was particularly interested in Mount Sheer because it was abandoned which makes it far more fun to explore than going on a guided tour in Britannia Beach (the only way you can see the old mine there). The only problem is that the roads leading to the Mount Sheer town site have been gated since as far as I can remember. But all that changed early this year. People on our message board were reporting that one of the gates was now being left open, and a couple of people posted photos of an old generator building with lots of equipment still in place. That got me seriously interested in going up there. So when we bought our new project vehicle a few months later, a '97 Jeep Cherokee, I decided that exploring Mount Sheer would be the perfect first-trip for it.
I posted an open invitation on our message board and Jarod, aka VanBCGuy, signed up. We met up in North Vancouver on a Saturday morning and headed up to Britannia Beach. Using information I read on the board, and the recently released BC Backroads topographic maps for Garmin GPS units, it was easy to figure out which turn to take off of Highway 99.
It only took about 15 minutes of driving along the forest service road before we ran into the first remnants of a mining operation. It was a huge concrete, bunker-like structure, the likes of which I'd never seen before. It was big enough to be a shop, but the huge lifting points on the ceiling made us wonder if it were the top of a very deep mine shaft. The floor was covered with several feet of water so we had no idea what lay below. Only a few weeks later, while doing some research on the Internet, did I discover that it was, in fact, the terminus of a tram line and a "Head of Incline" railroad. This area was also the location of the 2700 level and Armour portals. This is where ore was transferred from the 2200 level and Jane Basin areas (higher up and farther east) down to the mill at Britannia Beach. After poking around for a while, pondering the function of this building, we continued along the road.
The first building remnant we came across.
Inside the large concrete structure.
Across the road from the concrete structure was this foundation that was probably part of the incline rail road...or the tram line.
A few kilometers later, we drove down a side road and ended up alongside a shallow river and an old dam. The dam had an unusual concrete "shack" on its far side which I presume was some kind of valve control for the dam. There were even more interesting things to see here, but at the time, we didn't know it.
The dam and the valve building.
We continued along this side road which then curved right and took us across a bridge, and then right and uphill a bit, where we found ourselves in the middle of a large waste rock pile. To our left, about 200 m away was the remains of a large wooden structure. This was the building I had seen photos of on the BC4x4 message board. Parked next to it with a Dodge Ram with a camper on the back. We went to say "hi" to the driver of the Dodge and soon discovered that he was also a member of the message board. His name was Jarl (Westcoaster) and he had already been exploring the area before we arrived. In fact, he had been exploring with far greater detail than us. He found the town swimming pool, some fire hydrants, and other collapsed buildings in the woods. The building we were parked beside contained water-driven generators and air compressors. It was also adjacent to the 2200 level tunnel. The entrance to the tunnel was purposely collapsed although there was narrow opening in the top of the rock pile, just wide enough for a person to squeeze through. None of us were interested in going inside. While we were looking around the area, a Ford Ranger pulled up. It belonged to Derek (Derekj) who was also a member of our message board. While we were talking, he showed us some photos he had taken that day. Among them, I saw two areas that we missed on the way up. One photo featured some long concrete troughs, and another was of some sealed off shafts with greenish slime growing nearby. Also nearby was what appeared to be a garbage dump full of burned up and crushed junk. I think this place used to be known as Halfway Town. It served as the transfer point of ore coming down from the Jane Basin, headed toward the 2700 level portal area (where we made our first stop of the day).
You can see a 360-degree Flash panorama of the generator building by clicking HERE.
Access shafts for the valve works.
This Pelton wheel drove a huge Ingersoll Rand compressor.
Far above the 2200 level was this water pipe, which obviously meant that some kind of work had been farther up the mountain. It might also be the source of the water that this building used to drive its generators and compressors.
Stuff we found in the dump at Halfway Town. This is the frame for some kind of cable car.
A wooden pipe.
A lumber saw.
Close-up of the burnt and crushed scrap.
Jarl gave us directions to the pool so we left him and his family to their camping trip and headed off with Derek to visit the pool. It turned out we were standing less than 20 m from the pool when we stopped earlier to look at the dam. The pool was located on the other side of the road, atop a 10 ft embankment. This meant that this was also the location of the Mount Sheer town site where the workers and their families lived. Unfortunately, time and subsequent mining operations had obliterated most of the town site's remnants. The pool was all we found. Behind the pool was another embankment and when we climbed it, we reached the upper road where the concrete troughs in Derek's photo were located. These troughs were most likely installed after the town site was abandoned and/or torn down. These troughs were part of a cementation launder. Its function was to extract copper from the water by letting the copper-laden water react with scrap iron.
The old town swimming pool.
Close-up of the pool's edge.
The cementation launder.
This cart axle looks like it might've been using at the launder. It was roughly the right width.
We decided to continue following the main road up the mountain to the Jane Basin to search for other bits of mining history but we were soon defeated by snow. Jarod's locked-up TJ had major problems breaking through the heavy late spring snow pack, which meant that my virtually stock XJ would have zero chance of continuing. On our way back to Highway 99, we stopped near the big concrete building and took a very short side road to the 2700 level and Armour portals. We didn't know the portals were here on our way up, but thanks to Derek, we were able to see them on our way down. Both portals were sealed up. The moss and slime growing in the water indicated the presence of metals, and the reddish-grown stains indicate iron. Clearly, this was not what you'd call potable water.
End of the road for us. We'll have to come back when the snow melts. (There's even more snow further up from where this photo was taken.)
2700 level portal.
Heading back down to the highway.
After that, we hit the highway and headed home. It was an absolutely fantastic day of exploring, and we were left thinking of what else we might find once the snow melted and we could get up to the Jane Basin area. It was hard to believe there was still so much stuff left to explore in a mine site so close to a major metropolitan area. We could hardly wait to come back.
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