Virtual Museum of Canada

The Mill and Community

People relating stories about living at Britannia Mines describe the strong sense of community that made them feel safe and secure. Doors were left unlocked; neighbours tended each other’s gardens and kept an eye on their children and pets.

A worker standing on the half constructed Mill
A worker standing on the half
constructed Mill. 1922. BCMM# 13495

For most of the history of Britannia Mines, there were two communities for employees and their families. The Beach, where the Mill was located, was the smaller of the two and located at sea level. In 1923, 62 homes and bunkhouses provided lodging for approximately 800 residents.

The Townsite was 4.5 kilometers up the mountain, and when Mill #3 opened in 1923, it had a population of about 1100 people. In the 1950’s, it became “Mt. Sheer” because of the Post Office’s demand that it have a ‘real name’.

As closely related as the two communities were, the trip between them was a chore and not made often. The journey had three long stages. First, there was a stairway of 347 uncovered steps to climb. Second, a cable car called “the skip” took people up the mountain at an angle of about 40 degrees. The skip was a simple wooden platform, open to the elements and crammed full of supplies. Third, at the top of the incline, everyone transferred to an electric railway for another 5.5 kilometer, half hour ride. One of the few groups who made the trip every day were the students who lived at The Beach and attended high school at The Townsite.

Even though the skip may have seemed dangerous to those who rode it, there were very few mishaps. Constance Munro, one of the high school students who made the daily trip, relates the one major skip accident:
“The last day of school before Easter break in 1939, we got out of class a bit early. Being in high spirits we all decided to walk home; we straggled along the track joking as we went. When we arrived at the cable shed there was a large crowd of miners milling around and a great deal of excitement. A cable car had got half way down the mountain when the huge cable snapped sending the car speeding out of control toward the town. The brakeman had been able to jump free and there were no passengers. The car slammed into the mill workings demolishing an entire building where amazingly no one was on shift at the time. Of course, we were all astounded at this news and almost ran the rest of the way into the centre of town. Everyone was gathered in the company store and when we all trooped in we were hugged and kissed and cried over as everyone had thought we were on the car that now lay embedded in a twisted mass of metal in the mill.”
There was also a friendly rivalry between the two communities, largely because The Beach was the location of the mill workers and The Townsite, the mine workers. Baseball, in particular, was played avidly. In the 1920’s, the competition reached a ‘fever pitch’ according to one story:
The Beach baseball team was being clobbered left, right and centre field by the Townsite team and the losers began to despair of ever winning as much as a single game. Then the mill superintendent had a brain wave. He slipped down to Seattle and hired a bunch of ball players from the University of Washington and put them to work in the mill. The results of the next game were magnificent, at least as far as the Beach was concerned.

The Townsite really couldn’t call “foul,” for after all, the new players did work at the mill and it was just the good fortune of the Beach that they happened to be ball players.

After their second straight defeat the Townsite came to the realization that the tide had turned and the people from the lower region might just take the season. Taking a page form the Beach book, the mine superintendent went down to Vancouver and hired a new crew of miners, who just happened to be ball players, and to the horror of the Beach fans, their newly found idols struck out. There was no joy that night at the Beach, and like the Townsite, they too had to snuff out any desire to shout “foul.” It is unimportant to chronicle which team came out on top as such things are better left unsaid.

Taken from Britannia Story of a Mine
Life in a company town such as Britannia Beach was unique. The Mill’s thundering activity was a constant reminder of the perseverance of mining as an economic foundation of the province and the country.

BCMM 984.79.26 Celebrating May Day at Britannia Beach. c. 1930 BCMM 13489. A worker standing on the half constructed Mill. 1922. BCMM 13505. The Mill under construction. 1922. BCMM 11828. A family at Britannia Beach. c.1930. BCMM 12314. Visit of The Most Honourable George Freeman Thomas, later Freeman-Thomas, 1st Marquess of Willingdon, Governor General of Canada to Britannia Beach. c. 1929 BCMM 13489. A worker standing on the half constructed Mill. 1922.