The History of Britannia Beach and the Townsite
The legend of the discovery of copper at Britannia includes a doctor, a fisherman and a deer.
The dock at Britannia Beach.
1948. BCMM# 12431
In 1888, Dr. A.A Forbes, a doctor for the Howe Sound First Nation people and an amateur prospector, along with a ‘dog fisherman’ named Granger set out to find copper at Britannia. After an exhausting search one day, a buck deer crossed their path just before sunset. Forbes fired a shot, the deer fell, and its thrashing hooves exposed brightly coloured rock below the moss. Initial tests revealed a high copper content in the rock.
After many failed attempts to develop a mine, the Britannia Mining and Smelting Co. Ltd. took over in 1904, building a community at the beach for the surface operations (Britannia Beach) and up the mountain (Jane Camp) for the underground operations. These two communities were approximately 4.5 kilometers apart. Several smaller camps were also set up around the mountain.
Both communities were ‘company towns’, meaning all the buildings and operations were owned and run by the mining company. Towns would get bigger or smaller depending on the success of the companies running them.
Production at Britannia thrived from 1912 to 1922, placing Britannia in the first rank of world copper producers. However, during this time of success, the community faced many hardships. On March 21, 1915, an avalanche of mud, rock and snow crashed through Jane Camp just as the men were coming off the midnight shift. Nearly 60 men, women and children were killed, and another 22 people were injured. It was a terrible blow to the tiny community. Construction began immediately on a new and safer town at the 2200-foot level that became known as the “Townsite” or “Mt. Sheer”. There was more bad luck in store for the Britannia communities. During a brief period of shutdown in 1921, Mill #2 burned to the ground. Just seven months later, a massive flood destroyed the Beach community on the banks of Britannia Creek. 37 people died and 15 people were seriously injured. Both the mill and the town had to be rebuilt.
From 1922 to 1923, Mill #3, which is still standing today, was built in 18 months literally by hand, for a cost of one million dollars. By 1929, with the successful Mill up and running, the Britannia Mines were the largest copper producers in the British Commonwealth.
Dr. A. A. Forbes, the man who
discovered copper at Britannia
Beach in his later years.
During this period, the social life of the communities also flourished. Facilities included libraries, clubrooms, kitchens, billiard rooms, swimming pools, tennis courts and a gymnasium. Sporting events, amateur theatre and hobby clubs were popular, along with the annual Copper Queen Day at the Beach and Miner’s Day at the Townsite. Dances, parties, movies and picnics were held throughout the year and there were unlimited opportunities for hiking, swimming and fishing amid the beautiful scenery of Howe Sound.
Although copper prices increased during World War II, the work force at the mine dropped to about 400 as men enlisted in the armed forces and felt the lure of better jobs in the wartime industries. The Britannia Mines were unionized and suffered through a first strike in 1946. After some boom years in the early 1950’s, copper prices sank to an all time low.
The outside world came to Britannia when the rail line from Squamish to North Vancouver was completed in 1956. Two years later, the Squamish highway was constructed. There were big changes on the horizon. Community life could not compete with outside attractions, and residents abandoned Mount Sheer. To cut costs, all operations were moved to the Beach, and the once-proud Britannia Mining and Smelting Company Ltd. was reduced to seven employees. In 1959, the company went into bankruptcy and its assets were taken over by the Howe Sound Company.
This was not the end for Britannia, however. In 1963, the Montana based Anaconda Mining Co. bought the property from Howe Sound. Although 300 employees managed to produce 60,000 tonnes of copper concentrate each year, new ore was running out. Operating costs and taxes rose, making it harder to keep the mine open. On November 1, 1974, fifty-five men went underground on the last shift, and Mill #3 shut down.
During the 70-year history of the mine, 60,000 people have called Britannia their home.