Digging Up Our Ghosts: BC’s resource history

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Above: Selkirk Mountains via The Canadian Encyclopedia 

By contributor Chantelle Spicer

Over the Labour Day weekend, my partner and I set out into the Selkirk Mountains and delve into some of the human history of our province—ghost towns in BC’s famed “Valley of Ghosts.” This area was part of a boom of development and resource extraction during the Silver Rush in the 1890s. It was once comprised of numerous towns, with the remains of six still (kind of) visible on the landscape. Neither of us knew what to expect going in– especially how our bodies would feel after four to five hours of road travel every day. Nor did it know how we would feel to stand in front the ruins of human ambition.

The pièce de résistance of the Valley is Sandon, marked by the presence of a gift shop, museum, and tourist info. The area came under development in 1892 with the discovery of rich deposits of silver in the towering mountains, leading to a flood of miners and families, eventually peaking at a population of 5000 residents. The rate and extent of growth is staggering considering the isolation of the area.

The town had brothels, three churches, a full hospital, numerous fancy hotels, dance halls, a newspaper, and banks—all the comforts of home to the colonizers of the area. The majority of houses even had the luxury of running water. Connecting them and their new-found treasure to the outside world were two train lines, which hauled $1 million worth of silver per day away from its origins deep in the surrounding mountains.

As powerful as this economy seemed to be, it was not immune to the powers of the land around it—namely fires and flooding, which ravaged the town beginning in 1900. As quick as it appeared, it succumbed to the land, and was abandoned by most in 1955. Year after year more of the town surrendered to the land until it became the ruins that it is now.

As preserved as the area is, it was my least favourite of the trip, as it had a hokey “wild west” tourist feeling to it. Only a handful of buildings still remain, the survivors of yet another fire which occurred in 2008, destroying two buildings which were in the process of being restored. The town is also home to BC’s oldest continuously running hydroelectric station, a remnant of Sandon during its boom-years. As a visitor, you can take a tour of the building from its current operators, who are still providing power to the remaining town and the nearby mining operation which is still active.

Looking at a photo in the museum at the ravaged mountainsides, stripped of trees, scraped at by thousands of people for all the land could offer, I could not help but be overwhelmed at the greed of our society—the way people descended like a plague upon the area which had known only the footsteps of those in balance with the land, and the way it had been tossed aside when there was no financial value remaining. The land has since recovered, a dense and imposing forest towering above the city. Standing in the now dry Carpenter Creek, I felt glad that nature had reclaimed itself, proud of the resiliency of those who still live there in the ruins to tell tales.

About two kilometres south of Sandon lies what was once a town of 150 pioneering folks based around the Noble Five mining company. Abandoned in the 1940s after a fire devastated the primary building, the town has sat in ruins since, ignored by the restoration activities of its closest neighbor. This was the most eerie visit of our adventures—houses with moth-eaten lace curtains fluttering in a breeze and narrow hallways giving way to rooms with trees growing through them.

Long ago human activity commands the area, the forest littered with rusted accoutrement of industry. As soon as I stepped from the car, I had goosebumps under my skin, my every sense on high alert. It was the perfect set up for the spookiest part of a scary movie. (Un) fortunately nothing happened—we explored, we took photos, and we stood in awe of devastation.

The last quick stop we made was in Bells Camp, or as it was also known, Retallack, which was one of the longer-lasting towns in the area, finally being abandoned in 1967. Now all that remains, even after this very short time, are the ruins of a train trestle and two former mine buildings which sit right off the highway. In speaking with a recreational trail user who is familiar with the area, most of the loss of the historical landmarks are due to people taking them and its easy access. One man who still lives in Retallack has taken it upon himself to return these buildings to their glory and give them a restored voice as a piece of history. Though the buildings can be admired from the outside, he asked that we respect his mission and not enter.

Visiting these places gives us a chance to gain perspective on our effects on the landscape and roles of history in our lives. Set against the regal backdrop of the Selkirks on their own journey up to the Rockies, there is much to ponder. One thing I found particularly poignant was the absence of the history of the Sinixt people, on whose traditional territory we travelled. For 10,000 years, this nation lived on the land, creating their own unique footprint and creating many stories. However, upon doing a bit of research, I found that the band has been declared officially extinct by the Canadian government. Strangely enough, we were lucky to have met a Sinixt descendant on the ferry across Arrow Lake. We joked that perhaps he was the ghost I had actually come looking for.

This leads to an underlying issue facing the people of Canada—a need to face our ghosts and our ideas of abandonment (terra nullius) upon which our “possession” of land is based. Where do our values lie? How can we be more sustainable? How do we reconnect with our past to better find our way forward? I am haunted by the sites I have seen, by those I have not, by ideas, by the passion of people who see value in abandoned places, the stories they tell, and those that are absent.