Red Line Peak, Red Line Creek (flowing into McDonald Creek)
Associated Names: Named after the Red Line group of mines at the head of the creek. The Red Line (1898-c.1902) was also known as the McDonald Mines (1902), the Ptarmigan Mines (1903-1920s), and Selkirk Ptarmigan Mines Ltd (1958-1964?)
“There is no doubt that the mine will never be reopened again, and there is also no doubt that a great deal more money was spent on the property than ever its showing of ore warranted.” (Report to the Minister of Mines, 1915)
The Original Claim
Red Line was the original name given to a group of mining claims staked in the fall of 1898 by Ben Abel, Wellington Kinnie, C.A. Watt, George Scott and Pete Larson.1 It originally consisted of three claims (Red Line 1, Red Line 2 and Iron Cap). Two of these claims (the Red Line claims) were located on the south side of a steep basin at the head of Red Line Creek. The third claim (the Iron Cap) was over on the other side of the summit from the first two.
In the wake of the original claim there was a tremendous amount of excitement. In November 1898, the site was bonded (mortgaged) to Messrs Starbird, Collett and Robertson for $50,000.2 In July of the next year, the property was re-bonded for $100,000, an enormous sum in those days, by the British American Mining Corporation out of Rossland.3 The Corporation was managed in Canada by Charles H Mackintosh, former Mayor of Ottawa and Lieutenant Governor of the Northwest Territories.4
Mining Speculation and Disputes
Before going any further a note should be made about mining speculation. Particularly during this period of time, it was impossible to know just by looking at a property how large an underground ore body might be. Estimating the profits that could be made by investing in a property and digging the rocks up was, in short, a gamble. The sale of “promising” mining properties was big business at the time, and a number of syndicates emerged to enable investors around the world to buy into such sites. Fortunes were made and lost in the sale of unproven mining properties.
In 1899, the Red Line looked like an extremely promising property and it attracted the attention of several such syndicates. According to newspaper reports, “Several prominent mining men have made an examination of this property during the last three weeks. Their verdict was: Undoubtedly, without any exception, the greatest proposition in British Columbia.”5
One of these men was Robert Mulford, a mining engineer for Fraser & Chalmers (a manufacturing firm out of Chicago and England), who estimated that the Red Line had an astonishing, “$320,000,000 of ore in sight making it the biggest known mine in the world.”6 (I got curious, so I checked how much this converts to in 2020 dollars. The Bank of Canada’s inflation calculator only goes back to 1914, so this is definitely undershooting, but from 1914 to 2020 dollars, 320 million dollars is equal to over 7.3 trillion.)
At this point, no actual development work had been done on the property itself. Money was offered based entirely on the surface showing, which was an outcrop of copper, gold, silver and lead over 20 feet (6 metres) wide across and extending over 1,500 feet (457 metres) on the surface before it entered the ground.7
In August 1899, under a corporation represented by C.H. Mackintosh, arrangements were started to put a large force of men in place at the claim for a winter camp.8 Disputes over property ownership stalled and ultimately halted those plans. Although the Mackintosh Corporation held the bond on the mining claims, the former bondees (Thomas Starbird and Frank Collett) still held a claim on the summit of the mountain, making it impossible to work the property underneath without also buying out Starbird and Collett. In addition, one the owners of the original claim, Pete Larsen, refused to give the bond on his portion of the property without being paid at least $50,000.9
By September 1899 the future of the mine seemed grim. It was impossible to work the claim without paying off a number of different parties, and the remoteness of the claim (there was only a trail from Toby Creek to the mine at this time) would make it very difficult to transport ore to a smelter. Faced with these problems, the Mackintosh syndicate forfeited their bond, and the property was returned to the syndicate of Collett, Starbird and Robertson.10
At this point, another syndicate stepped in: the Fraser and Chalmers syndicate represented by Robert Mulford, who bonded the property in October 1899 for $120,000.11 Arrangements were made by Starbird, Collett and Robinson to (finally) start development of the property, building a rawhide trail to the mine as well as quarters for a winter workforce.12
Events around the Red Line become somewhat fuzzy in the first months of the new century. In January 1900 it was reported that the Red Line was “erroneously reported as being under bond to Fraser & Chalmers syndicate,” and was instead being developed under the management of Thomas Starbird.13 This suggests that the previous arrangement with the Fraser & Chalmers syndicate had fallen though.
In April 1900 there were further problems when shipping from the mine was suspended as a result of “the alleged low grade of the ore which was struck.”14 Later that year it was suggested that work on the Red Line might begin again with the help of New York capital (from an unspecified source) represented again by Collett and Starbird.15
Despite hopes, no further development in 1900 took place, and the claim on the property was allowed to run out in 1901. It is likely that further examination showed that the property was less valuable than had been hoped, however once the claim lapsed there was also a rush to re-stake it. In early 1901 the bond on the Red Line group was again taken up, this time to be known as the McDonald Mines (possibly to distance the property from its somewhat sticky reputation as the Red Line).16
The Ptarmigan Mine
That new bond taken out by McDonald Mines Ltd was apparently represented by Paulding Farnham of New York City, a former associate of Robert Mulford of the Fraser & Chalmers syndicate. Work restarted under the management of Thomas Starbird, and development of the Red Line group began in earnest.17 A government wagon road was constructed from the Toby Creek road up Horsethief Creek to the mouth of McDonald Creek, and the mine company completed the road the last 8 miles to the claim.18 A trial shipment of ore was sent to New York in January 1902.19
Perhaps as a result of that shipment additional properties in the area were bought by McDonald Mines Ltd., and an air compressor was sent out to the property.20 At around this time, the Red Line or McDonald Mines began to be called the Ptarmigan Mines, and by 1903 that new name was well established (the controlling company was then the Ptarmigan Mines of the Selkirks). There was immense optimism about the future of the new enterprise: a new steamboat launched on the Columbia River in March 1903 was named the Ptarmigan in honour of the claim.21
The optimism seemed warranted. That spring (1903), the Ptarmigan Mine on Red Line Creek had a four drill compressor and a double cable tramway ready to be installed. That tramway extended from the mine to the compressor site (about 8,000 feet, 2.4 km). Plans were also underway to install an electric power plant on Horsethief Creek, a 50 ton concentrator, and a sawmill.22 An office and a bunk house for 75 men were constructed, and a telephone line was built down to Wilmer.23
The brief period between 1902 and 1903 was an active one at the Ptarmigan Mines, which employed around thirty men. As an active mine, however, it also had its share of tragedy. On New Years Eve, 1902, one man was killed and another injured by an explosion caused by “a missed hole”, where explosives placed to blow the tunnel had not gone off and were later hit by a drill. Thomas Howes was killed and Elehi Prudhomme was injured.24 Just weeks later, on January 25th, another fatality occurred from another accidental explosion. The cause was similar, with miners striking powder that had not gone off. Edward Wills died and W.J. Wilton was injured.25 Both men who died were buried in the Windermere Cemetery.
There was another fatality later that year. On 1 September 1903, three men in the tunnels were overcome by gas after the draft in the tunnels failed to replenish the air. The three men lay in the tunnel, unable to move, for four hours until the day shift found them. By that time one of the men, Ernst Johnson from Sweden, was dead. The other two, Damas Borsjoli (French Dave) and Frank Butterfield (a cousin of Manager Thomas Starbird) recovered.26
Closure of the Mine
The Ptarmigan Mine was closed down abruptly at the beginning of 1904, putting thirty men out of work.27 At first the closure was thought to be temporary, as an estimated $1,000,000 had been put into the development of the property and acquisition of equipment.28 Over a year later a small group of men were briefly put in place to resume operations, but the effort did not last long before it too was abandoned.29 Work resumed again in the spring of 1906 under the management of Frank C. Stockdale.30 Again, this period was short-lived, and little seems to have been accomplished.
Unfortunately the Red Line group never really lived up to all the hype and promise. A 1915 report to the British Columbia Minister of Mines gave a summation of the workings at site:
Several thousand feet of tunnelling was done on the property… The bulk of the iron carries little value. [T]he pyrite … occurs in bunches, and for long distances the veins contain no [valuable] minerals. … The rich ore near the surface was soon all extracted and shipped. Besides the underground workings, the company erected good mine buildings, a steam-driven compressor plant, and an aerial tramway from the mine-workings to the wagon-road. There is no doubt that the mine will never be reopened again, and there is also no doubt that a great deal more money was spent on the property than ever its showing of ore warranted.31
Machinery and equipment from the Ptarmigan Mine was sold and shipped out in 1918,32 however the following year the Ptarmigan seemed again to be making a comeback. The property was brought under bond to E.W. Watson, who did considerable prospecting on areas uncovered by the receding glacier above the property. The glacier was estimated to have shrunk by 1,000 feet (300 metres), revealing new surface showings. Some 50 tons of ore were shipped, and development on a more extensive scale was again being considered.33
Access to the property was still limited by ice in the tunnels, and development remained sporadic. The 1920 Report to the Minister of Mines noted that there had been, “A lot of tunnelling done, which conveys the impression that there was a lack of systematic development.”34 Still, some 255 tons of ore was shipped that year (1920). The property continued to be owned by the Farnham Estate into the 1920s.35
Speculation on the property resurfaced between 1955 and 1957, when Heinz K.F. Seel re-opened the mine, removed ice from its tunnel, and sent six shipments of ore (126 tons) to the smelter in Trail. In 1958, the Selkirk Ptarmigan Mines Ltd was formed by Seel to continue operations, and a further 181 tons of ore were shipped.
In echoes of developments at the turn of the century, under Seel a machine shop and compressor were constructed, and the bunkhouse was rebuilt and furnished. In 1959 an additional 43 tons of ore were shipped. The mine was optioned in 1963, and further exploratory work done in 1964.36 Further geological study was done in 2015 under Silver Mountain Mines by Richard T Walker, who produced an extremely detailed assessment report available online. I do not know the details of work on the property today, but I can make some educated guesses.
The most impressive part about the Red Line/McDonald Creek Mines/Ptarmigan Mine etc. has been its ability to bounce back after dismal results. For over a century there have been periodic fits of excitement and development of the site, and yet the huge profits envisioned have never materialized. Still, there must be something about the area that has kept prospectors going back to it again and again, hoping for a different result.