Thunder Hill Provincial Park (southwest end of Columbia Lake)
Thunder Hill Ranch
The Thunder Hill Mine was an enthusiastic venture by a Company that ultimately overextended itself in the development of a property that was, to put it simply, not very good.
Thunder Hill is the name given to a mine located just north of Canal Flats. It was located in 1884 by James Brady on a high ridge running north to south at 800 feet (245 metres) above Columbia Lake, just over one mile (1.6 kilometres) from the lake itself.1
The mine itself was on a “mountain” or a bluff of ore-bearing rock, over one mile (1.6 kilometres) long, and about 1/10 mile (160 metres) wide.2 That mound of rock was mostly quartz, spotted with lead, copper, silver and gold ores, “in the most unmistakable manner that an immense body of ore lies underneath.”3 This assumption that the bluff contained a massive amount of ore was thought to more than make up for the overall mediocre quality of the ore itself.
A Promising Plan
There were a number of presumed advantages to developing a mine at Thunder Hill. As the whole bluff was believed to be full of ore, there was no need to tunnel along an ore seam. Instead, the ore could be extracted through cuts and drifts on the surface.4 Holes could be drilled, a charge of powder put in, and the ore blown out: much like a quarry.5 Findlay Creek was also located within miles of the claim, providing an easy supply of water for electricity if needed.6
The mine was also only a short distance up the hill from Columbia Lake, so it was also a simple matter of building a mile and a half (2.5 kilometre) long tramway to bring ore down in carts from the mine to the lake. This proximity to Columbia Lake gave ready access to steamboats, the only efficient mode of transportation at the time, which could then bring the ore north to the CPR line at Golden. At the time, transporting ore from the mine to the smelter was the most expensive part of the mining process, particularly without a railway in close proximity. The ease of transport (without having to cut and grade trails to haul ore down a mountain then out to the river) was an attractive mark in favour of Thunder Hill. The large quantity of ore combined with the promised ease of getting that ore out and to the smelter made the Thunder Hill Mine an attractive property indeed.
After years of spreading the word about this promising plan to potential investors, enough support was gained to start putting the plan into action. In the winter of 1890/91 a small amount of development work was done, cutting across the butte to locate ore bodies. Apparently encouraged by the findings, during the following summer of 1891, the Thunder Hill Mining Company was formed in Victoria to further work the claim. The majority of shareholders were in Victoria and Vancouver.7
Development moved quickly through 1892. Machinery was ordered almost immediately after the first meeting of the Board of Directors, including steam drills, a concentrating plant from the Chicago Iron Works, and various other buildings including an office, bunkhouses, blacksmith shop, stable, and laboratory buildings.8
The largest single expense was the ore concentrator. A concentrator was used to break up mined material and separate valuable ore from the waste, therefore ‘concentrating’ the useful ore. As the overall grade of the ore being taken out of the Thunder Hill claim was relatively low, a concentrator was necessary to make a profit: paying to ship waste rock to the smelter was a waste of money. The 50 ton concentrator was constructed on a bluff overlooking Columbia Lake.9
By the end of 1892, all of the heaviest machinery, including boilers, engines, pumps and such had arrived at the works, and the rest was en route.10 The mile and a half long tramway from the mine down to the concentrator had also likely been completed.11 At its height, some forty-seven men were employed at the site.12
The concentrator was up and running in the summer of 1893, and even before the first shipment was made, the directors of the company reported plans for future expansion.13 There was some reason for this optimism. The Thunder Hill Company hadn’t skimped on development, and “the plant [was] one of the nicest ever seen for the purpose.”14 It was thought that after the shareholders of the company saw the returns after a thirty day run, the directors would recommend that a 500 ton concentrator plant be ordered.15 Such development was not to be.
There is some confusion as to what happened next. The regular shipments of ore certainly never started, and there is even some doubt that the concentrator was ever used at all (see below). An assayer was brought to the mine at the beginning of August to do additional tests of the ore, and by the end of the month, work at Thunder Hill had been “temporarily suspended.”16 There were mutterings that the mine had been closed to changes in the machinery, or due to financial difficulties from a crash in the silver market.17 Meanwhile, the Company’s creditors became uneasy and began calling in their debts. An Extraordinary General Meeting of the stockholders was called on 5 December 1893 for the purpose of liquidating the Thunder Hill Company.18
Reasons for Failure
The Thunder Hill Mine was an enthusiastic venture that ultimately saw a great deal of money out into the development of a property that was, to put it simply, not very good. The mountain of ore envisioned by shareholders and investors did not exist. What ore there was in the bluff was spread through the quartz in grains rather than in larger ore bodies, a feature that not even a concentrator could solve. To be fair, there was an expectation that these grains of ore signaled the presence of large ore bodies further underground, and the Company’s massive expenditure to develop the mine – over $12,000 in constructing buildings, a tramway, and a state of the art concentrator – were all made based on that assumption. When those large ore bodies failed to appear, the Company collapsed.
Years after the mine’s closure, an observer noted, “it is a most unfortunate thing that a mine so well equipped should to-day be forced to lie idle. It shows the necessity of thorough development of the most promising prospect to make certain that the ore-body is of sufficient volume to justify the establishment of the proposed plant before anything is done towards putting in plant and machinery.”19
The report to the Minister of Mines in 1898 agrees. The author notes that although the property had a huge quartz ledge, ore was not found in amounts sufficient enough to be worthwhile. The entire plant, “was erected to treat a certain body of galena [ore] occurring in the mine and was constructed before the limited extent of such ore body was known.”20 In short, the Thunder Hill Company operated based on a hope, not evidence, and that resulted in ruin.
It is unclear if the concentrator built on the shores of Columbia Lake was ever actually used. Newspaper reports from the time definitely suggest that it was operational, however it is possible these were exaggerated, and later sources suggest that the plant was missing key pieces of machinery when the Company ran into financial problems.21 Regardless, it is safe to say that the mine was only ever in development: it never shipped ore in any appreciable amount.
There were some attempts to reopen operations at the Thunder Hill Mine. Attracted again by the proximity of the property to shipping routes and to the massive amount of development work already done, the property was re-examined in 1895 and again in 1896.22 Nothing came of these efforts. Not even a state-of-the-art plant could make the Thunder Hill Mine an attractive investment.
The Thunder Hill concentrator stood alongside Columbia Lake for a number of years, left mostly to the owls.23 The machinery inside, including engine, boilers etc. was eventually put up for sale, and reportedly purchased for the Estella Mine on Tracy Creek near Fort Steele.24 It is unclear, however, if the machinery was ever actually transported. Later reports suggest that items were “disappearing piece by piece” without actually having been purchased.25
Eventually only a shell of the building remained until that too was torn down in 1918.26 Some remnants of the concentrator remain, although not on site. Some of the beams were taken downriver and delivered to a property on the shores of Lake Windermere. Upon those beams was constructed Pynelogs (now Pynelogs Cultural Centre), built between 1912 and 1915.27
The Thunder Hill Mine itself had a noticeable impact on the development of the Windermere Valley. As part of the early excitement in developing the mine, the Upper Columbia Navigation & Tramway Company constructed a tramway to connect Columbia Lake with Mud Lake (just south of Windermere Lake). That tramway was meant to bridge the section that was not navigable by steamboat to get the ore up to Golden. The last spike for the tramway was driven in early September 1892.28 With the failure of the Thunder Hill Mine the tramway was used far less than anticipated, and it eventually fell into disrepair.29 Rails from the old tramway were taken out in 1902.30
The Thunder Hill Mine also originated the name of Thunder Hill Ranch, located to the north of the mine site itself. The Thunder Hill Ranch was just one of a number of ranching properties in the vicinity, and for decades provincial directories listed Thunder Hill (or Thunderhill) as the location for the area’s post office and the main settlement on the south end of Columbia Lake. Although the post office at Thunder Hill closed within a couple of decades in preference to Canal Flats, Thunder Hill (or later Thunderhill) continued to be mentioned in Provincial Directories until 1939.31
The name Thunder Hill also continues today in Thunder Hill Provincial Park located just outside of Canal Flats. The location of the park doesn’t seem to quite encompass the land used by the former mine, its border being just to the south of the former site of the Thunder Hill concentrator.
A Footnote: Sun Lake
The Thunder Hill group of claims was not the only one made on that promising mountainous bluff above Columbia Lake. North of the Thunder Hill claim, and located about 400 feet (120 metres) above the lake, was the Sun Lake Group. These claims were located in the area around Sun Lake, and they had a good deal of development work done on them including a couple of crosscuts and a thirty foot long tunnel. There was also a bunkhouse built, measuring 32 feet by 12 feet (9.7 by 3.6 metres). Both Sun Lake and Sun Creek (flowing into Columbia Lake) seem to have been named in association with this claim, although it’s unclear which name came first. It could be that the mine was named after the lake, or the lake after the mine, and there was also a Sun Landing on Columbia Lake that could have come before or after all of them.32