Mineral King Mine (former community, unofficial local name)
Although provincially classified as a small mine, the Mineral King Mine was the largest underground mining enterprise in the Windermere Valley.
This is the second of two posts about the Mineral King Mine. For the first part, documenting the fits and starts of early development at the Mineral King, see here.
Note: I’m going to be getting into some detail about the operation of the mine, and I include maps and diagrams. I do this because there isn’t much in the way of a systematic entry-level history of the Mineral King Mine, and because I find the content interesting. That being said: after reading through the (literally hundreds) of pages of documentation about the Mineral King, if you’re looking to explore inside the mine in person, please don’t. Reports all conclude that the geology down there is a mess and there is an incredibly high risk of rock fall and collapse, especially as the mine ages and wooden stopes wear out. A lot of the rock faults down there are vertical (particularly under 4 Level): the tunnels were unstable at the time, and fifty years later they are incredibly dangerous!
Where We Left Off
As discussed in the last post, the geology at the Mineral King claim up Toby Creek made it challenging to determine whether there was enough ore for it to be worthwhile to develop. Rather than large, rich, easily defined ore bodies, the underground geology was a “jumbled up mass” of different kinds of rocks and minerals interspersed with small veins and shoots of the valuable galena (lead-zinc-silver) ore.1
Making any money from this ore would require for it to be concentrated – the valuable ores extracted from the waste rock – before shipping. Installing a concentrator plant at the site was expensive, and to find out whether this investment would be worthwhile a company also needed to pay for systematic development and geological exploration of the site. These high financial costs led a long line of investors and companies to lose interest in the property.
Early Post-War Efforts
It is only after the Second World War that more dedicated work began at the Mineral King, and even then it took some time. In 1948 the Gwillum Lake Gold Mines company acquired the claim with plans to ship medium grade ore and use the resulting profits to erect a mill.2 These plans proved optimistic as subsequent ore analysis showed that the anticipated medium grade ore did not exist. A concentrator was required from the start, and the investment was “considered impractical at the present price of base metals.”3
Gwillum Lake gave up the claim, and in 1950 Sheep Creek Gold Mines Ltd did some exploratory drilling on the Mineral King.4 Sheep Creek had been doing work on the Paradise Mine, where they had built a concentrator, and their interest in the Mineral King came as a result of its proximity to their existing operation. They were interested in using the Mineral King as a supplementary ore reserve to the Paradise operation.5
This initial exploration was satisfactory enough that Sheep Creek purchased the Mineral King property in 1951 for $30,000.6 It was a relatively minor thing to truck ore down from the Mineral King to be processed at the company concentrator at Pinehurst/Jackpine (just past Panorama), so Sheep Creek began to repair the old road up Toby Creek.7
More Promising than Expected
Sheep Creek’s cautious curiosity towards the Mineral King property soon turned into excitement. At the beginning of 1952 further drilling at the property gave results that left its directors “tickled”, and these encouraging results made them reconsider their plan to use the Mineral King only to augment their Paradise operation.8 Suddenly they were contemplating an entirely separate outfit.
The news was welcome, but the company continued to be cautious. The drilling done was still, “too limited to permit accurate estimate,”9 as to the ore reserves, and the exact structure of the mineral deposit remained unclear.10
Work continued through the year with about ten men. In addition to drilling at the property, additional development work was done including constructing a camp on the flat lands below the mine in the Toby Creek valley, and building a road up the 1,200 feet (365 metres) of elevation from valley floor to the workings.11
Development of the mine took off in earnest in 1953 with double the manpower and further equipment brought in from other company properties. Exploration had been deemed sufficient to warrant a full scale enterprise, and the property was fast becoming the principal operation of the Sheep Creek Gold Mines company.12
Among the equipment brought to the site was a concentrator, which was brought in from the company’s recently closed mine at Zincton (the Lucky Jim) near Sandon.13 The concentrator plant was capable of handling 625 tons of ore per day.14 Operation started on 15 March 1954, working at about 80% capacity.15
Slightly under half a million dollars had been spent on the mine and plant to bring it under operation (equivalent to $4.8 million in 2020),16 and this was paid off entirely by summer 1955.17 Within three years the Mineral King had transformed from an auxiliary project, started in the hopes of making a little bit of extra money, to Sheep Creek’s main operation. Production carried on continuously from 1954 averaging between 12,000 tons to 16,000 tons of ore mined per month.18
Description of the Mine Workings
As mentioned in the previous post, the original strike at the Mineral King was on a rocky bluff on a steep slope overlooking the Toby Creek Valley. This initial find prompted the first tunnel to be driven at an elevation of 5,690 feet (Level 1). This tunnel was later destroyed, at least partially, by surface mining.19
A second tunnel was begun in 1928 just under the first (Level 2, 5,595 feet), and a third tunnel (Level 3 at 5,450 feet) was started by Sheep Creek in 1953.20 As Sheep Creek began its operations all ore was brought out of the “haulage level” at Level 3.21 A surface tramway was constructed down the slope from the Level 3 tunnel to bring ore to the concentrator, which was constructed partway down the hill.22
This basic structure of the mine was not significantly altered until 1955, when another haulage tunnel was begun at mill elevation (Level 7, 4,775 feet).23 This allowed for three additional levels (4, 5 and 6) to be developed internally, with an inclined shaft connecting 3 Level with the tramway on 7 Level.24
By winter 1957 development was sufficient so that all ore was being taken out through 7 Level, eliminating the need to haul ore up to 3 Level and operate the surface tram, and giving further access to new areas for drilling.25 The surface tram was put in use again in 1959, when barite began to be mined from the upper levels and brought out on 3 Level (barite was used in oil drilling).26
Promising results at the Mineral King, and efforts to sustain its production, prompted another exploratory tunnel to be driven at 9 Level (4,475 feet) starting in 1961.27 This tunnel was driven from the Jumbo Creek side, and was expected to cost more than $100,000. If the tunnel hit promising ore, which it did, the 9 Level tunnel could be connected to the rest of the mine.28
From the 9 Level, tunnel exploration was conducted on a slightly higher level (8 Level, 1962), as well as lower down to 11 and 12 Levels (1965-1966).29 The lowest level, 12 Level, was at an elevation of 4,000 feet: the elevation of the Mineral King Townsite was at about 4,300 feet, so the mine workings extended below the levels of both Jumbo and Toby Creeks.
There seems to have been very little actual production from these lower levels. Even as late as 1964 most of the lead-zinc ore being taken out was from above 4 Level, as the quality and quantity of ore was higher at the higher levels.30 Most of the activity done further down was on drilling in search of additional ore reserves.31
Geology of the Mine
The ore mined at the Mineral King was primarily lead/zinc/silver, but this was expanded in 1959 to include barite mined from the upper levels (barite was used in oil drilling). In 1960 barite production averaged 500 tons a month.32 Lead and zinc concentrates were trucked to Invermere, then brought via train to American smelters.33 Profits were therefore dependent on American mining production and the price on American markets.34
As mentioned in the previous post, the geology of the Mineral King was complicated, and the “irregularity of the ore bodies” required some flexibility in the development of the mine. For example the standard practice of “outlining” ore bodies through systmatic drilling was “seldom possible”, and instead multiple holes had to be drilled with results extrapolated from there.35 The edges of the ore could largely be determined visually, but this was of little use in planning where to mine.
The initial 1953 drilling at the mine roughly identified four parallel ore bodies, referred to creatively as A, B, C and D, and although the outlines of these ore bodies were not precisely known, their identification guided work at the mine. The basic shape of these ore bodies was in a vertical, rather than a horizontal, orientation meaning both that additional levels were required, and that the lower reaches of the ore were unknown.36 Ore was followed not so much into the mountain as down through the mountain.
The geology of the mine also changed with depth, with the rock below 4 Level reported to be even less stable than that above. The orientation of the fault below 4 Level was more vertical, making it more challenging to stope (support) the ceiling of the tunnels, and making rock fall more likely.37
There were just under 100 people employed at the Mineral King for the majority of its operation, with slightly over half working underground. Some of these workers commuted from Invermere, but a good number lived at the company townsite located at the base of the valley. The townsite and mine were connected by a three mile (five kilometre) long road up the hillside.38
The beginnings of the townsite were rapidly constructed in 1953 out of largely prefab buildings. These initial buildings included a combination school house/community hall, an office/warehouse, bunk-house, change house, and six private dwellings. 39
Buildings were added over the years, with a trailer camp established in 1958 to allow some employees to live in their own trailers.40 By 1960 there were seventeen family houses and five bunkhouses, as well as a camp kitchen.41 A separate post office had also opened in September 1956 with the address “Toby Creek” (the post office was closed 18 January 1968).42
The Mineral King Elementary school had ten students enrolled by the end of 1953,43 and had been given a separate one-room schoolhouse for the 1955/56 year.44 An additional room was added in 1961, as well as a separate teacher’s quarters.45 Attracting teachers to work at the Mineral King school seems to have been a challenge (even with a remote bonus).
As the Toby Creek townsite was remote, it seems that employees were eager to take part in various recreational opportunities. By 1955 volunteers had erected a curling club building, although the roof collapsed in March 1956 from snow and it had to be rebuilt.46 A ball park and billiard room were also present by 1960.47
The townsite also enjoys the distinction of creating the first ski slope (to my knowledge) in the area (I differentiate between skiing on hills, such as was done in many places in the valley, and clearing at hill for a ski slope). In the summer of 1956, under the direction of Bill Schmoorkoff, volunteers manually (and with the aid of a company cat when they could get it) cut trees and slash on a slope southwest of the camp.48
The slope opened that winter, complete with lighting for night skiing.49 The Mineral King ski club took on the name “Paradise Ski Club” after the nearby Paradise mine.50 As it was popular to go skiing up in the Paradise basin, the name makes sense, although as the ski club was based out of Mineral King it’s also somewhat confusing.
The Toby Creek townsite had other distinctions as well. It was thought to have the smallest Boy Scout troop in Canada, with just three scouts and four cubs as of 1957.51 A Brownie Pack was also formed in 1960 with six girls enrolled.52
The Mineral King Mine was in continuous operation from spring 1954 until mid November 1967. Up until 1965 the mine was owned and operated by Sheep Creek Gold Mines (later Sheep Creek Mines), and changes in the management and operation of the company had a significant impact on the way the mine was run and, ultimately, was closed.
The company, which was based out of Nelson, began in 1935 with the operation of the Sheep Creek Gold Mine (near Salmo B.C.), which it ran until 1950. The company also operated the Zincton mine (the Lucky Jim) in the Slocan from 1941 until mid 1953.53 In the Windermere Valley, the company acquired the Paradise Mine in 1942, an acquisition that led, as already discussed, to its acquiring the Mineral King Mine in 1951.
The company undertook various other explorations and developments, and had a good reputation in mining circles. Its management was, “excellent,” and it managed to continue operations even after the Sheep Creek Mine dwindled, finding new properties and bringing them into production.54 Over the first twenty years of operation the company reportedly paid almost four million dollars in dividends.
As already discussed, the Mineral King Mine was the company’s unexpected successor to its Sheep Creek and Zincton claims as its main producing property. Success at the Mineral King was due to a variety of factors, including its relatively easy access to the railway and highway at Invermere (ironic given the challenges transportation posed in the early history of the mine). Labor was also available, and although the markets fluctuated with regards to lead and zinc prices, and profits varied depending on the exact quality of ore being mined, freight rates helped to keep costs low.55
The profit fluctuations that came from changing ore prices and availability were also an expected part of a mining operation, and the company seemed to adjust accordingly. Even when making a substantial profit, they were cautious about paying annual dividends, instead aiming to pay out every two years (and sometimes not even that).56
Perhaps in part to reflect the success of the Mineral King, which did not produce gold, Sheep Creek Gold Mines Ltd changed names to Sheep Creek Mines Limited in January 1956.57
A dramatic change came to the company in 1964, when its success attracted the attention of a then-unknown buyer wanting to purchase 800,000 of the company’s 1,880,000 shares. Sheep Creek directors advised shareholders against taking the offer as the offered price was “quite inadequate,” but shareholders demurred and accepted.58 The unknown buyer turned out to be, “thirty-three year old Toronto financial whiz Mark M Tanz.”59 Two of Sheep Creek’s directors resigned.60
The decision to accept the purchase was a fateful one. As the largest shareholder Tanz became a director and was later made vice president, then president, of the company. After moving the company’s offices from Nelson to Vancouver,61 Tanz persuaded other Sheep Creek shareholders to purchase just under two million dollars in shares from an Ontario based company (Commonwealth Savings and Loan Corp) in order to diversify company investments into ones, “promising income and capital growth.”62 Tanz was also a major shareholder in Commonwealth Savings, and the transaction gave him significant capital gains while allowing him to keep a controlling interest in both companies. It also converted some of the Mineral King’s two million dollars in government bonds and common stocks into stock for Tanz’s other company.63
Although Sheep Creek was still a mining company, this would not last. In August the company’s name was changed to Aetna Investment Corp Ltd to, “be more in keeping with our present operations and investments.”64 With Tanz now president of the company, during the next year Aetna Investment Corp bought into two other companies that he was personally involved with.65 Neither of these other companies were affiliated with mining.
Aetna Investment Corp was a different kind of company compared to Sheep Creek. Where Sheep Creek had been highly respected, in August 1966 Aetna was banned from trading on the Toronto and Canadian Stock exchanges. Back in April 1965, it had taken over Cowichan Copper Co Ltd in exchange for a good number of shares, which it agreed not to sell without permission from the Cowichan company. In August 1966, Aetna revealed that it had sold these shares anyways, prompting the ban on the stock exchange.66
Aetna went on to abruptly cut off all investment into Cowichan Copper, despite its contract, resulting in a halt of work at that mine and the loss of 120 jobs.67 Confusingly, Tanz reported to shareholders after Aetna had halted work that an expected decline in profits at the Mineral King would be offset from income from Cowichan.68 At around this time the director of mining operations, J.S. McIntosh, handed in his resignation.
All of this had an impact at the Mineral King Mine. In 1963 Sheep Creek Mines Ltd was, “a dazzling little gem of the Canadian mining industry – well managed, well backed and clean above reproach.”69 Two years later and its working capital had gone from $1,737,683 to a deficit of $250,372, and the company was invested heavily in Tanz’s other enterprises. Profits from the Mineral King were being diverted to Aetna Investment Corp, its shareholders, and Tanz’s other companies, and the long term success of the Mineral King was a secondary consideration. Even though activity continued at the Mineral King, including investment into exploration, other activities at Aetna Investment Corp meant that this activity had a far smaller financial cushion to weather unexpected problems.
This shift away from mining by Aetna was solidified at the end of 1967 with the closure of the Mineral King (see below). At the 1968 annual meeting of the company, shareholders were told that various shares had been sold as, “we decided that we could make more money in real estate.”70 As expressed by one of the company’s shareholders, “The directors change their minds quite frequently and I’m not sure that I approve.”71 The company went on to buy land in Burlington, Ontario to build 120 town homes.72 Aetna was taken over in 1969 by Canadian Goldale Corp Ltd, a Toronto based real estate development company.73 A successful mining company for just under 30 years, Sheep Creek Mines had been completely dismantled in less than five.
The Mineral King Mine abruptly ceased operations in mid November 1967. The reason for the closure, according to Aetna Investment Corp, was, “due to circumstances beyond [their] control.” A smelter strike in the United States, starting in July, had meant that no zinc concentrates had been sold since then, and the revenue from the lead concentrate alone was not enough to keep the mine running.74
The situation was, of course, slightly more complicated than this. Ore reserves at the mine were dropping (although there was certainly still ore to be mined), and “the company was having financial difficulties.”75 As mentioned, the other operations carried out by Aetna left the company financially vulnerable to the inevitable fluctuations of the mining industry. It is also unclear why the mine continued to be operated at full capacity, even after the smelter closure in July, when full operations resulted in a loss of about $26,000 per month.76
Regardless of the reasons, the mine closure was extremely sudden with many immediate layoffs. The mill continued to run until 13 December to process remaining broken ore,77 and services at the townsite were extended until 15 January 1968. At that time all thirty families residing at the mine would have to be gone.78
A total of ninety workers were laid off, resulting in “serious economic effects on this area.”79 There was a scramble by the Canada Manpower Office Staff from Cranbrook to interview miners and find them new jobs, but the suddenness in the closure of such a large employer in the area, “was a disaster for [the] valley economy.”80
Aetna immediately began to sell the plant and liquidate other assets at the mine.81 The complete concentrator and power plant were reportedly sold for use at the Vermont property near Parsons, and remaining equipment and supplies went to Bralorne Pioneer Mines for $190,000.82 The tailings and surface rights to the property were purchased in 1968 by Mountain Minerals Ltd of Lethbridge in exchange for royalties (up to $150,000).83
Yet Activity Continues
Despite Aetna’s swift departure, activity at the Mineral King Mine did not cease completely. Having acquired rights to the property, Mountain Minerals began to recover barite from the mine tailings, bringing a new plant into operation in 1970, and continuing that (albeit relatively small scale) operation until 1979.84
Meanwhile, in 1973, a new company presided over by Lloyd Wilder, Purcell Development Co Ltd, completed negotiations with Mountain Minerals Ltd to resume work underground on a royalty agreement. Purcell Development’s interest in the Mineral King seems to have been guided by a general understanding in the valley that the abrupt closure of the mine meant that an ore reserve had been left behind. It was thought that the mine still have five to seven years’ life left.85
A feasibility study done by Purcell Development suggested that the income brought in from treating the remaining Mineral King ore, as well as tailings from the Paradise Mine, would be enough to finance a semi-portable mill at Mineral King and to explore for new ore on other properties in the vicinity.86 “In this way,” the study concluded, “small vein deposits which have been uneconomic in the past can be mined.”87 The manager of the operation was Webb Cummings, former manager of the Mineral King under Aetna.88
In July 1974 a concentrator was constructed about one mile away from the Mineral King,89 and it began to process tailings from the Paradise Mine.90 Ore was also sought at the Mineral King. Most of the known ore was below 9 Level, but for the first year of operation the company intended to focus on ore between 4 and 5 Levels through the entry at 7 Level. Profits from that mining were intended to be used to rehabilitate operations on the lower levels.91
About 4,600 tons of ore was extracted by Purcell Development during 1974,92 but the operation did not go anywhere near as well as predicted in the feasibility study. In March 1975, after less than a year of operation, the mine abruptly suspended all work and laid off staff. Hopes to continue the project by attracting investment from other mining companies were futile.93
The Purcell Development Company was $735,000 in debt, and most of this debt came from the bank advance to resume operations at the Mineral King. Simply put, there was not enough reasily accessible ore to pay costs, and attempting to bring the Mineral King back into operation had drained the company (there were also problems in processing ore from the Paradise Mine, but we’ll leave discussion of that problem to the Paradise Mine post – it’s coming).94
With the benefit of hindsight, careful management at the Mineral King Mine by Sheep Creek/Aetna might have seen these remaining ore reserves mined for a profit, but starting an operation anew with the same goal required too large an overhead to be successful. Once operations ceased and equipment was withdrawn, it was financially impractical to start up again.
Other Items of Note
Tragedies at the Mine
The Mineral King mine, like many, had a number of accidents, including those resulting in death. The first of these was particularly grim, with three men killed when iron safety bars separating two levels of the mine gave way. A continuous forty hour search, involving hauling away tons of rock and mud, was required to recover the bodies.95
In the year following this accident the Mineral King went on to receive the safety award of the West Kootenay Mine Safety Association as the safest of the smaller mines in the province for the 1957 year.96 Unfortunately the safety record did not last. Another fatal accident occurred in May 1959 when an employee was buried under a load of rock from an ore car.97
In 1962, the Mineral King Mine Rescue Team won first place in the East Kootenay Mine Rescue and First Aid Competition, making it the first year that a team other than Fernie or Kimberley won.98 They repeated that first place win the following year.99
The Mineral King Mine also has the interesting distinction of, in June 1958, being the subject of the first prosecution in British Columbia for polluting a stream frequented by fish. After warnings over a period of years that the company put together a better tailings pond, the case was brought before courts by the Fish and Game Branch of the Department of Recreation and Conservation on the charge that, “that the company unlawfully did knowingly cause to pass into Toby Creek a deleterious substance.” The company was found guilty and fined $25 and costs.102 It is difficult to argue that this fine even qualified as a slap on the wrist – in the quarter ending 31 August 1958 the mine profited a (comparatively low) $26,077103 – but the case is an interesting note for the environmental history of the province and of the valley.
Although provincially classified as a small mine, the Mineral King Mine was the largest underground mining enterprise in the Windermere Valley. During its fourteen years in operation between 1954 and 1968 it mined 2,313,067 tons of ore, and up until 1967 produced 25,114 tons of barite (this amount would increase under Mountain Minerals).104 Out of this came around 198 million lb zinc, 81.7 million lb lead, 1.4 million lb copper, 0.66 million lb cadmium, and 1.8 million oz silver.105 The internal workings of the mine covered twelve levels down an elevation of 1,600 feet (485 meters), very much hollowing out a portion of the mountain.
As the Mineral King is also a relatively recent operation, there are a number of people still around who were either themselves involved in operations at the mine or lived up at the Mineral King townsite as kids. I have mostly stuck to the more technical side of mine operations, but I am sure those former residents have some amazing stories to tell!
Production at the Mineral King
|Year||Average # Employed||Ore Mined (tons)||Events|
|1952||10||None||• Promising drilling results
• Camp constructed in Toby Creek Valley
|1953||46||None||• Level 3 Tunnel begun
• Townsite established106
|1954||58||84,197107||• Concentrator begins production|
|1955||95||161,962108||• 7 Level Tunnel begun|
|1956||95||146,566||• Name changed to Sheep Creek Mines Ltd
• Toby Creek Post Office established
• Ski hill constructed
|1957||95||168,119||• Ore struck on 4 Level
• 5 Level Opened
• Mine Safety Award
|1958||94||192,426||• All ore through 7 Level tunnel
• Company charged for polluting Toby Creek
|1959||93||181,495||• Barite production begun|
|1961||99||211,010||• Work begun on 9 Level|
|1962||100||212,412||• 8 Level begun
• Mineral King Mine Rescue Team wins EK competition
|1963||97||203,942||• Mineral King Mine Rescue Team again wins EK competition|
|1964||97||183,971||• Shares sold to Mark Tanz|
|1965||95||145,196||• Inclined shaft to 12 Level
• Name changed to Aetna Investment Corp Ltd
|1967||84||111,332109||• Underground mining ceased 15 November
• Milling ceased 13 December
|1968||0||• Townsite operations cease 15 January
• Remaining concentrates shipped
• Property sold to Mountain Minerals Ltd
|1970||0||• New Barite plant into production|
|1973||0||• Purcell Development Co arranged royalty agreement|
|1974||29||4,600||• Concentrator built
• Ore from Paradise/Mineral King processed
|1975||0||• Purcell Development ceases operations|
We’re going to take a step back in the next post to the person who first staked the Mineral King claim, Ben Abel. In addition to the Mineral King, Ben Abel was involved in the Swansea Mine, the Red Line Mine, and a good number of other mining properties, as well as other pieces of real estate. That will be posted on March 3.