B.C's Wonder Mine
Sheer indomitability has turned the once despised Premier into a great producer. Here gold is found amid the clouds
REECE H. HAGUE
WHEN it was announced recently that the dividends of the Premier gold mine in British Columbia had passed the fifteen-million-dollar mark, on an original capitalization of five million, few people realized that behind the bald statement lay one of the greatest records of achievement in the annals of Canadian mining. The tale of the Premier is one of a valiant, and at times heartbreaking, struggle against adversity waged by the original pioneers of the Portland Canal area—that section of British Columbia adjacent to the Panhandle of Alaska.
The history of mining in Canada is one of failures being turned into successes by the sheer indomitability of prospectors and the tenacity of developing companies. If every mine in the Dominion which was difficult of access and had been reported upon adversely by mining engineers had been permanently abandoned, the yearly production of minerals would be considerably less than the imposing figure of approximately $300,000,000 which it reached in 1929.
Years passed after the first recording stakes were driven before the Premier mine was brought into production. The fortunes of the area in which it was situated waxed and waned. Prospectors became discouraged and left the locality, others took their place; while a steadfast few clung tenaciously to their holdings through times of depression, hoping against hope that ultimately their faith in the mineral potentialities of the district would be justified. The Premier and other prospects in the locality were optioned and abandoned. Many members of the mining fraternity shook their heads when the Portland Canal section was mentioned and proclaimed stoutly that in such a rugged, inaccessible area, where there was an annual snowfall of between forty and eighty feet and where mineral values seemed patchy, there was no possibility of developing mines.
“Stick to the better known districts handy to transportation, where a human being doesn’t require all the attributes of a mountain goat to do his prospecting,” was the advice of the more conservative mining men to those visionaries who persisted in viewing the Portland Canal section as a promising mineral field.
But for once the visionaries were right. The Portland Canal area has proved itself an important mineral producer, and the Premier Mine is referred to as an outstanding success wherever mining is a topic of conversation.
Whenever I write or talk of the Premier a picture appears before me of a man who, when I last saw him, was on his way to visit a gold prospect situated high in the mountains almost at the intersection of the Yukon, British Columbia and Alaska
boundaries. He is of medium height and wiry build, looking far younger than the fifty years to which he admits until he removes his hat and reveals a bald cranium. There is little to distinguish him from the average citizen of any Canadian city save a tan which could have been acquired only by years of outdoor life, a peculiar alertness of manner and an unusual brightness of eye.
To look at him nobody would imagine that he has led one of the most adventurous and varied careers possible for any man to lead, is one of the most enterprising and successful prospectors on the continent, and—which is the reason for special reference to him in this article—was one of the original locators of what is now the Premier Mine.
The story of the Premier Mine is an important part of the story of William Bunting. For “Bill,” as he is familiarly known in every mining camp in British Columbia, was the man who clung to the Premier ground when others scoffed, and whose never-failing confidence in the property which he had staked was eventually justified.
In 1898, when the Yukon stampede was at its height, a party of prospectors in search of placer gold made their way up the ocean inlet which marks the boundary between British Columbia and Alaska. At the head of Portland Canal, where the town of Stewart was later to be established, the prospectors made camp, but it soon became apparent that it was not a placer country, although indications of mineral in placer deposits were found. The interest of the majority of the party being solely in placer, most of them departed. But one or two of their number remained, and in the years that followed other hard-rock miners were attracted to the locality.
Sporadic booms occurred, but it was not until 1909 that the Portland Canal commenced to attract the serious attention of mining men, and prospectors in everincreasing numbers began to pour into the locality and systematically search the formidable mountains on either side of the international boundary for mineral deposits.
Among the arrivals of 1909 was Bill Bunting, who, since his arrival in Canada from England ten years previously, had been a prize fighter and dancing master in various British Columbia mining camps. Prior to leaving the land of his birth, Bill had been a soldier and an amateur boxer. It was when he was defeated in a bout for the amateur middleweight championship of England that he made up his mind to try his luck in the Dominion. Fighting and teaching dancing eventually palled, and, having decided to turn prospector, the young Englishman’s steps led him to the Portland Canal, regarding which glowing reports were being circulated.
On arrival at Stewart, Bill Bunting found that a large number of prospectors had preceded him and that the territory for miles northeast of the town had been staked; claims in some cases having been located two and three deep on promising mineral
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B. C’s Wonder Mine
Continued from, page 9
leads which were situated adjacent to tidewater.
“I looked up a government map to see what sort of country lay over the mountains northwest of Stewart,” Bill explained to the writer. “I teamed up with a prospector named Scotty Dillworth who had been with a topographical survey party operating near the boundary. Taking powers of attorney to stake claims for two medical men from Prince Rupert, Doctors Kergan and Richards, we started off.
“I had been over some pretty tough country since I started prospecting, but those mountains around the Portland Canal were the limit. A man had to watch his step every foot of the way. More than one prospector came to his death through falling from the mountain peaks or slipping through crevices in the glaciers which were encountered in every direction. Scotty and I kept on going, but we were inclined to curse ourselves for fools for ever venturing into such an outlandish country. We prospected as we went along; and in June, 1910, found some rich showings of gold and silver near a waterway which I named Cascade Creek, about twelve miles in a dead line from Stewart.
“We didn’t know whether we were in British Columbia or Alaska, so we hunted for one of the copper boundary monuments. It took us a month to find one, then we knew we had been lucky enough to have made our strike on Canadian territory. Later, when a road was built into the Premier and an aerial tramway constructed from the coast, the greater part of both the road and tramway ran through Alaska.
“Scotty and I staked claims for ourselves and the two doctors, and went back to Stewart to record them.
“That fall the medical men sold their claims to O. B. Bush, a well-known mining man, for a small sum; I think it was $1,500. Dillworth and I figured that we had something pretty good and refused to sell. Not long afterward my partner was drowned on another prospecting trip, so I sent to England for my brother Walter and transferred a half interest in the claims to him.
Rejected by Engineers
VL^E RAISED a little capital and W formed the Cascade Falls Mining Company to develop our property, and we induced the provincial government to allow us $400 toward building a trail into Cascade Creek. Prior to that we had had to pack everything in on our backs over the mountains, and I can tell you it was some job. When the trail was built we used pack horses.
“Mr. Bush also formed a mining company to develop the holdings he had purchased from Doctors Kergan and Richards, and after doing some work he optioned the property to New York interests.
“Various engineers came in to examine our ground, but most of them considered the claims either too inaccessible or not sufficiently rich to justify recommending them to their companies. I went down to Stewart to meet one engineer who had arrived there full of optimism as a result of what he had heard on the outside. His optimism began to fade when we were clambering over the mountains on our
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way to the property, and by the time we reached Cascade Creek he had turned into one of the world’s worst pessimists. I had a good cabin on the claims and thought that after a night’s rest and a substantial breakfast he would feel better, but when morning came he refused even to look at my showings, saying that if I had the richest mine in the world no one would ever be fool enough to try and operate it in such a desolate spot.
“Incidentally the same engineer sent for me a few months ago and told me he had heard a lot about my Gold Cord property on Stampede Mountain, out from Haines, Alaska. He said he would like to inspect it with a view to purchasing for his principals. I reminded him of what had happened when he came up to see the Premier nearly twenty years ago and warned him that, while he could go into the Stampede country with me if he wanted to, I didn’t want a repetition of what had happened at the Premier. I explained that while there was a good road most of the way into the Gold Cord, the last two or three miles over glaciers were tough going and I didn’t mean maybe. He thought the matter over and decided to stay in Vancouver.
“After the New York company had spent $50,000 on the claims they optioned from Bush and his associates, they abandoned them on the advice of prominent United States engineers but against the advice of the man named Plate who had been in charge of development work and had great faith in the property.
“Other engineers examined the claims held by both Bush and myself and turned them down, and it became increasingly hard to get money for development work as the public began to get the idea that I had picked a lemon. Then Pat Daly, another well-known mining man, optioned Mr. Bush’s property and went to Spokane to try and interest financiers in it. R. K. Neill, an eminent geologist, accompanied Daly to the claims, and, after sampling them and examining the formation and outcrops, came to the conclusion, from the work done by Plate, that there were cross fissures crossing the ore zone. In defiance of all the theorists and with most mining men predicting that he was heading for a costly failure, Neill started to work out his own ideas in connection with the property, and before long it became apparent that he was right.
“I held on to my claims until 1918, spending every cent I could raise on development work, and sometimes it was difficult not to be discouraged. Neill’s work on the claims originally held by Doctors Kergan and Richards was so successful that in 1918 he offered my brother and me $115,000 for our claims, and we accepted. All the original claims that Dillworth and I had staked were now in the same hands and formed the Premier Gold Mining Company. While I staked a lot of other claims in the Portland Canal district and some of them are now being developed by various companies, it was the Premier which gave me my real start and which made the Portland Canal what it is today.”
XTOTWITHSTANDING that it is twenty years since Messrs. Bunting and Dillworth staked the Premier group and that many thousands of claims have been located in the Portland Canal section both before and since, it is the Premier which is still the big consistent producer of the area. Other properties now under development, however, give promise of coming into regular production in the near future and carrying on when eventually the ore reserves of the Premier itself become exhausted.
Lest anyone desirous of journeying into
i the Portland Canal section should refrain ; from so doing on account of the hardships I with w'hich the original pioneers had to j contend, let me explain that, while geographical and climatic disadvantages are as acute as ever, it is now possible to reach the Premier Mine with a minimum of discomfort.
A passenger who embarks upon one of the modern, comfortable passenger steamers which ply on the British Columbia and Alaska coast can be assured of seeing some of the most magnificent scenery in the world as his steamer takes him up the eighty-mile natural canal leading to Stewart. Perchance, en route the steamer will pass a barge loaded with rock being towed in an opposite direction. This, in all probability, will be a shipment of Premier ore on the way to be smelted and converted into currency.
Stewart itself is well equipped with hotels and restaurants, and taxicabs are available to take the sightseer up what is know'n as the Salmon River Road leading to the Premier Mine. Although it abounds in hairpin turns along the edge of a canyon, accidents are rare.
En route to the mine the taxi will probably pass strings of pack horses. These useful animals are still used for taking supplies into properties situated off the main highway, although the days when they hauled hundreds of tons of heavy machinery and supplies to the Premier have passed; all freight both to and from the mine now' being transported either by trucks or on the aerial tramway w'hich connects the mine with a w'harf at tidewater.
This tramway, eleven and a half miles in length, is the longest single drive tramway in the world. For some distance it parallels the road. Buckets containing ore leave by it at brief intervals night and day, the receptacles returning either empty or loaded with supplies. For, while the Premier is equipped with an up-to-date mill, only approximately half of the ore mined is milled locally, the remainder being shipped to the smelters at Anyox, B.C., and Tacoma, Washington.
On rounding one particularly acute turn in the mountain road the traveller finds suddenly revealed before him the buildings of the Premier Mine, perched somewhat precariously on a natural mountain shelf. If he is fortunate enough to be invited to inspect the workings he will be escorted by a courteous employee through miles of underground passages. He will see the ore being mined, transported through the bowels of the earth, and eventually brought into the mill building to be passed through the complicated process which will result in the gold being separated from the dross and mineral concentrates being recovered. From the rear of the mill he will gaze down into the sheer depths below, and watch the buckets of ore bound for the outside sliding sedately along the tramway cable, gradually becoming smaller and smaller until they disappear in the distance.
A self-contained village is the Premier camp. In the spring of 1928 that greatest menace of the backw'oods, fire, broke out on the property and destroyed the bunkhouse and other buildings. The company immediately replaced them with better buildings which contain added comforts for the men not always available in mining camps. Single men are housed in a
commodious bunkhouse, two men being allotted to each bedroom and each man occupying a single bed. Bathing and other facilities are provided, and the dining room is better outfitted than are many country hotels and restaurants.
Some little distance from the bunkhouse are the quarters of the married employees; and, in addition to a company store, there are recreation and pool rooms and a library, all of which are conducted by the employees themselves. There are badminton courts and even a tennis court, located, as are most of the buildings, right on the edge of a precipice and entirely enmeshed in wire netting so that even the most exuberant enthusiast is unable to send a ball hurtling into space. Talking pictures are shown in the main recreation hall, and occasional dances are held there, to which flock men and women from other camps in the locality and the coastal towns of Stewart and Hyder, Alaska. The men have their own basketball, football and baseball teams,and play matches with teams from the near-by towns.
Isolated although the mine is from large centres of population, the men and their families seem to extract ample joy out of life. For the people of the North take their pleasures simply and enjoy simple pleasures. Even the tremendous snowdrifts during the winter and the never-ending vista of glacier-enshrouded mountains which surround their abode, do not seem to become monotonous to these dwellers in British Columbia’s hinterland.
A Hive of Industry
AT THE helm of mining operations is a
*• grave, courteous man, whose finger rests lightly on all activities, both mining and social, in the little realm over which he is ruler. This is Dale L. Pitt, general manager of the Premier Gold Mining Company; and his principal theory of life is that in order to keep men happy one must keep them busy during their working hours and provide them with ample relaxation for their leisure.
“There are no drones in the camp,” Mr. Pitt informed me. “Every man is a worker, and when a man is busy he is contented and has no time to hatch up trouble or become restless. No liquor is allowed at the mine, and its absence helps to eliminate fighting and quarrelling. If an employee feels an overwhelming urge to go on the spree, as miners unfortunately do on occasion, it is his privilege to ask for leave of absence and proceed to Stewart, where there is a government liquor store and beer parlors.”
When one sees how simply and smoothly the extensive machinery connected with the Premier operates at the present time, it is hard to realize the almost insurmountable difficulties against which the pioneers who made its development possible had to contend. In addition to the regular mining operations for the purpose of getting ore to keep the mill running twenty-four hours a day 365 days a year and to provide smelter shipments, diamond drilling and tunnelling are always being conducted in the hope that additional ore reserves will be revealed.
Nearly thirteen miles of direct tunnelling and over sixteen miles of diamond drilling have been carried out on the property; and to give some idea of the magnitude of the company’s operations
it may be mentioned that the crew of some 300 men annually mine between
200.000 and 300,000 tons of ore. Mining operations entail the use of approximately
350.000 pounds of explosives and 750,000 feet of fuse a year.
From Mr. Pitt the writer learned the astonishing fact that in 1928 the Premier Mine produced 11.33 per cent of the gold and 12.47 per cent of the silver mined in the whole of Canada. The fact that the value of the output for 1929 was somewhat lower was partially due to the heavy drop in silver prices and in part to the lower grade of ore being mined.
“How long is the life of the Premier likely to be?” is a question ever on the lips of the mining fraternity, and to get an answer is difficult. The company is using every endeavor to find sources of ore which have not yet been revealed, but officials are reticent regarding their success.
“One thing I deplore,” said Mr. Pitt noncommittally, “is that every time we uncover an additional ore body rumors are circulated to the effect that the life of the property has been extended anywhere from ten to twenty years. Nothing has been located recently to justify these statements, but when we do encounter new ore bodies we immediately set to work diamond drilling and drifting to find out their extent. Naturally this is a lengthy business. Continual work alone can show what additional ore may be expected.”
Even though the reserves of the Premier cannot last for ever, there seems no danger of the company having to close down for some years to come; and in order that when eventually the ore does peter out the company can continue functioning, other properties in the Portland Canal section are being developed and brought into production.
The success of the Premier has established the Portland Canal as a mining district of considerable importance; and when individuals or companies carrying out work on prospective mines in the area tend to become discouraged at their difficulties it is the thought of the Premier which gives them courage to carry on.
“In a district where one such mine as the Premier has been uncovered there surely must be other rich properties,” the Portland Canal mining man will tell you; and from the promising results which are accruing from development now being conducted on various holdings it would seem that there is justification for this spirit of optimism.
As one leaves the hive of industry which is the Premier and proceeds at a discreet rate of speed down the winding road leading to Stewart and points south, one’s thoughts cannot but revert to the time, twenty years ago, when Bill Bunting and Scotty Dillworth made their first trip over the same mountainous terrain, blazing a trail which was destined to lead to one of Canada’s greatest mines and paving the way for prosperity for the Portland Canal section.
But it is not only to the men who discovered and developed the producing properties that tribute is due. One must not ignore the hundreds, probably thousands, of prospectors who have braved the hardships of one of the most rugged areas in the Dominion and have spent weary months, in some cases years, searching in vain for a mine similar to the Premier.