Britannia Beach- Mining’s Louvre getting facelift

Tuesday, April 5th, 2005

Paul Luke

Above, an artist looks ahead to what is to come for the B.C. Museum of Mining, seen during its working life as the British Empire’s largest copper-processing facility in the vintage photo below.

The copper mill that looms over Britannia Beach like an eight-tiered temple to the gods is about to get a $3.5-million facelift.

The mill, a massive heirloom from the golden age of B.C. mining, will get its makeover courtesy of a government-private-sector partnership, the Britannia Beach Historical Society said yesterday.

The 72-year-old derelict will be re-roofed, re-glazed and re-cladded in a bid to double the number of annual visitors to the on-site B.C. Museum of Mining to 80,000, the society said.

From its 1,194 windows and 18,792 panes of glass — all of which will be replaced — the concentrator mill offers a fabulous view of the province’s industrial past, museum director Kirstin Clausen said.

“It’s a beast,” Clausen said of the mill. “There’s this thing on the side of the mountain that anyone who drives to Whistler sees.”

The beast was big, benevolent and dirty.

About 60,000 British Columbians worked at the adjacent copper mine or lived in Britannia during the 70 years the mine operated.

Never to be mistaken for The Louvre, the concentrator was a triumph of scale, economy and functional design. The mill was the largest copper-processing facility in the British Empire when it was built in 1922.

The gravity-fed concentrator’s job was to separate copper ore from the surrounding rock. It mashed small boulders into a powder of flour-like consistency.

“The copper ore came in to the top of the building and came down by gravity through each level of the plant,” said Yale Simpson, a geologist and president of the Britannia Beach Historical Society. “They didn’t have to pump the stuff around.”

The miners distilled the ore into a copper concentrate they shipped off to Tacoma, Wash., for final processing.

The mine, which closed in 1974, left a legacy of pollution as acid-rock drainage flowed into Howe Sound.

Last month, construction officially began on a $27.2-million water-treatment plant at Britannia Beach designed to neutralize the contaminants.

Today, the mill is one of the last surviving examples of a gravity-fed concentrator in North America. The museum has become a popular stop for tourists and school children eager to pan for gold, peer into the lower level of the mill and tour an underground tunnel.

The mill upgrade, for which the feds and the province each contributed about $1 million, will create nine full-time positions. The project is expected to generate up to $2 million a year in extra revenue for the mining museum.

The governments’ contribution forms part of almost $3.2 million being directed at six community-infrastructure projects across B.C.

© The Vancouver Province 2005

Comments are closed.