By Rob Johnson
Are you one of the many people who has walked past the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce on First Avenue and has not paid any attention to the ore car on the sidewalk? This ore car is one of the few connections left to the under-told story of the Mount Sicker mines and their connection to Ladysmith.
Most residents of Ladysmith know something about our coal mining history, but few know anything about our connection of the copper mines that populated the top of Mount Sicker or the Tyee copper smelter that played a major role in Ladysmith’s development. It was located on the waterfront where the Western Sawmills are located. It employed hundreds of people and extracted tonnes of copper, along with large amounts of, gold, silver, lead, zinc and cadmium.
In 1895, copper ore was first discovered on Mount Sicker. It soon became a hub of mining activity. The first of these mines was the Lenora established in 1898. Soon after the Lenora mine started operations, two other mines opened around it — the “Tyee” and the “Richard III.”
By 1900, enough people had moved up the mountain to form the town of Mount Sicker. It was the highest town on the Island, situated about 1,700 to 2,000 feet above sea level. The new town site boasted a population of over 1,700 people, making it the fourth largest community on the Island. It had two hotels, numerous shops, a school and many homes.
The town of Mount Sicker was unique in that it had two post offices: one at the Lenora mine site, and the other at the Tyee mine site, just few hundred feet higher on the mountain. Later that year, the mine was sold to Harry Croft and others. The ore from the mine was shipped to Oyster harbour by road and rail, then transshipped to smelters elsewhere until Harry Croft could build a smelter on the shores of Osborne Bay. In 1902, the smelter was ready to go into production. A town site quickly developed around the smelter. This community became what we know as Crofton — now not only the people at the mine were dependent on the Lenora mine, but so were hundreds of more people in Crofton.
The owners of the Tyee mine decided that their ore would be smelted in Ladysmith and not Crofton. To achieve this, they build their own smelter, the Tyee. Like the smelter in Crofton, the Tyee smelter was “blown in” in 1902. This required that the Tyee mine and the Richard III mine had to supply up to 400 tonnes of ore daily to be shipped from their mines to be processed at the smelter. To achieve this, they needed to install an aerial tramway to bring the ore down the mountainside. The tramway started at the 1,700 level of the mountain and, then, climbed to the 2,000-foot level before it descended to the train tracks at Westhome Crossing.
Once the ore arrived at Ladysmith, it was baked in outdoor ore ovens before the smelting. The smelted ore produced tonnes of “blister” copper that was then shipped to Tacoma for further processing and also extracted large sums of gold, silver, cadmium, zinc and lead.
The construction of the smelter helped create a building boom in the town of Ladysmith, for the homes for the smelter workers and a massive wharf and loading system were also built. With this added shipping wharf, Ladysmith became a major shipping harbour. Oyster harbour was now home to not only the newly built smelter wharves and the Dunsmuir coal wharves, but also a new government wharf, the Grandby coal wharf and the existing E&N rail transfer wharf. In the years to follow, as many as 350 ships and barges were loaded a year, with products shipped from the Ladysmith area. Ladysmith was now a significant shipping port needing its own Customs House.
Unfortunately, the mining boom on Mount Sicker was short lived. By 1904, the mines on Mount Sicker showed signs of financial problems. The Lenora mine was in receivership, and the Tyee mine was operating on its last legs. The demise of the community was obvious, and Mount Sicker was soon to become a ghost town. With the closing of the mines, people left their homes and businesses. What could be moved were moved. Any other buildings were just deserted and later sold for taxes. Homes went for $2, and the prestigious Mount Sicker hotel, along with its fixtures, couldn’t even get a bid for the asking price of $8. While both Crofton and the community of Mount Sicker were devastated by the closure of the mines, the effect on Ladysmith was much less, as the Town of Ladysmith had just become a City, and the coal mines were running full tilt — things looked promising.
Over its brief span, the mountain gave up some 6.5 million tonnes of ore. It is estimated that 20.6 million pounds of copper ($77.8 million in today’s Canadian dollars) were extracted, along with 841,000 ounces of silver ($16.9 million) and 39,000 ounces of gold ($61.3 million). The mines also yielded 500,000 pounds of lead, 4 million pounds of zinc and several thousand pounds of cadmium. At today’s prices, this would amount to $160 million dollars.
In 1911, the Tyee smelter ceased operations after only nine years in service. The smelter was later reopened under different owners and ran off and on till the late 1920s, processing ore from numerous locations, from Alaska to Mexico, but this was unsustainable with the existing copper prices. The smelter did have a resurgence in 1930, but not as a copper smelter; instead, it became a rock wool processing plant. Rock wool was a form of insulation produced by smelting the copper mill rock slag and making it into a form of home and industrial insulation.
The smelter closed for good when it burnt down in 1943 and was never rebuilt. So ended one of the many industries that helped shape the town of Ladysmith.