The Britannia mill was an 'engineering marvel.' For those who worked there, the site was also home
HomeHome > News > The Britannia mill was an 'engineering marvel.' For those who worked there, the site was also home

The Britannia mill was an 'engineering marvel.' For those who worked there, the site was also home

Aug 25, 2023

On the edge of the Sea to Sky Highway between West Vancouver and Squamish, B.C., a landmark building is stacked into the mountainside overlooking Howe Sound. It holds a century of mining history.

Inside the steel and concrete walls of Mill No. 3, hundreds of steep wooden stairs ascend to different levels. On one floor sits the flotation equipment used to help separate valuable minerals from waste material. On a floor above, the drum-shaped machines that once loudly ground copper-containing ore now sit quietly as a reminder of the past.

"Those days, the mill was rockin' and rollin'," said Marshall Tichauer, 78, a former miner who is now a tour guide at the Britannia Mine Museum.

This month, Mill No. 3, which closed nearly 50 years ago, marks its centenary. To mark the occasion, a feature exhibition by the museum will explore the mill's history.

WATCH | A look inside the former Britannia mine and mill:

The mill opened in 1923 as a key part of the Britannia Mine and Smelting Company, which for years was the largest copper mine in the British empire. Ore was mined across 240 kilometres of tunnels inside Mount Sheer, before it was crushed and separated into minerals at the mill.

In the 70 years of the mine's operation between 1904 and 1974, it extracted copper equivalent to the weight of 3,250 jumbo jets, according to the museum.

But there was more to the facility than copper. Hundreds of families built their lives in the two company towns around the Britannia mill and mine. For decades, people fell in love here, had kids, went to school and played sports or all-night poker games.

Tichauer started work at the mine in 1965, when he was 18. He moved from West Vancouver after his father told him to get a job.

On his first day, Tichauer recalls, he got on a miners' train with around 40 other men and headed into a pitch-black tunnel to a mining site inside the mountain. He says he was warned beforehand of claustrophobia, but still braved the 45-minute ride — and ended up falling asleep.

"It didn't bother me at all," said Tichauer in an interview at the mill, where he reminisced about his years working underground. Later, he became a safety officer at the site.

Beyond the hard work, the mine fostered community spirit in its two town sites, named Britannia Beach and Mount Sheer.

Much of the Britannia Beach site, which was situated beside the mill, is now gone. The community hall, general store, church, cinema and the bunkhouse Tichauer once rented for $20 a month are no more. But the museum has preserved several other structures such as the first-aid building, which is now a white-and-red-painted cafe serving fresh coffee.

The Mount Sheer town site, located on the mountain above the mill, was home to the miners and their families. Amenities contributing to its lively atmosphere included a general store, billiard room, swimming pool, dancing hall, roller-skating rink and bowling alley. Now, only remnants remain, the museum says.

Many people would meet their future partners at dances and parties in the town site. They include Tichauer, who met his future wife Marianne while she was employed as a receptionist in the mine's office. They've been married for 52 years.

Yip Bing was about 17 when he arrived in Britannia around 1913. He worked in the general store, but would make Chinese food and deliver pots of a special herbal soup to the miners, says Shannon Yip, his granddaughter.

He was nicknamed Dr. Y.B. because his soup helped heal sick miners during the 1918 flu pandemic, said Yip.

When he worked there, discriminatory government laws didn't give Chinese workers the same rights as other workers. At Britannia, for example, they weren't permitted to work as miners. Instead, they worked as cooks in the kitchen or in stores.

"He probably was just known as the Chinese boy when he first got there, and then proved himself as a human being, which I think is a beautiful thing," said Yip.

At a recent visit to the museum, she learned he raised three children with his wife at Britannia.

Holding a photo of her grandfather and hearing his legacy as a community hero, Shannon said she wiped away tears.

"It was eye opening," she said.

Part of Laura Minta Holland's job as the mine's curator of collections and engagement is to keep the mill's history relevant. She describes the cavernous structure as an "engineering marvel."

It's Canada's last remaining gravity-fed concentrator mill, where the mined ore was processed as it moved down the mill's floors. It was crushed and ground in the drum-shaped machines, which were filled with steel balls, before minerals like copper were separated out and sent offsite to be smelted, Minta Holland said.

Wearing an orange hard hat, Minta Holland surveys the giant exposed boulders and concrete that make up the mill's interior. Built into the rock face of the mountain, which acts like a giant wall, Mill No. 3 was designed to be more resilient than Mill No. 2, whose timber frame was destroyed in a fire. The first, less efficient mill closed in 1914.

"This mill was really intrinsic to the success of Britannia mine," she said.

The mine closed in 1974 as copper prices dropped. But the transition to preserve its history began immediately.

In 1987, the mill was declared a National Historic Site and has since been used as a set for many films and TV shows, including The X-Files and The Age of Adaline, Minta Holland said.

Starting May 20, the exhibition 100 Years of Mill No. 3 explores the history, impact and innovation of Mill No. 3. The exhibition runs through late next year.

CBC Journalist

Baneet Braich is a journalist with CBC News. Connect with her at [email protected] or on Twitter at @Baneet_Braich

WATCH | A look inside the former Britannia mine and mill: