Tunnelling to fun at Britannia Mine Museum 

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Snap quiz: what industry generates the greatest revenue for the Canadian economy?

If you thought oil and gas, guess again. Mining accounts for more than the revenue of the two runners-up, forestry and agriculture, combined. Consider that fact the next time you journey past the waterfront settlement at Britannia Beach on Howe Sound near Squamish.

Recent transformations at the Britannia Mine Museum, formerly known as the B.C. Museum of Mining, have begun to tempt more travellers to pause there on a road trip along the Sea to Sky Highway. Thanks to funding from the federal and provincial governments (as well as industry and private donations) during the past decade, the decrepit 20-storey concentrator mill has been given a face-lift both inside and out, along with the whole museum.

Last year, more than 35,000 people toured the new Beaty-Lundin Visitor Centre and a surrounding collection of 14 vintage buildings dating from 1905 to 1951. According to executive director Kirstin Clausen, the museum is within "spitting distance" of meeting its current target of 60,000 visitors annually, including 7,000 school-aged children. "Programs sponsored by the Mineral Resources Education Program, an independent organization which provides educational materials for schools, form a big part of our museum's raison d'être."

As Clausen explained to Pique during a recent visit to the national historic site, an uncomfortable contradiction exists around mining. "We need mining, and at the same time we're worried about the health of the planet. Britannia is a safe place where these issues can be discussed." Clausen, on staff for the past 11 years, previously worked as the director of the Langley Centennial Museum in Fort Langley. "Museum values are very important to us," the historian said. "Our mission here is to strike a respectful balance between the past and present realities of mining. For example, when we look at the necessities of modern life, it's clear that what's not grown must be mined."

Clausen defined the museum's future efforts as amassing a collection of historic buildings from 60 to 100 years old within the next decade. "From the museum's point of view, telling the back story of this place is as important as getting out the message about mining."

And what a tale Britannia Beach has to tell of both tragedies — a series of natural disasters took a large toll in human lives — and triumphs as one of the world's most profitable copper-mining operations. Once the site of a sizable community that thrived for seven decades, Britannia Beach shrank to a trace of its former self when the mine finally closed in 1975. The town was plagued for years by inaction in dealing with acid-rock drainage that stripped life from its creek and adjacent ocean waters in Howe Sound, but remediation treatment finally began in 2005. That process will require centuries of monitoring.

Even before the last shift of miners clocked out, Hollywood filmmakers had already begun mining the site for both its frontier setting and dramatic industrial-scale infrastructure. Over the years, film and television productions there ranged from The X-Files to the Fantastic Four. While the docks — from which ore was once loaded onto freighters for transport to smelters — fell into disrepair, sets from various productions, including a church, began to lend a gentrifying touch to the collection of wood-framed buildings that already dotted the property. Several enterprising small businesses — such as an art gallery, a coffee shop, and the renowned Mountain WoMan diner — sprang up and lured travellers to pause and admire the Tantalus Range peaks that dominate the skyline on Howe Sound's northern shore.

Why travel to sound stages in Los Angeles when a day trip to Britannia Beach will more than suffice? Grab a helmet, hop aboard a narrow-gauge railcar, and, with help from a knowledgeable guide such as former Britannia Mining and Smelting Company employee Marshall Tichauer, head underground.

Nothing quite prepares you for what lies ahead. As the little train enters the mine, a network of shafts leads off in multiple directions. Darkness closes in. Though hardly claustrophobic, the atmosphere is definitely different from anything most visitors would have experienced before.

First stop is beside a display of drilling technology still in working order. Tichauer counselled everyone to don protective ear coverings before he fired up a compressed-air drill to demonstrate early techniques in ore extraction. Kids seemed suitably impressed with the sheer physicality of the job, which required miners to remain underground for eight-hour shifts. When offered the chance to press down a plunger to trigger an explosive charge, all hands shot up. Of particular interest was a small cart stationed in one shaft. Challenged to guess its function, one bright lad thought it resembled an outhouse on wheels, an astute observation. When rookie miners were hired, their task for the first month was to push the "honey wagon" to various work stations, thus learning the web of tunnels that hollowed the interior of Mount Sheer.

Exiting the mine shaft, Tichauer led the group into the cavernous interior of the ore concentrator, a gravity-fed mill where two wooden concert stages had recently been constructed beside massive thickening tanks. Reportedly, the acoustics are superb. Heavy-metal music, anyone?

Pique contributor Jack Christie is the author of The Whistler Book (Greystone Books). For more information, visit www.jackchristie.com

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