Seen from the neighbouring highway, deep slag piles and a tall stack mark the remains of the BC Copper Company Smelter in Greenwood (actually Anaconda) BC. The plant once operated 24hrs a day and one walking around the site can easily imagine those heady times when it was abuzz with activity. It was though it was alive and breathing, with glowing hearths and smoke belching chimneys, a fire breathing dragon if you will. Or perhaps it should be compared to the pits of hell. Mostly it was the dynamic force that drove the local economy. When conceived, the future, like the furnaces that forged the metals, looked bright.
Greenwood is claimed to be Canada’s smallest city and is located in the Boundary district of south-central BC, so named for the nearby US border. The area is rich in metal ores, gold, silver, lead, zinc and copper and many mines pockmark the area. There were dozens and dozens of them, many of them huge in scope and once highly profitable for their owners.
This smelter processed copper – like the name (BC Copper Company) did not give that away? Each type of metal requires some highly specialized machinery, techniques and processes and they choose to work with copper for a couple reasons. The ore was plentiful in the area, and demand for the metal was quite high, especially for use in electrical cables. Homes and businesses were being wired for electricity and telephones and this meant copper was a hot commodity. Greenwood had it and others wanted it!
The furnaces were “blown in” (the first metal smelted) in 1901. Ore originally came from the nearby Deadwood Mine (sometimes referred to as the Mother Lode Mine) located a few kilometres north of Greenwood. The CPR had a short spur running up to the mine and a shuttle train operated between it and the smelter.
By 1910 the Deadwood mine was beginning to play out, although it would keep in production for a few years after, just not as the exclusive source of ore for the smelter. Mines in the Phoenix area, just south of Greenwood, supplied ore as well in later years.
Initially the output of the smelter was not of high purity and the copper had be refined further at the Granby Smelter in Grand Forks, some 40 km away; then later it concentrated further by a US firm. This three step process, as you can imagine, was not an efficient process!
New machinery was eventually installed and new processes implemented and the resultant metal was of better purity. Some silver and gold ores were mixed in with the copper (ore is never pure) and since Greenwood had no way to refine them, they were separated out by the US refinery mentioned earlier. That company was still used for the final stage of refining – only the Granby step was eliminated.
Boom and bust cycles are nothing unusual in the mining and smelting industries, if fact they are the norm, and the mighty Greenwood Smelter was not immune to this. From late 1907 to mid 1908 it was shut down completely due to low demand and depressed prices. These are two variables that would haunt the operation for years to come – sometimes the smelter could be seen running full out, at some reduced capacity or shut down completely. Coal sourced from the Crowsnest Pass was at times intermittent too, due to strikes, which further complicated things and drove up expenses.
With World War One, the demand for copper increased (and so did prices – they were always volatile), a boon for the Greenwood Smelter. By the end of he war however, it all collapsed and the plant closed, for good. Following suit were many mines in the area – most closed and would never reopen.
The slag dumps were served by a small railway. The molten materiel would be loaded on to specialized rail cars called slag pots and would be taken out to the dumping area. The car’s cradle would be tipped over and the semi-liquified waste rock would flow out like lava. Some material would have solidified by that time, becoming those bell shaped masses we see scattered about. Known as “Hell’s Bells” these “Darth Vader” helmets took the shape of the cars that dumped them.
Where a cut has been made, some buried rails can be seen sticking out of the slag. They were simply buried as the pile grew. They’d relay new rails and ties atop the fresh material (once it cooled of course) and repeated the process. This was easier for them, I suppose. The dumps are quite thick, so there must be many track layers hidden underneath.
After well over a hundred years the stack appears to be is in fine shape, although the flue tunnel is partially collapsing. The huge chimney was made from, I am told, some quarter million bricks. Who counted them all?
On entering the site, one is clearly overwhelmed by the size of the dump and stack. The former is extensive and covers a huge area. It’s also quite deep – tens of metres by my guess. The stack is several dozen metres tall (again my guess) and sits on a bench above the smelter location. It towers over the entire site.
The slag material is quite interesting. Some of it is broken and gritty and some smooth and almost glass like. It must have been quite a sight seeing see the slag being dumped, more so at night. It would have looked like a lava flow.
The slag pile is located south if the stack and there is no missing it – it looks like a moonscape. It covers a huge area and is quite deep and this clearly tells us it was a big operation. Nothing grows in this sterile material, even after all these years.
On this visit, myself, Connie and our two boys, did not explore the whole area – we were running out of time. There is more to see, much more, and on our next visit, we’ll be sure to take it all in. I don’t believe there are any other remains beside the stack, other then some odd foundations here and there. This requires further research (field research), however. Road trip! We’ll be sure and check it all out when we return. I have to see it all!
The BC Copper Company smelter complex, as I understand, is a recognized historic site and in respects to that is very significant. I wonder what plans they, whoever they are, have for the site?
Greenwood dates from late 1890s and it was mining that brought people to the area. It became the centre of commerce in the area and with the opening of the smelter, things really took off. Much of what you see in the historic downtown dates from this boom period (fodder for another report perhaps). After the smelter closed, Greenwood went into decline. A sleepy little backwater, the quiet streets today are quite a contrast to those crazy busy times when the mines produced fortunes for their owners. Greenwood retained its city status the whole time and is the smallest such community in the country.
Nitpickers will point out that the smelter is actually located in Anaconda. There is nothing to indicate where the border is between the two towns, located right next to each other, so for the sake of simplicity we’ll consider them as one.
Located a few kilometres west of Greenwood, is the remains of a second smelter, in Boundary Falls. It was smaller and was not as long lasting. A modest slag pile is all that’s left.
We hope to return to Greenwood, to explore the smelter more. Plus downtown Greenwood beckons, as does the old mine sites in Deadwood and Phoenix. They all invite further research.
The pictures seen here were scanned from 35mm slides.
To see what the place looked like in 1990 (not much different), go here…
Greenwood BC smelter remains – 1990.
If you’d like to know more about what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: Summer, 1997.
Location: Greenwood, BC.