Opening Up the Columbia

by Willa Condy

The first strike of gold in the West Kootenay was by Winslow and Osner Hall’s party of 15 in the summer of 1866. They came north from Colville to try their luck panning for gold on the Salmon River (now called the Salmo River)


Tired, just about out of supplies the group had travelled nearly a hundred miles when two of the party ended up on Toad Mountain and spotted ore. It turned out the ore was high in silver. This strike led to the Silver King Mine and started the growth of Nelson, B.C.

Miners followed the strikes and many started moving into the Kootenay region. In 1890 two prospectors travelling the Dewdney Trail found gold and filed mining claims on four claims. Their 5th claim they sold to Colonel Topping in exchange he paid the filing fees on their claims. It cost him $12.50, but it was a wise investment for Topping. He sold that claim to a Spokane mining company for $30,000.


This started the rush into the West Kootenays of miners and spawned the town of Rossland, B.C. At the start the miners weren’t positive that Rossland was actually in Canada, so the city had a sheriff and with the amount of miners flooding in had a very wild west vibe.


In 1898 the LeRoi claim was sold to the British American Corporation for just over three million dollars.

By 1897 Rossland had a population of 7,000 and 42 saloons, 4 banks.


The easiest route to get to Rossland was to travel up by boat to Trail Creek Landing and walk up the six miles up the hill to get to Rossland.


Ore is wonderful but to get the most money it has to be smelted. The direction of the ore at this point was directed to the LeRoi Co Smelter near Northport, Washington. That was going to change.


Enter Montana’s Frederick Heinze, who like what he saw up in Rossland and decided to build a new smelter to process the ore down at Trail Creek Landing.


Heinze saw the big picture. He saw the need for a railway to move the ore in and the finished products out.


He appealed to the B.C. Government and was granted a railway chart for the the Columbia and Western (C&W) in 1896 to build a short track from Rossland to Trail Creek and 25 miles north to West Robson, which was across the Columbia River from Sproat’s Landing and the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) Columbia and Kootenay (C&K).


Heinze had big dreams but a limited pocketbook. In 1898 the smelter and charter changed hands and were purchased by the CPR.


The railway building wasn’t limited to these new lines. Daniel Corbin had seen the writing on the wall that Heinze’s time and money were running out and that his Trail-Rossland operations were going to be controlled by the CPR. Corbin wanted a share of the monies from transporting the ore. Corbin chartered and began building his own Red Mountain Railway (RM) from Rossland to the US border. Eventually the line was extended down to Northport and the Leroi smelter. The C&RM Railway was up and running in 1896. He expanded and added rail lines into the Boundary Region after hearing of the rich copper ore at Phoenix. With news of the copper deposits 35 miles south near Republic, Washington Corbin dreamed of a railway route to connect all three. But he ran into roadblocks in Canada from the province and from the CPR.


Corbin eventually ran out of money and his railway was purchased by American tycoon James. J. Hill.


Columbia and Kootenay Steam Navigation Company Limited was incorporated in1898 and started using paddle wheelers on Columbia River and Kootenay River and Kootenay Lake to move ore and passengers in areas that had few roads or rail lines connecting.


The first ship built was the Lytton, a 131 foot long sternwheeler. It was built in Revelstoke and went into service on July 2, 1890.


On the Lytton’s first trip carried 65 tons of track materials down the Arrow lake to Sproat’s Landing for the C&K Railway. Also onboard was W.C. VanHorne, President of the CPR, and other executives of the CPR Railway.


Mining was the king in certain areas of the Kootenays, but not in all the regions. Fruit ranches dotted the Arrow Lake and apples were packed in barrels from these fruit ranches and shipped as far as England. The settlements on both the Kootenay and Arrow Lakes were serviced by the paddlewheelers that ran on the Arrow Lake until 1957.


In Castlegar you can still see traces of the past in the railway bridge that spans the Columbia. It originally was designed to be swung open to allow the passage of the paddle wheelers.

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