Updated: Jun 14, 2022
By: Nikki Simon November 12th 2020
If you ask any Vancouver native if they have heard of the Britannia Mine, the answer will invariably be, "my parents took me there when I was little!" Now a popular tourist destination where you can venture underground or pan for gold, the Britannia mine was once the largest copper supplier in the British Empire.
With copper ore first discovered in 1888, it's a surprise that it took as long as it did to establish a mine; still, in 1904, the Britannia Mine was born, the shining beacon of Howe Sound. For the first twenty years of the mine's operation, it suffered many ups and downs, going through constant change. 1915 was the year of expansion, the mine had been productive and growing, and it was decided that the time had come to build a new mill, aptly named Mill No.2. This expansion, which coincided with the outbreak of World War I, was in no small part due to the demand brought on by this war. Copper was highly prized for its use in the production of shell casings and bullet jackets, and most of the copper produced at this time went directly to the Imperial Munitions Board.
Unfortunately, six years after Mill No.2 was built, 1921 arrived with a vengeance and Mill No.2 promptly burned down. Thus, in 1923, the renowned Mill No.3 was born, a 20 storey gravity-fed behemoth of a concentrator mill leading the Britannia Mine into its most prosperous era. By 1925 the mill was processing 7,000 tons of ore per day, and they didn't just deal in copper either; though copper was the primary resource, the mine supplied many others, such as zinc, lead, cadmium, silver and gold.
Britannia’s success continued well into the '30s, with the years of The Great Depression being some of its most prosperous, allowing them to continue where many other mines were shutting down. By the time World War II broke out in 1939, Britannia was seen as a strategic source of copper for the Allied war efforts. Demand for its resources grew exponentially; unfortunately, the increase in demand was followed closely by a lack of man-power as the mine's skilled workers were converted to soldiers. This shortage only worsened in 1942 after the tragic internment of Japanese Canadians who were sent to the British Columbia interior and included many Britannia workers. During this time, they relied on unskilled labourers, implementing additional safety measures and specialist courses; despite this, the mine almost ran itself throughout World War II, not producing any new ore but instead processing their surplus. As the war reached its conclusion, Britannia Mine was in an increasingly difficult position, now faced with a shortage of workers AND ore.
Still, the Britannia Mine persevered as it always had, albeit with declining prosperity, and continued to produce ore right up until the '70s, including supplying a third war, the Korean War from 1950-1953. In 1974 Britannia ceased production and closed its doors, but not for long! Britannia Mine couldn't stay away and, in 1975, became the B.C. Museum of Mining renamed to the Britannia Mine Museum in 2010.
Britannia Mine Museum. (n.d.). History. Retrieved November 13, 2020, from https://www.britanniaminemuseum.ca/pages/history
Ramsey, B. (2004). Britannia: The Story of a Mine. Britannia Beach, British Columbia: BC Museum of Mining (Britannia Beach Historical Society).
Rhatigan, J. (2016). Afterlife of a Mine : The Tangled Legacies of the Britannia Mine (Unpublished master's thesis). University of British Columbia.