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Britannia Beach is a small unincorporated community in the Squamish-Lillooet Regional Districtmarker located approximately 30 kilometers north of Vancouvermarker, British Columbiamarker on the Sea-to-Sky Highway on Howe Soundmarker. It has a population of about 300.

The community first developed between 1900 and 1904 as the residential area for the staff of the Britannia Mining and Smelting Company. The residential areas and the mining operation were physicaly interelated, resulting in coincidental mining and community disasters through its history.

Today, the town is host to the British Columbia Museum of Mining, on the grounds of the old Britannia Mines. The mine's old concentrator facilities, used to separate copper ore from its containing rock, is a National Historic Site of Canada.


Britannia Beach took its name from the nearby Britannia Rangemarker of mountains, which form the east wall of the mountainous shore of Howe Soundmarker south of Britannia Beach. About 1859 Royal Navy hydrographer Captain Richards of HMS Plumper named the range of mountains for HMS Britannia, the third of a series of vessels to bear that name. The Britannia was never in these waters.

A copper discovery on Britannia Mountain by Dr. A. A. Forbes in 1888 led to the development of the Britannia Mine. In 1899, a mining engineer named George Robinson was able to convince financial backers that the property had great potential. For several years, companies were formed, merged and dissolved in efforts to raise capital. The Britannia Mining and Smelting Company, a branch of the Howe Sound Company, finally commenced mining in the early 1900s, and owned the site for the next sixty years. The first ore was shipped to the Crofton Smelter on Vancouver Islandmarker in 1904, and the mine achieved full production in 1905.

A town had grown up around the mine and a Post Office opened on January 1, 1907 where it was named after the nearby mine.

In 1912, John Wedderburn Dunbar Moodie was authorized to upgrade the operation and increase production from the mine. Improvements in the mineral separation processes stimulated plans for a new mill (No. 2), which was completed in 1916 and was capable of producing 2000 tons of ore per day. The onset of World War I increased the demand for copper and the price rose sharply.

On March 21, 1915, an avalanche destroyed the Jane Camp. Sixty men, women and children were killed and it was a terrible blow to the tiny community. Construction began immediately on a new, safer town at the level above the Britannia Beach site. This portion of the community became known as the "Town site" or "Mount Sheer".

In March 1921, during a brief period when the mine was shut down, mill No. 2 burnt to the ground.

On October 28, 1921, after a full day of torrential rain, a massive flood destroyed much of that portion of the community and mine operations that existed on the lower beach area. 50 of 110 homes were destroyed and thirty-seven men, women and children lost their lives. The flood was caused because the mining company had dammed up a portion of the Creek during the construction of a railway, and when this dam gave way the town below was flooded. Carleton Perkins Browning directed the reconstruction of this portion of the community and the new No. 3 mill, which stands today.

Being an isolated, close knit community which could only be accessed by boat, life in both of Britannia's towns was never dull. Facilities included libraries, clubrooms, billiard rooms, swimming pools, tennis courts and even bowling. A thriving social calendar saw sporting events, theatrical productions, dances, movies and parties held throughout the year.

The mine boomed in the late 1920s and early 1930s, becoming the largest producer of copper in the British Commonwealth by 1929, under the management of the mine manager C.P. Browning.

In the 1940s, there were talks to build an artist village in Britannia's hills, but that plan did not proceed.

During the Great Depression, miners unionized in 1946 and suffered through their first strike. Low copper prices saw the Britannia Mine Company reduced to seven employees, and in 1959 it went into liquidation.

In 1963 the Anaconda Mining Company bought the property and production continued for the next eleven years. 300 employees managed to produce 60,000 tons of concentrate each year. Ferries services stopped around May 1965 after the highway and railway connections had been constructed. The connections made it easier to transport the copper, but high operating costs and taxes eventually forced the mine to close on November 1, 1974. The company did not attempt to clean up the mine and chemical wastes that it produced, since the British Columbian and federal laws did not require them to do so at the time and the problems only became apparent some time after the mine closure. The economy of the town diminished rapidly, and the railway station shut down soon after.

A Vancouver-based accounting firm bought the entire town, making Britannia still a "company town". The living conditions were less than ideal and the accounting firm did not attempt to clean up the polluted land either. All residents were tenants of the company.

In 1991, another flood occurred when a dam broke, although there were no casualties this time. Britannia creek burst leaks after 50 millimeters (two inches) of rain fell in less than 24 hours. The torrent of flood water carved itself a new route, along what used to be the old creek bed, straight through town.

In 1975 the BC Museum of Mining was opened to the public, and was designated as a National Historic Site in 1988. The following year, 1989, the Museum site was designated a British Columbia Historic Landmark. The Britannia site and its historic buildings, may be familiar to fans of the X-Files series as several episodes were filmed on the site.

The 250 Britannia residents in 2000 are mostly not the descendants of the miners of old, most of whom have long ago moved away. Many present-day Britannia residents moved here from about 1980 onwards.

In summer 2003, the town was purchased by The Macdonald Development Corporation who is working in conjunction with the Provincial Government to develop the town and surrounding area. The current residents were able to purchase the property where their homes were and many did so in November 2005, the first individual land owners in the town's history.

A 30 million dollar water treatment centre has been built to process the water pollution from the former mine. This opened in April 2006. Improvements to Highway 99 and plans to develop the waterfront continue in preparation for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

The large white concentrator building that dominates the town received a 5 million dollar face lift with new exterior cladding and windows. This was largely a community and private industry funded project.

Britannia Creek pollution

Water in Britannia Creek is extremely clear and transparent suggesting a pristine environment, yet the clear water is actually an indication that no living creatures can survive in it. The water cannot be consumed by humans either.

Even though mining has stopped, runoff and rainwater that flow through the mine’s abandoned tunnels combine with oxygen and the high sulfide content of the waste rock to create a condition called acid rock drainage (ARD). ARD is caused by a chemical reaction, which results in highly acidic runoff that contains large concentrations of dissolved metals such as copper, cadmium, iron, and zinc. The polluted water was being deposited directly into Howe Soundmarker by means of Jane Creek and Britannia Creek and as much as 450 kilograms of copper was entering Howe Soundmarker daily.

A two-kilometre strip of coastal waters along Britannia Beach was seriously polluted, affecting 4.5 million juvenile chum salmon from the Squamish Estuary (half the entire salmon run). A Fisheries and Oceans Canada report revealed that Chinook Salmon held in cages off Britannia Creek died in less than 48 hours because of the toxic metals in the water, whereas fish held off Porteau Cove had a 100 per cent survival rate.

The area around Britannia Beach had become extremely polluted and had a reputation as one of the most notoriously contaminated, historic mining operations in North America.

Scientists from the The University of British Columbiamarker designed the Millennium Plug, a huge device designed to prevent more pollutant from going into Britannia Creek. However, polluted waters are now diverted to discharge through a pipeline just 50 m offshore into Howe Sound. Therefore, field monitoring done in 2003, using intertidal algae and mussels as ecological indicators, showed that the recovery of coastal biological communities was actually minimal . University of British Columbia scientists are developing a state-of-the-art heating system using the warm polluted metallic water seeping from the mines.


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