On two occasions this spring while on a walk along the trail adjacent to Riverside Drive, I have been asked by visitors what the black cliffs on the east side of the river at Barbara Ann Park are, what they are composed of and how they came to be. Their follow-up question is what is happening at the site today.
Following each of these incidents I wondered why there is no signage at the park or along Granby Road where the largest smelter of its kind in the British Empire once stood.
Visitors will want to know that the slag piles are now an active mine site with a difference. The material being mined was deposited on the site as waste from a smelter located on the land now occupied by P&D Logging and Boundary Truss.
At peak production, eight blast furnaces were operating in the building and the waste material was transported across the road from the smelter and dumped. For some time it was dumped in its molten form, but in the latter years of the smelter’s operation, the slag was treated with steam to granulate it before transporting it by conveyor belt to large cone-shaped piles.
The story of the smelter is an interesting one. A couple of early pioneers, Jay Paul Graves and Steven Miner, saw a potential money maker and incorporated the Granby Mining, Smelting and Power Company in 1899 with the objective of building a smelter capable of making copper matte from the low-grade copper ore from Phoenix Mountain because it would not have been profitable to ship it out of the area for smelting.
The smelter was built and its first furnace was “blown in” during the fall of 1900. When it was forced to close, the smelter had the distinction of being the largest nonferrous smelter in the British Empire. At the time a larger smelter operated in Montana.
The ore from Phoenix was first moved from the mines to the smelter by wagons but it wasn’t long until a rail line had been built and trains entered from the northwest. The railway crossed the Granby River over the narrow gorge north of the city at the location of the dam that had been built to provide power for the smelter. Coking coal came from coal mines operated by the Crow’s Nest Pass Coal Company near Fernie.
According to Jim and Alice Glanville, authors of a book called The Life and Times of Grand Forks, there were 400 men employed and the monthly payroll was $40,000.
When the world price of copper plummeted in 1919 the smelter closed because it was no longer a profitable operation. There is no information about what happened to the building after its closure.
The mining operation at the site today is a rather simple one. Pacific Abrasives and Supply Inc. uses a bulldozer and an excavator to extract the slag that is transferred to the cone shaped piles on site. The material is moved by truck to a site on Carson Road south of the city where it is prepared for shipment by rail to the United States. Much of the slag is shipped to California for use as an abrasive for cleaning the hulls of ships. It is also used in the manufacture of abrasive products. Slag is also a component of Roxul insulation.
During the 19 years that the Granby smelter operated, it was a dominant industry in the region yet the slag pile is the only evidence that it ever existed and that evidence is slowly being removed.
Is it not time to recognize that the Granby smelter played a dominant role in the economy of the area in the early 20th Century with the erection of an information kiosk near its original site and Barbara Ann Park.