New book reappraises Silvery Slocan mining rush

Peter Smith holds a copy of Silver Rush: British Columbia’s Silvery Slocan 1891-1900 outside the Silvery Slocan Museum in New Denver. The book has been years in the making. Photo: Judith Maltz

A new book takes a comprehensive look at an era when the Slocan was at BC’s economic and political forefront.

At more than 600 pages, Peter Smith’s self-published Silver Rush: British Columbia’s Silvery Slocan 1891-1900 may intimidate casual readers. But within its pages lies an epic story of the men and women who flocked to the region to ride a wave of sudden prosperity.

Smith’s interest in the Slocan’s history was whetted when he came to the area from Victoria in the mid-1970s.

“I thought wow, this place is incredible. Why have I never heard of it? The deeper I dug, the more important the history became.”

The contrast was stark: the Slocan at that time was a relative backwater, but in the 1890s, places like Sandon, Three Forks, and Kaslo were among the fastest growing towns in BC, thanks to mining discoveries that drew scores of prospectors and capitalists.

“If there was an election, as there was in 1894 and 1898, premiers and cabinet ministers would regularly tour the Slocan,” Smith says. “If you wanted to win, it became increasingly important to cater to the fast-growing West Kootenay. It was a critical part of the political scene and could not be ignored.”

By 1901, however, that power had shifted to Vancouver. Places like Sandon, Smith says, were “shooting stars,” already on the downturn after a brief heyday.

New mining discoveries in the Klondike turned prospectors’ attention elsewhere, silver prices nose-dived, and a fire devastated much of Sandon’s business district.

The boom was over. A few lucky towns survived, but many others dwindled or died. Stalwarts like Sandon’s Johnny Harris remained eternally optimistic the region would bounce back, but aside from a few blips, their faith was not rewarded.

Smith interviewed some oldtimers, spent a summer working at the Silvery Slocan Museum in New Denver, and thought about writing a book, but set the idea aside for more than 30 years. In the interim, other works on the area’s history appeared, which Smith notes were mostly focused on individual towns, rather than the region as a whole.

His interest was renewed after UBC made many historic Kootenay newspapers available online in 2011. He also found previously untapped archival sources.

“I was particularly interested in the ethnic diversity, which is surprising, because a lot of those voices haven’t been heard from before,” he says. “I also tried to unravel the history of the women who were a strong part of the mining camps. It’s really hard to find information. It’s like they weren’t there, but of course they were.”

Due to its geography, the early Slocan rush was dominated by Americans. Smith says he was fascinated by the “perceived contrast” between the US, where gun crimes were considered an everyday occurrence, and BC, where they were highly unusual.

“Some of that was perception more than actuality but I think it is true that law and order was better regarded in BC than in the States,” Smith says.

By the end of the 1890s, the investment climate in the Slocan had shifted from mostly American to largely British.

Smith, who now lives in Ladysmith, chronicles all of this while providing context as well as backstories of many of those who made a name for themselves in the Slocan.

“The object for me was to correct some historical errors and bring a little more light on a part of BC’s history that I think has been unduly neglected,” he says.

The book is available at Newmarket Foods and Raven’s Nest in New Denver, Otter Books in Nelson, and by mail through Smith’s website at silveryslocan.ca.

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