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The History of Stewart, British Columbia, to 1956

An Explorer's Guide to Stewart, British Columbia

The Province, B.C. Magazine, Saturday, June 2, 1956

A false mining bonanza started Stewart, BC

    Discovery of Stewart as a mining camp was an offshoot of the Klondike gold rush although the regions are several hundred miles apart. Stewart is tucked away at the head of Portland Canal in northwestern British Columbia, near the bottom of the Alaska panhandle. The Klondike is near the top of the panhandle and in the Yukon Territory.

    When the rush to find gold in the Klondike was at its height in 1898, several companies were formed by enterprising promoters who claimed they had found gold or knew where others had found it in various part of the immense wastes of the north.

    One of these was a Seattle man named Burgess, who claimed he had found placer gold in northern British Columbia at the head of Nass River. He explained that only the lateness of the season at the time of his discovery had prevented immediate development of the rich find. And he announced that if he could interest a large enough number of men in going to the placer field on the Nass he would charter a steamer and take them there. He required a fee for this apparent generous conduct and he had no difficulty in interesting 67 men. True to his word he chartered a steamer of medium tonnage, the Discovery, sailed from Seattle up the coastal inside passage to Dixon entrance, and turned into Portland Canal which reaches 80 miles into the coast mountain range.

    Provisions for several months, 26 horses and camp outfits were in the hold. There was difficulty in discharging passengers and cargo because the last two miles to shore was a tidal flat which made muddy footslogging for the stampeders. It was May when the ship left Seattle and the wild flowers were blooming on Puget Sound, but when they arrived at destination, the Bear River valley was still deep in snow. For days the party stalled with their horses on "Bunco Point" until it was decided to set out on foot for the long hike to the Nass headwaters.

    Burgess was told that there was "plenty of rope in the party," and made to understand that failure to reach placer diggings would be fatal for him. Traveling was easy for the first few miles along the banks of Bear River. Soon the terrain became more difficult. They crossed a glacier, and 40 miles from the beach reached a large lake now called Meziadin. Two days later they were on the headwaters of the Nass and the hills rang to the music of pick and shovel.

    But no gold was found and hostility toward Burgess grew. Fearing for his life, he took the opportunity to escape with Harvey Snow, a prospector from the Nass who had arrived, following information given him by an Indian that a large party of white men was at the head of the canal prospecting for gold. Snow figured to be in on the strike. But when he found how matters stood he closed a deal with Burgess to extricate him from the mess for $50. Snow and Burgess left during the night, in spite of close surveillance of the promoter. They arrived two days later at the Nass mouth where Burgess caught a southbound steamer and was no more heard from.

    The men now held a conference and decided to split up, some continuing inland by several valleys. But most, disgusted with failure, chose to go home. Among those that turned back was D. J. Rainey, who had previous experience in lode mining. When he got back to the tideflat he turned his attention to the precipitous peaks that ring the waterway and rise sheer from the sea to heights of 6000 feet.

    The next year, 1899, he built a cabin, pre-empted 40 acres around it, and prepared for a season of prospecting. One of his finds became known as the Grizzly Bear. Often when staking a claim, he did not know whether he was in Alaska or on Canadian soil, so he filed his claim papers with both governments' recorders. He raised capital in the United States for the development of his claims, and this progress attracted other prospectors to the area.

    Among the first was a family of four brothers named Stewart from Victoria. They staked claims and several acres of flat land adjoining Rainey. A full-fledged stampede gathered force, and in a few months there were 46 mining companies in the territory. Extensive exploration was carried out by some of these companies. One of the most aggressive was Portland Canal Mining & Development Co., a few miles up Bear River. Here they had a miil with a capacity of 75 tons of ore a day, and an aerial tram- way to move ore from mine portal to mill.

    At that time the boundary beween Alaska and British Columbia was disputed, and some maps showed Bear River valley on the American side. When the boundary line was finally established in 1905 the Stewarts had their land surveyed into city lots. Many sold readily as mining and prospecting flourished.

    But the impetus for the real estate boom that followed was the plan to build a railrozd from tidewater at Stewart. The idea originated with Portland Canal Mining and a charter was secured to build into the interior. This charter was later taken over by Sir Donald Mann. The Portland Canal Short Line Railway was incorporated and 14 miles of road built up the Bear River valley to Red Cliff. The line was operated for a short time but the recession that followed the boom years 1910-11 dimmed interest in the project. Nothing further was done until 1928 when the charter was taken over by Hon. H. H. Stevens, now living in Vancouver, and formerly federal minister of trade and industry. The road meant different things to different promoters. The bolder conception was to build a rail outlet from the Peace River block, connecting with a transcontinental railroad. A similar plan that succeeded in its stead was the Grand Trunk Pacific completed to Prince Rupert in 1914.

    While the railway was a live issue the price of land skyrocketed in Stewart. Lots brought prices in the neighborhood of $2500. The one-quarter of the townsite retained by the province brought $430,000 at auction. The reputation of the multi-millionaire Donald Mann commanded respect in many places, and the boom at Stewart was known on the other side of the Atlantic. Population hit 10,000. The subsequent collapse of the railroad scheme knocked out the little town. A man with acreage on Bear River, who had refused $60,000 for it, was unable to get $600 a week later. Mining companies built more on the prestige of the scheme to provide transportation into the mineral belt, than on any visible minerals they owned, vanished overnight. World War One was the final blow, and during its fourth year of the war the population shrank to a mere 17 stubborn holdouts. A few continued to eke out a living by hand-mining rich veins in the hills.

    Of the few mining companies still operating, one group was slugging it out on a ledge 1600 feet above sea level. They had paid little attention to the railroad boom, but continued drilling and blasting, turning up evidence that encouraged their belief that they were making a mine. It was difficult to interest capital during the war.

    They were chronically short of money, often short of powder, and usually shy on mining tools. They stock-piled ore until just at the close of the war they were able to make a shipment of 500 tons to a mill. The smelter returns of $175,000 exceeded their wildest expectations. But now they knew they had a mine. In 1919 the Guggenheim brothers, mining capalists in the United States, put in development money. And thus was born the famous Premier gold mine which, from 1921 to windup in 1948, paid out $22,000,000 in dividends.

    Success of the Premier put the little town on its feet again. Mining companies became interested in the district. But the Premier eventually exhausted its known ore and closed down. The old railway charter was kept alive until World War Two. At that time the rails were lifted and shipped to the steel scrap-pile.

    Many big companies have tried to find another great mine in the same camp. Today it looks as if the Granby and Newmont companies may have it in the Granduc copper property at the glacier 25 air miles inland from the head of Portland Canal.

    Meanwhile there is great activity in the little port of Stewart. There is the possibility that the Frobisher company might make use of the head of water from Meziadin Lake to develop a block of electric power ard install metallurgical plants. This would encourage renewed investigation of the mineral belt of the Canal. There must be other Premier mines in the district. It is hardly likely that the men, now dead, who toiled so hard in the horse and hand-axe days should have found the only rich mine. Many years ago the Provincial Government promised the Portland Canal area a custom mill where miners could have their ore crushed and concentrated.

    Unfulfillment of this promise has done more than anything else in recent years to retard development of what might be one of the richest districts in British Columbia.

Premier Mine at Stewart, BC