GOLD EXPLORATION IN INTERNATIONAL AND BOBBIE BURNS BASINS,
MIDDLE FORK OF THE SPILLAMACHEEN
by Lesley Anderton (Killough)
Over 100 years of mining exploration, beginning in 1881, has left its mark in the mountains of the headwaters of Bobbie Burns Creek formerly the middle fork of the Spillamacheen. It was intriguing at hiking camp in 1991 to come across ruined cabins, drills, wheelbarrows, trenches, shafts, piles of white quartz glittering with iron pyrite, and even a tin cup hanging in a tree beside the old trail. The detritus of more recent exploration in the sixties – plastic pipe, oil drums, a large tire and aluminum core boxes – was less attractive, although the location of the ruined “john” perched at the cliff edge was intriguing.
Many of the peaks, creeks and basins owe their names to the mining activity. International Basin was named after a mining claim established in May 1888 by a gold miner, Archibald McMurdo, who also gave his name to McMurdo Creek on the north side of the Spillamacheen Range. Bobbie Burns basin and creek was named after a mining claim honouring the Scots bard. Unfortunately Sibbald was not named for the tiny yellow flower Sibbaldia but for John Drinkwater Sibbald, Gold Commissioner for the West Kootenay District in 1897. Mining recorders are recorded in the names of peaks such as Strutt, after William A Strutt, Mining Recorder at Burton, and Sandilands, after Evelyn Montague Sandilands, who ended his days as Mining Recorder at Wilmer, after earlier working for Baillie Grohman on the ill fated canal at Canal Flats. The Carbonate Range was named for the Carbonate Mining Co. (1892-3), whose ore bodies were formed by alteration of carbonate (lime) rich country rock. Malachite Spire is named for the green copper carbonate formed from weathering of copper rich minerals such as chalcopyrite (copper iron sulphide), some of which was found above the 1991 camp. David Peak was named for David Hope-Simpson, although his colleagues back at the Beverly Mine (hence Beverly Peak) on McMurdo Creek labelled it David’s folly.
What draws the mines to the area were the prominent white quartz veins cutting through the green schists and quartzites. Quartz veins are formed when hot liquids, left over from cooling molten rock within the crust, force their way into cracks in the overlying rock and deposit the quartz. As well as containing the silica that forms the quartz the hot liquids frequently carry elements such as iron, copper and sulphur that crystallize to form gold coloured iron pyrite and chalcopyrite. Sometimes there is sufficient gold in the hot liquid to form visible free gold in the quartz vein, but if there is less gold it occurs in the pyrite and chalcopyrite and only shows up in the assay. No doubt the great quartz veins set the miners to dreaming of free gold, but it appears that the only free gold occurred where it was released by the pyrite and chalcopyrite by extensive weathering.
W. Fleet Robertson, Provincial Mineralogist, inspected the claims in International and Bobbie Burns Basins in Sept. 1888. After obtaining horses at Cartrights hotel in Carbonate Landing (now McMurdo) he found the 30 mile (48 km) trail to be “a good one, well kept and not very rough”. The trail crossed over the summit into the valley of the North Fork below Loon Lake and then over another summit into the valley of the Middle Fork and then continued up the Middle Fork (now Bobbie Burns Creek) to International Basin (see Sargent’s 1936 map). We were still able to locate parts of the trail in 1991 particularly in the upper reaches, where a strategically placed cabin had a superb view down the Middle Fork and up to International Basin.
First Robertson inspected the Robert E. Burns claim at 7650 ft (2318 m) in Bobbie Burns Basin, where he noted a series of quartz veins with cubes of iron pyrite and some galena. In an exposed open cut the iron sulphides had become oxidizes leaving behind a little visible gold. Miners had obtained some free gold by washing but Robertson felt ” that such gold was only superficial and was entirely the result of surface oxidation of the sulphides”. He believed that chalcopyrite and pyrite with gold values could probably be found in paying quantities “as soon as the prospectors get tired of hunting for free gold and turn their attention to the development of the veins”.
Ore from the cut was processed at a stamp mill with 750 lb heads erected by the Bobbie Burns Co. in 1891 and powered by a Pelton wheel. A mining engineer reported that 70 tons of ore were run through the mill and that 2 dwt 3 grs of fine gold per ton was recovered by the mill, while the average of the tailings in the pits was 12 dwt 23 grs. A dwt or pennyweight is one twentieth of a troy ounce and is equal to 24 grains and there are 7000 grains in a pound, and thus 12 dwt 23 grs would be about 0.71 ozs of gold per ton.
Enroute to International Basin Robertson inspected the Lincoln and Flying Dutchman claims at 6000 ft (1818 m) and 6100 ft (1848 m), respectively on the Middle Fork. At the flying Dutchman he sampled the iron sulphides and found them to contain $20 per ton in gold, which was probably 1 oz gold per ton. Robertson reached International Basin on Sept. 23, rather late for mine inspection at 8000 ft (2424 m) and lamented that ” I was unfortunate in that a heavy fall of snow, on the previous day lay on the ground, filling up all the open cuts and covering all the dumps, so I was ‘not able to make as minute an observation as I should have liked.”
He noted that “the trail passes over the foot of one glacier which extends down into the valley to an elevation as low as 6200 ft.” (1879 m). The topographic map of 1977 indicates this same glacier ending at 7400 ft (2242 m), but judging from the lack of vegetation it could have been at 6400 ft not 6200 ft in 1898 and certainly Robertson has a picture of the glaciers showing them extending much lower than in 1991 as shown in Robertson’s 1898 photo and Anderton’s 1991 photo.
The International Mineral Claim, owned by J.L. Spink et al. of Toronto, was located in the upper right hand corner of the basin at 8400 ft. As in Bobbie Burns basin the chief source of mineralization was iron sulphides within the quartz veins, which had been explored by open cuts and a 50 ft deep shaft as well as some smaller pits. Other claims included the Favourite, Standby with a 90 ft tunnel and 40 ft shaft, and the Maud S with a 250 ft tunnel cutting a quartz vein 10 ft wide, as well as the Luchinvar and Picton. Maud S must have been quite a lady as she gave her name to another gold claim on Aaron Hill, above Castlegar. The Maud S tunnel was probably headed to go through the ridge to the Duncan side where the Bennison claims were. Robertson bemoaned the fact that he was unable to reach the ” much-talked-of Bennison Group” as the “trail led over a dangerous glacier and with fresh snow on the ground such an attempt was considered too dangerous to be risked, leaving as an alternative a trip of over 50 miles around to reach the group.”
Despite the miners’ and Robertson’s high hopes no gold of sufficient quantity to be shipped was found in International Basin in the eighteen nineties and the ground remained idle until 1922, when the claims on both sides of the divide between the Duncan River and the Spillamacheen were consolidated as the Alpha Group. Exploration was financed by the Alpha Mines syndicate with English capital. Work was begun in the fall on “extending a long tunnel driven some years ago”, presumably the old 250 ft tunnel on the Maud S and was to be continued through out the winter by a crew of 7 or 8 men. It was hoped that the tunnel would “crosscut at depth a sheared zone in which strong surface showings are exposed on the Duncan slope”. A. G. Langley, Resident Mining Engineer for eastern B.C., commented hopefully that “should ore be developed in quantity it will do a lot towards helping to revive mining and prospecting in this part of the country.”
Evidently there was insufficient ore and the International Basin was left in peace until 1966, although the workings on the old Flying Dutchman were cleaned out in 1934. In the summer of 1966 the mountains once again rang to the noise of drills when Bonanza Exploration of Vancouver did trenching and drilling on the Alpha, Maud S and Standby. This time the miners were looking for silver, lead, zinc and copper as they realized they were unlikely to find much gold, and good showings of galena (silver-lead ore) had been mentioned in Robertson’s 1898 report. Access was by helicopter, which accounts for the use of lightweight aluminum core boxes. Five men spent the summer in a camp on the property, but left at the end of September when operations were suspended.
That same summer a cat-road was pushed up Bobbie Burns valley to Carbonate Creek and in 1967 a cat-road was constructed to 8500 ft on Carbonate Mountain in the search for gold, silver, lead and copper. This road could still be clearly seen in 1991 from the ramp below “Tam O’Shanter” winding its way up Carbonate Mountain. Despite all the time and effort expended in looking for minerals in International and Bobbie Burns basins, it seems that little or nothing was shipped. Hopefully the miners and prospectors enjoyed the beauty of the alpine scenery and sometimes the quest is more interesting than the actual find.
Sources: Reports of the Minister of Mines, 1898, 1922, 1936, 1966 and 1967. W.L. Putnam, G.W. Boles and R.W. Laurilla, “Place Names of the Canadian Alps”, 1990, Footprint Press.