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Death Came Silently: the Granduc Mine Disaster

Stewart, BC - February 18, 1965

by Murray Lundberg

40 Missing in B.C. Avalanche

Granduc Mine Camp, Portal Hit

      To a 14-year-old boy living a sheltered life in a Vancouver suburb, the headlines were virtually incomprehensible. The aerial photo of a huge glacier on the B.C./Alaska border was a view of a world that I'd never seen except in my imagination. This was my first intimate look at what life was like in that world - for reasons that I still don't completely understand, I saved every article on the Granduc slide, never dreaming that ten years later, almost to the day, I'd be working underground at the Granduc copper mine, looking out of a portal high over the glacier where 26 men lost their lives on that awful morning of February 18, 1965, in one of the worst avalanches in Canadian history.

      The Portland Canal area has been attracting prospectors for over 100 years now. It was on May 4, 1898 that the first large group arrived, 64 men from Seattle following rumours of gold in the glacier-studded mountains that make this one of the most spectacular fjords on the coast. Although this group of prospectors was only mildly successful, the first gold claims were staked in 1899. The number of prospectors working along the canal grew each year, and by 1903 the annual report of the B.C. Minister of Mines was able to report that:

The past season has seen a large number of prospectors in this camp and considerable development work done, besides some on various properties. Still, with all the prospecting done, there is a large extent of this vicinity which has never yet been entered by a white man. It is expected that this will develop into an important camp before many years, the geological formation and general conditions being reported as exceptionally favourable.

      Among the "exceptionally favourable" conditions was the fact that Portland Canal, as well as being very sheltered, is Canada's most northern ice-free waterway. As more and more claims were staked, a small community grew at the head of Portland Canal, and in 1905 the town of Stewart, British Columbia was officially named after its first settlers, brothers John and Robert M. Stewart, who had arrived and staked claims on American Creek 6 years previously.

      In 1906, the Stewart area came to prominence when stories spread about "a mountain of gold" that had been found. While not exactly a mountain full, some rich properties had been located, and the following year, a 75-ton-per-day mill was constructed to process the ore. Staking activity in the area was so intense that a separate mining district, the Portland Canal District, was created. As well as gold, copper and silver-lead-zinc properties were being developed, although not on as large a scale. A large gold operation at Maple Bay, 35 miles south, built 3 aerial tramways, the longest of which ran 6,000 feet, to connect their 3 main tunnels to ore bunkers on the beach. Two railways (which never materialized) were soon incorporated - the promoters apparently raised money before they scouted out the topography! Another town also grew rapidly at the head of Portland Canal, just on the Alaska side of the border - it was named after Canadian geologist Frank B. Hyder.

      This boom didn't last long, and Stewart and Hyder both became virtual ghost towns for a few years. In 1916, however, Pat Daly staked what would eventually become the Premier Mine, one of the richest gold mines in the world - the entire mine was paid for in the first 2 years of production! At its peak in 1927, the Premier employed more than 800 men, working in over 17 miles of tunnels. It wasn't until 1950 that the Premier ore body was finally exhausted, and the mine closed.

      The richness of the ore at the Premier naturally prompted prospectors to force their way further and further into the mountains, and other rich properties, copper as well as gold, were discovered. At the Big Missouri, it was reported that pockets of nearly pure gold were discovered. In 1928, Charlie Lake and Neil McDonald were hard at work, driving a tunnel on their copper property near Tide Lake, 30 miles from Stewart. Although they were never able to find a commercially viable ore body, they remained optimistic that they were close - and their optimism was well-founded.

      In 1948, Tom McQuillan and Einar Kvale located and staked the copper that Lake and McDonald had predicted. Four years later they optioned the property to Granby Mining, but it took many years for Granby's engineers and financiers to work out how to extract the ore from this most difficult of locations.
The view from the upper portal, Granduc Mine, 1976
The Leduc Glacier,
as seen from the Upper Portal of the
Granduc Mine, May 1975.

This photo was taken at 4:00 AM, almost directly above where the Leduc Camp was located ten years before. The fantastic colour is accurate, not filter-enhanced.
Photo ©1975-2013 by Murray Lundberg

      Finally, in 1964, it was announced that everything was in order, and work would begin at once on a development expected to cost $55,000,000. The ore, centred in what was named the Leduc ore body, would be extracted through a 11-mile-long tunnel, to be drilled from both ends. Several camps were set up, including one to house 140 people at the Leduc Glacier end of the proposed tunnel. With 4 bunkhouses, a dining hall, recreation hall, auditorium, offices and powerhouse, the workers were able to live fairly comfortably in the harshest of conditions. A large runway was constructed right on the glacier, and supplies arrived by aircraft on the few days when the weather allowed. The rest of the time, Cat trains brought everything needed by the miners. The Cat trains wound through the mountains on a circuitous, 22-mile route that crossed a 5,500-foot pass, and involved travel along several glaciers, including the massive Salmon Glacier. In September 1964, work began on the tunnel.

      This area gets some of the heaviest snowfalls on earth, averaging about 800 inches each year, with the record at over 1,100 inches. To the men working at the camp, the 16 feet of snow that fell in the second week of February 1965 merely meant some extra work to keep their work areas usable. But high above the camp, incredible pressures were building as the snow deepened.

It is an eerie, desolate scene. A huge signal fire sends up warming flames and sparks - a beacon to rescuers. One building only is intact. Tired men huddle inside. Twenty fellow workers are out there in the snow, probably dead in their shattered bunkhouse. The injured lie on the floor. Dr. Veasey from Stewart moves from one to the other doing his best under primitive conditions. There is no light. It's cold...

      The snow piles up deeply in the coastal mountains - it's heavy snow, perfect for building glaciers, awful to work in. On the steep mountainsides above Portal Camp of the Granduc Mine, millions of tons of snow let loose at 10:16 AM, February 18, 1965. The survivors mostly remembered that it happened silently, with no warning.

      Radio operator Innis Kelly managed to get a brief "Mayday" message out before his equipment faltered, and within hours, a massive rescue force from across Canada and the United States was battling storms to reach the scene, where 50-70 mile per hour winds were reported. While nearby helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft waited for the weather to ease, 4 cat trains ground through the drifts at top speed, the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Cape Romain got into position to move the injured to hospital as quickly as possible, the huge Alaska ferry Taku was equipped as a hospital and sailed for the harbour closest to the disaster, and a wide array of other military, police and civilian aircraft and boats from both countries sped to the area.

      Virtually the entire camp was wiped out by the avalanche. Some of the survivors were missed when the slide split into two forks, and many were able to dig themselves out when they were buried. Bertram Owen-Jones, a 20-year-old cook, was holding a knife when the cookhouse was blown apart - caught under a portion of wall, he was able to use the knife to cut himself free after 3 hours. The tunnel had only been driven 28 feet when the avalanche struck, and several men were protected inside it.

      Help came from every direction. Ketchikan, Stewart, Annette Island and Prince Rupert shared the work of dispatching crews with a wide range of duties to perform, from locating mountain rescue experts to feeding the survivors. As always in disasters there were heroes everywhere. The aircrews, and the rescuers who flew with them, stand out in all of the newspaper reports. Day after day, they risked their lives in terrible storms, in one case having to land on a glacier for the night and then chip ice off the rotors to get going again in the morning. But there were also some scoundrels - while most men were digging to find fellow workers, someone robbed the commissary.

      As the details filtered slowly out, it became apparent that many of the victims of the slide were new to mining, drawn by the high wages, and probably the excitement offered at this high-profile project. Brothers Blake and Rod Rose came from a mining family, but had heeded their mother's wishes to stay away from mining until a few days previously. Unable to find work in Vancouver, though, the boys hired on as labourers and, along with janitor Craig Anderson, arrived at Portal Camp 4 days before the slide hit - all 3 were killed.

      One of the real miracles of the disaster was the story of Eino Myllyla, a carpenter who was buried for 79 hours, while huge rescue helicopters landed on the snow directly above him. He was uncovered by a bulldozer which dislodged a cap of ice covering him. Suffering from frostbite, dehydration and oxygen deprivation, he was rushed to hospital in Ketchikan, where he remained for months.

      Winter harrassed the rescue crews right until the second they left - extreme danger from more slides forced the emergency evacuation of the last 54 rescuers, with helicopter pilots braving a wild snowstorm to bring them out, navigating to the camp using the smoke from still-burning fuel tanks. The following day, the DC-3 carrying the 19 bodies recovered to that point skidded on the runway at Stewart and plowed into a snowbank, forcing a C-46 to come in to retrieve the bodies.

Victims of the Granduc Mine Disaster

      Portal Camp was never reopened. No technology available could protect men working in that location against another avalanche. The options for extracting the ore were few - an open-pit mine would be impossible due to the snowfall, so engineers had to find a way to cut the tunnel using only the camp at Tide Lake, 10.3 miles from the main ore body. The huge extra expense involved nearly forced the mine into receivership, but on the basis of reserves of 32,500,000 tons of 1.93% copper ore, refinancing was arranged.

      Once work restarted, progress was amazing - several world records were set by the tunnelling crews:
          Best single-day advance - 155 feet
          Best six-day advance - 601 feet
          Best month's advance - 2,320 feet
          Fastest one-mile advance - 73 working days

Tide Lake Camp, Granduc Mine Tide Lake Camp, Granduc Mine
The view from the main concentrator door

      While the tunnel crews were at work, a permanent camp and a massive concentrator were also being constructed at Tide Lake. To get supplies in and concentrate out, a 32-mile all-weather road was built to reach Stewart, where a large dock was built to berth ore freighters as large as 50,000 tons. The town of Stewart quadrupled in size, with the modern "Granduc Subdivision" extending to the north of town. By November 1970, everything was completed - the final bill came to $115,000,000, over twice the original budget. Only 3 months later, however, the first shipload of copper concentrates were on their way to Japan.

      Over the following years, Granduc had its ups and downs as most mines do. Copper is one of the metals that is the most sensitive to world market demands, and the massive cost over-runs in developing the mine led to a crippling debt load when interest rates climbed. The ore reserves at Granduc, though massive, were not rich, and the severe drop in copper prices in the 1980s led to layoffs, then short closures, then indefinite closure of the mine. A skeleton crew attempted to maintain the Tide Lake Camp and Granduc Subdivision through several winters, but expenses were enormous. Maintenance was scaled down further and further, and the decision was finally made to dismantle the camp and concentrator and shut down permanently.

      Visiting Stewart now, it's clear that Granduc will never be forgotten. Although it may not be clear when you first enter town why all the now-empty homes and apartments were built, anybody in town will be able to tell you the story. And if you take the drive to see the Salmon Glacier (see Exploring the Salmon Glacier Road), you'll get an up-close look at the conditions that were faced to construct the Granduc Mine, and that miners and engineers still regularly face in the North.

      Anybody who used to work at Granduc, or who just has an interest in the days when the mine was operating, is invited to the Granduc Mine Alumni Group at Facebook.

References & Further Reading:

  • The Granduc Mine Avalanche - from "Avalanche Accidents in Canada: A Selection of Case Histories of Accidents, 1955 to 1976" by C. J. Stethem and P. A. Schaerer, National Research Council Canada, February 1979

  • Leduc Camp, Granduc Copper Mine, 1968

  • G. P. V. and Helen B. Akrigg - 1001 British Columbia Place Names (Vancouver, BC: Discovery, 1973)

  • Granduc Operating Company - Granduc (Vancouver, BC, 1971)

  • George Hanson - Portland Canal Area, British Columbia (Ottawa: Geological Survey of Canada, 1935)

  • L. A. N. Potterton - Northwest Assignment (Mosaic, 1972)

  • The Sun, February 18-25, 1965 (Vancouver, B.C.)

  • A Guide to Stewart, British Columbia