Why Britannia Mine Museum is a dream come true for little boys, big boys and tomboys

If you have a little boy, or know a big one, the Britannia Mine Museum will make all their truck driving, loud-noise making, mountain exploring, danger facing, gold striking, queen wooing dreams come true. I highly recommend you take them there. 🙂

Many local Vancouverites from the surrounding region know of the Britannia Mine Museum as ‘that place on the way to Whistler.’ We used to see its signs saying it was closed for construction and if you mention it, people may tell you ‘oh I’ve always wanted to visit that place, is it open?’ It’s open. It has been for a long time, and it’s reigning in 4.5 out of 5 stars on Trip Advisor.

Now, even though I say the boys will like it, there’s no reason the girls won’t like it either. I’m a girl and I loved it. But I can say it was fun in a childish, boyish way, if you catch my drift. I mean, what mischievous young man would not be thrilled to ride a train into a creepy, damp, dark mine that was created with explosives to find copper? Or a loud drilling machine used to dig holes into mountain rocks? Or trying to climb a giant truck 10 times their size in height? (Not possible by the way). Or hunting down precious rocks and metals? And how about finding their “Copper Queen throne” and reading historic love letters? Ok maybe that last one is more girl-orientated…

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Yes, you can do all that at the Britannia Mine Museum, and more. Let’s go on a virtual tour and then I’ll give you history that will amaze you!

My virtual tour – cool things you’ll see at Britannia Mine Museum

It’s a hard metal world!

One of the most attractive boyish things I’m talkin’ ‘bout are all the metal machines. Tons and tons (get it?) of abandoned-looking, rusted, and very real (not to mention huge), machinery. Trucks too! You’re not allowed to climb on any of them (bummer) but anyone who is fascinated by mechanics or the intricate nuts and bolts and inner workings that make a machine run would love to explore these museum pieces. The great thing is that even though these once-employed tools are now part of a heritage exhibit, they hang around out outside, just sitting the grounds, so there are no ropes or glass cases holding you back from touching them or getting up close. I’m pretty sure that if you try to buy used old trucks of this this size, you won’t find them in the classifieds!

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They’ve got a real deep, dark, wet, creepy, awesome tunnel

The highlight of the museum is by far its train ride that leads into the tunnel where the miners once worked. It’s the real deal my friend – everyone who enters must wear a hard hat and when your tour guide shows you around, you’ll learn why water creeps in on the walls of the mountain tunnel and realize that man, it was super dark in there! So before they had flashlights, how did they see? Well that’s all part of the fun stuff you learn on the guided tour (I’ll just tell you now they used to have flickers of candlelight to guide their way, and then had a progression of light technologies to wear on their heads, some of which could have started fires). You get to see, and hear, a very loud drilling machine, plus some real equipment including, but not limited to, a disgusting old toilet seat that would travel in on the tram tracks and travel out with…well, you get the idea! Everything was done in the tunnels during the work day, even meal time and toilet time.

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The professional tour continues to Mill #3!

After you get off the train, the impressive and well educated tour guide (who knows the answer to EVERYTHING, seriously), will take you to the mine’s largest and most noticeable building situated against the mountain, Mill 3 (but not before showing you just how loud of a horn the mine had to warn its workers – you literally have to cover your ears before it’s tooted). In Mill 3 you’ll see one the tallest ceilings you’ll probably ever see, something that looks like a very rad roller coaster, and metal structures holding up this thin-walled building against one very large rock! The tour guide also gives a demonstration of how minerals are extracted after they come out of the tunnel, which makes for a very fun little science experiment. 🙂

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After leaving Mill 3, you are taken to the “Core Sheds” where you see hundreds, if not thousands, of shelves containing core cylinders that were extracted from the mountain, and you get to open them up and see and touch them all! Finally, there is a gold panning area where you can pan for gold in makeshift streams (kind of a fun way to keep the kids busy and quiet for a while so you can grab a coffee!)

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Machine shops, welding shops, a lime tank and more surround you

I don’t think any article I write for you would do justice to the heritage that is bundled in this place. The museum maintains 21 heritage buildings. Today you can walk into a very old-looking machine shop and welding shop and see them as if they were newly built, albeit in very old fashion, which makes you feel like you’re taking a step back in time. If you love colour, you’ll love the vibrancy of the place. Rich red accents, bleach whites, toy-yellows, maroons, wood panels, lots of orangey-brown rust and turquoise from oxidized copper make the place a beauty. Not only that, the outdoor museum’s backdrop is of massive B.C. mountains and deep blue waters.

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“If it’s not grown, it must be mined”

That’s a quote on one of the museum’s walls. One of the best educational lessons you learn at the mine is how much mining affects our daily lives. We often think of mining as that hard job that a few rough and tough guys can do. But in fact, if we didn’t have mines, we wouldn’t have things like toilet seats, pop cans, stop signs or pennies! Mining has also been done for thousands of years and our history books name segments of time by metals that were extracted from the earth, such as the “Copper Age” or the “Iron Age.” That all comes to light when you first enter the museum, where they have an indoor exhibit filled with explanations about things that are made from mining, things that can be mined, and a little video explaining the history of this particular mine. What I really like is that the museum asks its visitors the question, “Mining…What Does it Mean to You?” on a glass board, and leaves little sticky notes for them to write their answers…like a real life comment board!

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A little history to impress the grown ups and studious students

I think it’s important to know a little bit of the story behind the mine since it might not seem like a big deal from what you can find online. The Britannia Mine was once a real working mine from 1904 to 1974, and was one of the biggest mines in the world. Yes, the world. At one point it was producing 17% of the world’s copper. They found an ore there in 1888, which is when its history began. The tunnels made in the mountain are long enough that they could span the distance between Vancouver and Seattle and go as deep as 650 meters below sea level. (You don’t get to see all of it when you visit the mine though). In its 70-year operation, it extracted 50 million tons of ore!

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It mainly mined copper as a sulphide, but was also able to extract gold and silver (interestingly by grinding ore and letting its little pieces get trapped in blankets). It was so significant, that a man by the name Jack Ross is quoted on its museum walls saying, “Britannia was a leader in the field and developed its own type of mining, which was copied in many other mines.” This was necessary due to the isolation of the mine, which meant the cost to do things ‘the old way’ were financially prohibitive. Thus new ways of recycling and investments into technology were implemented, increasing its capacity three-fold, and gearing it into further success.

During its days of glory, a small mining town called Britannia Beach surrounded the mine and, at the time (up until 1956), there was no road to get to Vancouver (which is today a 30 minute drive away). The only way in and out was via Union Steamship. Going in to Vancouver was such a big deal that the women of the town would share a special hat for the occasion (because I guess they couldn’t afford to each have their own?).

They also would crown a “Copper Queen” every year, the throne of which now stands in the museum, telling the story of how the people of this isolated town would find ways to have their own fun. Meanwhile Vancouverites were busy becoming a big city and going through rough times like unemployment during the Depression.

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However, for those whose families didn’t move to Britannia Beach, the men would go up alone as breadwinners to live in and work on the mine. They would bunk with each other (covering their ears so they could get some sleep) and write love letters back to their ‘dolls,’ which you can read in the museum today, next to photographs of their loved ones that kept them going. They were also forced to shop at one store or risk getting fired! Of course that started rumours of being indebted to the store more than the value of their wages, to the point they couldn’t leave town!

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Safety was also a big issue in the mine, as it would have been in any other mine during those times (or even in some places today). Extremely loud noises from drills and whistles and machines, breathing in of not so clean air and the ‘usual’ risks (like fires) that face mineworkers were of course present. There were an estimated 178 deaths in the mine’s tunnels during its operation. Rules and regulations were disobeyed and it wasn’t until the formation of a Union in 1943 and the BC Mines Act that things got better. “Rescue training” had to take place regularly because well, emergencies can happen in a mine! (By the way, trade jobs like this still exist in B.C., albeit with a lot more safety regulations!)

But aside from human-controlled safety there were also natural disasters like a flood in 1921 that came in to ruin half the houses and kill 36 people. In 1918, The Spanish Flu also brought the mine to full stop for two months while “men dropped like flies in the bunkhouses” and the only thing the doctors could say to help them was “whisky and pots of soup.” The tramway of the mine was used to bring down a dozen dead bodies at a time to be taken into Vancouver by steamship. This is not even to mention the rockslide that killed 56 people in 1915.

On the negative side, the mine is also, sadly, but factually, home to stories of racism, such as against the Japanese during World War 2, and even before then, when they were only allowed certain jobs as mandated by our own Government. The mine also resulted in a lot of water pollution due to Acid Rock Drainage (ARD) of the surrounding area, but has since been cleaned up and restored, which in itself is an amazing story.

Despite its ups and downs, the mine survived to become an award winning, National Historic Site of Canada and was revamped a few years ago into the amazing museum it is today. Its large building, Mill 3, pressed up against a mountain has been the perfect set for “an alien spaceship launch site and a human DNA storage facility in The X-Files. It was a prison in We’re No Angels and monster factory in Scooby Doo 2.”

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I’ll bet you want to go now!

If I haven’t convinced you to visit the museum yet, I don’t know what will! It’s truly impressive and while it is a bit on the highly priced side compared to other similar historic sites in the Vancouver area, it’s still worth it for that experience you can finally say you had. The staff is well educated and friendly, there is a café and gift shop (where you can buy “Canned Husky” believe it or not) and there are several expensive-to-operate exhibits (such as the train and buildings) that altogether make you realize the price is fair for what you get to see.

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Looking for someone to go with?

If you want to go to the museum with a homeschooling group or with like-minded parents, teachers and nannies who want to do something educational with their kids, check out the Kijiji “Activities and Groups” classified section under “Community.” It can be a great way to meet new people who want to join you on a field trip. Take your usual safety precautions with strangers though, and perhaps meet up at the museum. 🙂 Also check out the Teacher Resources on the museum’s website and contact the museum to see if they can arrange a special tour for you, especially if you can get a big enough group to go!

Photo credits: All images used with permission by Joyce Grace

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