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Historian sleuths for evidence of Mount Sicker’s mining railway

‘A classic case of overlooking what’s in one’s own backyard’

The tangle of forest a 15-minute drive up the Mount Sicker mainline in North Cowichan would appear to hold little of interest to a railway buff.

But Tom W. Parkin’s curiosity with rail history runs deeper than most.

“Here’s your alpenstock,” says the Nanaimo resident, handing me a shovel.

Parkin carries a battery-operated metal detector. “It’s amazing how little is left. You have to bring the metal detector to know.”

He leads the way through the bush in search of evidence of the narrow-gauge Mount Sicker Railway that once carried copper ore from the Lenora mine to a smelter in Crofton.

The mine ceased operations in 1907 after only about a decade in operation.

We approach a steep-sided creek, but see no evidence of the wooden bridge that would have supported a Shay locomotive on its journey. “Not a sign of that trestle,” Parkin confirms. “There must have been a massive washout at some point.”

What we do see is a large hole on the bank next to the creek. Parkin tosses a few rocks at the entrance, just to make sure a black bear isn’t sleeping inside.

Then we scramble down the slope and discover it is an adit where miners once tore into the mountain side with a hand drill in search of a productive vein of ore.


Sometimes miners worked in teams. “One guy held the drill in position and another guy swung a sledge hammer at it,” Parkin says.

Many of these exploratory adits can still be found in the Cowichan Valley. This one has two chambers and extends at least 12 metres into the bank. Several centimetres of water are pooled up on the floor.

The adit is a passage, not a tunnel, Parkin explains. “A tunnel has two openings. And a shaft goes vertically.”

We climb up the other bank and continue our search for the old rail grade.

It doesn’t take Parkin long to strike historical pay dirt — a flat stretch of the rail bed covered in lush moss. One can even make out the definition of the railway ties.

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“This is the real McCoy, as good as it gets,” Parkin says. “See the track-tie depressions all in a row, parallel. It’s all notched out. So obvious that’s an old road bed.

“It could be turned into a hiking trail with some work.”

Parkin switches on his metal detector. It quickly beeps, a hint of buried treasure. But he warns that “hot rocks” — pieces of ore that dropped off the cars – can give false readings.

Not this time. I dig a few centimetres down and come up with a “fishplate” — a rectangular piece of iron used to connect the ends of two sections of rail. One of four bolts that held the assembly in place is also visible.

“An assembly,” Parkin says. “Now we need a washer and a nut.”

(The fishplate and bolt have since been donated to the Cowichan Historical Society.)


Parkin, a writer and retired stone mason, grew up in Revelstoke, where his father worked as a locomotive engineer for the CPR.

He takes a keen interest in railways across Canada, but especially in the Mount Sicker Railway. He wrote a detailed article on the railway, entitled Ghosts of the Grade, published in the July/August edition of Branchline, Canada’s Rail News Magazine.

“It’s a classic case of overlooking what’s in one’s own backyard in the mistaken belief that what’s further away has more mystique,” he said.

For further information on the three mines that once operated on Mount Sicker, read T.W. Paterson’s book, Riches To Ruin: .

Not many narrow-gauge railways remain in service, although the White Pass and Yukon from Skagway, Alaska, to Bennett, BC, is an exception.

Subscribe free to for details soon on Parkin’s planned illustrated lecture on the Mount Sicker Railway.

You can reach Parkin at

( photos of Tom Parkin, and adit. Historic photos courtesy of BC Archives and T.W. Paterson).

— Larry Pynn, April 14, 2024

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