Evidence of Mount Sicker’s boom-and-bust mining past still awaits history buffs
First in an occasional series on the Six Mountains
TW Paterson leads me around a locked yellow gate and along a gravel logging road atop Mount Sicker while explaining why he finds history so fascinating. “It’s the human drama, the story of people,” he says. “There’s nothing in one’s imagination that hasn’t already happened in real life.”
The author of some 30 books, mainly about Vancouver Island history, stops after 20 minutes at a flat area offering an imposing view of Copper Canyon and Mount Brenton to the north. He points to a spot — now covered over — where foreman Charlie Melrose of the Tyee copper mine plunged 27 metres down the mine’s main shaft to his death in 1901.
“When they retrieved his body, they remarked that he looked normal. But when they tried to pick him up, every bone in his body was broken. He was just a limp sack.”
Mount Sicker is today the forgotten member of the Six Mountains, overshadowed by the more prominent Mount Prevost with its hiking and mountain biking trails, war memorial, and dramatic vistas over North Cowichan and beyond.
A much different scenario prevailed from 1897 to 1907, Paterson explains. Mount Sicker bustled with a population approaching 2,000, had two hotels, a school, homes, two post offices, shops, and a bitter rivalry — the Tyee mine led by Clermont Livingston versus the Lenora mine’s Henry Croft, after whom today’s community of Crofton is named.
“Picture an ant hill,” Paterson says. “On top is the Tyee and on the bottom is the Lenora, but they’re both headed for the same ore pocket. It sealed the fate of both mines. Both had shorter careers than otherwise would have been the case.”
The Tyee ultimately proved the more profitable operation, at one point paying a whopping 20-per-cent dividend to shareholders.
Mount Sicker is technically split between Big Sicker and Little Sicker and according to the province’s geographical names website is named after “John Sicker, an early resident who homesteaded at the base of the mountain.”
Although all the mining-era buildings are gone, just enough remains of Mount Sicker’s past to spark one’s interest in its remarkable history.
The location of the Tyee mine is marked by a huge pile of ore waste. In a side gully are bricks from the mine’s powerhouse foundation and the concrete remnants of the first tower of the Riblet aerial tramway that once delivered ore up and over the mountain to connect with the E & N Railway and on to a smelter in Ladysmith.
In the hills above us, a third but lesser mine, Richard III, operated briefly, taking advantage of Tyee’s gravity-based tramline. Charles Dickie headed the operation and served as both a provincial and federal politician.
Below, in the near distance, sat Lenora mine, named after the daughter of Harry Smith who observed the copper seam in 1897 that kickstarted Mount Sicker’s mining boom.
The drama that unfolded wasn’t entirely restricted to mining.
In 1905, Mount Sicker recorded a murder-suicide. A jealous miner, Fred Beech, fired his rifle and narrowly missed the widow of his ex-mining partner. When hotelier Joe Bibeau intervened, Beech shot him dead, then eventually shot himself.
Paterson says the murderer’s body is buried in an unmarked grave in the cemetery of St. Peter, Quamichan, Anglican Church.
Then, some unexpected history.
“That’s where I was married,” says Colin Dobell, a Maple Bay resident who joins us today on the Mount Sicker tour. Dobell’s maternal great grandfather, Frank Lloyd, operated a sawmill in Westholme. Dobell says he moved his business to Mount Sicker during the mining boom. "My grandmother, one of Frank Lloyd's three daughters, spoke of it many times, as did my mother," he says.
The most compelling relic of Mount Sicker’s early days is a Lenora mining tunnel that extends about 10 metres into the rocky hillside before it is blocked by rubble.
“Here it is, hidden by this hemlock,” Paterson exclaims.
He notices that a squirrel has preceded us inside, so we stop for lunch just outside the tunnel until it has completed its own tour before venturing inside. “I’m amazed at how small it is,” Dobell remarks of the passage. “I assumed it would be bigger."
Still, it provides visitors with a small glimpse into Lenora’s underground past.
Which makes me wonder, does Paterson ever feel he was born in the wrong era?
He is the Cowichan Valley’s ‘man in black’ — cowboy hat, shirt, suspenders, and pants, only his tan boots and grey hair and beard diverging from the colour theme. He would not look the least bit out of place in an 1800s frontier mining town.
“I’d give anything to see the way it was,” Paterson replies. But he has no romantic notions about the hardships of that era and wouldn’t linger. “If I could have a time machine it would be to go back and see it and take pictures.”
A bit further north of the tunnel we can still see the grade on which a narrow-gauge railway once transported Lenora’s ore to its own smelter in Crofton. A small stretch of this track is preserved in Eves Provincial Park in Westholme.
Paterson notes you can also still find evidence of the old slag on the spit in front of Osborne Bay Resort in Crofton. “They used the harbour as their waste basket,” he says.
Dobell adds that as a youth he used to holiday at Crofton with his family. “I remember getting the slag in my feet. It felt like little splinters.”
Paterson first visited the Mount Sicker mining past in 1977, three years after moving to the Cowichan Valley, and cannot recall how many times he’s been back since. “I look at the ground,” he says, adding: “You’d be surprised what you can dig up.”
He has scoured the surrounding young forests around the townsites with a metal detector and has walked away with such treasures as a carbide lamp, a woman’s belt buckle, railway spikes, as well as a miner’s pick, hammer, saw and axe. Non-metal items include glass bottles, chinaware and a marble. During our tour he picks up a small wooden wedge that was used to help secure mine timber and that has recently become exposed.
Paterson (TW stands for Thomas and William) calls Mount Sicker the “most abused piece of property in the Cowichan Valley” due to mining, logging, and ongoing damage from all-terrain vehicles and other disrespectful visitors.
We witness the rusting carcasses of stolen cars brought here to be torched, find evidence of gunfire target practice, sidestep beer and pop cans, and on and on.
Which bring us to the future, and whether there is still mining life left in Mount Sicker. After all, during the Second World War, the Canadian government resumed mining here for copper, lead and zinc here to help fuel the war effort.
Paterson doesn’t see it happening again. He suggests that any new mine would be open pit — not the labyrinth of invisible tunnels and shafts of the late 1800s. “It wouldn’t fly environmentally,” he concludes. “I feel safe taking that to the bank.”
Details of Mount Sicker’s mining history are found in Paterson’s Riches to Ruin: the Boom to Bust Saga of Vancouver Island’s Greatest Copper Mine, first published in 2007.
— Larry Pynn, Oct. 5, 2020