EXCERPT: GHOST TOWNS
OF THE CANADIAN ROCKIES
By Tera Swanson
Once bustling centres of industry, these townsites were filled with dreamers and doers, plans and prospects. Today, very little remains of them all.
Situated in the Bow Valley under the watch of Castle Mountain, Silver City was once a thriving mining town that started – and ended – as one of the region’s largest scandals of the time.
It all began in 1881 when Joe Healy, a prospector and brother of an American entrepreneur, made a trade with a Stoney man for a piece of ore from Copper Mountain, just across the Bow River from Castle Mountain. Healy then headed to Fort Benton, Montana, to have the sample appraised. It remains unclear whether the original sample contained enough silver or copper to justify a full-blown mining operation, or whether the findings were embellished, salted or downright falsified in order to attract investors. Some reports suggest that the sample actually contained mere lead sulphides.
Despite the sample’s questionable authenticity, within a few years Healy and his brother had mustered enough interest to draw in investors and prospectors to begin developing the town of Silver City and two mine shafts. One of these prospectors was Joe Smith, a 41-year-old Canadian Pacific Rail (CPR) worker from Montreal.
Did You Know?
Different accounts report Silver City’s population to have grown to anywhere from 2,000 to more than 3,000, making it more populous than both Banff and Calgary within the same time period.
Seemingly overnight, the town boomed as other like-minded workers and businessmen seized what would eventually turn out to be a fruitless opportunity. Silver City boasted several saloons, restaurants, a few general stores and a doctor’s office, along with rooming and hotel businesses. Smith began his own venture – a rooming house and pool hall that once hosted the wedding of one of the five unmarried women in town. But, within a few years, the promise of silver went unhonoured. Rumours circulated that swindlers in on the get-rich-quick scam cashed out before being caught. Meanwhile, nearly all of the workers vacated and went on in search of more promising mines.
The town was dismantled to nearly nothing. All that was left were a few storehouses and Smith, alone in his log cabin, the last remaining prospector. But Smith stuck it out, and was able to sustain his livelihood with the meagre mining that remained, supplemented with winter hunting and trapping. He kept ties with friends in Banff who visited him in Silver City, where he remained until 1937. Despite worsening eyesight, he insisted on remaining in his cabin until he could no longer cook and clean for himself. At age 94 he gave in to his friends’ pleas to relocate to the Lacombe Home in Calgary.
→ Read more about Silver City, Donald, and Oil City in Volume 2 of the Canadian Rockies Annual.
Tera Swanson is a freelance writer and graduate from Mount Royal University’s Journalism undergraduate program. Whether laced into hiking boots or clipped into skis, her favourite way to explore the mountains is on her own two feet. She’s always up for anything that will end in the telling of a good story; be it through photography, from pen to paper, or over a locally brewed amber ale.
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