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Whispers from the Past: Echoes of Sandon, British Columbia's Rich History

Updated: May 26

Nestled in the rugged terrain of the Selkirk Mountains, Sandon, British Columbia, stands as a testament to the resilience and ambition of a bygone era. Once a bustling hub during the silver rush of the late 19th century, this fascinating ghost town is now a captivating destination for history buffs, adventurers, and those seeking a glimpse into Canada's vibrant past.


Sandon's storied streets and well-preserved relics offer a unique window into the boom-and-bust cycles that characterized many mining towns of its time. From its origins as a silver mining hotspot to its decline and subsequent preservation efforts, Sandon weaves a narrative of innovation, hardship, and enduring legacy. Whether you're drawn by its scenic beauty, intrigued by its rich history, or looking to explore off-the-beaten-path locales, Sandon promises an unforgettable journey through time.


Join me as we delve into the fascinating history, cultural significance, and modern-day charm of Sandon, British Columbia. Discover what makes this hidden gem a must-visit for anyone passionate about the stories that shape our world.

 

Nestled in the foothills of the Selkirk Mountains in the West Kootenay region of southeastern British Columbia, Sandon is a near-ghost town with a rich and intriguing history. Located off BC Highway 31A, Sandon lies at the confluence of Sandon Creek and Carpenter Creek. By road, it is about 14 kilometers (9 miles) east of New Denver and 43 kilometers (27 miles) west of Kaslo.


The town's name originates from Sandon Creek, which acknowledges John Sandon. Among the prospectors who flooded the Slocan Valley in the fall of 1891, John Sandon staked several claims, including the Slocan Star, registered as being on Sandon Creek. Together with his partner Bruce White, Sandon preempted land at the creek's mouth. In December 1891, Sandon sold his interest in the Slocan Star to White for $500—a property that would later prove to be extremely valuable. To meet the demands of the surrounding mining camps, Sandon also established a vegetable farm, cultivating seven acres of potatoes.

Sandon, BC

In February 1893, a mystery unfolded when Kenneth McLeod and John Sandon were believed to have drowned in Kootenay Lake, though no bodies were ever recovered. Joseph Hetherington, who worked on Sandon's farm, produced a will that left the entire estate to him. Despite the questionable authenticity of the document, given Sandon's literacy and the presence of relatives in California, Hetherington successfully obtained probate of the contested will and inherited the land. John (Johnny) Morgan Harris, another key figure, was a partner in the Ruecau galena claim, which was later shortened to Rico or Reco. A single newspaper report from July 1892 referred to the townsite as Reco. However, by May 1893, a liquor license application identified a hotel as being located in "Sanden" (sic), indicating the town's evolving identity.


In July 1893, Robert E. Lemon, a prominent merchant and owner of the adjacent Blue Jay claim, laid out the Sandon townsite. Lemon Creek would later be named in his honor. By December 1895, Johnny Harris extended the southern perimeter of the town onto his Loudon claim, further developing the area. Subsequent additions included East Sandon (1896 and 1900), Sunnyside (1898), and West Sandon (1900). Harris, a key figure in Sandon's development, owned a variety of businesses and properties, including hotels, office buildings, the power plant, waterworks, and other real estate throughout what was known as the Monte Carlo of North America. At its peak, Sandon boasted an impressive array of amenities and services that rivaled those of established Canadian cities. The town was home to 29 hotels, 28 saloons, three breweries, and one of the largest red-light districts in Western Canada. On a typical Saturday night in the 1890s, Sandon could cater to as many as 10,000 people drawn from neighboring communities along the railways, although the actual resident population peaked at around 5,000.


Sandon incorporated as a city on January 1, 1898, under Harris's oversight. The town offered a wide range of recreational facilities, including a large curling arena, hockey rink, two ski hills, and venues for lacrosse, soccer, baseball, lawn bowling, cricket, and tennis. Indoor facilities included a bowling alley, billiard halls, and a gymnasium. Sandon also had the distinction of being the first fully electrified town in British Columbia. The Silversmith Powerhouse, established in 1897, was the second hydroelectric plant in Western Canada and remains the oldest continuous producer in the region. Two railways raced to reach Sandon first: the Kaslo & Slocan Railway, owned by the Great Northern Railway, which connected Sandon with Kaslo on Kootenay Lake, and the Nakusp & Slocan Railway, owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway, which linked Sandon with Nakusp on Upper Arrow Lake and the Slocan Lake ferry at Rosebery. The rivalry between these railways escalated into acts of sabotage upon their arrival in 1895. The final passenger train ran in 1933, and the devastating floods of 1955 on Carpenter Creek ended all rail traffic to Sandon.


From 1892 to 1900, the Sandon silver mines were the richest in the province, attracting a flood of fortune seekers. The town's prosperity peaked during this period, and despite a subsequent lull, World War I brought a resurgence in mining activity. The early 1950s saw another temporary peak in silver prices during the Korean War, leading to a brief revitalization of the mining industry before it ended in 1953. Although the Silvana Mine operated later, it became dormant in 1993. Klondike Silver Corp. has since acquired the mine, but the extent of current exploration efforts remains uncertain.

Sandon, BC

Sandon faced significant challenges over the years. In May 1900, a fire that began behind Spencer's Opera House ravaged the downtown core, destroying many of its grand structures. The town rebuilt, though with less grandeur, and experienced brief periods of renewed mining prosperity. However, in 1907, an avalanche caused extensive damage, further testing the town's resilience. By 1920, Sandon had entered receivership and dissolved its incorporation due to a lack of municipal tax revenue, leading to the deterioration of its facilities. After 1953, large-scale mining never returned, and Johnny Harris, a once-prominent figure, died financially broken that same year. The final blow came in June 1955, when torrential rains caused Carpenter Creek to overflow, destroying most of the remaining structures. Vandals and treasure hunters scavenged what was left, extending their reach to nearby ghost towns.


Local historian Bill Barlee posits that the 1955 flood may have deposited 10,000 coins along the bed of Carpenter Creek. Since Sandon's main street was built over the creek, any items beneath the boardwalk likely washed into the water during the flood. During World War II, Sandon served as one of the internment camps for Japanese Canadians removed from the BC coast. The 953 internees coexisted peacefully with the approximately 50 residents, occupying and rehabilitating the dilapidated buildings. However, the harsh winters led to the camp's early closure and the internees' relocation to New Denver.


The few remaining permanent residents and newcomers to Sandon have passionately fought to preserve this historic ghost town. Since the 1970s, Hal Wright has played a crucial role as the unofficial caretaker of Sandon. He has purchased much of the vacant land from the government and, with the help of volunteers, has worked tirelessly to preserve the remaining pioneer buildings, such as the city hall, the Silversmith Powerhouse, and several original residences. The restored Slocan Mercantile General Store now holds a heritage designation, standing as a testament to these preservation efforts. Today, Sandon attracts over 60,000 visitors annually, drawn by its rich history and unique attractions. Among the biggest draws is a fleet of about 20 heritage Brill trolleybuses, which were shipped from Vancouver in the early 2000s. While these buses, some decommissioned by Calgary Transit in 1975 and later cannibalized for parts by BC Transit, may appear more like a junkyard, they hold historical significance and potential as a heritage site. Despite the dedication of volunteers and the influx of visitors, efforts to create a viable heritage site have stalled due to a lack of provincial funding. The preservation of Sandon thus rests heavily on the contributions of volunteers and donations from visitors. In 2018, the community demonstrated its resilience and spirit by hosting the Valley of the Ghosts one-day Music Festival, celebrating Sandon's storied past and vibrant culture.


Sandon's journey from a bustling mining town to a near-ghost town is a testament to the enduring spirit of its residents and the importance of preserving our historical heritage. The ongoing efforts to maintain and restore Sandon's historical sites ensure that this unique piece of British Columbia's history remains alive for future generations to explore and appreciate.

 

Disclaimer: The photos included in this post are not my own. They were found via a Google search, and all credit goes to the original creators.

 
spring scene with a lake, mountains, vibrant green grass and a field of colorful flowers

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