Back to Home Page
The transformation of the cultural landscape of the Grand Forks valley ...
The above photograph depicts a rarely seen view of Grand Forks estimated to have been taken in approximately 1912, from a vantage point on Hardy Mountain north-west of town. The image was prepared from a two-part set accessible on the BC Archive website with a simple search for "Grand Forks".
The photographer is unknown, athough it may have been a B.C. Bureau of Mines professional creating a visual record of the valley and the Granby Smelter. The two images were combined here into a single composite and reposted online in a zoom-able form to enable closer inspection, which can be done below, by clicking the following link or the inline copy of the image itself. (Click to enlarge).
Local readers will certainly recognize the profile of Observation Mountain, its silhouette defined by a massive white cloud of smoke behind it. Within the cloud at its left, we can distinctly see two well defined white plumes of smoke, presumably emanating from the two smoke stacks of the Granby Smelter; while also to their left, there is clear evidence of at least one of the enormous conical mountains of black copper slag. River valley prevailing winds appear to be directing the cloud of smoke eastward along the Kettle River valley toward Cascade.
The photographic composite is quite remarkable in a number of ways. It captured a moment in time when the smelter still appeared to be operating at full capacity and was emitting an enormous amount of fumes or effluent from its smoke stacks. There are other photographs of this smelter, but not from such a wide perspective, enabling us to see the expansive extent of the cloud of smoke. In modern times, such a photograph may well have served as useful evidence to document the toxic effects of smelters on their surrounding environment.
But what is especially interesting and perhaps unique about this photograph is the juxtaposition it depicts, of two cultures in transition, foreshadowing the very future of Grand Forks and the surrounding community. The heavy-industrial operations at the smelter, on the one hand, were beyond the peak of their 20 year lifespan, on a downward trajectory to their ultimate closure in 1919, while their replacement, a cleaner and quieter agriculture-based culture, as seen in the foreground, was emerging as one of a number of other new alternative economic influences in the Grand Forks valley.
The young orchards and villages in the foreground of the smelter-view composite are those of the Doukhobors, who were just then, new-comers in town, having purchased land at the foot of Hardy Mountain and elsewhere throughout the valley in 1908 and 1909. The following photograph, taken at approximately the same time, depicts their orchards on the former Coryell and Vaughan-McInnis ranch properties at the foot of Spencer Hill at the western or opposite end of the valley. Doukhobors first set foot on the continent as immigrants only in 1899, the same exact year the CPR Columbia & Western railway and their station appeared in Columbia City, west of the Grand Forks townsite. In this photo, we see the Great Northern railway, also new in town, cutting across the eastern face of Spencer Hill. It then tracked northward on the opposite side of the hill along July Creek to Phoenix.
The fruit-growing industry in Grand Forks, however, pre-existed the immigration of Doukhobors by at least 10 years, and several productive orchards were blossoming throughout the valley, and several nurseries were also in operation at the time. Newspaper reports of the day, in fact, inform us that the Doukhobors themselves purchased thousands of their first fruit tree saplings from the Burrell Riverside Nursery east of town.
The photograph below of the famed Grand Forks Covert Ranch, taken in approximately the same time period, speaks for itself, as a demonstration of the maturity of agricultural developments just south of the above Coryell-Vaughan properties. The only evidence of the Granby Smelter to be seen in this view is its hazy smoke in the far distance.
But it appears that Grand Forks citizens and orchardists were not particularly concerned about the fumes from their smelter and accepted the status quo for at least two decades, as though the skies were always bright and sunny overhead, and all was well. After all, the products of their orchards and farms did not appear to be affected and were indeed celebrated for their quality, and were winning praise throughout the province.
In the meantime, local newspapers were seemingly preoccupied with the growth and prosperity of their town, embracing whole-heartedly the new railways and their world-class smelter, filling column after column with superlative production statistics. The terms "atmospheric pollution" and "smog" certainly played no part in local conversation. In hindsight, of course, we now know that the excesses of industrialization and concerns for the environment were not much of an issue throughout the whole Pacific North West, or elsewhere, until at least the 1960s.
The Northport Smelter Controvery ...
There was at least one notable exception with the appearance of a newspaper story (or opinion) in 1898 about the toxic environmental effects of the old Northport Le Roi Smelter in Washington State. Not far south of the Canadian border, it was a significant participant in the industrialization of the Boundary district. Spokane writer, John Fahey, draws our attention to the "mixed blessings" of this smelter in his book, Inland Empire: D.C. Corbin and Spokane, with the following comments:
"Most of the American-controlled mines of Rossland shipped [their ores] to Northport, where the [smelting] industry was to prove a mixed blessing: when it ran steadily, as it would for some months, the smelter provided a stable payroll, but in August, 1898, Northport News editor Billy Hughes wrote, 'The smelter fumes are getting in their deadly work on Mr. Walters' orchard ... it now looks as if his entire orchard will be ruined.' Walters with several others had hoped to establish a fruit-growing district centered at Northport and had been planting [trees] toward this end since 1892."
John Fahey has more to say about Northport, Billy Hughes' newspaper, and the smelter, but he does not provide his readers any information regarding the final outcome or settlement of the apparent "irreconcilable differences" between the smelter fumes and the orchards of local citizens. Presumably it was only the closure of the smelter itself in 1921 that may have helped finally resolve that particular issue.
The Grand Forks Smelter and the "Sunshine Valley"...
Much like the former residents of Northport, Grand Forks city dwellers and agriculturists were finally breathing truly fresh air after the closure of their smelter in 1919. And it was arguably more than just a coincidence to find that they chose to brand their district as "The Sunshine Valley" almost immediately after that time.
Curiously, the official adoption of the "Sunshine Valley" brand was not without its own controversies. The slogan was submitted by T.A. Love, the editor of the Gazette, as an entry in a 1921 contest by the Grand Forks Board of Trade to promote their town and valley. He was rewarded for his submission with a ten dollar prize, but the selection process and the appropriateness of the slogan itself were subsequently severely criticized in letters to the editor, G.A. Evans, of the Grand Forks Sun, which just happened to be a Gazette competitor.
Grand Forks Sun,
Friday, April 15, 1921:
"Some years ago The Sun made a rule not to publish any communications except over the author's real name. This rule has been religiously adhered to. This week a number of communications have been received on the subject of the new slogan for the district, but unfortunately the writers have forgotten to sign their names, and therefore they are unavailable for publication. One correspondent, however, expresses views on the subject which are so closely allied to our own that we hazard to quote from the letter and to assume full responsibility for the views which he expresses. He says: "I wish to protest emphatically against the use of the proposed slogan, 'Grand Forks, the Sunshine Valley,' for several reasons, chief of which is that it is too much like "Sunny Alberta," where the crops dry up and blow away. Secondly, it carries no striking idea to the prairie dweller, who has so much sun that he wants to get to British Columbia, where he has heard there is lots of rain. Thirdly, there is nothing descriptive about it. Fourth, the committee from the board of trade specially appointed to consider slogans submitted, was entirely ignored, arbitrarily, by another clique; and lastly, any slogan should be applicable and a real advertisement — something in which the orchard idea is paramount."
Apparently this criticism and resistance to the slogan proved to be ineffectual as the slogan has remained in use in Grand Forks for almost a hundred years, to this day.
The "mixed legacies" of West Kootenay Boundary Smelters ...
The Grand Forks Smelter
The continued viability of the Granby Phoenix mines and the Grand Forks Smelter was in question long before the closure of the smelter, as professional engineers nervously kept an eye on dwindling reserves and the lower quality of their mineral ores. As it turned out, the lifespan of the industry was momentarily prolonged during World War I, as long as copper was in demand to sustain the machinery of war. But lower copper prices after the war and a coincidental strike by coal workers in the Crowsnest, finally sealed the fate of Phoenix and the Grand Forks smelter in 1919.
We have briefly referenced C.M. Campbell's 1921 document "The Passing of a Canadian City'', as an introduction to our previous Phoenix web page. The complete article gives us a far more detailed forensic analysis of the costs and benefits, and the legacy of the "Granby Experience" to the local community and country at large, from the Granby perspective. The following is an OCR transcription of only the relevant statistics from page 337. (Link)
The mountains of remaining black copper slag on the old smelter site presented a challenge as well as an opportunity to local city administrators and residents, to determine its best possible use for their collective benefit. Benefits initially began materializing in the form of royalties on the tonnage of slag put to use by small visionary investors from abroad whose engineers were able to implement a procedure to re-process the slag into various forms of building insulation and horticultural products.
A factory was initially built in the Ruckle Addition by California-based Pacific Enercon Inc. in 1979 which began production of Energlass Wool, a fibrous material that could be used in poured, blown or baled applications. The plant was then expanded by a subsequent Australian source, Bradford Enercon in 1987-1988, when larger buildings were constructed to house a 20 million dollar investment in new equipment and an electric smelter for the production of bonded applications, whereby fibre is applied to flexible films or panels. The City of Grand Forks purchased the property and buildings in 1997 and made a lease arrangement for its use by another enterprise, the Enertek company, which bought the existing Bradford equipment, and commenced production by permit from the Ministry of Environmment. Enertek was fully operational by 1999, as essentially a home-grown enterprise of local share holders, including members of the Doukhobor community, who were directly involved in the management, design and operation of the original Enertek Products Corporation factory. Enertek was taken over that same year in 1999 by Roxul Inc., a subsidiary of the parent Danish firm, Rockwool International, which currently maintains the Grand Forks plant and 23 other facilities in 15 countries around the globe. As many as 200 workers and staff were employed at the Grand Forks plant by 2013 and it was estimated that Roxul contributed about $3 million to the local economy each year during those years.
Various trade marks were acquired to exploit the varied characteristics of the slag mineral fibre, including it's fire resistance, thermal insulation and sound proofing qualities and even its potential as a horticultural substrate for use in greenhouses. And the Granby Smelter recycled copper slag, essentially a waste by-product, thus remains a kind of legacy in the walls and attics of thousands of residential and commercial buildings, fireplace liners, pipe wrap around water pipes and other applications as insulation throughout North America to this day.
In a 2010 exhaustive report, commissioned by the City of Grand Forks to assess the future business prospects of the remnants of the historic GN Burlington Northern railroad that served these industrial plants, the Davies Transportation Consulting firm included a few details regarding the spin-off company, Pacific Abrasives, from Danville, California. This business has been granulating the copper slag into finer sand blasting abrasives, and until recently, shipping it via rail to the US Navy in southern California for maintaining the hulls of its battleships. Remaining copper slag reserves at that time were sufficient to sustain the operation for another 30 years, which bodes well for this business and the local community into the future. The report claimed that the city had been collecting over a quarter million dollars in lease revenue annually, between 2005 and 2009, from that particular arrangement. The city in turn, applied these royalties to the upgrade and maintenance of its own infrastructure.
The "mixed legacies" of Trail's Teck Cominco Smelter
Teck Cominco, formerly known as the Consolidated Mining and Smelting Corporation or CM&S, is the last remaing smelter in the Kootenay Boundary district from that period of time. And there is no question that its continued presence in Trail has contributed immensely to the city's growth and prosperity, and sustained the incomes of tens of thousands of employees for over a century. Surrounding cities have also gained associated spin-off benefits and business opportunities, while serving as bedroom communities for smelter staff and workers.
But there has also, not surprisingly, been a long history of "unintended environmantal consequences". Cominco has certainly made an effort, with considerable success over the years, to mitigate the effects of its atmospheric and river effluent, and has also taken various proactive measures to determine the potential human health and ecological risks of its activities, seeking advice and risk analysis from experts in the field. But there has been undeniable evidence of considerable historic defoliation along the Columbia River valley for decades. Soil samples taken along the Columbia River valley have likewise revealed evidence of residual heavy metal contamination from years past. And even now, communities south of the border continue to express ongoing concern regarding upstream Teck Cominco water and atmospheric pollution.
The complexity and degree of the overall impact of smelter emissions on plants, wildlife and humans is most certainly far beyond the capability of this web page to address, but it is reassuring to know that the industry is taking these matters seriously and that the level of public awareness has never been greater.