Photo Credit: Joanne Campbell
The Paradox of Anyox—New hope springs from old mine site
What does it feel like to stand in the middle of a slagheap? To climb around the innards of an old-but-not-forsaken dam? Or to pick your way across a falling-down power plant whose crumbling floors could swallow you with nary a burp?
Barely 24 hours into a tour of Anyox, I had answers to three out of three. How did it feel? Not as I expected.
Like most of our group taking the Ghost Towns of Northwest BC tour (part UNBC’s Experiential Tourism Program), this was the first I’d heard of Anyox, an abandoned mining town at Granby Bay on Observatory Inlet, approximately 145 kilometres northeast of Prince Rupert. When briefed that this was an abandoned mining operation, I expected a landscape of rusting machinery and environmental degradation: a boomtown gone bust. I was prepared to be enlightened but was surprised by how it would make me feel.
Searching for ghosts
From Gingolx, it takes about two hours to get to Anyox via water taxi. As we enter Granby Bay, the first sign of past civilization is a smokestack rising up from the coking plant’s remains followed by the white shell of Granby’s company department store.
After docking, we drop our bags at the Anyox Hydro Electric Corporation bunkhouse and stretch our legs with a bit of an explore. We cross a small stream that empties into the bay, its bed and banks stained a sickly orange but the wetlands edging it an energetic green. Up and down the valley, the spires of long-dead trees punctuate the forest. Across the estuary, the powerhouse’s skeleton and, beside it, the long, black back of an enormous slagheap are overshadowed by the smelter’s towering smokestack.
Exploring that side of the estuary will have to wait. We pile into a truck with Jeff Wolrige, our guide and co-owner of Anyox Hydro.
At stops along the graded road, Wolrige shows us the old steam plant, abandoned mine cars and a rail engine inexplicably sitting in a field. At road’s end, we hop out and walk a trail through scruffy aspen. In the valley below we see a—wait—what? Well, I’ll be…
Dammed! The Anyox Dam, high and mighty and very concrete, yet somehow hollow, fragile like the bones of a giant bird splayed out across the river. We enter at the base and scatter like a bunch of kids; we explore its hollows, touch its exquisitely worn walls and marvel at the power that could suck whole trees into the ground-level intakes. A couple hours later we are corralled and brought back to camp. There’s more to see.
This time, we cross Anyox River to the other side of the estuary where the power plant, smelter and slagheap are located. Who would have thought a slagheap would require not one but two separate excursions, just for the fun of it? Several hundred photos later, I could go back tomorrow and take a few hundred more. It’s like visiting Mars. Above the slag dump are the remains of the smelter and below, near Anyox Falls, the remains of the power plant. No ghosts here, just old industrial bones of brick, mortar and metal being disarticulated by moss and mist.
Success and sacrifice
Granby Consolidated Mining, Smelting and Power Company built the company town of Anyox to support its copper mining and smelting operation. From 1914 to 1936, ore mined at the nearby Hidden Creek Copper deposit was smelted on site and then transported south by ocean-going cargo ships.
Despite its remote location, the Granby mine was one of the top ore producers on the BC coast and its smelter one of the most modern of its time. Anyox dam and powerhouse provided electricity, assisted by a steam plant during winter months when the river was frozen.
At the operation’s height, over 3,000 miners plus white-collar and town workers, along with their families, enjoyed a standard of living envied by the rest of Canada. Granby provided its workers with good wages and modern housing; the town boasted schools, hospitals and churches, and residents enjoyed ice hockey, tennis and even golf on the grassless smelter slag.
Success was measured monetarily; negative health and environmental effects were merely collateral damage. When the sulphur fumes from the smelter were especially strong, workers wore gas masks and were limited to two-hour shifts. The resulting acid rain defoliated all vegetation downwind—trees were stripped and gardening impossible; resident animals left for greener pastures. In winter, one of the kids’ favourite games was lighting the snow on fire (giving new meaning to don’t eat the yellow snow).
Anyox survived World War I, the Spanish flu and a devastating fire, but it was weakened by the economic downturn of the Great Depression. The final blow was dealt by an overly enthusiastic explosives project that resulted in collapsing it forever. Granby gave the men their notice and moved out their equipment. In 1943, a double forest fire finished off what was left of the town, leaving only non-combustible and charred piers.
Acid drainage from the mine still stains the creek bed as it discharges into Granby Bay. Despite the ongoing trickle, locals say the sea life has returned to healthy levels: the crab, salmon and seals are back in good numbers, a sign that nature’s recovery seems well underway.
Power and progress
In the mid-1980s, Vancouver investors purchased Anyox with an eye to developing remaining mineral deposits. Wolrige, son of one of the investors, and his fishing buddy John Turpin had fished the local rivers and recognized the dam’s potential for green power. The Anyox River is non-fish-bearing and no agricultural land would be impacted. It was the spark the two electrical entrepreneurs needed; the Anyox Hydro Electric Company was born.
For the past 15 years, Anyox Hydro has worked to bring the dam back on line. The major challenge is finding a buyer for the electricity: tying the Anyox Dam into the abandoned Kitsault Dam farther up the Portland Canal could produce enough power to supply up to 40,000 homes or, alternatively, a liquid natural gas (LNG) terminal.
Anyox Hydro is presently under negotiations with a Chinese LNG company. If the deal goes through, and the project approved, LNG silos would be located on the old mine staging area; soil would be capped and the untreated acid run-off would be remediated and controlled.
What did it feel like to explore a slagheap? A dam? A broken-down power plant? Counter-intuitively, it made me feel hopeful and, strangely, happy. The impression is that of progress, nature reclaiming its territory as a new forest asserts itself around our past mistakes. With a photographer’s lens, I sought—and therefore found—the beauty. Nature’s grace caught me by surprise.
Anyox is private property and because it’s a working site—with occasional blasting—it can be dangerous. Tours are available through the UNBC Experiential Tourism Program or by calling Jeff Wolrige at Anyox Hydro, 604-270-8811. A donation to the Kitsault River salmon enhancement project administered by the Pacific Salmon Foundation is appreciated.
Little-known Anyox facts…
The slagheap at Anyox is a massive run of black weathered silica dunes, a by-product of the copper smelting process. It is now being mined by True-Grit Abrasives, then cleaned and barged south to the United States where the silica is a key ingredient in roofing shingles.
The power plant’s shell stands on the estuary opposite the old town site and below the old smelter. Thousands of bricks litter the floor and wildlife wanders through the open walls. Holes punctuate the concrete floor where massive machines once stood.
Designed by John Eastwood and completed in 1924, the Anyox Dam was controversial in its day because of its fragile-looking multiple-arch design. Proof that beauty and utility need not be mutually exclusive, it supplied power to Anyox for 11 years before the mine shut down and the dam was decommissioned.