The Britannia Story by fjwuxn


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The Britannia Story
National Historic Site

Revised March 2007

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Introduction   The mine at Britannia Beach is a National Historic Site, meaning it has been
               important to the development of Canada’s economy, history and identity? Here’s
               •   At its peak of production in the 1920s, it was the largest copper producing mine
                   in the British Commonwealth, producing over 7000 tons of copper ore daily
               •   It was one of the largest producers of any Canadian mining operation
               •   The Mill was highly innovative in its engineering design, being completed in an
                   impressive 18 months, despite being an isolated community
               •   The mineral processing technology used within the Mill was leading edge. This
                   pioneering Britannia ‘deep cell’ system was unique, giving 95% recovery rates –
                   well above industry standards of the time
               •   Over 60,000 people from 50 different countries worked here in the mine’s
                   seventy year history.

 The Towns     •   Jane Basin and Mount Sheer were where the mining actually happened
               •   Britannia was where the ore was processed
               •   Britannia is the only community with buildings remaining
               •   Britannia was a ‘company town’

               There were three main parts to the Britannia Mine:
               Jane Basin                The original town site located high in the mountains. In
               1915, a tragic mudslide killed 56 people. Shortly after this the town was moved
               downhill to a safer location. This second community was called Mount Sheer.

               Mount Sheer              This self-sustaining town lay 4.5 km east of Britannia and
               680 metres above sea level. This was where most of the miners and their families
               lived. It was a 3-hour hike over rugged terrain down to Britannia. Later, an inclined
               railway was devised – known as ‘the Skip’ it became a tourist attraction. Finally in
               1952, a road was built which put the Skip out of action for good.
               Mount Sheer (also known as the Tunnel Camp) was a town with its own sense of
               community, giving Britannia friendly rivals for sports and other social events. Like
               Britannia, Mount Sheer had lots of amenities for its residents. The town was vacated
               in the 1950s when mining activity moved east.

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           Britannia Beach         This was where the ore was processed and shipped out. The
           community was very isolated. Until 1956 the only way in and out was by boat. The
           railway to Vancouver was built in 1956, and the road in 1958. Because of its
           isolation, the community had lots to offer its residents: a school, hospital, store,
           swimming pool, movie hall, library, billiard room, tennis courts and club buildings.
           Britannia was a company town. There was no other industry, and the mining
           company employed everyone who worked at Britannia.

           Imagination Station Would you liked to have lived at Britannia before the
           road or railway was built? What would you have liked, and what would you
           have hated? Would you have minded not being able to take a quick trip into
           Vancouver for supplies? What about knowing that if you wanted to work, you
           had to work for the mining company? Would you have wanted to escape to
           the city, or would you have loved living in a really close-knit community where
           people shared the good times and helped each other out during the bad

The Mine   There are a lot of important aspects of the mine. Let’s look at them one-by-one:
                   Ore                        Tunnels                Conditions Underground
                   Ventilation                Drilling               Explosions
                   Mucking                    Safety

     Ore   •   Chalcopyrite is the main copper ore found at Britannia
           •   Britannia ore was very copper rich
           •   Zinc, lead, silver, gold and cadmium were also extracted

           This was what it was all about. The mountains around Britannia are rich in a mineral
           known as chalcopyrite (pronounced ‘kal-ko-pie-rite’). This mineral is rich in copper
           and so is a copper ore, i.e. a mineral rich in a metal. In most cases, for an area to be
           worth mining, at least 1% of the rock needs to be made up of the ore. At Britannia up
           to 8% of the rock contained the ore. In other words, this was a very copper rich area.
           When the mine closed in 1974 it was operating at 1.25% ore – which is still enough
           to make a profit.

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          The miners did not drill randomly. Before they started a new tunnel or shaft, they
          would drill cores of rock. These cores were cut in half lengthways. One half was
          sent to the mine’s Assay House. Here, geologists studied the cores to see if the rock
          was worth mining. The other half of the core was ‘filed away’ in Core Sheds.
          But we all love a bargain! At Britannia there was more than a two-for-one deal. The
          rocks contained more than just copper ore. Other minerals contained other metals,
          and in large quantities too. Over the mine’s 70 year life, this is what was extracted:

              Metal        Pounds             Tons      Kilograms          Equal to
              Copper       1300 million       650,000   590 million        3250 jumbo jets
              Zinc         274 million        137,000   124 million       675 jumbo jets
              Lead         34 million         17,000    15.4 million       85 jumbo jets
              Cadmium      1 million          500       450,000           2.5 jumbo jets
              Silver       6 million          188       170,000           31 elephants
              Gold         500,000            15.6      14,000            2 (fat!) elephants

Tunnels   •     There are over 210 km of tunnel around Britannia
          •     The vertical shafts stretch 1750 metres in height

          There are over 210 km (150 miles) of tunnel around Britiannia. Stretch them all out
          in a single line and it would almost reach from Vancouver to Seattle! Some of the
          individual tunnels are up to 16 km (10 miles) long.
          Vertical shafts connect the tunnels. From top to bottom, there is a difference of 1750
          metres in height, and the lowest tunnel is a staggering 600 metres below sea level.

          Imagination Station From the surface you’d hardly know the tunnels and
          shafts were there. Close your eyes and try to picture their maze beneath
          Britannia. Like a giant ant farm, think how all the tunnels and shafts connect
          together. How deep do they go? How high up the mountains? How far back
          do they go? How far north and south? Would you want to get lost!

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  Conditions    •   Early miners usually worked a 12 hour shift, 7 days a week
                •   A union formed in the 1940s which helped improve working conditions

                Life as a miner was very hard. They worked 12 hours a day, 7 days a week in the
                early 1900s. It was dark, wet, cold, noisy, exhausting, dangerous and the only fresh
                air was back at the surface. As the years went by, conditions did improve though.
                Technology improved, and the formation of a union in the 1940s also forced the mine
                managers to improve standards.

                Imagination Station It’s 1912 and it’s 6am in the morning. You’re a miner,
                you’ve kissed your wife goodbye and are off to work for the next 12 hours.
                What’s ahead of you today? Will you get hurt? Will you get to chat and have
                a laugh with your work mates? Will you get a hot bath at the end of the day?
                How tired will your muscles be at the end of the shift? What will you have to
                spend this week’s wages on?

  Ventilation   •   Fans were needed to blow fresh air through the tunnels and shafts

                The further underground you go, the less oxygen there is. The tunnels needed
                mechanical ventilation to blow fresh air into them. In fact, this is so important that
                many large mining companies employ ventilation engineers whose full time job is to
                make sure there is enough air in the mine.
                ‘Primary ventilation’ in a mine is usually done with very large fans built at some of
                the tunnel entrances. These fans either push or pull air through the mine. ‘Secondary
                ventilation’ was also used in working areas of the mine, where smaller fans and tubes
                made sure that enough air was blown into the areas where miners were spending most

     Drilling   •   Early miners used hammers and chisels
                •   Later, mechanical drills were run on compressed air
                •   Water is needed to stop rock dust floating in the air, causing silicosis

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We think of a drill as being something electrical. Why would we use muscle-power
to drill something when electricity can make it easier? But of course in the early days
of the mine, it wasn’t that easy.
There were different drills used at Britannia through the years:

Single Jack       The first type of drill. A miner held a chisel against the rock and hit
it with a hammer. They gave the chisel a quarter-turn before the next hit to stop the
chisel getting stuck.

Double Jack Like the Single Jack, only with two miners; one to hold a bigger
chisel, the other to hit it with a sledge-hammer.
Both these methods were slow and exhausting. They were dangerous too and caused
many injuries. It’s easy to miss a chisel when you hit it with a hammer in daylight.
Try doing it by candle-light!

As technology improved, mechanical drills were introduced:

Jackson Drill Used from 1906, this was mechanical, but still relied on the miner’s
muscle-power to hand-turn a crank that made the drill hit the rock, back and forth
like a piston in a car. A ratchet turned the drill rod so that it didn’t stick in the hole.

Wood Drill      Used by 1912, this drill works like the Jackson drill, only is run by
compressed air, not muscle-power. It was faster, but did have some big problems. It
was very heavy, needing at least three men to move it. The noise was awful, and
because ear protection wasn’t used in the early days, many miners became deaf.
The drill’s biggest problem was the huge amounts of rock dust it produced. The dust
contained tiny shards of crystalline silica – normally called quartz. When breathed
in, these shards scar the lungs, leading to an often-fatal disease known as ‘silicosis’.
This led to the drill’s nickname of the ‘widow maker’. Early efforts to reduce the
risk by using masks, or wetting the rock face didn’t work very well. It wasn’t until
drills were modified to use water to dampen the dust that the problem was solved.

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                                                                       Wood Drill

                                                                       This was the first drill run
                                                                       on compressed air

Stoper Drill Used by 1920, this was a very successful type of drill. It is run by
compressed air, and has a water hose which feeds water through the drill bit. So the
rock dust is turned to wet mud in the drill hole and runs off harmlessly. It can also
drill straight up, or at an incline, and can drill a hole up to 4 metres in length. Stoper
drills are still used today.
Jack-Leg Drill            This is a lot like the Stoper Drill, only it allows the miner to
drill in almost any direction, making it very versatile. However it doesn’t drill
vertically, so the Stoper Drill is used when vertical holes need to be drilled. This drill
is also still used today.

Long Hole Drills           Developed in the 1940s, these drills allowed the miner to add
drill rods one after the other, to make a very long drill. At Britannia, holes were
drilled up to about 30 metres (100 feet) in length. Modern versions can drill up to 90
metres (300 feet) in length.
To use the drill, one rod was drilled 4 feet into the rock. The drill was pulled away
and an extension rod coupled onto the first. The drill was replaced and the whole
process repeated. To remove the drill rods, the process was reversed.

Diamond Core Drill This was the drill used to get the cores for the geologists (see
Ore). This drill was hollow, like a giant drinking straw. The drill bit was studded
with industrially-made diamonds for drilling into the hard rock. When it was drilled
into the rock, because it was hollow, the rock was lodged inside – like pushing that
drinking straw into sand. So when the drill was removed, the miners could take the
core and send it to the Assay Building to be assessed for ore. Diamond drills could
core through hundreds of metres of rock.

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             Modern drills are of course much more sophisticated. Many are tractor-mounted
             making them easy to move around. Called ‘jumbo drills’, a tractor is usually
             equipped with two or three drills mounted on booms that can all be run by the one
             operator. The drills are still run with compressed air and use water to suppress the
             dust, though the tractors are diesel-powered. Smaller drills are still used in tighter

Explosions   •   Explosives were loaded into the drilled holes
             •   They were detonated in sequence, from the middle out to the edge

             All this drilling was only the first part of the process. The holes were drilled, not to
             break up the rock, but so that explosives could be used to blow the rock apart.
             Explosives come in different forms: dynamite, powders, or liquids known as slurries.
             Dynamite sticks were used at Britannia.
             A big circle was drawn on the rock using yellow paint or chalk; this showed the
             miners where to drill – all holes had to be within the circle. Once drilled, the holes
             were loaded with explosives, either by hand, or with a compressed air loader. About
             30 holes were needed in the circle to make an average sized tunnel. The holes in the
             centre were left empty as that let the rock fracture more easily when the explosive
             was detonated.
             To help the blast be most effective, the explosives were primed to go off in a ‘ripple’
             sequence – with the explosives in the middle going off first. With the central rock
             blasted away, the next circle of explosives would more easily shift the rock they
             blasted, and so on. Another way of maximizing the blast was to plug the holes with
             wood, sand or a special clay before detonation.
             To detonate the explosive, a fuse is attached to a blasting cap. When the fuse
             explodes the cap, it detonates the explosive. Fuses can either be electrical, or by a
             burning fuse – like those seen time and time again in older films and cartoons. With
             electrical detonation, a timing delay is used in each blasting cap. With burning fuse
             detonation, the fuses were lit in sequence.
             The last explosives to detonate are on the perimeter of the circle. Because the energy
             is released most easily in the direction of the void already created, it doesn’t blast the
             rock on the outside of the circle, and often leaves the ‘memory’, or pattern of the drill
             holes left in the rock.
             Explosions were detonated at the end of a shift. This way, it allowed the dust to
             settle and the fumes to disperse before the next shift started.

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Mucking   •   ‘Muck’ was the blasted rock and ore
          •   Early miners had to move the muck by shovel
          •   Mechanical mucking machines were used by the 1920s

          So once the miners have all this blasted rock – known as ‘muck’ – how did they get it
          from the tunnel to the surface?
          For a long time, once again, the only way was with muscle-power. The miners used
          a shovel to load the ore onto an ore car. Two miners on a 12 hour shift, could load 16
          to 20 tons – about the weight of three elephants. Before the days of engine-powered
          cars, the ore cars were pulled by men and mules or horses.
          ‘Mucking machines’ were introduced in the 1920s and made life much easier for the
          miners. These power loaders were engine-driven, and scooped the ore into a bucket.
          It then lifted the bucket into the air and dropped the ore into a bigger car behind the
          scoop. They could do in one hour, what the two miners could do in 12 hours.
          Mucking machines are still used today, only they’re much bigger.

                                                                            Mucking Machine

                                                                            This mucking machine from
                                                                            the 1920s has the ore
                                                                            scoop on the front, which
                                                                            tips up and over into the
                                                                            ore cart at the back.

          Imagination Station You’re a miner in the 1920s. You spend all day, every
          working day shovelling ore into the ore car. You’re very fit and strong but are tired
          at the end of the day. A new invention is being brought in – a mucking machine. No
          longer will you have to spend your days shovelling ore. But it will be very noisy.
          Which would you prefer? If you would prefer to keep shovelling, remember though,
          that these mucking machines will help the mining company process more ore,
          meaning more profits which should give you better wages.

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Safety   •   Safety standards needed to be very high
         •   Explosives and detonators were always kept secure, dry, highly visible
             and separate from each other
         •   After blasting, tunnel walls and roofs were made safe

         Mining is a very dangerous occupation, and mine safety was very, very important.

         Explosives       Red lights in the tunnel meant danger. They were placed where the
         explosive magazines (store boxes) were placed. Only enough explosives for 24 hours
         were stored in a tunnel, and care was taken to keep them clean and dry – wet
         explosives were unpredictable. Magazines were made from wood as they wouldn’t
         spark, and the door would be kept locked shut. Also, a 1 metre high stone wall
         protected the magazine in case a train derailed, and the magazine was set right back
         into the rock.
         At least 10 metres (30 feet) away, a red wooden box stored the fuses and blasting
         caps. The only time they were anywhere near the explosives was when they were
         loaded into the holes for detonation.
         In modern mining, magazines are bright yellow as it makes them easier to see.

         Before explosives were detonated, the area was cleared and the tunnel was guarded to
         stop anyone going in. Just before detonation ‘Fire in the Hole’ was shouted.

         Solid Tunnels To prevent rock from caving into a tunnel, three main methods were
         used – scaling, screening and bracing.
         To scale the tunnel, miners poked and prodded at the walls with a very long crowbar,
         called a scaling bar. An example of a scaling bar from Britannia was 4 metres (12
         feet) long. This way, loose rock was brought down in a controlled way.
         Screening involved drilling holes into the roof and inserting expanding rock bolts.
         When fixed in place, the bolts helped ‘pull’ the outer rock back towards the solid
         rock further back.
         Bracing tunnels meant placing steel arches inside the tunnel and then fitting large
         timbers between the arches and the tunnel wall – these were nicknamed ‘bandaids’.
         This was used mostly in tunnels or mines where the rock was weak, e.g. in a coal
         mine. Most of the rock at Britannia though was hard rock, meaning that cave-ins
         were much less likely.

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The Mill   •   The first two Britannia mill buildings are no longer around
           •   Mill 3 was built in 1923 and was an architectural achievement
           •   The mills used gravity to feed rock and ore from top to bottom
           •   Britannia developed a pioneering system to separate ore from rock, using
               ‘froth flotation’ in Mill 3

           There have been 3 mills at Britannia.
           Mill 1          Built of wood in 1905, the first mill processed 200 tons of ore a day.
           By 1916, this wasn’t enough to process the amount of ore being mined, so the second
           mill was built.

           Mill 2           Built (again in wood) in 1916 to be better than the first mill, this one
           processed 2000 tons of ore per day. All was going well until 1921 when it burnt
           down. No one ever found out why. There was a labour strike at the time, though no
           one knows if it had anything to do with this.

           Mill 3           At the end of the day, maybe it was just as well that the second mill
           burnt down. After this, Mill number 3 was built, designed to process 7000 tons a
           day. It only took 18 months to build (April 1922 to February 1923) at a cost of $1
           million, and was literally built by hand. Mill 3 was the first of the mills to be made
           from steel and concrete. It was a huge architectural achievement – engineers and
           architects from all over the world came to study it.
           It had 8 floors (equal to 20 stories high), with 375 steps from bottom to top. A big
           bucket – ‘the Skip’ – rode like an elevator up the inside of the building carrying
           heavy equipment and supplies between the floors. It was hauled up and down by a
           cable and had no brakes, so workers were not allowed to ride the Skip – leaving them
           to take the stairs. The cable did break once in 1970, sending the Skip hurtling down
           the rails, out the door and ended up in the Blacksmith’s Shop across the driveway.
           Thankfully no one was injured.

           There is little left of the buildings and technology from the first two mills. But it’s
           Mill 3 that is so important, so let’s look more closely at it.
           The idea is simple. You put large chunks of rock/ore in at the top, the machinery
           grinds it down and chemicals at the bottom extract the ore to give you a copper
           concentrate which can then be shipped out to a smelter. Up to 40 men worked in the
           Mill at any one time. But the Mill didn’t stop when their shift stopped. The
           machinery operated continuously, 24/7 – three shifts a day, seven days a week. If the
           Mill was silent, something was wrong!

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                                                                  Mill No. 3

                                                                  The big building on the hill
                                                                  is Mill 3; the building in the
                                                                  front is the Customs House
                                                                  on the wharf.

Milling          At the top, the ore cars would tip the mined ore into the first of the
crushers. Gravity would force the ore down through the equipment, through
crushers, rod mills and ball mills, all specially designed to reduce boulders the size of
a beach ball, into rock flour.

Concentrating             On the ground floor, the rock flour was put into tanks called
‘flotation cells’. Here, certain chemicals and oils were added along with water, and
air bubbles were blown into the mixture. They ‘coated’ the minerals and made them
‘stick’ to the air bubbles. So a froth formed on the top of the tanks which was
skimmed off and loaded into giant barrels called ‘thickening tanks’. The minerals
sank to the bottom, and the water was removed. The thick slurry at the bottom was
pumped through canvas filters which left the minerals as a ‘cake’ mixture that was
dried off. It could then be taken off through the Conveyor Shed to storage bins on the
wharf where it would finally be shipped of to a smelter – either on Vancouver Island,
in Tacoma, Montana or Japan.
A type of this ‘froth flotation’ system was developed at Britannia. Known as the
Britannia Deep Cell system, it gave a metal recovery rate of around 95% which was
very high for standards of the day.

Imagination Station You’re a mining engineer at Britannia after Mill 2 has burnt
down. Your bosses want you to build a new mill and develop a new system that will
help increase their profits. What things would you need to think about in order to
help improve the amount of ore that reaches the smelter?

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Community      •   60,000 people from over 50 countries worked and lived here
     Life      •   Miners and their families lived at Mt Sheer
               •   There was a very strong sense of community
               •   There were many social and sporting events throughout the year

               Of course, there were more than the miners working at the Britannia Mine. Their
               families lived and worked there – there were school students, teachers, shop workers,
               cooks, waitresses…the list goes on. People were born, raised and married at
               Britannia, and of course people died there too, though there is no graveyard here.
               But life wasn’t all just about work. They knew how to play too. A great social
               calendar saw sporting events, dances, movies, drama productions and parties held
               through the year. Miners were sometimes hired based on their sporting abilities.
               Everyday life centred around the mine though. One of the main reminders of this
               was the loud whistle in Britannia. It marked the shift changes and so was blown
               regularly. But it was also blown three times in an emergency, so no one really
               wanted to hear it when they didn’t expect it.
               Over the 70 years of the mine’s operation, 60,000 people from over 50 different
               countries came to live and work at Britannia.

Disasters at   •   The worst disaster was in 1915 when a landslide at Jane Basin killed 56
   Britannia   •   In 1921, Mill 2 burnt down though no one was killed
               •   In 1921, a huge flood from Britannia Creek killed 37 and injured 15

               Sadly, Britannia has had its fair share of disaster. In fact, it’s probably been the
               unluckiest town in the Sea to Sky corridor.
               Jane Basin Landslide              In 1915, the first townsite high in the mountains saw
               Canada’s second worst natural disaster. A landslide killed 56 people as they slept. It
               was after this that it was decided to move the homes to a safer place downhill.

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            Flu Epidemic              The epidemic of 1918 had a devastating effect on the
            community. Mining came to a standstill as the few healthy people were kept busy
            nursing the sick. It’s thought that between 40 and 100 people died. The steamship to
            Vancouver became a funeral ship, carrying as many as 12 bodies per day.

            1921              This was Britannia’s darkest year. Mill 2 was completely destroyed
            by fire, then a cave-in trapped 2 miners for 8 days. They were found alive, but the
            very next day, a natural dam about 11 km up the Britannia Creek burst open. The
            torrent swept down on the town, carrying logs, rock and debris with it. It totally
            destroyed 50 homes, injured 15 people and sadly killed 37. There are a number of
            stories from the flood; one was of the Peterson family, who were not able to escape
            their home. It floated out into the Howe Sound and the family were lost, with the
            exception of the baby, whose cradle was snagged in a tree where it stayed upright and
            afloat until the baby could be saved. This flood was the fourth worst natural disaster
            in Canada.

 Gold at    •   14,000 kg of gold was mined at Britannia
            The amount of gold in the Britannia rocks was small in comparison to the copper, but
            there was still around 14,000 kg of gold extracted – more than the weight of two
            BC’s gold history is a great story. The gold miners of the 19th century endured
            incredible hardships to reach BC and Yukon gold fields. It was the discovery of gold
            in the lower Fraser River in 1857 and the Klondike River in 1898 that brought tens of
            thousands of people to BC from around the world, sparking the area’s famous gold

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FAQs   When did the mine close?
       It closed in 1974, after 70 years of operation

       Where is the underground part of the mine?
       The tunnels and shafts were dug from two places up the mountain. Jane Basin and
       Mount Sheer are the names of the sites. Mount Sheer is 4.5km away, and Jane Basin
       beyond that. Britannia was where the ore was processed so that it could be shipped

       Was the tunnel used for the tour part of the mine?
       Yes and no. No ore was extracted here; instead it was built in 1912 to take
       concentrate from the first two mills to the ships on the shore. When Mill 2 burnt
       down in 1921, the tunnel was closed off. It was reopened in 1942 to be an air-raid
       shelter for Britannia residents during the 2nd World War. After the war it was
       resealed, only to be opened again for the museum in 1973.

       What’s left at Mount Sheer and Jane Basin?
       At Jane Basin, there is some ore remaining. At Mount Sheer, there is little left as
       most of it was burnt down intentionally in the 1950s – only an overgrown swimming
       pool and part of the Power House remains. Some of the more important buildings
       were relocated to Britannia Beach.

       What’s the difference between the Concentrator and the Mill?
       None. They’re both names for the same building. The building ground the ore up
       like any kind of mill, and also concentrated the ore by taking it away from the rock.

       Why is the Mill called Mill No. 3?
       There have been three mills at Britannia. The first was demolished and the second
       burnt down in 1921. Neither were on the same scale as the present Mill no. 3.

       Was the ‘super’ haul truck used at Britannia?
       No. Our 235 ton haul truck was built in 1974 and used by the Highland Valley
       Copper Company at an open pit mine in Kamloops, BC. It’s so big and heavy, that
       when it came here, it was first taken apart into six bits. It took six weeks to
       reassemble, but now has no engine.


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