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Koksilah's Lost Silver Mine

From the Cowichan Leader, Duncan, December 1, 1955. p. 4.
By N.P. Dougan

Fabled Lost Silver Mine on the Banks of the Koksilah

From Shawnigan Lake Village via Renfrew Road, it is eight miles to Burnt Bridge on the Koksilah River, and from there to the lost Silver Mine is another seven miles. But even the half-dozen or so old-timer hunters who survive and knew this place in its palmy hunting days would be nonplussed to find the mine, for the trees have been cut down and hauled away, the forest littered with debris and criss-crossed with roads; and the Old Sliver Mine trail obliterated.

The late William A. [Alexander] Robertson was well known in the district, and the silver mine which he discovered on the Koksilah, and exploited not too successfully, formed an exciting saga throughout the eighties and later. Before coming this way, Robertson was at Cowichan Lake where, flowing from the west into Bear Lake, thence into Cowichan Lake you can find the river which commemorates his name. A good road which parallels the course of its right bank will take you to the upper bridge some three miles west of Hillcrest. One day, many years ago, I stood on this bridge and looked into the western hills where Robertson River comes tumbling down, flanked by an oasis of green timber.

Timber Lease
In his memoirs, Robertson refuted the idea that he discovered Cowichan Lake. But claimed he did discover the magnificent timber and the arable land there available. The Indians, he alleged blamed him for "getting the white man in there."

"I got a lease," he said, "of over 7,000 acres of the finest timber around the lake for 21 years at one cent per acre." He lost his equity in this timber, he tells us, through the stupidity of a partner who later sold it for $100,000.

Mr. Robertson also "took up" several pieces of land, but the only land he was able to obtain title to was 150 acres on Robertson River, and "Robert Dunsmuir (the late Robert Dunsmuir, the coal magnate) helped me to hold this or I might have lost it too."

Of his discoveries at the Lake, Mr. Robertson said that on Nixon creek he found magnetic iron and fine-looking black marble. In 1885, with James Sheilds, his prospecting partner, he took a trip on the Gordon side of the Cowichan Mountains, and found galena-bearing quartz, "in the Gordon," and, "we brought some of the rock with us and it assayed $2.50."

Route Unknown
What route Robertson followed to his prospective silver mine on the Koksilah is not known. From the Lake he could have followed the mountains southward approximating the route the C.N.R. engineers chartered decades later; but from my knowledge of the terrain, and the information gleaned from old prospectors, I believe he followed the river, in the geological formation of whose gorge, wide and deep, the prospectors would find much for his examination.

Nearing burnt bridge, the river gorge, which has a westerly trend, diminishes in depth, and about two miles above this place it gradually bends and flows from the north. At this bend on a small flat where Black Wall Creek meets the river is Kapoor's Camp; and another six miles would bring us to a shallow bluff, whose geological structure is gravel and clay, on the left bank of the river.

This is the locale of which Robertson wrote in his memoirs: "In 1865, when I was prospecting up Koksilah River I discovered a quartz lode which I took to be galena." He had some of the rocks assayed and it went over $2 a ton. "Then we had some work done on it, and the next assay went $13. We had some more work done on it and got an assay of $60. The lode went down as the adit advanced, and a shaft was sunk, but as they were too near the river, they were driven out by the water. The recovered mineral was built by the river side; and when the river rose in spate, most of it was carried away.

Company Organized
To develop this property a company was organized in Victoria, among those shareholders were B.W. Pearce; Chas. Vernon; Mr. Drake (later Judge Drake), Dr. Helmcken, Admiral Sterling and Robertson. The mine was named the "Sterling" in compliment to the admiral. Finally, says Robertson, "the company got cold feet and ceased development. After a year or two the late Robert Dunsmuir and William Wilson, the clothier, took hold of it and they send John Hepburn with a gang of Chinamen, and they worked all winter hunting for the lode in the wrong direction."

This unsuccessful issue saw the mine abandoned for the next 25 years after which Robertson gained complete ownership and resumed development intermittently.

During all these years, while material results did not equal expectations, the artificer-prospector's interest in the silver mine did not waver, nor was he negligent in other matters. The seven miles of trail which he blazed from the mine southward to the river, and the nine miles thence to the old Victoria Road, some two miles north of Shawnigan Lake, he induced the Government to reconstruct wide enough for wheeled vehicles - with exception of three miles next the mine, which remained a narrow trail flanking that eminence marked on the map as Eagle Heights and, using timber cut and hewn nearby, a king-truss bridge was erected over the river.

Settler Came
A number of other settlers, lured no doubt by dreams of mineral development, (the agricultural potential of this area, in the opinion of the writer, is negligible) acquired blocks of land, built cabins here during the late 80's and early 90's. Some of these properties, including Robertson's 100 acres, are still held by the sons or grandsons of the original owner.

Confronted with so many cross trails, our first attempt to locate the silver mine proved abortive.

Instead of finding the lost mine we got lost. Then on a recent Indian Summer day, explicitly directed by our friend, an old hunter, we followed the now unused logging road and bypassed the old trail. This road proceeds for some four miles on a rising gradient, then declines steadily but not too abruptly to the river. The final mile found our road blocked by an old slide, overgrown with young alders. The heights on this declivity fall in places almost precipitously for several hundred feet to the unseen river in the timber-shrouded valley.

Finds Old Cabin
Standing on a rock ledge by the river side and about ten feet above it, the 14 x 20 cabin built of big cedar logs by W. A. Robertson in 1865 stands intact, except that the roof has fallen in. Attached to one end is a later structure of cedar slabs, now falling apart. Carved on the logs are the names with dates of many hunters, but none earlier than 1918, who roamed these mountainous precincts with rifle and shotgun, and camped in the cabin.

About 100 feet north of the cabin on a low bluff which over-hangs the river, we found the mine. The mouth of the adit opens from a narrow ledge, 10 or 12 feet above the flowing river, and is under six feet in depth and about five feet in width. We did not venture to explore its tenebrific length, as we were aware that somewhere within was a vertical shaft which would be full of water.

Stakes Claim
In the hope of finding the lost lode, Robertson staked out another mineral claim and completing the legally required work on it, he obtained a Crown Grant.

"I put in," he records, "a 60-ffot tunnel in 1914; and later another 60 feet, and got it in good shape to sell to the capitalists. I feel sure there is a good mine there." (sic).

Notwithstanding specific instructions by old hunters who were familiar with it, the locale of this mine was difficult to determine.

Years have passed since last they were here, and the denudation by logging and fire has affected the terrain and pristine growth, and altered the landscape radically. Then, the entrance to the mine and a pile of metalliferous ore though obscured by a growth of young trees were visible; and nearby was a rude building which had been used as a smithy and tool shed. Now, the adit was obliterated by bulldozers, the ore scattered abroad, and the building razed, leaving only a few shakes with the nails still in them. This mine was about 200 feet above the river mine and in a direct line with its adit.

Prospectors have left other evidence of activity in this area. The right bank of the river above Kapoor's Camp rises mountain high. You can find an old trail here winding over and around huge mossy boulders which will bring you to an adit drifted into the base of the hill by the river side, lined with split cedar logs. Hunting blue grouse on these heights, years ago, I saw numerous old excavations, but if metalliferous ores were found here, I never heard of it.

Westerly, the heights fall to the Renfrew Road, and then to the deep somber valley of Black Wall Creek rising from which is Mount Waterloo (3,462 feet). Now the landscape has suffered alteration; a new scene meets the eye. It is the debris of logging, looking from a distance like cyclopean matchsticks.

Devastating Fire
Burnt bridge got its name from an uncontrolled fire which swept through here in 1889 or '90. It reached the river and consumed the bridge, roared up Wild Deer Creek towards Eagle Heights, turned down-river and ravaged Blue Grouse Mountain - now emerald green with Manzanita and known as Arbutus Mountain. From the middle 80's throughout the 90's and later, the Silver Mine area was a hunter's paradise where blue grouse abounded and deer were large, abundant and easily approached.

However, there was no bridge at this place for the next 15 years; but the winter following the fire a big cedar tree, uprooted near the mouth of Black Wall Creek where cedars grew by the river's brink, came floating down on the flood and deflected by massive boulders just above the bridge site, it swung athwart the river and lodged there.

So once again the hunters and prospectors had ready-made a good safe crossing. The Indians, even, came to hunt deer. An old hunter - but then not old - waited one afternoon long ago, by the right bank as five Indians, each man of them with a fine deer on his back, came stepping gingerly across the log.

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