The industrial history of Trail had its beginning with the discovery of gold-copper ore in BC’s West Kootenay district in 1890 by prospectors Joe Bourgeois and Joe Moris. Fortune-seekers soon followed them to the strike and Rossland, BC was born, quickly developing into a colourful boomtown. By 1895, almost 2000 claims had been staked in the vicinity. The early Rossland mines were at a severe disadvantage by having to ship their ore to Montana for processing. Transportation was by wagon to Trail Creek Landing, then by paddle wheeler down the Columbia River to railhead in the United States. This costly procedure led F.A. “Fritz” Heinze of Butte, Montana, to build a small copper smelter at Trail and a railway to the Rossland mines in 1895-1896.
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In 1898, the Canadian Pacific Railway purchased Heinze’s railway, some railway rights which he had obtained, and the smelter, operating the latter as the Canadian Smelting Works. A lead blast furnace was installed at the smelter in 1899. For a short time the lead bullion produced from Kootenay district lead ores was shipped to the United States for refining. An electrolytic Lead Refinery was built at Trail in 1902, using the new Betts process for the first time. This plant, which had a 50-ton-per-day capacity, produced Canada’s first refined lead, the first electrolytic lead in the world.
Early in 1906, the Consolidated Mining and Smelting Company of Canada Limited was formed. The company came into existence as a consolidation of several interests: the plant at Trail, the mines in Rossland, the St. Eugene Mine at Moyie, and the Rossland Power Company. The new company employed about 1000 people. It was fairly large in terms of the times.
The ore supply for the new Company consisted of gold-copper ore from the Rossland mines, purchased lead-silver ore from the Slocan and Kaslo districts, and lead-silver ore from the Company’s St. Eugene Mine at Moyie in the East Kootenay. The company’s attention soon turned to finding new sources of ore. One of the many properties examined was the Sullivan Mine at Kimberley, BC. This mine had been discovered in 1892, but successful production had not been achieved because of the difficulty of treating the highly complex lead-zinc-iron ore. An investigation of the property led to the belief that it could be operated successfully by selective mining and hand-sorting until effective treatment methods were worked out. The Company obtained the lease on the mine in 1909 with an option to purchase. It was exercised in 1910.
During World War I, the Company was one of three companies requested by the Imperial Munitions Board to produce zinc. A pioneer electrolytic Zinc Plant with a 30-ton daily capacity was constructed at Trail in 1916 to treat crude zinc ore from the Sullivan Mine. Despite numerous difficulties, World War I output of the vitally-needed metal exceeded 20,000 tons.
Many methods for the economic separation of the components of the Sullivan ore were tried. In 1917 an investigation of flotation processes was undertaken and painstaking research eventually resulted in success. By a new process of differential flotation, it became possible to separate the complex ore into high grade lead concentrate and high grade zinc concentrate for treatment at Trail, and an iron concentrate to be impounded for future use. The first commercial application of this discovery was achieved in a test mill at Trail in the spring of 1920. The development unlocked the enormous possibilities of the Sullivan Mine and paved the way for Cominco’s rapid growth. Increasing quantities of Sullivan ore were treated by flotation at Trail until, in 1923, the 3000-ton Sullivan Concentrator was completed near the Sullivan Mine at Kimberley. Metallurgical operations at Trail were expanded rapidly. By 1929, Cominco was one of the world’s largest producers of lead and zinc.
The growth of metallurgical operations resulted in the emission of ever-increasing quantities of sulphur-bearing smoke from the treatment of lead and zinc concentrates. Apart from the economic waste of a valuable chemical, the nearness of the plants to the international border and prevailing down-river winds caused some smoke damage to vegetation in the US. As a result of complaints, an International Tribunal was established to consider the problem. In due course, the Company was required to control its emissions. A large chemical fertilizer plant construction program in Trail was undertaken in 1930. This was the Company’s entry into chemical production. In two respects it was a pioneering venture: the market for this relatively new product was limited; also, it was an early example of eliminating serious atmospheric pollution.
The West Kootenay Power and Light Company, which had been formed in 1897, supplied power to the early Rossland Trail operations from relatively small hydro-electric power plants on the Kootenay River, some 35 miles from Trail. In 1916, the Company acquired controlling interest in the power company and then proceeded to expand its operations. A long-range program was undertaken which resulted in full development of the Kootenay River power potential between Kootenay Lake and the Columbia River. This program provided for the metallurgical expansion, and later, for the requirements of the chemical fertilizer industry. Five hydro-electric dams would eventually produce power for operations.
When war was declared in 1939, the chemical industry at Trail had become well established. At the request of the Government, the Ammonia Plant was expanded and new plants were built for the Government in Trail and Calgary. Both the metallurgical and chemical fertilizer operations produced much material vital to the success of the war. Following the war, a major expansion program began in Trail, which included: a modernized lead smelter, expansion of the zinc plant, an 86-mile transmission line from the Kootenay River power plants to supply Kimberley, construction of the Waneta Power Plant, 11 miles south of Trail.
While many factors have contributed to the industrial growth of the Company, its programs in mining, exploration, research and sales development have been outstanding. In addition, the Company has been well-served by exemplary staff and employees: the minds who conceived the Company and guided it toward its objectives of stability and stead progress; the executives and leaders who translated policy into production; the experts who overcame complex problems and who contributed new and important ideas; and, the people on the job who gave good service with faith and loyalty.
- The History of Cominco, August 1960