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Hail Britannia

Former mining community crawls toward new era

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As a new year approaches, a new dawn could rise over Britannia Beach.

Flanked by the Britannia range of mountains that tower over Howe Sound, it is a modest, unincorporated town of about 300 people in Area D of the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District. Formerly a hub of mining activity for the British Commonwealth, this year could see the town get final approval for a commercial development that may pull people off the highway and enhance its appeal as a tourist attraction.

Anyone new to the region could be forgiven for seeing Britannia Beach as a simple stopover on the way to Squamish or Whistler.

Despite a soaring museum that looks to be embedded in a mountain, as well as charming little stores and restaurants like a fish and chips shop in a blue bus, it stands largely without the notice it deserves. Greyhound buses don't stop here often enough and eager skiers and boarders usually stop for their wares in Squamish.

But Macdonald Development Corporation, a Vancouver-based real estate developer, is seeking a rezoning for land at the old townsite at Britannia Beach where it hopes to build a pedestrian-oriented village with shops, restaurants and promenades. Buildings would be designed according to Victorian and Arts and Crafts styles.

The closest approximation would be Vancouver's Granville Island, a former industrial site that has since been turned into a commercial and residential area with a market, restaurants and artisan shops.

"The dream for that is to get as many people there and out of their cars as possible," Bill Baker, project coordinator for the townsite, said in an interview.

For people interested in history, Britannia Beach is, literally, a copper mine.

In 1859 Captain George Henry Richards, a hydrographer for the British Admiralty, arrived in Howe Sound on a survey mission. He named the mountains aligning the waters for the HMS Britannia, a gun ship that fought for the Royal Navy in the War of Independence and the Battle of Trafalgar. The ship itself never sailed to Howe Sound.

In 1888 Dr. A.A. Forbes, a physician working at the time with First Nation peoples living along the sound, discovered copper in the ground that would eventually lead to the development of the Britannia Mine. With his dog Granger at his side, the doctor shot a buck deer as the sun was setting. The deer fell and its hooves, thrashing at the ground, exposed a brightly-coloured rock in the soil. Tests revealed the rock contained a high concentration of copper.

Eleven years later George Robinson, a mining engineer, convinced financiers that the Britannia property had potential. Various companies tried in vain to put financing together to extract the mineral until the Britannia Mining and Smelting Company began its work in the early 1900s.

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