Sandon, BC, circa 1895

Sandon, BC, circa 1895

The City of Sandon was literally founded with silver streets and golden dreams, when two prospectors found silver ore in the rocks of Carpenter Creek. Others quickly arrived, including one novice who stumbled upon the largest silver-lead boulder ever found after he accidentally dropped an axe. That was in the fall of 1891, and by the following summer thousands of eager prospectors and miners pounded out a wagon road to the remote alpine valley with their feet, leading along precipitous cliffs and plunging creek beds from the Kaslo docks in the east and from the New Denver steamboat landing in the west. Within 5 years the population of the new community had reached 5,000 people, was incorporated as a new city, and had began the task of connecting their homes to the world.

The first order of business was a better road, and that came in two varieties – the one for pack trains and wagons, and the one for iron horses. As more and more people ascended the narrow valley, their transit options progressed from walking, to riding pack mules, to passage in supply wagons and carriages. The 60-mile trip was long and rough, and the trail busy with mule teams and pack horses that carries supplies up and loads of ore down.

Two different railroads raced to reach Sandon and it’s mineral riches. The CPR charged up the steep valley from New Denver with their Nakusp & New Denver Railroad subsidiary. From the east came the suitably named Kaslo & Slocan Railroad, financed by CPR’s competitor, the Great Northern, which fought it’s way past rushing creeks and along the precipitous 1,000′ high cliffs of the Payne Bluffs.

CPR along Carpenter Creek, c. 1896.

CPR  train enroute to Sandon, alongside Carpenter Creek, c. 1896.

The narrow-gauge K & S was the first to arrive in the Sprig of 1895, followed a week later by the statndard-guage CPR which ran it’s line along Carpenter Creek, making it the steepest section of railway line in the world. To maintain its momentum, the K & S then pushed its rails further up the mountainside, reaching the tiny hamlet of Cody to secure ore from the mines perched 6,000′ above sea level. This allowed residents to ride the freight trains on occasion as a form of commuter rail, an incredible opportunity in the farthest and highest reaches of this rugged mountain valley.

The CPR station in Sandon, BC. Circa 1904.

The CPR station in Sandon, BC. Circa 1904.

The railroads sped up travel tremendously. No longer did it take a long, exhausting day to reach the towns and lake boats in the valley below. Travel to and from Sandon was now only a few hours to Kaslo, where one wait to could catch the CPR sternwheeler SS Moyie for the 5 hour trip to Nelson. Or Sandonians could take the train westward 4 hours to Nakusp, to connect with CPR sternwheeler SS Bonnington on the Arrow Lakes for the journey to Castlegar, then take a final train ride to Nelson, arriving sometime the next day. Of course, one could still take a mule train on the old prospector trail to the Enterprise Creek Mine, stopping at other mining claims and digs along the way, passing through rough alpine country and dense, wooded ravines, to eventually reach Nelson within a week.

The prosperity did not last long into the 20th century. A disastrous fire destroyed the town’s centre in 1900, and when the mines played out and the price of precious metal fell, people began to leave Sandon in greater numbers than they arrived. The incredibly rough terrain and conditions steadily took their toll, as continuous avalanches, washouts, and forest fires eventually forced the K & S to concede defeat and sell its operations to the CPR in 1912. There were reprieves, including the years when the town became a settlement camp for domestic exiles during WW2, but it did not last long and town continued to fade away.

An old trolley-coach parked in Sandon.

An old trolley-coach parked in Sandon.

By the 1930′s, the wagon trail from Kaslo had become a rough dirt road, allowing the first trucks and cars to reach the community. People could now ride in automobiles around the town, to run errands and make deliveries, and could also travel farther afield. When the railways finally left, the dirt and gravel road was all that connected the suffering village to the outside world. The CPR ran the line to Sandon until 1955 when Carpenter Creek flooded and tragically damaged the town and its rail route beyond economical repair. In the 1960′s, the highway department graded and paved the road between Kaslo and New Denver, but could not be convinced to extend the pavement from the Sandon road intersection into the shrinking hamlet. They did grade and repair the road enough for new waves of tourists to venture up the steep valley in search of the region’s former glory days.

A big boost to the transit system in Sandon happened in the mid-1990′s, a century after prospectors first discovered silver, when a resident there acquired 15 second-hand trolley-coaches from the transit system in Vancouver. The vehicles increased passenger capacity and potential transit options for the residents tremendously. As one media reporter observed, Sandon now had more transit buses than residents. The fleet has been willowed down now over the the years, and there are now equal numbers of residents and transit buses, in a 1:1 ratio. Classic bus enthusiasts are envious, of course, for the vehicles represent perhaps the largest and best single fleet of CCF-Brill trolley-coaches left in North America.

What is the future of transit in Sandon? The community is now a Ghost Town, its silver mines faded and its golden dream now but an echo from the towering mountainsides. What need the ghosts of public transit? That is for the future to decide.