Several prominent pioneers to the Similkameen Valley staked claims in the early days upon their arrival in the valley. Some were able to sell them and use the profits to buy and start the first ranches and orchards in the Lower Similkameen.
The early economic history of the Similkameen is one of locally created wealth based on the natural resources in the area. It’s a trend that continues to this day as agriculture continues to be a major economic driver in the region.
Over the years, however, the mineral wealth of the Similkameen has lost much of it’s emphasis as an economic force in the region. Today, the focus is on tourism, which is also a worthy sector to pursue – unfortunately, tourism is an industry every region in the province – in the country and in the world, for that matter – is chasing.
It’s also an industry that can’t be counted on when economic times are hard – as we have seen in the Similkameen over tha past few years, fewer people are on the road, especially in the shoulder season – and it’s a trend that will probably continue as long as oil prices keep climbing and the economy remains stalled.
The time is ripe to look at the mining industry as a potential economic force in the Lower Similkameen again. Not necessarily through the discovery of another world class deposit like the Nickle Plate (not to rule that possibility out, either), but through the development of a small “cottage mining industry” that is environmentally friendly, low impact and locally based from extraction through production and ultimately, market.
Cawston prospector Ron Schneider has some ideas on the subject – he’s participated in a few local mining efforts that lend creedence to the idea of an environmentally friendly, low impact mining industry in the valley.
Driving by the Cawston cemetery on a mild June Sunday afternoon, Schneider points to a couple of tombstones.
“Those are made of locally extracted marble, from the Olalla area,” he explains. The formation was originally discovered by Similkameen pioneer Garnet Willis.
“The headstones are carved by Peter Buckowsky of Okanagan Stoneworks. It could be the beginning of a fledgling industry in headstones,” he speculates, noting that the expertise is all right here in the valley, including the product.
Heading up the Fairview-Cawston Road, we turn off onto a rough four wheel drive trail that winds its way up to a mountain top high to the east of Cawston. A few scars on a small knoll mark the site of a marble quarry that was prospected in the late 1980’s by Keremeos resident Allan Bellamy.
“Some samples were taken,” Schneider explained, “and it was assessed that the marble had too many fractures in it.”
Both Schnieder and Bellamy believe the location of the sample choices were wrong, picked too close to a fault zone. They think the quarry still holds potential for economic extraction.
“The mining can’t be seen from the valley,” Schneider added, “and if done properly, doesn’t need to be an unsightly scar on the landscape.”
“Quarry work is relatively benign environmentally,” Bellamy added in a later conversation. “This would basically amount to simply cutting stone.
An industry like this, I feel, would be good for the area.”
The marble also contains fossils – remnants of antler and horn coral from an ancient sea bottom – now located 4,500 feet off the Similkameen Valley floor.
To the northeast of the marble prospect is a different geologic environment. Schneider and I hike into an area of ancient basalt lava flows, and at a rock outcropping Schneider stops to hammer away at a rock. It cleaves into flat, uniform slabs.
“There’s all kinds of this in the area,” he says as we hike to the base of a cliff face, its base littered with broken slabs of rock. With each blow from Schneider’s pick, the rock cleaves into perfectly flat slabs.
“This could be a locally sourced building stone,” he says, “It could be quarried in a small “ma and pa” mining operation. It doesn’t have to be a big, open pit deal.
It would have a small impact environmentally – and all the benefits would be local.”
Schneider feels that the slabs could sell for between $350 – 500 per ton, hauled to local markets on a flat deck that could hold 20 tons at a time. He has quarried a similar type of stone, used as landscape material, from a quarry site near Yellow Lake.
We discuss whether there would need to be changes to the mining act to regulate small scale mining like this.
“Maybe not,” Schneider says, “Companies are allowed to apply for a bulk mining permit that would allow them to mine up to 10,000 tons over five years. That type of legislation would also prevent companies from over extraction.”
On our way back down the mountain, Schneider discusses two other prospects, development of which could result in completely unique, made in the Similkameen products.
“We have several local prospects of rhodenite,” he says (a pink coloured local semi – precious mineral) “that could be mined as a gemstone and manufactured into jewellery that could become a distinctly Similkameen trademark to First Nations – much like the role of tourquoise in the American Midwest, which the Hopi Indian tribe identify so strongly with.”
Finally, there could be new life for Hedley through mineral exploration around that famous gold mining community.
Exploration work is ongoing on a collection of properties south of the Similkameen River near Hedley. Currently the largest project in the valley, 10,000 hectares are involved, which include many properties southwest of the community, including the Don, Speculator, Lost Horse, FOB and the Nova.
Perhaps, if the mining potential of the Similkameen is realized, we will see the valley’s economy go “full circle” – as in the pioneer era, when the mining industry gave rise to agriculture, it has the potential to provide similar benefits in today’s economy.