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The Ghost City

Citizens of Phoenix once proclaimed their community was the “highest city in Canada”.
For a while in the early part of the 20th century it was an envied booming copper mining community on top of a mountain of copper - 4,630 feet above sea level in southern B.C.’s Boundary Country.
Phoenix was known across the nation as the copper city of Canada, a place known even to sports fans around the county. It once bustled with up to 4,000 copper crazy citizens, and had up to 20 hotels and saloons, gambling casinos, four churches, an impressive city hall, a covered skating rink, hospital, brewery, an electric power company, telephone exchanges and even an opera house.

Phoenix at around 1912
A photo of the city of Phoenix at around 1912.
Photo courtesy of the Boundary Historical Society.

In 1911, Phoenix’s hockey team won the provincial championship. That same year, the team asked for the right to challenge for the Stanley Cup, professional hockey’s all-time prize for supremacy, but were told their request came a little too late to qualify. As well, some local historians believe Phoenix was home to the first women’s hockey team, which advertised itself as “the world’s first skirt and leg exhibition.”

The copper mine at Phoenix – owned by the Granby Company - employed 1,000 miners, and when operations closed on June 14, 1919 it marked the end of a wild and memorable era in Canadian mining history that began in 1891, and ultimately produced 13,678,901 tones of ore.
American prospector Bob Denzler, who arrived in the area in 1891, is credited for one of the first major copper discoveries for Phoenix mines. His discovery also triggered an onslaught of subsequent claims, and a settlement called Greenwood Camp, which was officially changed to Phoenix on October 1, 1898 when the first post office opened.
Denzler became wealthy, and although he was an American citizen who kept a home in Spokane, Washington, he returned to Phoenix every spring, even after the city closed, to spend his summers.

Foundations from mining buildings Foundations from mining buildings
Foundations from mining buildings
Foundations from mining buildings left after Phoenix’s last strip mining operations closed in 1978.
Photos by Johnnie Bachusky.

Meanwhile, Phoenix boomed until the copper market fell out in the late teens. When the last ore was shipped in 1919, thousands promptly exited the mountain city, most leaving behind their homes and belongings, and Phoenix instantly became the largest ghost town Canada had ever seen. When the final death knells sounded for the city, a trio of legendary bachelors refused to forsake the ghost city: the eccentric William Bambury, an unforgettable fellow by the name of Adolph Sercu, better known to Boundary Country folks as Forepaw or “4 Paw”, and Denzler.
Bambury was an Englishman who came to Canada in 1887. After spending several years in Nelson, B.C. trying to make a go out of a boat repair business, he came to Phoenix in either 1900 or 1902. His life during the boom times of Phoenix is a mystery to old-timers, but Bambury certainly became a legend when the city became the ghost city of the Boundary.

For years, he lived tax and rent free in the old home of Dr. Boucher. While Denzler was renowned for his immaculate quarters in the ghost city, Bambury was notorious for his lack of housekeeping skills.
Somehow Bambury eked out of living in the ghost town, salvaging lumber and metal. Sometimes, he got the odd maintenance job along the highway outside Greenwood.
As eccentric as Bambury was, he had good company when it came to Forepaw, a Belgian who came to the United States in the 1890s, and then to the Boundary Country and Phoenix shortly before the turn of the century. He was also a prospector, and found a claim near the city in 1900. Although his legal surname was Sercu, he was always called Forepaw, and even signed his name as “4 Paw”.

Phoenix’s pioneer cemetery
Phoenix’s pioneer cemetery
Above and below: Phoenix’s pioneer cemetery has been lovingly restored by locals in recent years.
Photos by Johnnie Bachusky.
The grave site of William Bambury, the last resident of Phoenix
Phoenix’s pioneer cemetery
The grave site of William Bambury, the last resident of Phoenix.

When Phoenix closed, a fund was set up to appoint a watchman over the ghost city and Forepaw enthusiastically accepted the role. He moved right in to the still stately city hall building where he set himself up as mayor, chief of police and magistrate. Forepaw was determined to earn his keep and make it known to all visitors of the ghost city he was the law. It was also clear to many former residents Forepaw wanted to continue the legacy of Phoenix’s colorful magistrate, Judge Willie Williams, famous for his booming declaration, “I am the highest judge, in the highest court, in the highest city in Canada.”
Phoenix was since reduced to a ghost city, but Forepaw still wanted his authority established beyond a doubt and walked the deserted streets with a Billy club in his one hand while wearing a home-made star on his chest, cut from a vegetable tin can.
One by one, Phoenix’s last trio of residents passed on. Denzler died in 1944, while Forepaw passed away two years earlier. Forepaw’s death was front page news in the Grand Forks Gazette, with a headline, ‘The Mayor and Host of Phoenix Has Given Last Welcome to Famous Camp”. His remains were laid to rest in the old Phoenix cemetery. It also became known to locals that Forepaw, who always remained close to three brothers in Belgium, had recently lost a huge estate inheritance to the German Nazis when Hitler invaded his native country in 1940. Forepaw gave little thought to it, and told friends he would rather have “peace in Phoenix than a dazzling fortune in Belgium under rule of Hitler.”
Bambury was left alone to watch over Phoenix. But in late 1949, the 82-year-old bachelor realized that he could no longer survive the Phoenix winters and rented a room at Greenwood’s Windsor Hotel.
Bambury died in December, 1951, and was laid to rest in the old cemetery. Phoenix was now alone with the ghosts.

Phoenix’s First World War memorial
Where the city once stood is now just a lake, a former open pit mine that was in operation in the 1960s and 1970s but ultimately abandoned
Where the city once stood is now just a lake, a former open pit mine that was in operation in the 1960s and 1970s but ultimately abandoned.
Photo by Johnnie Bachusky.
Phoenix’s First World War memorial is still near the town site, one of the last remaining relics of the city of copper.
Photos by Johnnie Bachusky.
A commemorative Phoenix bird sculpture, created by miners in the seventies, is displayed in downtown Greenwood

Phoenix did rise again as an open pit mining venture in the fifties and on and off until 1978. However, the remaining buildings were bulldozed and buried to make way for the mining. Workers lived in Greenwood or other Boundary Country locales.

By the turn of the 21st century, only a gigantic open pit mining scar remains at the site where the city used to be. Even still, tourists drop by the museum in Greenwood to ask for the location of the former great city. Besides a First World War cenotaph across the road from the mining scar, and the pioneer cemetery, there is almost nothing to see.

Folks are still talking about the ghost city. A commemorative Phoenix bird sculpture, created by miners in the seventies, is displayed in downtown Greenwood, hoping to rise again.

Ghost Towns of British Columbia - Copyright © 2005 Susan Foster & Johnnie Bachusky
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