Ghost Towns of British Columbia
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Sandon

The heart of the Valley of the Ghosts

Sandon is the glorious heart of B.C.'s famous Valley of the Ghosts. The former wild silver mining town is arguably the most famous ghost town in western Canada. The West Kootenay wilderness community, nestled along a creek bank in a narrow valley, is today mostly still and hauntingly quiet. It has been that way almost every night for nearly half a century. It’s population never rising above 30, and now holding steady with just a handful of full-time residents.

However, Sandon was once a wild, wild place with saloon and casino brawlers living up to the town's brazen hell-raising image as the heart and soul of the Silvery Slocan.

Sandon was renowned as a rollicking community of wild-eyed silver-seeking prospectors: a town where fortunes were gained in a week and then lost overnight, and where gambling and ladies of the night routinely dominated the night life. The swashbuckling pioneer spirit ruled the roost, and so too did the "everything goes" lifestyle. "There was even a police chief who ran a house for prostitutes and dealt black jack at a casino," says Hal Wright, a long-time Sandon resident.

Sandon residents Veronika Pellowski and Hal Wright are today’s caretakers of Sandon
Sandon’s Red Light District as it appears today
Sandon’s Red Light District as it appears today.
Photo by Johnnie Bachusky.
Sandon residents Veronika Pellowski and Hal Wright are today’s caretakers of Sandon, and have dedicated countless hours towards the ghost town’s restoration and preservation.
Photo by Johnnie Bachusky.
The ruins of a home along the overgrown Sunnyside bench An original fire hydrant
The ruins of a home along the overgrown Sunnyside bench.
Photo by Johnnie Bachusky.
An original fire hydrant from Sandon’s glory days still stands in front of the laundry building.
Photo by Johnnie Bachusky.
The flume wreckage from the 1955 wash out is still evident today along the creek in the foreground
The ruins of the hospital today along the Sunnyside bench
Only a few buildings remain today from Sandon’s once bustling downtown core. The flume wreckage from the 1955 wash out is still evident today along the creek in the foreground.
Photo by Johnnie Bachusky.
The ruins of the hospital today along the Sunnyside bench.
Photo by Johnnie Bachusky.
Half a century after the 1955 wash out, Sandon is still littered with ruins Stairs of a destroyed building now lead to nowhere
Half a century after the 1955 wash out, Sandon is still littered with ruins.
Photo by Johnnie Bachusky.
Stairs of a destroyed building now lead to nowhere.
Photo by Johnnie Bachusky.

From 1892 to 1900, Sandon enjoyed a period of mining prosperity unrivaled in Canadian history. Before the turn of the century, the Sandon silver mines were collectively the richest in the province, generating - at today’s adjusted figures - billions of dollars. The community grew fast, and led by American entrepreneur Johnny Harris, Sandon was soon to have all the amenities and services enjoyed by older and larger western Canadian centres.

Sports were important to the miners and the ever-growing number of families in the community, which had a peak population of more than 5,000 citizens. The community had first-class facilities before the turn of the century, including a large curling arena, hockey rink and venues for lawn bowling, cricket and tennis.

Sandon, which at one time incorporated itself as a city, even produced outstanding regional hockey teams - and one future NHL Hall of Famer. Cecil “Tiny” Thompson was born in Sandon in 1903, and after briefly working in mines, he went on to have a sensational goaltending career with the Boston Bruins.

As well, Sandon boasted two ski hills - which included ski jumps - and facilities for lacrosse, soccer and baseball. There was also a bowling alley, several billiard halls, a rifle club and a gymnasium at the Miners’ Union Hall.

However, as quickly as Sandon achieved prosperity it also soon experienced disaster. In the early hours of May 4, 1900, a fire started behind Spencer’s Opera House. It changed Sandon forever. Miraculously, no lives were lost but most of the downtown core was wiped out. Not a single building was insured.

Sandon’s most celebrated citizen Johnny Harris at the power house in 1947
Sandon’s most celebrated citizen Johnny Harris at the power house in 1947.
Photo courtesy of Hall Wright (Sandon Historical Society).
Reco Avenue in 1897
View of Sandon’s downtown core taken from Reco Avenue. The Methodist Church sits high up on the Sunnyside bench
Reco Avenue in 1897.
Photo courtesy of Hall Wright (Sandon Historical Society).
View of Sandon’s downtown core taken from Reco Avenue. The Methodist Church sits high up on the Sunnyside bench.
Photo courtesy of Hall Wright (Sandon Historical Society).
A wide angle view of Sandon in 1899 when the town was booming
A wide angle view of Sandon in 1899 when the town was booming.
Photo courtesy of Hall Wright (Sandon Historical Society).

The city, led by the never-ending optimism of Harris, immediately began a spirited reconstruction project. In fact, when dawn broke after the fire, gambling and poker tables were set up on the streets. It was business as usual for the hell-raisers.
While reconstruction was lightning fast, the new downtown buildings were downscaled and less opulent. Harris’ luxurious Reco Hotel, for example, was a massive four-story structure before the fire but downsized by two stories after reconstruction.

Baseball being played in a field (centre) constructed in 1904. The field is surrounded by Sandon’s Red Light District
Baseball being played in a field (centre) constructed in 1904. The field is surrounded by Sandon’s Red Light District.
Photo courtesy of Hall Wright (Sandon Historical Society).
A view of the valley in 1925 with Sandon in the centre
A view of the valley in 1925 with Sandon in the centre.
Photo courtesy of Hall Wright (Sandon Historical Society).
A street map of Sandon along with the rail lines
A street map of Sandon along with the rail lines.
Photos courtesy of Hall Wright.

Sandon never again reached its levels of prosperity from 1892 to 1900 but the city still enjoyed brief periods of renewed fortunes, particularly through the First World War. In fact, it was the most productive period ever for Sandon’s mines - but because more money was needed to dig deeper for ore, profits were not as high as the early pioneer years.

When the war ended in 1918, there was a long and steady decline. In 1920, the city was in receivership and forced to dissolve itself as a city. With no municipal tax base to draw on for regular upkeep, Sandon’s age and wild lifestyle began to show, and buildings and streets noticeably deteriorated.

Sandon’s Ivanhoe Mill
Sandon’s Ivanhoe Mill. It was built in 1900 and was the tallest building within the city limits. It was burnt down in 1914 and replaced by another mill.
Photo courtesy of Hall Wright (Sandon Historical Society).
In 1892, a 125-ton galena boulder was discovered on Sandon Creek, propelling the silver rush
In 1892, a 125-ton galena boulder was discovered on Sandon Creek, propelling the silver rush.
Photo courtesy of Hall Wright (Sandon Historical Society).

The following Depression years, in particular, were crippling for Sandon and the entire mining industry.
The Second World War brought a new resource to Sandon, albeit one that depended on human suffering and injustice. Canada was at war with Japan, and as a security measure, the federal government ordered all Japanese-Canadians living in the coastal areas to be relocated in B.C.’s interior. About 12,000 Japanese-Canadians were uprooted and taken to the Slocan area: 953 to Sandon.

When the internees arrived in Sandon, the community’s population slipped to 50. Streets and buildings were vacant and crumbling. Once again, Sandon’s streets and buildings were alive. The internees and the local population co-existed peacefully. Japanese-Canadian men repaired buildings. Children went to school. The old Methodist Church became a Buddhist temple. A 20-bed hospital was set up in the Virginian Block. But because of Sandon’s harsh winter climate, the Slocan internment camp was the first to close, and before the war ended, the ghosts edged closer.

Dr. Gomm’s house, originally built in 1894
Pioneer homes in Sandon’s upper gulch area
Pioneer homes in Sandon’s upper gulch area.
Photo by Johnnie Bachusky.

In the early 1950s, the Korean War triggered another rebound for Sandon. In 1951, more than 1,000 people rushed to Sandon’s rejuvenated economy.
The boom ended when peace came in 1953 and silver slumped again. This time, Sandon was finished. The wild silver rush screams and hell-raising exploits given over to the eerie wails of ghosts, now residing permanently amid Sandon’s crumbling ruins. That same year, Johnny Harris died. At the end, he was financially broke. His body was taken back to his native Virginia.

Dr. Gomm’s house, originally built in 1894. Dr. Gomm was one of Sandon’s physicians.
Photo by Johnnie Bachusky.

Following his death, Sandon’s deterioration accelerated. Vandals and treasure hunters began tearing up every building in the dying community. But nature would strike the definitive blow.
In June, 1955, a torrential rain fall on a melting snow pack dramatically raised creek water levels, causing logs and debris to plug up the rotting flume. The rising water spilled uncontrollably over much of Sandon, ripping apart streets and the flume. Sandon was obliterated.

A view of the devastation of Sandon shortly after the 1955 wash out
A view of the devastation of Sandon shortly after the 1955 wash out.
Photo courtesy of Hall Wright (Sandon Historical Society).
Sandon in 1957, two years after the wash out. The ghost town’s famous flume was obliterated
Sandon in 1957, two years after the wash out. The ghost town’s famous flume was obliterated.
Photo courtesy of Hall Wright (Sandon Historical Society).
A woman stands in front of a Valley of the Ghosts sign post in 1960
Sandon in the winter of 1961 – a ghost town
Sandon in the winter of 1961 – a ghost town.
Photo courtesy of Hall Wright (Sandon Historical Society).
A woman stands in front of a Valley of the Ghosts sign post in 1960.
Photo courtesy of Hall Wright (Sandon Historical Society).

Whatever nature had left, the treasure hunters relentlessly picked over for one last bonanza. When finished with Sandon, the raiders targeted the nearby ghost towns of Zincton, Alamo, Retallack and Cody. But fortunately, a few remaining permanent citizens and newcomers in Sandon fought back to stop total destruction.

Sandon’s historic city hall building in 2003
Hal Wright in front of Sandon’s restored City Hall
Hal Wright in front of Sandon’s restored City Hall.
Photo by Johnnie Bachusky.
Sandon’s historic city hall building in 2003. The building was close to collapse more by the late 1980s before Sandon residents Veronika Pellowski and Hal Wright lovingly restored the structure.
Photo by Johnnie Bachusky.
An original fire hall in Sandon. The hall was built in 1897

Sandon is now a popular tourist stop, and past and present preservation efforts have saved several of the once-proud city’s remaining pioneer buildings including the old City Hall, the Silversmith Powerhouse and several original residences.

An original fire hall in Sandon. The hall was built in 1897.
Photo by Johnnie Bachusky.

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