Silver City (Silverton)

Silver City's history of greed has left its scars upon the face of Banff National Park. Even though impressive concrete building foundations are absent, there are imprints in the meadow south of Highway 1a that remind us of a time of prospectors, outlaws, and dreams of abundant riches within the Canadian Rockies.
White Border: Approximate area of Silverton Townsite
Red: Location of old Silver City sign/Dwelling impressions
Blue: Silverton Falls
          Silver City, also known as Silverton, is infamous for its less than humble history. Rather than being founded on the legitimate resource potential of copper or other industrial metals, it was founded on rumours of silver and gold in Copper and Castle Mountain. The location of the old townsite is about 35 km west of the Banff Townsite on Highway 1a between the town of Banff and Johnston’s Canyon, however only imprints within the meadow south of the highway remind us of what it amounted to: a fly-by-night operation. There is none of the imposing foundations and atmosphere of a “classic” ghost town in the space of old Silverton. . However, those truly passionate about the industrial history of Banff National Park and wanting to witness the beauty of Castle Mountain, should make this expedition to Silver City.
          Famed American ‘entrepreneur’ John Healy founded the town of Silver City in 1881. Healy had previously founded Fort Whoop Up – a mecca for the unregulated American whiskey trade in the Canadian Prairies starting in 1869 (Fryer, pg. 9, 1976). The whiskey trade would end with the arrival of the North West Mounted Police in 1874, However, in 1881, Healy had become alert to another form of wealth when a Stoney Indian traded John Healy a sample of ore found in Copper Mountain, which is across the Bow River from Mt. Eisenhower (now known as Castle Mountain). Healy sent the sample to Fort Benton, his base of operations in Montana, where its assay revealed a promising content in both copper and lead (Hill, 1978). Excited by this discovery he convinced his brother Joe Healy to join his venture in copper and lead mining, which were important resources for the industrialization of Canada. Immediately they headed back to Copper Mountain to stake claims with a third partner, Dominion Land Surveyor, J.S. Dennis. They aptly named their mine “Copper Mine” (Fryer, pg. 9, 1976).
          After these seemingly humble beginnings you must be wondering why Copper Mine became known as Silver City. One explanation is that there was a rumoured silver find that made settlers flock to the locality, and was therefore named after the find. A more sensible explanation is that the CPR named the locality Silver City to make it complimentary to Golden City, known today as Golden, BC (Fryer, pg. 9, 1976). The town itself did not have much until the CPR laid tracks through the area in November of 1883. The CPR ran a boosterish campaign that promoted the riches in the area and planted rumours of silver and gold reserves to bring settlers near the railway line so they can have increased business, similar to what the CPR did with the Palliser Triangle for farming (Fryer, pg. 9, 1976). The town erected 6 hotels, 2 pool halls, and several casinos, while attracting nearly 1,000 residents to live in log houses and tents, which included bootleggers, speculators, and private guards for company claims (Hill, 1978). Two mounted police were stationed in Silver City to keep law and order in the area. Oddly there were no dance halls, church, or school, due to the lack of women or children in the town.
          With that being said, a man named Jack Currie was an interesting character in the story of Silver City. By trade he was a cook for the Pioneer Mine, and many miners claimed that his food was the best they have ever had. More importantly, his dwelling was the most popular gathering place for the town’s bachelors, especially when he was able to smuggle booze into the town. According to Harold Fryer’s Ghost Towns of Alberta, a friend told Currie that the RCMP was on his booze trail. In a way to get all of the visitors out of his cabin, he threatened to blow up the building if they did not leave. In a panic every man fled, and by the time the Mounties showed up they found him fast asleep with no trace of booze on him (Fryer, pg. 10, 1976). According to the same source no one knows what happened to Jack Currie after he left Silver City. Rumour has it that he made a fortune in the Klondike and was lost in a shipwreck on his way back to Vancouver. A story with more historical backing comes from two rich-looking men, known as Patton and Pettigrew, who arrived at Silver City in 1885 and began a mine dubbed The Homestake Mine. Claiming that their mine had struck gold, they sold 2,000 shares of their company at $5 each (total equity in 1885 dollars would be around $300,000) (Hill, 1978). Of course, the two men fled the country once receiving their money and left the investors in the town penniless.
          At its peak there were five mines established in the area. The Homestake, The Pioneer, The Queen of the Hills, Copper Mine, and Alberta Mine (Fryer, pg. 10, 1976). None of the investment capital related to resource development paid out in any of these mines. Even the prospect of finding Copper was very unlikely according to the regional geology. In both the Copper and Castle Mountains the mineralization type with potential gold reserves were sulphides in quartz-carbonate veins within the Neoproterozoic Miette Group where small amounts of Gold-Lead and Copper were produced at around 2290 – 2440 m above sea level (Rukhlov, pg. 39, 2011). However, due to the lack of technology and capital, the mining could not profitably recover the low concentration of minerals that was at the base of Castle and Copper Mountain. Some of the most prominent copper deposits were actually south of West Castle Mountain, which had a concentration of 1.31% copper within a 1.2 m thick bed of grey argillite from the Gateway Formation (Rukhlov, pg. 42, 2011).
          In 1884 and 1885, the first legal surveys of Silver City were made just before the town became abandoned (Lothian, Ch. 1, pg. 18, 1976). The 1884 survey was conducted by G.W. Vaughan and was completed in 1885 by P.R.A. Belanger, who included additional land that extended from the CPR right-of-way to the Bow River – subdividing each of the 38 blocks in 514 lots, measuring 50 feet wide and 100 feet deep (Lothian, Ch. 6, pg. 27, 1976). During this time there was a copper mine being worked as well as a gold mine being put on hold to attract capital, but the boom was over with nearly 20 people, mostly CPR employees, living within the townsite. When Silver City was officially abandoned, the buildings were moved and were intended for re-construction within Banff and the neighbouring Hot Springs (Lothian, Ch. 6, pg. 27, 1976).
          After the Homestake scam, most miners and mine managers were in a shaky financial position and had to close operations due to their insufficient capitalization. Most of the town fled the area before any claims staked could prove themselves. Joe Healy had to borrow money to get his family back into Montana, and John Healy went on to become a millionaire in Alaska, where he became a gold commissioner at the turn of the century (Fryer, pg. 10, 1976). In 1887, Silver City became a part of the Banff National Park and was therefore banned of all firearms or resource extraction. The town did have one resident remaining after the town closed up however. Joe Smith remained in the area, hunting and trapping for a living. Despite the gun laws, the park wardens allowed him to pursue his lifestyle. During Joe Smith’s time living at Silver City he saw it transform into a WWI internment camp for registered “enemy aliens”, and in the 1930’s become the movie set for The Alaskan (Hill, 1978). Finally in 1935, when Joe was old and nearly blind, his friends persuaded him to leave and enter the Lacombe home in Midnapore, Calgary. He died two years later in Calgary, and although Joe did not know it, park employees burned down his cabin after removing his belongings (Fryer, pg. 12, 1976). The last building standing in the once-booming town went ablaze. Today only faint traces in the woods serve as proof of Silver City’s dramatic history that is immortalized in books, Internet articles, and memoirs.
  1. Building Depressions
    Building Depressions
    Photo by Aaron Lang
  2. Location of Old Silver City Plaque
    Location of Old Silver City Plaque
    Photo by Aaron Lang
  3. Silverton/Silver City
    Silverton/Silver City
    Photo by Aaron Lang
  4. Silverton Falls
    Silverton Falls
    Photo by Aaron Lang
  5. More Depressions
    More Depressions
    Photo by Aaron Lang
  6. Castle Mountain
    Castle Mountain
    Photo by Mike Wells
Fryer, Harold. Ghost Towns of Alberta. Langley, B.C.: Stagecoach Pub., 1976.
Hill, Diane. "Banff Mining Towns Died." Calgary Herald 5 June 1978, City and
District sec. Print.
Lothian, W. F. "Chapter 1: The Early Years." A History of Canada's
National Parks. Vol. I. Ottawa: Parks Canada, 1976. Pg. 18. Print.
Lothian, W. F. "Chapter 6: Townsites and Subdivisions." A History of Canada's
National Parks. Vol. III. Ottawa: Parks Canada, 1976. Pg. 26. Print.
Rukhlov, A.S. Review of Metallic Mineralization in Alberta with Emphasis on Gold
Potential. Alberta Geological Survey. Energy Resources Conservation Board - Alberta Geological Survey, 2011. Web. 22 June 2015. .
Photos taken by:
Mike Wells Photo
Aaron Lang