History

Search

For over a century, the Japanese have had a long and proud history in Canada. Beginning in 1877, many emigrated to the west coast to work. They soon came to dominate the fishing industry, with their great skill in their traditional occupation, their industrious work habits and their great determination. Before long, they also found niches in boat building, fishing canneries, logging and millwork, small fruit and vegetable farms and in a wide variety of businesses, such as restaurants, grocery stores, tailoring and dry-cleaning. By the 1920s, there were about 15,000 people in BC of Japanese origin. At that point, about eight per cent of British Columbians were on “relief,” but the Japanese seldom became public charges, and their unemployment rate stood at less than two per cent. Often, this was because they were willing to take work that others would not, but resentment of their success, as well as blatant racism, made them targets of discrimination and unfair treatment. As international tensions intensified and war with Japan loomed, rumours ran rampant, and many questioned the loyalties of Japanese-Canadians who had settled along the coast. With no proof whatsoever, some even suggested Japanese-Canadian fishermen might act as guides for submarines, or as spies for the Imperial Japanese government. Under the provisions of the War Measures Act, a law was passed requiring that all Japanese-Canadians register with the government, and receive a number and a file. On December 7, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy launched a surprise attack on the US Navy base at Pearl Harbour, Hawaii. Almost immediately, panic and fear began to spread. In one of the most shameful periods of Canada’s history, almost 22,000 Japanese-Canadians were stripped of their rights, property and possessions, and branded “enemy aliens,” despite the fact that over 60 per cent of them were born in this country and were Canadian citizens. At first, Ottawa decreed that all males of Japanese origin would be moved out of the Coastal Defense Zone and relocated to the interior “for their own protection.” These men were separated from their families and sent to remote work camps to build roads. Those who protested or resisted were sent by train to a concentration camp at Angler, in Northern Ontario. This separation of families caused a great deal of suffering and hardship, and resulted in non-violent “sit down strikes” by the men. Soon, the federal government realized that these camps were not working, and the decision was made to reunite the men with their families into communities. Approximately 12,000 JapaneseCanadians were shipped to the Slocan Valley, and were interned in a number of communities, including Greenwood, Salmo, Rosebery, New Denver, Lemon Creek, Slocan City, Kaslo and Sandon. In most of the other communities many small internment shacks were built; Sandon was chosen partly because the number of abandoned buildings that already existed meant less work to prepare the site for the internees. At that time, Sandon had a resident population of less than 50. Many people had moved away to find work during the “Hungry Thirties,” but had intended to eventually return. Because of this, many had left their homes intact and even furnished, and as a result many vacant buildings were useable with minimal work. Much of the original “wild west” flavour of the community was destroyed during these renovations, with little thought for the damage done to historic buildings. According to a Vancouver newspaper’s account at the time, “Long bars, with expensive plate-glass mirrors and scenes of Sandon’s more glorious past are still intact. In the hospital, surgical instruments, sterilizers, beds and all the impedimenta of the medical profession had been untouched for years. Relics of the past in the lower and more disreputable part of town were abundant until the work gangs took over.” No doubt many of these valuable heritage artifacts made their way into private collections as the work crews ranged through the old city. The wartime BC Security Commission segregated internees along religious lines, and Sandon was designated as a Buddhist community, where 953 men, women and children were to be held. For the first time in years, the aging J.M. Harris found his city once more bustling with hundreds of people, but he soon found his 45-year-old power plant taxed to the limit. Under the direction of the Security Commission, the internees completed extensive repair work on the old wood-stave penstock that carried water to the Silversmith Powerhouse, prolonging its life and indirectly ensuring its survival to the present day. As well, a large crew of JapaneseCanadian carpenters was kept busy helping renovate the old buildings, while others were employed collecting scrap metal for the war effort. Unfortunately, the internees performed this work so industriously that a great deal of old machinery and metal artifacts was hauled away to be melted down. Because of its remote location, no security guards were considered necessary, and only one provincial policeman was provided to keep the peace. As the internees largely regulated themselves, this IrishCanadian officer led a quiet life in Sandon. In later years he used to joke that the nearly 1,000 JapaneseCanadians were so well behaved that he had nothing to do. “Now, if you’d locked up a thousand Irishmen up there, you’d need 2,000 cops to ride herd on them!” he would laugh. J.M. Harris’ old office block, the Virginia Block, held the Sandon offices of the BC Security Commission, as well as a 20-bed hospital with clinic, surgery and isolation ward, under the supervision of a Japanese-Canadian doctor. The top floor of the building was converted into a residence for the hospital staff, and a JapaneseCanadian dentist was brought in once a week. Schooling for the children was provided by Catholic nuns from the Sisters of Christ the King convent. High school classes were held in the top floor of the CPR train station, and younger children were accommodated as well, including a kindergarten class of over 30 students. When not in school, the younger set kept busy on the ski jump hill, at judo and kendo clubs, or with music lessons. Employment was scarce, but many of the adults occupied their time with wood-cutting, snow-clearing, road work, and dressmaking. Several were even employed by Harris in the Hotel Reco, as cooks, waiters and chambermaids. For many of the internees, gardening also provided a release, and stories are sometimes told of the intricate beauty of their small plots of ground. Sadly, no trace of these gardens now remains. In addition to their own gardens, the internees were aided by local Doukhobor communities, who brought in plenty of good fresh vegetables for them. A Buddhist temple was set up in the old Methodist church next to City Hall and was used throughout the internees’ time in Sandon. Several years later the abandoned building collapsed under a heavy snowload in the winter of 1946. When salvagers entered the building to investigate, they were surprised to see a statue of the Buddha still sitting there, untouched among the wreckage of the old church. Because of its severe winters, Sandon was the first of the internment centres to close, and most of the internees were relocated to New Denver. Accustomed to coastal climates, most of the JapaneseCanadians were unprepared for the cold temperatures and heavy snowfall high in the mountains, and Sandon became known to many of them as “Camp Hell-Hole.” When the internees were eventually released at the end of the war, many of them remained angry and bitter about their wartime experiences. No evidence of subversive activity by these peaceful people was ever demonstrated, and similar measures were never taken against Italian-Canadians or GermanCanadians, a fact that underscores the unfairness of their treatment. Some returned to Japan, or to the BC coast to rebuild their shattered lives. However, some stayed in the area, and there are still several Japanese-Canadian families living in New Denver and other centres in the Slocan Valley. Today, this sad chapter of Canada’s past is remembered with the Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre in the old “orchard” area of New Denver. The only interpretive centre in Canada to focus exclusively on Japanese-Canadian internment history, it features a community hall, three restored original shacks, and a beautiful traditional Japanese garden created by one of the former internees. As well, the picturesque Kohan Reflection Garden facing onto Slocan Lake in New Denver honours the memory of these internees. Both sites are well worth a stop for any visitors seeking further information about this period of Canada’s wartime past.

Eugene Herman “Pelle” Petersen was born in Fauske, Norway. His family came to Sandon in 1922 and Gene lived here the rest of his life. After leaving school, Gene was employed in Sandon at a variety of odd jobs, including errand boy, store clerk, miner, prospector, mine owner, trapper, logger and always as a practical joker. As well, Gene was operator of the Silversmith Powerhouse for over 25 years. An avid outdoorsman, Gene knew the secrets of the forest, with its grouse, owl, deer and bear. And although he was an accomplished hunter, Gene respected and treasured the natural beauty of his surroundings For many years, Gene was the last remaining full-time resident of the community, and was known locally as “the mayor of Sandon.” For most of that time, it was largely Eugene Petersen (1916-1988) due to Gene’s efforts that the few remaining original buildings were protected and shovelled in winter. Gene helped in the creation of the Sandon Museum, and he was the first president of the Sandon Historical Society. Among his many other skills, Gene was a writer and amateur poet. He wrote about his lifetime in Sandon in his memoirs, Window in the Rock, but unfortunately he died before it was published. Copies of his book are available to examine at the retail counter in the Sandon Historical Society Museum.

One of the most crucial jobs in the Slocan mines was also one of the most difficult, unhealthy and dangerous: hand-drilling holes in solid rock with a length of steel and a hammer. These holes would then be filled with explosive charges which would be detonated, blasting out chunks of rock and pushing the tunnel a few feet ahead. Once the smoke and dust settled, “muckers” would come in behind the drillers to haul out all the chunks of loose rock; the valuable ore would be separated and sacked, and waste rock would be discarded onto the tailings dump. Meanwhile, the drillers would be back at work, hammering more holes in the rock to accept the next round of charges, in a never-ending cycle. In smaller mines, of course, the driller, mucker and sorter were one and the same person, but many of the larger mines had crews of dozens of men, which allowed for specialization. In drilling a hole for the charge, the miner would start with a one-foot piece of sharpened drill steel, striking it with a hammer, then giving it a slight turn to loosen the rock chips and keep the steel from binding in the hole. As the hole deepened, a longer drill steel would be substituted, until the final drill, which was usually between four and five feet long. Working by flickering candle-light in the early years, and later by carbide lamps, the drillers often worked above their heads for 10 hours a day, with rock fragments cascading over them. Frequently, the dust particles they inhaled would lead to silicosis in their lungs, which meant a slow, agonizing death by drowning years later, as the aging miner struggled to breathe through the fluid that filled his inflamed chest. If the tunnel was being driven through harder rock, the driller often worked with a partner — one man would hold the drill steel in place while the second man would swing the hammer. After a set length of time, the two men would switch, with the holder becoming the striker, and vice-versa. If the miner was working alone, he used a four-pound (1.81 kg) hammer; a twoman team called for an eight-pound (3.63 kg) hammer. Traditionally, many of the early miners were Welsh or Cornish in origin, and gained the nickname “Jack,” or “Cousin Jack.” Because of this, if the Men of iron, drills of steel: driving a tunnel through a mountain of granite rock miner was working alone it was called “single-jacking” while a two-man team was said to be “double-jacking.” Needless to say, the man holding the steel had to trust the hammer-man implicitly, for one slip-up could mean being maimed for life. Many of these miners became extremely adept at working as a team, drilling holes several feet long in a matter of minutes. This drilling prowess soon became a matter of pride, wagers and tournaments. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, large rock-drilling competitions were held in mining camps all over North America, often with purses in the thousands of dollars, and even greater amounts hanging in the balance on side-bets. Often these competitions could bring far more money than weeks or even months of work underground, and miners trained for them with all the seriousness and dedication of an Olympic athlete. Toplevel single-jackers and double-jackers would frequently travel halfway across the continent to attend an important tournament, and winners would return to their home towns as conquering heroes, often thousands of dollars richer. Two men from Sandon— a Swede named Algot (“Erik”) Erickson and a Scot named Angus McGillivray— won the international championships more than once, causing much chest-puffing pride among their comrades in the valley. Erickson, a gentle man whose strength in later years was to earn him the affectionate nickname “Iron Man,” would later repeat this feat in partnership with another Swede, Joe Johnson of Silverton. In order to train without distraction, Johnson and Erickson moved in together in an abandoned log cabin on the Bosun Ranch, north of Silverton. The owner’s young son became their “official” timekeeper, and Johnson and Erickson were reported to be so proficient with the hammer and drill steel that they could average better than a blow a second, with hardly a break in the pace when they switched positions to take each other’s place. The training paid off for the two, as they were able to support themselves for a considerable time with their winnings before they finally returned to working in the mines. Pneumatic drills have long since replaced hand-drilling in the mines, but to this day there is a large granite boulder on Bosun Ranch, full of holes drilled into it almost a century ago by these two Swedish steel-drivers. A similar boulder currently sits outside the Sandon Museum, a silent witness to the days when hardened muscles, lightning-swift reflexes, a hammer and a length of drill steel could bring fame, wealth and relative leisure into the life of a hard-rock miner.