Photo 2304.0093: Compressor room at the Centre Star Mine. Note the same style of rope-driven compressor as seen on the lower grounds of the Museum.

Photo 2304.0093: Compressor room at the Centre Star Mine. Note the same style of rope-driven compressor as seen on the lower grounds of the Museum.

Compressor | West Kootenay Power

The compressor seen on the lower grounds of the Rossland Museum & Discovery Centre provided compressed air to the pneumatic drills of the Rossland mines. Use of compressors, which remain a relevant tool to this day, predates most modern electrical power sources. The compressors at the Rossland mines were first operated by steam power, but where switched to electrical power when it became available. This electrical power was provided by the West Kootenay Power & Light Company (WKPL). 

The WKPL, although not as well known a name as Cominco or Le Roi, has been influential in the growth and development of Rossland and the surrounding communities. Without the electrical history of WKPL, the golden boom town years of Rossland nor the later skiing fame would be possible.

Photo 2276.0179 - not in BI: The presentation of the West Kootenay Power & Light’s Packard truck to the Rossland Museum, May 27th, 1976. Pictured on left is F.E. Burnet, the Chairman of the WKP&L board, and on right is J. McDonald, President of the Rossland Historical Museum.

Photo 2276.0179 - not in BI: The presentation of the West Kootenay Power & Light’s Packard truck to the Rossland Museum, May 27th, 1976. Pictured on left is F.E. Burnet, the Chairman of the WKP&L board, and on right is J. McDonald, President of the Rossland Historical Museum.

The Packard Truck

The Packard Truck seen on the grounds of the Rossland Museum & Discovery Centre was donated by the West Kootenay Power & Light Company in 1976. The truck bought by West Kootenay Power in 1917 and used well into the 50s for maintenance along the power lines and plants. Packard trucks were first manufactured in the early 1900s as extremely durable trucks able to carry heavy loads over less than ideal road conditions. Their design was so rugged and durable that the trucks were chosen by the US to be used as military vehicles in the first World War.

West Kootenay Power: Through the Ages

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Pre-Dam Years

These rivers that dams were later established on were originally used by indigenous groups, in the West Kootenays, notably the Sinixt Nation. The Bonnington Falls along the Kootenay River was an important salmon fishery for Sinixt First Nations peoples. In fact, archaeological evidence as well as oral and written history accounts place the Bonnington Falls as the site of a rare conflict between the Kutenai and Sinixt peoples in 1800s, as the Kutenai, being driven west due to clashes with the Blackfoot people, moved into Sinixt territory and began using their salmon fishery. Sites along the Kootenay, Columbia, Pend D’Orielle, and Slocan Rivers also holds importance for the Sinixt.

Photo 2337.0141: The Kootenay River rapids circa 1899.

1897:

WKPL Incorporates

In 1897, under the leadership of Sir Charles Ross, West Kootenay Power & Light Company incorporates with the aim to provide power to the Rossland Mines. Lorne Campbell is chosen as the first General Manager by Sir Ross.

Photo 2313.0158: Lorne Campbell in his office in Rossland, taken in March 1911.

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1897-1898:

Plant No. 1 is Built

The Lower Bonnington plant, known as Plant No. 1, is built on the Kootenay River. Sir Ross chooses the name ‘Bonnington’ for the falls and dam the same way he would choose many dam names: after a place he enjoyed visiting in the Scottish countryside as a younger man.

Photo 2337.0150: The Lower Bonnington Falls Dam, c.1900.

1898:

Power To Rossland

On July 15th, 1898, the first light supplied by WKPL reaches Rossland. This was an engineering feat for the time, with 51.5 kilometers (32 miles) of power line having been built between Rossland and Bonnington, a task accomplished in just a year and a day. This was the longest high voltage line to be built in North America!

Photo 2318.0047: West Kootenay Power & Light Company workers raising a power pole along the Bonnington to Rossland route in 1897.

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1906-7:

No. 2 Plant is Built

To keep up with increasing energy demands, a second dam was built on the Kootenay River above the previous No. 1 Plant on the Upper Bonnington Falls. This dam is expanded in 1938 and again in 1941.

Photo 2338.0062: The No. 2, or Upper Bonnington Plant during its construction, taken in 1906.

1906 - 1907:

Boundary Expansion

With big dreams large-scale expansion, West Kootenay Power buys the charter of the nearby South Kootenay Power Company and expands into the Boundary County, supplying their mines with power. In April, 1907, the competing Cascade Power Company sells its assets to WKP&L, giving them ownership of the Cascade Dam on the Kettle River.

Photo 2318.0022: The Cascade Dam during its operation by WKPL, taken in 1920.

1916:

CM&S Partnership

Anticipating growing energy demands, especially with the First World War bringing large zinc contracts, the Consolidated Mining & Smelting Company (CM&S) acquires the West Kootenay Power & Light Company as a wholly-owned subsidiary. CM&S will later change its name to Cominco and then to Teck (Teck Trail Operations in Trail, BC).

Photo 2318.0171: The CM&S smelting operations in Trail, BC taken July 1st, 1913.

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1928:

Plant No. 3 is Built

Keeping up with greater electrolytic zinc operations at CM&S, a third dam, named the South Slocan Dam, is built.

Photo 2320.0039: The South Slocan Dam during its operation. Date unknown.

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1932:

Plant No. 4 is Built

With ever-expanding CM&S Operations, a fourth Dam is built upstream from the Bonnington operations on the Kootenay River, named Corra Linn. This plant includes 14 flow gates, which allow for increased and controlled water storage in the Kootenay Lake. This allows energy production to become fixed as opposed to the previous operating style in which electricity production was dependent on the natural flow of the river.

Photo 2341.0111: Plant No. 4, or Corra Linn Dam, in operation in August 1932.

1944:

Plant No. 5 is Built

Built to meet CM&S’s power needs brought by the Second World War, a fifth power plant is built at the mouth of the Kootenay River. This plant is named the Brilliant Dam.

Photo 2306.0057: The Brilliant Dam in operation, taken May 20th, 1951.

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1948:

The Trail Flood

With the dams having changed the natural flood controls in the Columbia Basin watershed, an unusually large spring and subsequent flooding leads to massive floods throughout the Columbia Basin. In the West Kootenays, the city of Trail is the worst affected.

Photo 2318.0102: Trail during the 1948 flood.

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1951:

New Engineering Feats

After the war, CM&S wants to connect their new Sullivan Mine operations in Kimberley to the electricity produced at the Brilliant Dam. An 86-kilometer power line needed to be built. A line of that size should not have been an issue, however, it needed to cross Kootenay Lake. As such, West Kootenay Power’s lines once again make history, completing the longest power-line span in world, measuring 2 miles, which connected the route across the Kootenay Lake.

This drawing appeared in the March 1952 edition of Cominco Magazine showing the proposed design for the span, in particular the plan for the final power pole before the lake.

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1954:

The Waneta Plant

Experiencing a post-war boom, a private CM&S contractor is hired to build a dam on the Pend D’Orielle River, named the Waneta Dam. This dam was first planned in the 1920s with the goal to build the plant in the 1930s. Power lines were even built to the planned site in anticipation of its construction. However, the impact of the Great Depression led to the project being abandoned until the 1950s.

This photo, which was published in the April 1954 edition of Cominco Magazine shows the Waneta Dam shortly after becoming operational.

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1964:

The Columbia River Treaty

With the 1948 floods as the catalyst, the Columbia River Treaty was created, which hoped to provide a platform for those building dams in the Columbia Basin both in Canada and the US to communicate and be protected from the possible negative effects damming had brought. The treaty ensured Canada guaranteed and better flood and water control in exchange for a 64 million dollar payment from the US, which was to reimburse Canada for the subsequent 60 years of flood assurance they would receive. The treaty was signed and ratified in 1964, making 2024 the date the treaty must be renegotiated.

Photo 2336.0064: Bonnington Falls Dam.

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1987 Onwards

Ownership of WKPL changed to the private, US-based company Utilicorp in 1987. Ownership changed again in 2002, with FortisBC buying the business. Fortis has remained the operator of the dams ever since.

Photo 2306.0227: Photo overlooking Trail, showing Cominco operations, unknown date.

Impacts on Indigenous Communities

While hydroelectricity has been integral to the development of the communities seen today in the West Kootenays, their impact on the indigenous communities of the area, most notably the Sinixt Nation, must be noted.

Photo 2337.0155: Upper Bonnington Falls, circa 1900.

Photo 2337.0155: Upper Bonnington Falls, circa 1900.

The construction of the dams in the West Kootenays is one of the main reasons for the displacement of the Sinixt peoples, who used to have permanent communities in southern British Columbia and Northern Washington. With the introduction of prospectors, mines, and boom towns, intolerance for indigenous peoples grew, making settlements near these boom towns less desirable. Moreover, the extensive damming of the Kootenay River among other rivers changed the local environment, notably destroying many Kokanee Salmon runs in use by the Sinixt. Since the early 1900s, the Sinixt peoples have increasingly utilized their southern reaches of territory in Washington State over those in British Columbia, which resulted in less and less permanent Sinixt settlement existing north of the border for a few generations.

Moreover, the vast majority of important cultural Sinixt sites were destroyed by the flooding caused by dam building, with a notably large impact on grave sites. In Canada, only a few grave sites remain undamaged by the dams, located in the South Slocan. This area in general remains the final small pocket of undisturbed Sinixt territory within BC.

Photo 2330.0358: Upper Bonnington Falls, circa 1899.

Photo 2330.0358: Upper Bonnington Falls, circa 1899.

In 1956, due to what they claimed as a lack of tangible heritage sites and physical presence, the Canadian government declared the Sinixt Nation extinct, a completed false statement. Furthermore, despite numerous indigenous groups existing within the Columbia Basin, notably the Sinixt, Sepwepemc, Kutenai, and Okanagan Nation Alliance, it took until 2019 for any of these groups to gain any recognition within the Columbia River Treaty, now holding observer status. As such, it is important to acknowledge that despite the struggle which has led to the diminishing preservation of cultural heritage of the Sinixt, and consequently less physical presence, the Nation still exists and should be acknowledged by the federal government not only for their historical presence but for their ongoing existence within the region.

The Sinixt territory is shown here on this map (zoom in or click full screen for further detail).

For more information on the Sinixt Nation, please visit SinixtNation.org