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Old friends, good memories

One hundred years has passed, but the years and years of memories live on in the hearts and minds of the former residents of Britannia Beach and the townsite once known as Mount Sheer.

One hundred years has passed, but the years and years of memories live on in the hearts and minds of the former residents of Britannia Beach and the townsite once known as Mount Sheer.

This past weekend, more than 500 people who once called Britannia home, came back to relive the memories and visit with old friends.

"It was fantastic," said Reunion 2004 committee member Kirstin Clausen. "I believe we were given a real gift to hear all the stories and memories first-hand from the people who used to live here. It was truly awe-inspiring - a really moving experience."

Before the PGE railway and the Sea to Sky Highway connected the town to the outside world, a strong sense of community kept the few hundred residents of the Mount Sheer townsite tightly-knit, as they enjoyed many gatherings, dances, church functions and picnics. This was life back in the old days at Britannia Beach, where the famous mines of Britannia employed many and the town prospered along with the growth of the huge operation.

During the 70-year life of the mine, more than 60,000 people called Britannia their home. As the mine and the townsite flourished, so did the experiences of its people, and from these experiences came many memories throughout the years. The 100-year reunion gave former residents a chance to see the townsite and re-live cherished memories with old friends. It was an emotional weekend for many, as tears flowed from memories both good and bad.

"It was a safe, wonderful place for a child to grow up," said Gwen Pruden Wells, who lived in the community from 1943 to 1952. "It's hard to put it into words. It was just a wonderful experience to bring up some of the old memories and to see the people that were a very special part of my life."

Britannia existed as a company town, with nearly every male resident working for the mine, which became the largest copper-producing operation in the British Empire in 1929.

It was a place of quiet solitude, happiness and freedom - a place where young children were allowed to be creative and free to explore the beauty of nature that surrounded them.

"For a child it was a delight," said Bob Hamelin, a former mine employee who managed to save enough money working for the mine as a teenager to pay for his university education in Vancouver. "The place gave me a good start. I always feel nostalgic and I always feel grateful. We had these whole mountains to wander around in. They just let us go and explore. I had no restrictions at all - we were trusted. We used to hike down to the lakes, hang our clothes on a tree and go for a swim."

For Hamelin, the education of his youth came from the mountains and from the men who taught him and his friends about them.

"We had good leadership - the older boys initiated us to these things; hiking, skiing, fishing. They taught us how to survive up there, how to have fun up there."

But life in Britannia Beach and Mount Sheer wasn't always fun.

Although Britannia experienced zero unemployment and a healthy community life set in a beautiful atmosphere, there were many harsh experiences that came from life in the mines - a place where serious hard labour, and many hardships and tragedies took place.

In the year 1915, at 12:03 a.m. on Monday, March 22, an avalanche of mud, rock and snow crashed through the Jane camp at the Britannia mines, killing 60 people and injuring many others. Three years later, an influenza epidemic took dozens of lives as it ravaged its way through the small village, and three years after that, a vicious fire burned Mill No. 2 to the ground. In that same year, in 1921, a massive flood destroyed the beach community on the banks of Britannia Creek. Thirty-seven people died, and fifteen more were injured.

But the people soldiered on, overcoming to hard times to forge a proud community of people who shared, laughed and loved.

"There was at least 100 sets of parents for every kid," said John Billwiller, a resident from 1946-1957. "Everybody knew you so you didn't try to get away with anything. And there were definitely no class boundaries - everybody was accepted and welcome."

Until 1958, the community enjoyed and thrived in relative seclusion. It was then, with the completion of the Squamish highway, that Britannia began to change. Community life could not compete with outside attractions, and the Mount Sheer Townsite became emptied. To cut costs, all mine operations were moved to the Beach, and the Britannia Mining and Smelting Co. Ltd. was reduced to just seven employees.

In 1974 the mine closed for good- resulting in the demise of the community. Before long, the entire Mount Sheer townsite was reduced to nothing more than empty buildings. Now, although the mining village is just a mark in the history of time, there are still oceans full of memories left in the minds of former residents.

"It was just like being on holy ground,' said Pruden-Wells of her visit to the old townsite. "There was very little left but just to be there was very special."

The five-member Britannia Reunion 2004 organizing committee spent 18 months planning and preparing for the historical event.

"We wanted to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the mine," said committee chair Marilyn Robb, "and it's important that we stay connected, stay in touch and gather together. A lot of people were able to reconnect and re-live old memories and I'd like to think that many new memories were made this weekend. It was nice to see a lot of old friends because we don't know when we'll get together again."