To the people of British Columbia’s Boundary Country he was known as “Volcanic” Brown; to those of the Similkameen he was “Sunset” Brown. Prospector, herbalist, “founder” of Volcanic City — and killer— Robert Allan Brown became a living legend. The air of mystery which swirled about him throughout his lifetime remains to this day, a veil made all the more tantalizing by his disappearance and possible discovery of the province’s most sought-after lost mine.
A 50-year-old account describes the early part of Brown’s incredible career. He prospected for gold in Nova Scotia. He led 15,000 lumberjacks in a strike in the woods of Ontario, and in two weeks obtained from their employers satisfaction of their demands. He prospected the Lake of the Woods in Ontario and made a rich strike. Then he prospected the Idaho, but returned to Canada to follow the CPR on its trek to the Pacific, prospecting the country on both sides of the line. The Cariboo “rush” had been followed by gold discoveries in the Big Bend of the Columbia, 60 miles above Revelstoke.
With 500 others Brown headed for Big Bend. Not liking what he saw there he dismissed the region’s potential as a rich gold producer. Few listened to him; some rudely dubbed him crazy. Nonplussed, he carved a dugout canoe from a cedar log and drifted down-river to Washington, where he prospected and trapped until he turned up in the Boundary Country. There, eight miles north of Grand Forks, he saw a big red-capped mountain, which he recognized as being capped with the ‘iron hat’ of the miner. He located there his first claim in 1885, and called it the Volcanic.
Ever the optimist, he founded Volcanic City and reserved half of it as a site for the “hundreds of smelters” which, he declared, would be needed to treat the ore. No fewer than six railways would serve the metropolis of Volcanic City and transport the mountain’s treasure of gold, silver and copper. With his anticipated millions, Brown proposed to eliminate poverty by sharing his wealth with the masses, and to eliminate banks and churches. (Well-known as a herbalist, Brown once claimed to have a cure for tuberculosis.)
Despite his grand dreams, few of those in the mining profession questioned Brown’s judgement. When he announced his discovery of the rich mountain, his name spread far and wide. An American company bonded (Brown’s property). The Oliver Mining & Smelting Co. was organized with a capital of $20,000,000. All looked favorable for a realization of Brown’s plans and dreams. Much to his disappointment. Volcanic Mountain did not live up to his expectations. Worse, resulting litigation cost him $65,000. And Volcanic City, proposed Boundary metropolis with its smelters and railways, never even made it to the drawing board. Only Brown’s hard-won tunnel, which reached all of 800 feet into the heart of the mountain, showed for his dreams.
He also had become involved in the Sunset Mine on Copper Mountain, which, unlike the Volcanic, was the end of the rainbow for Brown. He easily sold shares by the thousands to an eager buying public, including his own employees. Ironically, he was close to the mark. Copper Mountain became one of the greatest Canadian copper producers. However, continuing legal troubles drained his finances and he sold out for a fraction of the Sunset’s eventual worth. Nevertheless, Brown must have been reasonably content, as he celebrated by ordering a specially-made set of false teeth — of almost solid gold.
In May 1924 the 79-year-old prospector made headlines with his .30.30 Winchester by shooting to death a First World War veteran, who was in the act of breaking into Brown’s cabin to attack his stepchildren, who had sought refuge there. Brown fired in the belief that he was defending them from certain death. A jury agreed and ruled justifiable homicide.
Seven years after, Brown addressed a meeting of the Kettle Valley and South Okanagan Pioneers’ Society at Princeton, and spoke of yet another momentous strike. A mountain of aluminum, the metal of the future. In only half a century, he said, the forests would be depleted and scientists would have to turn to another building material, the answer Brown believed ,was aluminum, and the 1980’s would be the “aluminum age.”
By this time he had turned his eyes westward. Of the hundreds who have succumbed to the legend of Indian murderer Slumach’s lost gold mine, Volcanic Brown was the most colorful. Once, his tongue loosened by rum, he told some hunters that, years before, he had nursed an Indian woman who turned out to be the notorious Slumach’s granddaughter. In gratitude she had told him the location of the Lost Creek mine.
Every year after, he ventured to the headwaters of Pitt River. Despite his advancing years he survived the wilds each year and always returned with gold. His quest almost cost him his life in the fall of 1926 when, caught in a blizzard, his feet were frozen and he had to amputate his gangrenous toes with a pocketknife. Each year, about mid-September, he appeared at the government fish hatchery situated at the head of Pitt Lake on his way out of the mountains. But, in November 1931, the 86-year old prospector did not show. When weeks passed, and the season advanced, provincial police Constable Eugene Murphy, Game Warden George Stevenson and brothers Roy and Bill McMartin, trappers, formed a search party.
A quarter of a century after, the late George Stevenson said the search for Brown was the toughest he ever undertook. In 27 days he lost 13 pounds, hiking through subarctic blizzards over glaciers that would have killed any but the toughest, most experienced men. Finally, on the edge of Stave Glacier, Stevenson and Roy McMartin found Brown’s last camp. Only a collapsed pup tent, a single-barrelled shotgun, cooking utensils, a notebook (containing a few scribbled herbal remedies), and a jar containing 11 ounces of coarse gold remained. There was no sign of Brown.
To this day, no clue as to Brown’s fate has been found. It is believed that he perished of starvation, exposure or a fall. Half a century after, the search for the Lost Creek Mine goes on, and Volcanic Brown’s solution to Slumach’s secret if, in fact, his claim had any connection with that of the murderer, remains another tantalizing mystery.