Deep in Slocan Lake there is a fortune in lost silver bars.
At its peak the silver-rich country around New Denver boasted population of 12,000 men directly involved in mining operations alone, plus citizens of other occupations. The CPR, with its sternwheeler and barge system, ferried the silver ore from the mine-head to the railhead, at Slocan City.
Romantic paddle-wheelers such as the S.S. Slocan shunted their unwieldy cargo. This system worked well enough until, during a storm, a railway car laden with silver ingots was lost over the side. As the winds buffeted the barge, the car, rolling with the motion of the waves, began to advance along its rails. At the edge of the barge it crashed through the guardrails and vanished into the dark waters.
Soundings indicated that the boxcar was resting on a steep slope in less than 100 feet of water. This, however, was subject to change should currents or salvage attempts dislodge the car from its perch. Prompted by fears that the bullion might slip deeper into the murky depths, the company had professional “hard-hat” divers survey the situation. These experts assured the railway company that recovery operations should be quite straightforward.
After several reconnaissance dives the salvors decided that, rather than risk losing the car, which was lying on its side, by trying to remove its cargo, it would be best to raise the boxcar and bullion intact. All went according to plan, the divers successfully rigging the car to a barge by cables. Then, at a signal, crewmen began winching in the cables. The winches steadily drew in the slack, slowly, the cables were coiled about their drums aboard the salvage barge. Finally, a swirling of green water indicated that the boxcar was just inches from the surface.
Moments later, as the salvors cheered, the bullion car broke the surface. Water and mud poured from its undercarriage as it swayed beneath the derrick. The victory cheers turned to cries of dismay when, as they were manoeuvring a second barge under the car, a cable, stretched to its breaking point, let go with a loud crack. The boxcar plunged onto the barge’s bow, ruptured, then vanished in a swirl of white foam. When divers again descended to the Slocan’s muddy bottom they reported that the boxcar, now broken in half, much of its cargo undoubtedly buried in the silt, had come to rest at a greater depth than before.
Not until 30 years after, during the Depression, did another diving firm, also from Vancouver, make a serious attempt to salvage the lost bullion. For the second time in three decades a diver, ungainly in hardhat, air hose and suit, clambered over the side of a barge and vanished beneath the lake’s cold surface.
Armed with explicit instructions as to the boxcar’s location, he found it with little difficulty, and apparently undisturbed. After gingerly exploring its ghostly remains the diver concluded that the silver, rather than having been split in two, remained intact, in one-half of the car.
His hunch proved correct when, groping through the silt, the diver felt a jumble of solid objects. Working blindly in the murk, he dragged one of the lumps from its location and secured it to a hawser. At his signal the invisible object glided upward. Minutes after, his surface crew jubilantly reported that it was a silver ingot.
Encouraged, the diver proceeded to remove one bar after another, relying upon his sense of touch to find the unseen treasure. Making his difficult task almost impossible was the overwhelming knowledge that the shattered freight car could roll at any moment. Even if he escaped being crushed he knew that his lifeline could not fail to be entangled or cut. If the car should decide to continue its descent along the sloping lake bottom, he knew, he was a dead man.
It was this unnerving threat which finally ended his venture. After recovering some two dozen ingots the salvors abandoned their attempt. The bulk of the silver bullion remained at the bottom of Slocan Lake. However, others had been encouraged by their successful effort and tried their hands at recovery. All failed, despite the use of modern and expensive equipment, the dismembered boxcar having moved, and the lake bottom shifted over the years.
Early in 1971 it was reported that an attempt was to be made by another Vancouver firm to salvage Slocan Lake’s lost bullion. Fifty two-year-old mining executive Alex Semeniuk was quoted in the Canadian Financial Journal as saying that he and several partners, calling themselves “Wilde-Ventures,” were preparing to dive on the boxcar. He said that the wreck’s position had been pinpointed by a man noted for his ability with a divining rod. Underwater photographs having confirmed the diviner’s ‘X’. Mr. Semeniuk and associates went so far as to buy a barge to act as a platform for salvage operations. But Slocan Lake continues to hold its silver treasure.
A second case of lost silver parallels the Slocan story. A Victoria newspaper reported: “When the murk of the spring runoff settles in Kootenay Lake, a Sidney-area skin-diver hopes to slip quietly into the water and locate a missing trainload of silver. “Peter (Trumpet) Thornton Trump, with three diving companions, will resume the search he gave up 10 years ago for several boxcars of ore that broke loose from a CPR train in 1921 and rolled into the lake.”
The Chilliwack-born graphic artist and diver said that the railway had lost many such freight cars over the years, their silver contents presenting a tempting target for salvors. Ten years earlier, he explained, a Victoria diver named Bill Hook had almost hit the jackpot in Kootenay Lake’s cold depths: “While we were diving for our wreck, Hook was diving for another one further up the lake. He found the boxcars after two years’ search, but apparently thought they were empty. Some other divers were watching him and after he left they brought in a tug and turned the boxcar over and found two bars of silver.”
His own initial attempt had been thwarted by shortage of adequate air equipment, Thornton-Trump said.
Today the beautiful country around Slocan Lake, its famous mines long closed down, has returned to life as an agricultural and residential region that is justly touted by its residents as one of the prettiest corners of the province. Its past, rich in mining lore, has not been forgotten. Neither has its tale of lost silver that was lost, found and lost again.