From Shawnigan Lake Village via Renfrew Road, it is eight miles to Burnt Bridge on the Koksilah River, and from there to the lost Silver Mine is another seven miles. But even the half-dozen or so old-timer hunters who survive and knew this place in its palmy hunting days would be nonplussed to find the mine, for the trees have been cut down and hauled away, the forest littered with debris and criss-crossed with roads; and the Old Sliver Mine trail obliterated.
The Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway was being constructed in that wonderful year of 1885. There was one stretch along the south bank of the Koksilah River that was particularly troublesome. The route chosen by the surveyors followed the gentle curves of the river, but ran along the top of a shale bluff that stood over 40 feet above the stream bed.
For months the gangs of Chinese laborers picked at the shale while local settlers and their horse teams earned a few dollars by scooping up the loose rock and spreading it out in the roadbed leading into Cowichan Valley. Bill Irvine was on the survey gang, and when the day’s work was done he spent the long summer evenings prospecting. When his tin plate had been mopped clean he would take a rusty gold pan out of his bed roll and pan the gravel bars of the Koksilah River.
He didn’t have far to go. Standing at the edge of the right of way Irvine could look down a few yards into the placid Koksilah, where there might be undiscovered gold deposits to line the pockets of a young man dependent on $2.26 per day from the firm of Bell, Larkin and Paterson, which had contracted to build the E and N Railway.
That particular stretch of the river is now known as Bright Angel Park. Only a few summer evenings were required to convince Bill Irvine that this part of Koksilah River was barren. Thereafter he went futher afield, until one evening when darkness was closing in he clawed his way along the river bank and almost fell into an opening. It was almost dark outside, black as coal inside. Irvine felt around and touched walls of chiseled stone and smelled the still air of age-old decay. At that time all he knew was that he had found something and that within 24 hours he would know what it was.
The next day seemed to be longer than most, but it finally ended. Local teamsters unhitched their sweating horses and jangled down the grade to Cowichan. The Chinese laborers trudged off to their flimsy shelters and filled their bowls with hot rice. Bill Irvine impatiently gulped down his bacon and beans and headed into the wilderness. This time he took a coal oil lantern and a block of wooden matches waxed into a waterproof block.
Plenty of daylight remained when Irvine arrived at the tunnel entrance. The opening was small, not much bigger than the burrow of an animal. He fired up the lantern and crawled once more into the tunnel. Within a few feet he could stand upright and look around. The tunnel was square-cut and the tools that had carved out this opening were scattered around his feet. These were strange looking implements, and obviously they were very old because the handles had turned to dust. At the end of the tunnel was a broad seam of ore, pearl grey in color, that Bill believed was silver.
Shortly thereafter the railway job came to an end. Bill Irvine married and became the father of a son. Times were hard and he often dreamed of his silver mine until the year 1898 brought another dream. The Klondike gold rash attracted many restless individuals in the search for gold, and Bill Irvine was a natural victim. He simply exchanged a dram of a lost silver mine for the prospect of unlimited gold, but he found no treasure and found his way back to Victoria poorer than when he left.
Ten years later, according to the Cowichan Leader of May, 1908, Bill Irvine arrived in Duncan accompanied by his son, then a young man, and told the reporter that he was going to find and stake a lost silver mine on the Koksilah River and become wealthy.
However, when Irvine attempted to find the mine, he noticed the the country changed, and landslides along the river bank had likely hidden the mines entrance. Yet, in trying to relate the lost mine story to reality a problem emerges. According to Bill Irvine’s tale the tools he found showed the effects of at least a century of decay. Who, then mined silver in the Koksilah Valley prior to 1785? The Spanish explorers, as far as we know merely skirted the edge of this unknown land.
Perhaps another race pre-dated -the Spaniards. A Nitinat Indian legend tells of alien men who came over the sea to enslave the Nit-Nat people and force them to work on the building of ships. At night the Indians were imprisoned in cages until one of them found a way to open the door from the inside. He then unlocked the other cages and the entire work-force exterminated the master race. The legend relates that one ship put out to sea and its crew escaped the massacre.
Unfinished vessels were burned and none of their kind ever returned to our shores. This is only a legend, placed in the vague “long ago,” but legends are said to be based on fact. On the east coast of Vancouver Island and closer to Koksilah is the puzzle of the gigantic fig trees growing on Shingle Point of Valdes Island. Its age is estimated variously between 200 and 300 years, it has astonished countless boaters who have “discovered” it while cruising the Gulf Islands.
In 1960, newspapers carried the story of a man who took a short-cut in failing light and stumbled down a flight of steps into a cavern in the Sooke hills. Foul weather and poor visibility ruined an all-out modem effort to re-discover the cavern, but a lingering doubt was germinated. Do we really know what happened all those years ago. Who chiseled out the steps into a cave within a few miles of Victoria and for what purpose? Could this activity be related to Bill Irvine’s discovery on the Koksilah?
In the immediate area where Bill Irvine toiled to make a rail-bed the bedrock is shale or puddingstone, which geologists call conglomerate. This is the residue of an ancient seabed, without much prospect of mineral wealth. Further upstream on the Koksilah, more than 10 miles away a volcanic formation is thrust to the surface. This cooled lava may conceal a fortune in silver such as Irvine described.
A local oldster speculates that Irvine junior was directed to go through the motions of probing the hopeless areas of sandstone and shale while Irvine senior ranged southward to examine the real location of the lost mine without being observed. Whatever the facts of this mystery, it appears that there is little chance the lost silver mine will ever be discovered.