Visitors entering the Emory Creek Provincial Campground on the Fraser River between Hope and Yale receive a leaflet telling them: “As no trace of the town, or the many attempts at gold mining remain, one must try to imagine all of the activities that took place here over the past century.”Ironically, near the entrance to the campground and its display of historical pictures and information, the remains of a large water diversion ditch are quite visible. It is one of many significant traces of gold mining in the Emory Creek area. Closer examination reveals ditches between the campsites themselves and adjacent to trails leading to towards Emory Creek. Less visible artifacts of mining are the effects of the repeated damming and diverting of Emory Creek on fish populations, the remnants of the thousands of pounds of mercury also used in the gold mining process, and the scarring of the bottom of the Fraser River by dredges.
Emory Creek was a good place to start a study of the environmental history of the Fraser River gold rush. Mining began there in 1858 and continued intermittently well into the twentieth century. After nearby Hill’s Bar, Emory Bar was the second highest producing bar on the Fraser River. Not only was there plentiful gold but the high flow rate of Emory Creek meant an abundant clean water supply which meant more material could be washed with the heavier gold left behind in the rifles of sluice boxes and the bottom of rockers. Miners at Emory Creek formed ditching companies and began diverting water to supply their sluice boxes and by 1859 at least two of the thirty major water diversion ditches in use between Hope and Yale were at Emory Creek.
Traces of these ditches remain and they can be followed for approximately three kilometers north, and four kilometers south of the junction of Emory Creek and the Fraser River. Flumes made of wood were tapped into the ditches at regular intervals to supply as many as eighty sluice boxes, each operated by four to five men. Working together allowed them to move about twenty yards of gravel and clay per day, which would have required approximately one hundred gallons of water per minute.
At Emory Creek this type of mining as well as small scale placer mining continued intermittently into the twentieth century with each successive operation further disturbing the flow of Emory Creek and washing away more of the natural landscape. In the late nineteenth century, Chinese people in “great numbers” worked the ground on several gravel bars between Hope and Lytton. In 1893 a hydraulic mine operated briefly on Prince Albert Flat, just north of Emory Creek. Hydraulic mining requires a much greater supply of water and for this the north ditch was expanded. The company spent $8,000 on the ditch, steel pipes, and a flume that was over one mile long, three feet deep, and capable of moving 3500 inches of water, or eighty-eight cubic feet of water per second. This water was concentrated into a narrow nozzle and entire hillsides and benches were washed down hill into one giant sluice box.
After restoring and shoring up the ditches, during the Depression of the 1930s and in the late 1940s, the province operated placer mining training camps at Emory Bar. Although placer mining eventually faded, residents of Emory Creek continued to use the ditches for a fresh water supply and for irrigation. When a campground was established in the 1950s the flumes were rebuilt on the south side of Emory creek to supply an ornamental stream, a vegetable garden, a swimming pool and fresh water for a store.
Beginning in 1895, floating dredges operated extensively on the Fraser River around Emory Bar and Hill’s Bar. These dredges scarred the bottom of the river, processing approximately 3500 hundreds of yards of river gravel every twenty-four hours. This greatly affected fish habitat and caused untold amounts of damage to the world’s most prolific salmon run.
Both small and large scale mining operations used mercury in progressively larger amounts to amalgamate fine gold. While only a few ounces were used in a gold pan, placer miners used hundreds of pounds in their sluice boxes, dredge tables covering up to ten thousand square feet could be charged with as much as 3,000 pounds of mercury. Each operation that used mercury potentially lost increasing amounts of it, up to twenty five percent on old and leaky large sluices. Although more research is needed to ascertain how much of this mercury was lost, several individuals in the Emory Creek area report that at low water one need only dig down three to four feet in the gravel of many of the abandoned gold mining bars on the Fraser to find mercury. Stó:lô elder Clem Seymour noted that sturgeon, which are bottom feeders and burrow into the mud to hibernate over winter, are probably the most affected by the mercury. The once plentiful sturgeon is at an all time low and fishing for them is banned.
The mercury in the gravel bars, benches and mud of the Fraser River and in nearby creeks will not go away any time in the foreseeable future. The millions of tons of soil and gravel washed from the gravel bars and benches of the Fraser through sluice boxes are gone forever. Salmon and sturgeon populations have been irrevocably damaged by mining practices, particularly dredges, which greatly disturbed fish pathways and potentially left behind thousands of pounds of mercury. All of these things have severely affected the ability of the Stó:lô to make a living on their limited land base which is often located far from the strategic locations selected by their ancestors.
A more intense scrutiny of Emory Creek and other creeks would undoubtedly yield more valuable results, and serve everyone who calls this area their home and wants a more sustainable future. The Fraser River Valley’s relatively constricted environment makes it vulnerable, and the degree to which its rich resources have been assaulted over the past century and a half make it worthy of further inquiry.
As placer mining and placer miners continue their quest for gold, it is imperative that we all do our part in protecting and preserving our natural heritage.