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Searching Western Canadian Ghost Towns for Traces of Chinese Miners

Century-old records reduced them to nameless slurs, so it takes serious detective work to find the real history.

All photos by Jackie Dives

British Columbia's abandoned mining towns are full of untold stories. Sometimes you just have to dig through some racist bullshit to find them.

That's what anthropologist, historian and ghost town expert Laura Cuthbert told me—though admittedly in much politer terms—after a recent trip to Coalmont, Blakeburn and Granite City in the province's southern interior. Once mining outposts populated by thousands of people, fires, mining accidents and rail contract changes left the settlements virtually empty by 1930.

Though the official plaques say white miners "struck it rich" at Granite City in 1885, there's evidence Chinese miners were already working there for 25 years before. "The Chinese history in BC isn't properly known. It isn't in the BC Archives," she told VICE. "There were all these families we'll never really know the names of."

The mine companies aren't usually much help, Cuthbert says, as their records reflect hateful attitudes of the time. "Over the years, when I've been looking into deaths in mines, say if 40 people died, if five of them were white, it would list their full names and who their families were, and then sometimes it's just slurs for the Chinese men," she told VICE.

Cuthbert recalled coming across this at a similar abandoned open-pit mine in Quesnel Forks, where more than half the population was Chinese. "I think about that a lot—it's not just their names that are missing, it's literally nothing about them except that they're Chinese," she said. "It's kind of scary to look at."

Coalmont cemetery, where some bodies of Chinese miners have been dug out.

An example of missing grave records, lost since the 1950s

In graveyards, like in Coalmont, the bodies of Chinese miners are sometimes dug out, in some cases to send the bodies back to be buried in China. Cuthbert says Chinese mining families gave their money to scammers claiming to repatriate the bodies, only to have their relatives' remains left in a Victoria "bone shed." It takes real detective work to match unmarked graves with Vancouver benevolent society records, or if you're lucky, a newspaper obit on microfiche.

Cuthbert says not everyone is visiting these hollowed-out towns for the hidden history. Some stop in for the hunting season, or to rip around on snowmobiles, and others search for literal buried treasure. All throughout the old settlements, particularly Granite City, Cuthbert found dugout cabins. She says looters are searching for platinum, which was a discarded byproduct of gold panning at the time.

"I think every 10 or so feet is dug down a bit, you see these three and four-foot drops," says Cuthbert. "There are signs that say don't dig here, people live here." Well, not anymore.

An exclamation-heavy plaque in Granite City, a mine settlement wiped out by fire.

A one-room cabin that survived the 1923 fire.

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