Putting the Ghost back into the Ghost Towns of the West Kootenay
words :: Feet Banks
photography :: Mark Gribbon
“These busses here?” The old man took one hand from his pocket and scratched his chin. “Decomissioned, from Vancouver… All of these busses killed people.”
The old man wasn’t actually that old, in his fifties maybe, but he had that Scooby Doo vibe—slow, purposeful movements, large eyebrows, a worn-out plaid jacket with a name that read ‘Crowe’ hand-stitched on the chest. Plus, he’d just sort of materialized out of nowhere.
Crowe explained that busses involved in fatal accidents, usually a head on collision, are repaired and put back on their routes. “But folks get superstitious. Their minds play tricks. Once people refuse to ride a bus you gotta store it somewhere.”
Crowe raised his arm in a sweeping gesture to the dozen identical city busses half buried in snow and looking very out of place surrounded by forest and mountains. “These babies are the first generation after the streetcar, old enough that eventually some historical society will want one. We keep ‘em until then.”
“Can we build a jump over one of them?” asked Eric Greene. We had already started shoveling a landing but it seemed polite to ask.
“Just don’t scratch the paint.” Crowe approached our half-built take-off and stopped. “You picked a good one, number 15 here has quite the history—great blizzard of ’64 this bus slid through an entire intersection and crushed a traffic cop up against a bread truck. Just the wrong place, wrong time—a tragic accident, y’know?”
A cold wind picked up, dragging Crowe’s breath from his mouth as he spoke. “Almost no damage to the bus and they put ‘em both back on the road—vehicle and operator. Different route mind you, but the driver never missed a day. Back in those days that’s how people worked, that’s just how it was.”
Crowe dug in his coat for a smoke, we hoped it was a smoke. To our west the last glow of daylight was dissolving over the jagged ridges of the Valhalla mountains. He lit up, took a drag, and continued.
“A week later, late one night a the University transfer loop a group of kids get on and the bus doesn’t move. They yell, shout…Let’s go!…Nothing. Finally someone goes up front and notices all the blood—suicide, blew his face right off but his hat had slid down so they missed it on the way in. One of the kids’ parents tried suing the city, people said the bus was cursed, and now here she is…number 19, end of the line.”
Eric stopped shoveling, mulled the story over. At 28 he’d already surfed and snowboarded all over the world, finished university, and spent a summer in the arctic circle, but this would be the first time he’d ever jibbing a suicide bus at sundown in a 100-year-old ghost town.
“How do you know all this stuff,” he asked as Crowe reached up to scrape frost from glass over the faded route sign.
“I live here and I’m the head of the historical society. Knowin’s my job.”
Aside from keeping the road plowed there didn’t seem much else required of him. The “town” consisted mainly of derelict buildings and decayed trucks. And murder busses.
“You ever see a ghost up here?”
“Nooooo,” the old man drew it out as he shook his head a few times. Then he smiled. “Some people say they have, but not me. I don’t have that kind of an imagination.”
In theory, the trip was ass-backwards from the start—venturing into British Columbia’s fabled Kootenay mountains for a jib trip is like going to Whistler to get sober. But with the worst avalanche season in over 20 years plaguing all of BC and snot-like snow conditions on the west coast, our home turf in Whistler was starting to resemble a ghost town itself so photographer Mark Gribbon decided to take things one step further.
“Let’s go find some abandoned mines and real ghost towns and jib the shit out of them.”
“And hunt for ghosts?” Some people are scared of sharks, or obsessed with Bigfoot. I don’t like ghosts, but in that i-want-to-see-one-but-i-don’t kinda way.
“Don’t crap in your snowpants,” Gribbon said. Then he arranged for some athletes, I downloaded the Ghostbusters theme song, and in less than 18 hours we were snaking east across BC, heading for the silvery Slocan, a legendary mining zone where millions of dollars of precious metals had ben wrenched from the earth in the last century, with countless people dying in the process.
“Shit, we should brought a Ouija board.” I was more excited about the paranormal possibilities than three days of building transitions.
“No good, it doesn’t work with your mitts on.” Gribbon was nothing if not practical.
“What about an electromagnetic field reader? They sell ‘em at Canadian Tire.” I’d seen the device on those never-conclusive ghost hunting shows.
“Uh-uh. These old mines still have all kinds of lead and zinc and shit in the ground. One of those cheapo versions would be all out of whack.” Gribbon had done all his research. “Don’t stress, maybe we’ll get lucky and pick one up on the avalanche transceivers.”
It didn’t seem scientifically plausible, but I didn’t care. “Did you know that ghosts spy on you when you masturbate?”
Gribbon said that did know that. Which was strange because I had made it up, but at the same time… totally possible. The nine-hour drive took eleven, but we got to the Koots before any of the riders.
I awake just after 4 a.m to the sound of hollow footsteps and a dragging sound outside our New Denver hotel room. GHOST! I yanked back the curtains to reveal Justin Van Der Poelen lugging his board bag up the wheelchair ramp. VDP had been partying for 30 hours at an urban rail contest in Vancouver before starting his drive east. Somehow he made it, and even managed three hours of sleep before we pulled him out of bed and shovel something called the Viking Breakfast (two eggs, two toasts, two pancakes, hashbrowns and bacon) into his mouth. A couple hours later he’s scurrying up the side of a rickety wooden building with hopes of slashing a pillow of snow hanging precariously over the edge of the roof.
“Think it will collapse?” VDP shouts down from after mantling over the corniced edge.
“You mean the snow?” Gribbon replies, “or the entire roof?”
“Hey Shandy, what’s this zone called?” I ask, ignoring the precarious roof situation in favour of a dog-eared library book on Kootenay history.
“This is the Noble Five mine,” Shandy Campos says, “I think this is the old concentrator.”
Shandy is a born-and-bred Kootenay boy who spent a little time in Whistler and Pemberton, fearlessly dropping pillow lines until the snowboard world took notice. Then he ditched the scene, moved back home part-time and is currently acting as our location liason through his company, B.C. Action Adventures. Shandy knows what mines had survived the decades of heavy winters and where the best jibs are, but says we are on our own when it comes to ghosts.
Above the concentrator, the remnants of two old tram towers cling to the mountainside like antique chairlift towers—trams were the fastest method of getting ore down the slopes. My book states that Noble Five was a rich silver-lead mine, but also a dangerous one—tunnel cave-ins were not uncommon. In the Koots, however, it’s not just the tunnels you have to worry about, sometimes the whole mountain comes down on you.
Each winter, avalanches would pummel down around Noble Five, carrying off men, horses, and sometimes buildings. Many poor souls had been swept away just a few dozen metres from where VPD pondered the first mine-jib of our trip, including, on Christmas eve 1898, four Italians and Tommy Thomas. Thomas was due to return home to Wales the next morning and the five men were heading to his send-off party when the slide brushed them off the mountain and into an icy grave.
For decades afterwards, parents would use the ghost of old Tommy Thomas to entice their children to bed on Christmas Eve—forget Santa and his naughty list, time for bed or Tommy Thomas will get you with his pickaxe.
If Tommy was still haunting, over 100 years later, I had high hopes he’d be hanging around the Noble Five concentrator—it was the last building still standing.
Up on the roof, VDP slides in, cranks what would end up being the only turn of the day, drops to the ground, and stomps it. The roof snow holds firm.
“We’ll for sure see some ghostly remains today,” Shandy shouts from a reclined position on his snowmobile, “’cause we’re killing it.”
These days, when big ski brands are making snowboards and you can buy mountain culture in any mall (right next to the Mountain Dew), it’s really only the partying lifestyle that separates pro-snowboarders from the rest of the jocks. The travel and the camaraderie and the searching for snow with your buds is all very important but what gets noticed most by the mainstream, what’s “cool,” is that snowboarders party harder than almost any other productive faction of society.
The story goes, residents of nearby Zincton, which had no RCMP, used to hang thieves and claim jumpers from a train trellis over a boggy swamp. Apparently, the good citizens of Zincton would leave these undesirables hung up overnight and when the train rolled past in the morning its huge steel wheels would sever the ropes and drop the corpses into the swamp, where the ferrets and muskrat would drag the pieces off to their various holes and burrows, thus eliminating the evidence.
But we’re all a bunch of pussies compared to the old-time miners. The boomtowns of the Silvery Slocan were wild, frontier establishments with too much money and not enough law. In mid-1897 the town of Sandon, B.C. had 1500 residents and 29 saloons. That’s one bar for every 50 men-women-and-children. They also had two breweries (one, the New Yok Brewery, was pumping out 30 barrels a day) and a 50-building red light district with over 100 resident whores. Each payroll the miners would bring over $25,000 cash (that’s like a million bucks in today’s money) into town and blow it all on yellow whiskey, green card tables, and red painted ladies. The miners worked slave-like hours raising silver, zinc, and lead from the hills all week, but in town, on the weekends, they simply raised hell.
We would have liked to rise to the challenge, to party like it was 1899, but New Denver, our closest bit of civilization, is the kind of place where the liquor outlet is closed on Mondays and the town’s lone pub stops serving food at 8 p.m. Plus, we needed to be in the hills for witching hour, when supernatural beings are at their most powerful (and late light makes good photographs), so we relied on stale breadsticks and pepperoni for the energy required to build jumps and hunt ghosts well into the darkness. Luckily, we had remembered to stock up on beer, and while that helped the crew (Greener, Justin Davies, and Kamloops-born ripper Helen Schettini had arrived and joined the fun) jib a train, an antique gas pump, and something called an Air Caboose, it didn’t seem to entice the ghosts of dead miners down from the hills. They probably didn’t want to waste their time—we only had a two-four of beer and no whores at all. Lightweights by any metric.
With such a high concentration of silver, liquor, and lonely miners, conflict was inevitable in the Silvery Slocan. And since lawmen were rare as hen’s teeth, vigilante justice reigned. Out below the Lucky Jim Mine, which remained active until the 1950s and produced millions of dollars worth of silver, we find a spot on the old K&S railway called the Hanging Bridge.
Zincton has long since disappeared and all that remains of the infamous local murdering spot are a few moldy concrete pillars and a pretty sweet looking, snow covered landing. Helen Schettini, a soft-spoken half-pipe specialist turned all-terrain ripper on her first road trip with this crew, won first crack at The Hanging Bridge and stomped that virgin landing with a little vigilante justice of her own. No ghosts to be found but chances are the ferrets and muskrats were impressed (do they hibernate though? My book didn’t say).
Lucy and Elias were lovers, engaged to be married. He worked in the Lucky Jim Mine and she was a schoolteacher in nearby Bear Lake City. One warm night in August 1901 they “borrowed” a creaky rowboat from the docks, floated out onto the lake, and were never seen again. The next day the boat washed up on shore with no oars and a foot-sized hole in the bottom.
He, at least, should have made it, everyone in town agreed. Elias was known as a strong swimmer and Bear Lake at that time of year was plenty warm. No one could figure it out—even if he’d perished helping his lover, after a week the bodies should have filled with gas from the decomposing flesh and risen to the surface. They never did.
Later that summer a child disappeared while playing on the beach. A decade later an ice fisherman went out one morning and never came home, his gear and three fish later discovered less than a half mile from his home. Strange sounds in the ice and creepy occurances marked the next several decades.
Death and mystery breed superstition. Even to this day, cross country skiers will never shout out while on the lake for fear of attracting the ghouls, and Bear Lake residents carve ice ghosts each winter. These frozen monuments catch the light of the setting winter sun and are believed to help keep the locals safe.
Justin Davies, riding straight outta Pemberton, believed it would be OK to jib these time-honoured monuments. He had been adamant the whole trip that he was no longer a snowboarder.
“I’m a heavy equipment operator,” he proclaimed, “and I’m not afraid of nothin’.”
It’s true, Davies operates an excavator all summer and races dirt-track stock cars for fun, but he also rides and snowmobiles six days a week al winter and is known for having one of the cleanest frontside 360s in Canada. As for his supposed immunity to fear…he did have the balls to mess with Elias and Lucy.
“It’s not like I’m gonna knock them over or anything,” Davies shouted over the maybe-too-loud rumbling of Helen’s tow-in sled. “And we’ll be long gone before it gets dark.”
We built a jump, he did it, and we left—no harm, no foul, no ghosts. “I kept getting this feeling though,” Davies said once we got back to the trucks, “that something was following me…”
Gribbon and I leaned in. Had we finally found our ghost of the Silvery Slocan?
“Then I remembered…I’m Goofy.”
(Editor’s Note: this story was originally published in Snowboard Canada magazine. For readers not hip to the lingo of the sport, this means Justin rides with his right foot forward, opposite or backwards of the more common “regular” stance.)
Our crew of jibbing ghostbusters—Gribbon, Schettini,Greene, VPD—sat drinking Jack Daniels in the hot tub. We’d missed the restaurant again (by hours) but Schettini had rooted through our stale groceries and pulled together something pretty damn close to nachos. I swilled whiskey and pondered the trip.
We’d come to one of B.C.’s premiere mountain zones, where silver boomtowns have been replaced by heli and catboarding operations that now mine powder turns on empty slopes. And yet I hadn’t even strapped into a board.
Certainly, the cookie cutter shred narrative was still applicable—we came, we ripped, it was sick bro. But we’d also jibbed a bit of history and nosepressed the portal to the spirit world, even if we hadn’t been able to bring anything back from the other side.
I was asking Gribbon the chances of a ghost showing up in one of the photos when Helen spat out her whiskey and screamed—a short high-pitched yelp of surprise dripped fear. From where Gribbon and I sat we could tell there was something behind us, Greener’s eyes were wide and the blood had drained from VDP’s face. A ghost at last! I spun around.
Justin Davies stood outside the change room with two beers in each hand and wearing only a smile.
“Hey guys,” he spoke calmly, cheerfully. “You think it’s ok to wear underwear in the hot tub?”
“Sweet, I’ll go put some on.”
Originally published in Snowboard Canada Mag in the fall of 2009, this was one of Gribbon’s and my first big stories. Probably the first time any magazine had given us travel budget to actually make our trip idea come to life. Re-typing it for Pie Quarterly, (I had long since lost the original file and had to copy the printed hard copy) I suddenly remembered that all the ghost stories in this piece are total bullshit. Not even local legend, just totally fabricated pieces of fiction I wrote around all these real places and historical facts we discovered. I wasn’t sure if we’d be able to pass such fiction off but Gribbon remained calm. “This is LORE, Feet Banks. This is how it always starts.” No one at Snowboard Canada ever said anything, why let the truth get in the way of a good story? And who’s to say anyhow? Gribbon’s right: lore knows no boundaries.