The southeast corner of the province is marked by spiring mountains and dark, roving waters, with the Monashee, Purcell and Selkirk ranges bordering the region and the mighty Columbia river cutting up and down. Dotted along valley floors, on the shores of still lakes and upon stretches of single lane highway are small cities and small towns. Some serve as busy centres for residents and visitors, while others are all but forgotten. The town of Sandon is one of the latter--a motley assortment of wood and brick buildings, an old powerhouse and a handful of people who call it home.
These days, it’s often noted for housing a rather peculiar collection--one at odds with the dirt tracts and eerie wilderness of its frontier setting. For there, at the foot of towering mountains is a fleet of well-worn trolley buses. For close to two decades, they have been parked in the town. In the 80s, Vancouver, 700 kilometres away and looking to modernize
their transit system, decommissioned hundreds of Brill buses that had served the coastal city for years. While many were scrapped, some found their way to collectors and museums, while the remainder ended up in Sandon. The relics of bygone transportation, their retro coloured bodies now rusting with age, still feature the lines they serviced, with “31 Granville & Smithe” or “5 Kingsway and Slocan” shown on their destination signs.
While how the buses came to be in this Kootenay ghost town is quite interesting, as are the fantastical ideas and imagery they conjure--Brill trolleys in a town that never needed them, in a town that had been disincorporated over twenty years before their introduction in the city--the story of Sandon, British Columbia is fascinating in its own right. The origin of the town, the characters involved, the events that took place all read like gold rush folklore or prospector legend.
John Sandon, for whom Sandon was named, was a mysterious figure who had come to the area in search of silver in the 1890s. He staked a number of claims, dabbled in farming and suffered two “deaths”. In 1890, he would be presumed drowned in Kootenay Lake only to turn up days later alive and well. As if a kind of omen or forewarning, several years later the boat he was travelling in with an acquaintance would be discovered overturned in the water. The men’s bodies were never found.
Aside from the strange “ends” of its namesake, Sandon has many claims to fame. Known as "The Heart of the Silvery Slocan", it was a bustling centre in the Kootenays in its heyday with a population of roughly 5,000. Many were attracted to the silver-rich area and mines were established along the hillsides surrounding the town and throughout the Slocan Slope. Set in the valley beneath high mountains and divided by Carpenter Creek, the dramatic setting would attract miners and gamblers and ultimately see saloons, hotels, a general store and brothels lining its main street.
The town would also be the site of two railways--the K&S and the N&S, a testament to its former boomtown status. It was also the first place in the province to be fully electrified, with residents being able to obtain their own electrical service. The Silversmith Power & Light Hydroelectric Generating Station is still in operation to this day and provides green energy for the few, present citizens of Sandon and some of the surrounding area.
The years would see the decline of the town with the price of silver dropping and the onset of the first World War. By 1920, it would be officially disincorporated. During World War II, it would be the site of an internment camp for Japanese Canadians, while the Korean War would see a brief influx of miners.
In addition to external impacts, Sandon would also be threatened by near-biblical forces throughout its history. In 1900, a raging fire would sweep through the town, burning most of it to the ground. It was rebuilt, but by 1955, would nearly be wiped out again due to flooding. Sandon’s main street was actually built over Carpenter Creek, with boards serving as the road and bridging the distance between the buildings on either side. A plug at one end was the catalyst for the disaster. It’s said that beloved B.C. historian and politician, the now-deceased Bill Barlee, spent time searching for coins beneath the boardwalk, presumably believing them to have been washed underneath in the flood.
Today, the proprietors of Sandon work to preserve the incredible and, at times, surprising history of the gold rush town. Its story is, of course, unique, but also reminiscent of the many forgotten places of the province’s past. So, if you’re on your way somewhere else or simply out for a drive, consider taking a detour back in time and experience the towns of yesterday. A band of Brill buses, crumbling buildings, buried treasure--who knows what you’ll find?