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The Lost Mines of Brownsville Hill

March 18, 2014

Somewhere on the heights above Brown’s landing, not far along the Yale road, is the long lost shaft of an old coal mine.
Discoveries made in the 1890’s suggested that extensive coal deposits lay buried in the hill only waiting to be exploited.

Was the future of Brownsville to be a site of rich mines and industry? What became of the shafts drilled by miners from Nanaimo who were so encouraged with results that they bought land here? How much coal is there now? Or was it all so much hype to inflate property values?

The first flush of discovery – a monster vein

The story began in March 1890 when Brownsville farmer and Justice of the Peace John W Stein entered the offices of the Columbian newspaper at New Westminster, unwrapped a package and set down on the editor’s desk a 20-pound lump of coal.
We pick up the story as written by the astonished editor.


Coal At Brownsville
An Immense Vein of Lignite Discovered
Within a Mile of New Westminster

  What may prove one of the most valuable discoveries every made in this district was struck at Brownsville yesterday in the shape of a monster vein of lignite.
The find was made on the property of Mr. J. W. Stein, on the brow of the hill quite near the Yale road.
Mr Stein brought a large piece of the lignite to The Columbian office, where it can be seen by anyone who may take the trouble to call.
It is a piece of the cropping, and weighs some 20 lbs.
When dry it burns freely, but of course is not a marketable article.
Mr Stein has developed the vein to the depth of six feet, but has not struck bottom yet.
He will cut into the mass next week, and hopes to develop an excellent quality of marketable coal.
Miners who have seen the sample feel confident that good coal will be found beneath the croppings, but this is a matter which can only be proved by development.
The location of the strike is only a mile from Westminster, and consequently if the discovery proves valuable this city will reap benefits undreamed of a week ago.
It is no secret that Mr Bowman, of the geological survey, found excellent prospects of coal near Westminster last year, and this may be an outcropping of the same vein.
The Royal City may yet become an active competitor of Nanaimo in supplying the coast with black diamonds.

Black diamonds? Was this to be the future of verdant Brownsville?

Mines 1931 billboard for BC industry coal


Index to pride

Word about the find spread fast, arousing interest near and far.  In April the Surrey correspondent of the Columbian wrote:

"I am informed that one of our neighbors has discovered coal on his property and is considerably elated about it."

Embarrassed by the reference, Stein responded with a letter to the newspaper, distancing himself from any pride of future riches.

"However, should it prove to be the index to a valuable coal field, I would be glad, both for myself and others. I would not object to a good income from such a source, and would be glad to see Westminster and its surroundings benefit by ten thousand times more valuable resources of profit than this would be, were it to exceed even much the most sanguine hopes expressed by friends on the subject."

For the complete text of the letter, and more about JW Stein, please see earlier post.

Money on the table

Reports of the mines drifted in and out of the news in the early 1890s as developments occurred.
In 1891 John Douglas, who had a ranch 3 miles out on the Yale road, sunk a deep exploratory shaft into the hill.


"Mr.John Douglas had a tunnel run 200 feet into the hill side for the purpose of prospecting, but though indications continued of an encouraging nature,  he dropped the scheme in the fall."

By the beginning of the year 1892 it appeared a mine was in the offing.

"Next week a meeting of the property holders of South Westminster will be called to consider the advisability of prospecting for coal on their land. Old coal miners have always maintained that the indications on the south side of the river are most favorable for coal. . Several experienced miners from Nanaimo have examined the tunnel and the ground generally and have come to the conclusion that coal can be found."

The property owners proposed getting in a diamond drill and agreed to split the cost of exploratory shafts. There would be a large upside to any favorable results, and all were confident coal would be found. The Nanaimo men had already purchased land in the vicinity of the projected mines.

At a bound

Across the river, in  the smoke filled saloons of a city that ever since its founding had seen its fortunes ebb and flow with "news from the mines," men were once again daring to dream big.


"Should it be definitely decided to go ahead with the scheme, Westminster may find itself the center of a coal mining district, which with the natural advantages already possessed by the Royal City, would, at a bound, place it at the head of the cities of the Province."

In March the South Westminster coal company was formed under the direction of TJ Trapp, TF Fisher and FC Turner. Board members included JW McColl, William Manson, John Douglas and John William Stein.
Manson, Douglas and Stein were local farmers. Trapp had been involved in developing the Liverpool townsite, and JW McColl similarly interested in South Westminster real estate development.
At the next meeting of the board a tender was awarded for sinking a 5 foot by 7 foot shaft to a depth of 60 feet.


"The first shovelful of earth, of what may prove to be one of the most important enterprises ever undertaken in this vicinity, will be turned."

In August word was put out that a diamond drill would begin developing the coal company’s shaft on the Stein property at the base of the hill on Yale road.

What became of this development we don’t know, having lost the thread. However in late spring of 1893 coal shafts were once again making headlines.

"John Douglas discovered a small outcropping of bituminous coal on his place near Brownsville a few days ago, and begins work tomorrow to develop it."

Bituminous coal is of superior quality to lignite, proving of even greater value.

Sunk without a trace

So far as we know, no mine was ever worked at Brownsville to a marketable level of success.
The principle owners of the Brownsville mines have taken their knowledge of the local coal deposits to the grave.
John W Stein left the district, ending up a thousand miles from his family, a recluse in the remote Bella Coola Valley where he died in 1906.
William Manson experienced setbacks in real estate development and returned to Vancouver Island where he passed away in 1927.
John Douglas, who discovered bituminous coal on his property at the site of the present day Surrey city center, disappeared from the public record, his whereabouts unknown.
In this age the location of the shafts sunk for up to 200 feet into the hillside, and perhaps more extensive tunnels,  are lost in the mists of time, waiting to be rediscovered.

Related matter – The South Port Mann Bog

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