Neil McDiarmid, a lawyer with his soul in British Columbia’s mining ventures, was a man with a dream. In 1951, he reorganized a company he owned and changed the name to Craigmont Mines Ltd. This was during a period of extensive mineral claim staking in the Highland Valley about thirty kilometers north of Merritt. McDiarmid knew the demand for copper was growing and improvements in mining technology suggested the mining of large, low-grade deposits could be viable.
This prompted a number of prospectors, including McDiarmid, to examine old showings of copper belts, including those on the Promontory Hills near Merritt.
In April 1955, Craigmont conducted special airborne surveys of some of its mineral claims but the results were inconclusive.
Craigmont drilled two holes but found little. Hole three hit ore. “The man supervising the drilling was boiling over with glee when he called the next morning,” according to Ron Renshaw of Mining World magazine. “He shouted over the phone: ‘Ron, I took it down to 93 metres. Gee! At that depth the core was loaded.’”
Although it turned out that the ore grade was still not sufficient to warrant a mine, excitement was high. McDiarmid, a perpetual optimist, would not quit. “We mortgaged everything we had to keep going, said his wife Lucille. “Neil would not stop and I did not want to either. He was an optimist. Thank God!”
In September, 1957, with all the McDiarmid’s hopes and all their money riding on it, hole seven was drilled to a depth of 235 metres. The hole averaged 1.91 per cent copper and 37 per cent of iron for 197 metres.
Hole seven was the clincher. Before the end of that year, Craigmont acquired a total of 155 claims, which covered 7,000 acres on the slopes of Promontory Hills.
By September of 1961, Craigmont officials were ready to throw the switch that would start the process of turning raw ore into copper concentrate for shipment to smelters in Japan and the United States.
Exploration and development to the production stage had required over one million man hours with a payroll of $2.5 million. Contractors required more than 80,000 man hours with a payroll of $2 million. The total cost of exploration and development was approximately $18 million before the mine began earning any income.
But the opening of Craigmont mine also resulted in the biggest boom in Merritt’s 50 year history. What was once a quiet ranching and logging village of 1,500 people had become a bustling community and more than doubled its population.
Craigmont was the mine that led British Columbia’s re-emergence as a major copper producing region.
Partly because of Craigmont’s success, a number of other large copper mines were developed which turned British Columbia into a significant source of copper for world markets.
During Craigmont’s lifetime, it added more than 426 million kilograms of copper to the global marketplace.
The mine grossed over $450 million in sales. Production costs included almost $112 million paid in wages to employees. Craigmont had net earnings over its two decade lifetime of $115 million and it paid shareholders $104 million in dividends. The federal and provincial governments received $74 million in direct taxes and royalties.
Approximately 5,000 people were employed by Craigmont over the years. These people contributed much to improve mining technology at Craigmont and, as a result, to improve mining technology worldwide.
Craigmont started with open pit mining but mine officials soon realized if they wanted to mine to greater depths they would have to become an underground operation. In 1965 it was decided to adopt a sub-level caving method of mining and was one of the first mines in Canada to do so. It introduced trackless, diesel powered equipment. When service and production equipment couldn’t be found, the mine designed and manufactured its own.
Craigmont had become a successful mine, an achievement that is unusual in the world of business. It continued to be a successful mine through periods of poor copper markets, labor unrest, government policy changes and unprecedented inflation.
But in 1974 economic factors began taking their toll. Profits in mining were being seriously cut and copper prices were plummeting in the marketplace. After more than 20 years of operation, 1982 marked the final year of copper production at the Craigmont mine. Except for a few salaried personnel involved with disposing the equipment and the half million of stockpiled magnetite, Craigmont was closed.
For more information on the history of Merritt and the Nicola Valley, call or come and visit the Nicola Valley Museum and Archives, 1675 Tutill Court, (250)-378-4145. You can also visit our website at www.nicolavalleymuseum.org.
CORRECTION: The original version of this story named John Roberts as the man in the top photograph. In fact, he is the worker in the third photograph from the top. The Herald regrets the error.