British Columbia, long recognized for its exceptional mineral wealth, is regaining prominence among mining investors. Canada in general is looking increasingly attractive as the mining industry faces mounting challenges in many jurisdictions around the globe.
Many parts of the province are highly prospective for minerals, but one region stands out: An area of northwestern British Columbia referred to as the Golden Triangle has produced enormous precious and base metal wealth over the past century. Rich gold and silver mines near the port city of Stewart established the potential of the region. The rich Eskay Creek mine 90 kilometers north of Stewart demonstrated the much larger potential of the region. Red Chris, another 100 kilometers north, is now in development.
An enormous amount of exploration work over several decades outlined numerous large precious and base metal deposits. For a host of reasons, the area went quiet before those mines could be developed. BC’s Golden Triangle has come alive again, with at least five world-class mining projects headed toward production.
Having already delivered millions of ounces of gold and tens of millions of ounces of silver, the region ranks as an important mineral district. Yet, that production represents only a tiny fraction of the metal now known to be hosted in the district.
Two exploration companies, with adjacent claims, have outlined an astonishing 130 million ounces of gold, 800 million ounces of silver and 20 billion pounds of copper. Both of those companies are now working toward feasibility studies. Combined production from those two proposed mines is projected to exceed a million ounces annually, with a nearly equivalent value of silver, copper and other metals.
While those advanced-stage projects have generated valuations at the billion dollar levels, other companies sitting on similar geology still trade for pennies a share. A couple of those companies are on the track of important discoveries.
Northwestern British Columbia was first explored in the late 1890s by prospectors on their way to the great Yukon-Alaska gold rush. High-grade gold and silver discoveries were made and exploited on a small scale over the next several decades. The town of Stewart, a seaport, became the focal point for exploration in the region. A number of exceptionally high-grade discoveries were made just inland from that town.
Many of the major mining companies explored that region for base metals from the 1950s into the early 1970s. The Granduc copper mine was developed by Newmont in the 1970s and then acquired by the minerals division of Esso, the Canadian unit of Exxon.
Numerous other discoveries were made, but the remoteness of the region at that time hampered mine development. In the mid-1970s, a left-leaning provincial government scared off the mining industry. At exactly that time, discoveries in other parts of the world attracted mining companies to what seemed friendlier places. Big new mines were developed in Chile, Peru, Indonesia and other places. British Columbia was put on the back burner for the mining industry as vast amounts of money were applied to developing mines in other parts of the world.
The 1980s saw a resurgence of exploration in the Golden Triangle with a focus on gold and silver. This time, the exploration efforts were driven by junior exploration companies. Vancouver had become an international center for mineral exploration financing. One of the companies working in the region, Calpine, had generated some interesting results but was having trouble raising money to continue their work.
The Calpine results attracted the attention of legendary mining promoter Murray Pezim. The Pez, as he was affectionately known, had played an important role in funding the discovery of the Hemlo district in Ontario, which became one of the most important gold districts in the country.
With a strong financial backer, Calpine was able to carry out a comprehensive exploration program. They drilled more than 100 holes that were geologically encouraging, but which would not have attracted the attention of most investors. It was hole number 109 that convinced investors of the significance of the Eskay Creek discovery. That hole, one of the most impressive drill holes of all time, encountered an extraordinary 208 meters that assayed 27 grams per tonne gold and 30 g/t silver.
In short order, the Eskay Creek mine became the fifth largest silver producer in the world, turning out 15 million ounces annually for much of its 14 year mine life. The mine also produced 250,000 ounces of gold annually along with substantial values of base metals, becoming an important part of the growth story that made Barrick the world’s largest gold company.
Needless to say, hole 109 kicked off a frenzy of activity in the district. The staking rush saw the district broken into literally thousands of small claims, with numerous companies each pursuing targets within the bounds of their property. There was a great deal more geological encouragement reported over the next several years. Most of the companies, working on small parcels and with limited budgets, only scratched the surface. Then, the exploration industry ground to a halt in 1997 without another discovery on the scale of Eskay. For several years, the district was quiet.