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Gold from the Ghost Towns

Janet Collins, Western Investor, June 2003

Special Section: Recreational Real Estate: Investment Opportunities in Western Canada

There's a new kind of gold being produced by abandoned mining towns around British Columbia. In an interesting twist, what's above ground has become a more attractive commodity than what lies beneath.

Some enterprising individuals and companies have seen the potential of the sites, many of which come with services (power, water, etc) installed and ready. There is often no need to go through the complicated process of rezoning or surveying and the lots are often inexpensive alternatives for recreational sties and a myriad other uses.

Nashville forms a case in point. No- not that Nashville.

Located just 6.5 miles (11 kilometers) west of Kaslo on Highway 31A in the West Kootenays, Nashville (also known as Nashton and South Fork) once serviced the nearby mines of Montezuma and Mexico. At the beginning of the 20th century, Nashville was a bustling community of 200. A post office was erected in 1915 and remained open until 1940. The building still stands today, used for storage by a remaining resident. The closure of the mines in the area caused the town to be abandoned by 1950, but now folks are starting to return.

"We bought this property in 1994," says Rudy Nielsen, president of New Westminster-based Niho Land & Cattle Company Ltd., owners of the Nashville townsite. "There were no buildings on the lots, but you could still make out the streets." The lot sizes varied from 25' x 100' to 100' x 100' x 25' and Niho sells them for between $1,900 and $4,650. Nielsen won't disclose the number of lots not will he say what he paid for the townsite.

"We're pretty much sold out of small lots," he said. "In fact, we only have about 20 left in all the towns we've bought. The only thing to do is buy more towns." (He is currently negotiating for some of the lots in Kitsault, a complete town located about 150 kilometers north of Prince Rupert.)

Towns such as Nashville were primarily company towns. When the employer left town, so did the employees. In some cases, the abandoned houses were levelled, in others, the property sold as-is. If nobody bought it, ownership of the townsite would revert bask to the previous owner, frequently a private person or the ministry of mines. Only land that was owned by the Crown before the property was developed would revert back to the Crown, thus the zoning would remain intact.

As for the new owners of the individual lots, their reasons for buying are as varied as the lots themselves. In the case of Nashville, Nielsen says the majority of purchasers are from BC, with some out-of-province buyers, especially from Ontario.

"They mostly bought them for recreational use," said Nielsen, "Because the lots are serviced, you can park your RV on the lot and have a great little fishing or hunting base for the season. It's a lot more affordable than renting somewhere to park your rig each season and beats the heck out of looking for a parking spot on a holiday weekend."

RV Sites

Cory Hallett doesn't own a RV, but that didn't stop him from buying a lot in Ferguson in 2001. "I hope to build a fishing cabin on it one day," said the Regina, Saskatchewan, resident. "In the meantime, I thought it would be a good investment, especially given the current state of the markets." So keen to buy after hearing about Ferguson from someone at the bank where he works, Hallett bought his lot sight-unseen for around $5,000, plus $1,000 for legal fees. He now plans to make it a focus of an annual fishing holiday.

Ferguson is located 40 kilometers northeast of Nakusp, near the small community of Trout Lake. In the 1890s workers at the local lead and silver mine set up the town. At its height, Ferguson boasted 1,000 residents, five hotels, a newspaper, brewery, electric lights, and a waterworks system. Today, the lots are unserviced, but that doesn't seem to have diminished their popularity. Niho bought the town in 1998. The 30' x 110' properties sold for between $4,400 and $5,900 to buyers from BC as well as a few folks from Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Ontario. Ferguson is known for excellent hunting and fishing.

Sheep Creek

Niho is also selling off the old mining townsite of Sheep Creek. Located in Selkirk Mountain Range, four kilometers southwest of Salmon and just north of the US border. When the gold ran out 70 years ago, the townsite was abandoned. Niho moved in in 1993, selling the .07 acre to 14.73 acre lots for between $1,500 and $19,500.

Doug Pickard had a more emotional reason for buying. "I've used the lot in lieu of a funeral plot for my dad," says Pickard. "My dad was involved in mining in that area and he fell in love with the country. He always wanted to return to the area, so I've helped him do that."

Hydro potential

Jeff Wolrige was another purchaser seeking an alternative use for abandoned townsites. Like Nielsen, he purchased an entire site at Anyox, in northwest BC.

Wolrige's company Anyox Hydroelectric Ltd. also owns a dormant hydro dam at the townsite and is planning to sell power from the site to the BC Hydro grid. (Last year pop singer Jewel became a partner in the project just as she has with the recently announced Green Energy Project in Gold River, reflecting a response to BC Hydro's green and alternative energy program.) The road to the abandoned Anyox dam was restored last year. "We're close to getting our water license," said Wolrige. Wolrige won't say how much his firm paid for the Anyox site, but he thinks the investment will prove well worth the price.

The 44 metre high, 207 metre long concrete dam on Anyox Creek was built in 1924 and abandoned in 1935. The nearby Kitsault Dam was built to provide electricity to the Dolly Varden Silver Mine and the old company town of Alice Arm. Once up and running, the two dams are expected to produce between 30 and 40 megawatts of power (a megawatt can power a thousand homes).

Intact zoning should help speed the Anyox transition. In other cases, a lack of zoning is seen as an advantage.

Vancouver Island

Take the Port H'Kusam Development Property, located 45 minutes north of Campbell River on Vancouver Island. Owner Jemi Holdings Ltd. insists that "no zoning allows for almost any use." Touted as having excellent development potential for several hundred recreational waterfront and water-view lots, at $11,500,009 it could well prove to be a bargain. On the property is the shell remains of the K'Hasam Hotel, built in the early 1900s when the property was one of the first steamers stops for this part of the coast.

These are just a few of BC's abandoned townsites. Others can be found in not-quite-ghost-towns such as Henley, Greenwood, and Cassiar. Some of the old towns are becoming popular retirement retreats. Like the towns themselves, it's a case of the old seeking the new.