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Pioneers in the Sky - Aerial Exploration Advances Mining

Pilot Howard Anderson, machinist Doug Burt, and mechanic Hamilton Curry standing with a Puss Moth in front of the CM&S hangar at Columbia Gardens Airport, 1933. Photo courtesy the Trail Historical Society

Teck Trail Operations is proud to commemorate 125 years of continuous smelting with an eight-part series that explores the company’s significant role in the region and industry, from the gold rush to becoming one of the world’s largest fully integrated zinc and lead smelting and refining complexes. Since 1896, visionary leadership, generations of skilled employees, adaptation, and industry-leading technological advancements in mining and smelting have helped the company achieve long-term success. Please enjoy this series that celebrates our legacy as Champions of Innovation.

Flying high on their brilliant discovery of differential flotation in 1920, the Consolidated Mining & Smelting Company of Canada Ltd., now Teck, was proudly leading the charge in technological innovation. But they weren’t done yet when it came to mining industry advancements; long and arduous journeys on foot in search of new mines would soon become a thing of the past, thanks to the expert leadership of the company’s aviation pioneers.

In 1919, in an effort to diversify sources of ore, Mining Manager William Munroe Archibald began his flight-based exploration. Expanding property holdings would maintain momentum and launch the company leaps and bounds ahead of its competitors. With his passion for air travel and visionary understanding of the potential benefits for mine exploration, Archibald put his pilot skills to work. Called “Canada’s flying businessman,” Archibald commuted daily by airplane between Trail and Creston. His love for flying and commitment to safety solidified him as one of the innovators in the Canadian aviation industry, and his contributions would have him posthumously admitted into Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame in 1973.

In 1929, Archibald—with significant support from pilot William Gladstone Jewitt—set up the company’s Aero Department. The goal was to explore Northern Canada’s vast and pristine land by air; they quickly confirmed the reality that air travel for mineral exploration was the way of the future. Together, Archibald and Jewitt set up a team of geologists and mining engineers to scout and claim these uncharted territories, also training them to safely pilot their own teams.

After his experience as a flight instructor in England during WWI, Jewitt was eager to join the company’s team as a civilian mining engineer and pilot. Granted a leadership role when the Aero Department was established in 1929, his expert team made Archibald’s vision a reality, successfully locating some large mineral deposits on missions exploring Great Bear Lake, Athabasca Lake, Great Slave Lake, and Victoria Island in the Arctic.

Jewitt’s northern exploration not only greatly impacted the company and the mining industry, but it also helped develop aerial bases and cache sites and map previously untouched areas of Northern Canada and the Arctic. Partly responsible for defining safety procedures that are now standard in civilian flying practices, in 1978 Jewitt was also inducted into Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame.

As the mining industry soared to new heights, the town of Trail benefitted. In 1930, the company upgraded its gravel landing strip by constructing the Columbia Gardens Airport to support the Aero Department’s burgeoning flight school and fleet of planes. Don Nutini, a second generation Teck Trail Operations employee and longtime airport volunteer speaks to the influence that the airport had on Trail’s development:

“There was a big impact because they were way ahead of anybody else with exploration; they did it much quicker by air… and as they developed, the city of Trail developed. The company also understood the value of having healthcare in the city. They were very involved with the building of the hospital downtown. They were involved with anything that was going on in the city.”

Many factors contributed to the company’s growth, but aerial exploration was an innovation that set them on a flight path of excellence that continues to this day. Teck Trail Operations’ aviation work was significant in contributing to Canada’s expansion as a young country, pioneering and growing northern towns such as Yellowknife, and training pilots who would be available for duty in WWII.

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Teck Trail Operations has helped shape the Kootenay region both economically and culturally for over a century. Stay tuned for the next installment of Champions of Innovation, which will highlight how the company contributed to the war effort.