Stories & Features

Former gold rush town wants faster Wi-Fi (and you)

The former office of Bralorne's Pioneer gold mine have been acquired for use as Bralorne's Museum, which features 45,000 artifacts dating back to the 1800s. Show caption
In Bralorne's heyday, this fire truck served a town with an estimated population of 1,500. Today, there are probably less than 40 who live in the town. Show caption
With so many people around, Bralorne once thrived with a curling club, local ski chalet and four men's baseball teams comprised of miners who were part of what was – during the 1930s – the economic engine for all of southern B.C. Show caption
The Bralorne Pioneer Museum features a variety of old equipment, including this chainsaw. Show caption
An old miner's hat is also part of the museum's collection. Show caption
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Bralorne sees future as live-work destination for those who love the outdoors

BRALORNE, B.C. – Deb Demare bristles at the suggestion that Bralorne is a ghost town. There are people still living here, even if there aren't many around and the town's social hub – the local pub – was closed after the owner was caught smuggling drugs by helicopter to the U.S.

"It definitely has a past, and has had its ups and downs, but it is a living, breathing community that is trying to keep going one way or another," says Demare, the director of the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District, and a resident of nearby Gun Lake.

There are probably fewer than 40 people living in Bralorne today, and there are only five kids registered at the local school that serves the area, which is located a 49-kilometre gravel road north of the Pemberton Valley. Bralorne used to have a high school, but it closed in the 1980s, a few years after the Bralorne gold mine – southern B.C.'s main economic engine during the 1930's Depression – shut down.

At its peak, there were more than 1,500 people living in Bralorne, whose mile-deep underground mine produced an estimated $145 million worth of gold in a history that stretches back to 1897. There were multiple churches, a movie theatre and enough men around to form four competitive baseball teams and a Bralorne Gold Diggers hockey team that won two straight Coy Cup B.C. senior men's hockey titles in 1938 and 1939.

It's a town with a glorious history and, most would say, not much of a future. All but one member of the BC Hydro crew working on upgrades to the nearby Lajoie Dam and Powerhouse live elsewhere in B.C., commuting hours each week to get to the Bridge River Valley. But Demare and a few others are banking on the area's wealth of recreational opportunities – world-class mountain biking, hiking, fishing, sledding and back-country touring – to attract people to not just come to play, but to stay.

Map showing Bridge River system
Map of Bridge River Valley shows Pemberton and Gold Bridge on the left side, near the start of BC Hydro's Bridge River electricity system at Downton Reservoir.

The plan? Improved connections, from Wi-Fi to the Hurley

On a sunny afternoon in August, Demare and two other true believers – Suzanne Denbak and Jane Roberts – provide a running dialogue on the future of both the Bralorne museum and the town's revitalization.

They start with the main access point – the infamous Hurley River Road – which is closed in winter and rough enough that you'll void your rental car agreement if you brave its snaky 49 kilometres out of the Pemberton Valley. It's an easier drive from the Lower Mainland going the long route to Bralorne, over Highway 40 through Lillooet and Lytton to Highway 1, but access to Pemberton and Whistler via the Hurley is so much closer.

All three women – members of the Bridge River Valley Community Association – say that with so few people travelling to the Bridge River Valley, it's understandable that the Hurley remains a rough road. But they'd love to see both the Hurley, and Highway 40, in better shape.

"I think all we want is to have better maintenance of the Hurley, and Highway 40, without it becoming a freeway," says Denbak, "because no one wants to change this place so that it removes what's so special about it now."

"But this town's not sustainable with this many people living here," says Roberts. "So we need to increase our population to increase our tourism. That's more or less the goal."

And then there's Wi-Fi. Through access to the Telus network, the non-profit Minto Communications Society provides basic Wi-Fi access to Bridge River communities that would be cut off without it. Mobile phone service ends a few kilometres up the Hurley, and improved Wi-Fi is seen as pivotal to plans to make Bralorne a place where people can comfortably work and live.

"We're getting a Wi-Fi upgrade soon that should be fast enough that if you're a high user of Internet for your work – say a designer or web programmer – you'll be able to use it," says Demare. "Right now, for example, it's very hard to stream Netflix..."

Roberts cuts her off mid-sentence.

"I stream Netflix," she says.

"That's who's taking all our bandwidth!," says Demare, with a chuckle.

Famous for the 'Time Traveling Hipster', Bralorne museum gets a new home

A treasure of some 45,000 artifacts, from gold brick molds to a dentist's chair to a general store price list from 1938, the Bralorne Pioneer Museum experienced a burst of fame a few years ago when a museum photo of what came to be known as the "Time Traveling Hipster" – a 1941 photo that appeared to include a modern-day hipster – went viral.

The museum will soon have a new home, and the Bridge River Valley Community Association can hardly wait for that day. For years, those artifacts – which go back to the late 1800s when prospectors first came up to the area in search of gold – have been housed in a small, decaying building with no heat.

Currently in a temporary building, the artifacts will be moved to the building that was formerly the Bralorne Mines sales office. It's one of the more impressive, well-maintained buildings in a town that seems serious about getting its groove back. And there are small signs – including a plan to develop nearby Sunshine Mountain into a back-country recreation area for ski touring and hiking – that may happen.

A few years back, a group of Whistler-area snowboarders moved in. The roads into the Bridge River Valley may guarantee that it stays remote, but there are dozens of cabins on nearby Gun Lake – home to about 20 full-time residents – and a growing list of outdoors enthusiasts who have discovered the area's charms.

Demare and husband Sal fell in love with the valley decades ago then moved here full time about nine years ago. Whistler resident Denbak was paddling Tyaughton Lake – site of the area's famed Tyax Wilderness Resort & Spa – with her husband when they spotted a small cabin for sale and bought it.

"I see a lot of social media posts by people who have come up here and say: 'I was just off the grid for a week'. And they're not complaining," says Demare. "It's an excuse to let it all go and come up here and really feel like you're away. And yet you're so close to the Lower Mainland and the Sea to Sky corridor."

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