Keeping gold heritage alive

A goldsmith operates her business out of a restored gold mining cabin built a century ago when gold was discovered in the area

by Trevor Crawley

This century-old mining cabin in B.C.'s East Kootenay has been restored to serve as a goldsmith shop. — Joni Krats photo

A one-room shack used by gold prospectors more than 100 years ago still has a connection to the mining industry, as a couple near Cranbrook in British Columbia's East Kootenay region use the space to operate a business. 

Cathy Sywulsky, a goldsmith, and her husband, Chris, a placer miner and mineral explorer, relocated an old abandoned gold mining shack in Old Town, near Perry Creek, to their property to save it from destruction by the provincial government. Cathy and her husband are both self-described history buffs and decided to keep the heritage of the cabin alive by using it as Cathy's goldsmith shop for the last 20 years.

Decades of exposure to the elements had collapsed the floor and the roof of the cabin and rotted out the bottom logs that formed the foundation, according to Chris. He gingerly took the structure apart one day, numbered all the pieces and brought everything back to his property just west of Cranbrook in the Old Town area. He rebuilt the floor, the roof and the foundation, adding a new door and skylight to give the room more light for Cathy to work.

History in artistry

Cathy got her start in the industry by taking courses in Toronto and apprenticing for three years before striking out on her own. She has been working with gold for 35 years and appreciates the connection between her craft and the history of the studio in which she operates her business, The Gold Gallery.

The cabin, constructed in the late 1890s, was the residence and office for the manager of a steam shovel that was used to dig for gold in Perry Creek. Before moving to the gold mining operation, the steam shovel’s first task was carving out a route through the Crowsnest Pass for the Canadian Pacific Railway. After a year of leapfrogging railroad track from the back of the steam shovel to the front, the operators were able to get it to its location up Perry Creek via an old railway shunt.

If using a local building wasn’t enough, Cathy prides herself on creating her pieces from local materials. Miners who used to work in the now-defunct Sullivan Mine in nearby Kimberley would save garnets and bring them to her to use for her work. When the mine closed, some workers headed north to work in the diamond mines in the Northwest Territories and they’ll send back stones to be complemented with local gold, Cathy said.

Cathy takes a lot of custom orders and has created a few lines that jewellery stores carry—her work has spanned the globe with pieces sold in China, Europe and across Canada.

Offbeat art

In addition to gold and silver, Cathy incorporates offbeat materials like elk ivory, bear claws and cougar teeth in her work.

“I’ve had all kinds of strange things pass through the shop,” she said.

A vintage piece of work

Mining is such an integral piece of East Kootenay history that destroying the cabin structure seemed like the wrong thing to do, said Chris. Provincial government policy deemed the existing gold mining shacks illegal to discourage people from living in them. Preparations to take them down began 20 years ago. Although the Sywulskys were able to save the one cabin, there were others in the area that didn’t share so fortunate a fate.

“It will stand for a long time to come but it’s unfortunate that others were destroyed,” said Chris. “A lot of old history disappeared along with them.”

Despite rebuilding parts of the cabin that had been damaged, such as the floor and roof, Chris did everything he could to use the original material—including a vintage wood stove, which was refurbished by Mike Strong, a renowned restorer of antique stoves now based in Kaslo, British Columbia; his work is featured in the historical gold rush town of Barkerville in the B.C. Interior.

Both Chris and Cathy are pleased with the end result of the old gold shack and value its history and utilitarian workspace.

“It will be there for 100 more years to come,” said Chris.

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