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Trail Blazers: The Old Smelter Hill

Trail Blazers is a weekly feature in partnership with the Trail Museum and Archives

by Sarah Benson-Lord

Trail Museum and Archives

For this week’s Trail Blazers, we take a look back to the old Smelter Hill, the main thoroughfare through town heading north to Castlegar, that took traffic through smelter operations.

In Trail’s early years, cars were scarce.

So rare, in fact, the newspaper often published lists of autos in the city. Many family histories in the Trail Museum and Archives textual collection share that vehicles were unnecessary expenses when all amenities (and good amenities, at that) were within walking distance or delivered.

The city’s work program of constructing staircases in the 1930s, mainly in the terraced hillside of West Trail, meant the long, snake-like streets could be bypassed quickly, like a game of chutes and ladders.

Additionally, with a workforce of 5,000 in the 1950s and 1960s, there is no way the smelter could have accommodated their personal vehicles.

Smelter Hill, the now-gated hill behind the Best Western Hotel, was the beginning of the hike to the plants for droves of men carrying lunch boxes.

This was a time to connect, socialize, and make plans with friends. Many family histories, specifically those for West Trail residents, recall a father’s pit stop with his workmates at one of the local watering holes in the Gulch or downtown before heading home.

Those were different days!

As passenger trains made their final trips here in the early 1960s and tracks were removed, families began investing in their own cars and commercial vehicle traffic increased.

Naturally, Smelter Hill became a much busier thoroughfare of industrial, workforce, and commuting traffic.

Eventually, it wasn’t just a hill mainly for smelter employees getting to and from work. It’s important to keep in mind that all north and southbound traffic drove through the largest lead and zinc smelter in the world to get wherever they were going within or beyond Trail.

Along with random traffic were hundreds of employees on foot, heavy equipment, and moving trains!

For those lucky few who can recall traveling that narrow hill in a car, you’ll remember the traffic lights positioned below and above the big hair-pin corner.

The gate guard kept watch on the flow of traffic, stopping vehicles when large trucks or equipment were approaching the switchback requiring a wide berth to make the turn. He followed it with a friendly wave from the guard house.

Once atop the hill, there was nothing more magnificent to a kid than those towering stacks and huge buildings on a ride to Castlegar or to play soccer in the Tadanac park.

Can you imagine this now?

Security and safety aside, what an added complication to the day-to-day operations!

As more and more people drove to work, the end of a shift soon resulted in the inevitable bottle neck at the bottom of Smelter Hill, which formed a junction with Rossland Avenue and Victoria Street.

By 1972, the concept of altering vehicular patterns was discussed.

Two proposals were submitted to Trail City Council the following year by the Department of Highways, suggesting two ways in which a new highway would eliminate both the need to travel through smelter operations and Smelter Hill itself.

After 70 years, it was clear Smelter Hill had outgrown its role as Cominco’s main artery.

It would finally materialize over 15 years later, when work on the new approach, the highway we know today, began.

On September 25, 1990, government officials, politicians, city council and residents officially cut the ribbon on the West Trail Approach.

As of that moment, Smelter Hill was nothing but a faint, albeit fond, memory for those who walked that hill every day, chatting and catching up with their coworkers and friends, as well as those who sat in awe in the backseat of the family vehicle, marveling at the massive operations that surrounded them.

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Sheri Regnier

About the Author: Sheri Regnier

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