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Reminders of the Nelson Iron Works

Updated: Apr 23

Sometimes it pays to keep your head down.

Out for a walk recently in Warfield’s Annable neighbourhood, I was surprised and delighted to come across the following manhole cover near the corner of French and Currie streets.

I didn’t know that any reminders existed outside of Nelson of the Nelson Iron Works, a business that disappeared 80 years ago.

Brothers John A. and W.B. Honeyman began the iron works — really a glorified blacksmith’s shop — in the city’s Fairview neighbourhood around 1897. Before long, John had sole proprietorship, and in 1905 moved his operation to 702 Front St., at the southeast corner of Hall and Front (where Nelson CARES recently completed Hall Street Place).

It was one of five iron foundries in the Kootenay Boundary. The others were the Kootenay Engineering Works of Nelson, the Rossland Engineering Works, the Boundary Iron Works at Grand Forks, and a small foundry in Cranbrook. Of these, the Kootenay Engineering Works, at the foot of Park Street, was the largest as of 1905.

The following year, John Honeyman sold the Nelson Iron Works to B.A. Isaacs, who enlarged the operation. John continued on with the business for a while, but G.N. Holt was soon named superintendent.

Ad from Nelson Daily News special edition of 1907.

The company’s specialties included waterwheels, mine car and streetcar wheels, belt pulleys, bearing blocks, furnace and stove grates, tugboat propellers, sawmill castings, tramway buckets, and riveted pipe.

One of its leading accomplishments was a three-ton casting for a stamp mill installed at the Queen mill at Sheep Creek, said to be “the biggest casting ever made in the interior of the province.” This was followed by an even bigger order from the B.C. Copper Company of Greenwood for eight 30-ton slag pots, each weighing eight tons.

In 1910, the company reorganized as The Nelson Iron Works Ltd., with Isaacs as president, Leslie Craufurd as vice-president, and S.S. Fowler, William M. Cunliffe, and the magnificently named Rayner Winterbotham Hinton as directors.

Cunliffe doubled as general manager and Hinton as superintendent. The new company amalgamated with the Rossland Engineering Works, for which Cunliffe had previously worked, and for a little while also had a machine shop in Castlegar.

By that time, the company billed itself as the second largest employer in Nelson, next to the Yale-Columbia sawmill, although I don’t know how many employees it had.

Ad from the 1928 civic directory.

Cunliffe was with the iron works until at least 1937, and Hinton until his death in 1940 at age 73, which spelled the company’s end. Dominion Machinery Co. was hired to sell off the machine shop and foundry equipment.

The iron works’ buildings were taken over by Central Truck and Equipment, who moved there from Hendryx Street. They were torn down sometime in the 1970s. Very few photos of the complex survive, but here are a couple.

This is detail from a circa 1920s postcard provided by Michael Cone. The Civic Field is seen in the background (now the parking lot of the Nelson and District Community Complex) and the agricultural fair buliding behind that (now the site of the Civic Centre).

Detail from another postcard of similar vintage showing a rooftop sign. The buildings also appear on a bird’s eye view here.

In addition to the manhole cover in Annable bearing the company’s name, there are three in Nelson, each a different shape. A fourth one seems to have vanished.

A circular one can be found the 500 block of Ward Street, outside the Green block, where The Express used to be. It is usually partly covered by a planter.

A square one is in the 200 block of Baker Street, outside Big Cranium Design.

A rectangular one is in the 300 block of Baker, outside Wing’s Grocery and the Kootenay Bakery Cafe.

There used to be another rectangular one in the 700 block of Vernon Street, outside Finley’s Bar and Grill, but I was dismayed to discover it has gone missing, probably a victim of the Hall Street redevelopment work of a few years ago. I further regret that I never took a photo of it. It would have been easy to overlook its significance, for while all of the ones seen here are emblazoned “Nelson Iron Works,” the last one just said “NIW,” and you wouldn’t necessarily know what that stood for.

There may be others out there, but these are the only ones I know about.

UPDATE: Indeed, there is at least one other one in Trail, and it is spectacular! I am indebted to Anthony Sanna for telling me about it and providing the photo seen here.

This one is behind Caffe Americano at 1425 Bay Ave. It is actually in the concrete pad attached to the building, rather than on the street. Of the ones seen here, it is my favourite.

Nelson collector Stan Sherstobitoff also sent me the following images. It is not clear what the shield is form, but the tags are from ore cars.

Updated on Oct. 7, 2021 to add the Trail cover, on Oct. 8, 2021 to add Stan Sherstobitoff’s items, and on April 22, 2023 to add the postcard images.

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