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Trail’s smelter stairs

Updated: Mar 17

Below are four postcard images from my collection of Trail’s Jacob’s Ladder, also known as the Golden Stairway, the Golden Stairs, or simply The Steps. They were the way most smelter employees got to work each day, and headed home after long shifts.

They were built at the behest of smelter owner Fritz Augustus Heinze. According to the Trail Creek News of Oct. 2, 1896: “After climbing Smelter Hill several times in the dark, Mr. Heinze gave orders for the building of a stairway from the street near the bridge to the top of the hill. Townspeople who often have business on the Hill will appreciate the improvement now being made.”

It only took a couple of weeks for the carpentry crew to complete them. The News reported on Oct. 16: “There are 328 steps on the stairs up Smelter Hill, counting both sides. Any person making the trip either way will agree that there are fully that number.” (I’m not sure what they meant by “counting both sides.” Perhaps both sides of the road that bisected them?)

Finally, on Oct. 30 the paper added: “There is little danger of the stairs at the top of Smelter Hill being torn out for some time. It is much harder to go up the hill or down the hill by the stair route than it is by the old bridle paths.”

The stairs show up on the 1897 fire insurance map of Trail but no info is provided besides their location.

In a memoir that appeared in the January 1948 issue of Cominco Magazine, Ethel (Short) Lucas recalled living in Trail in 1896:

The only way to get up to the smelter was up a long stairway of over 400 steps, if I remember correctly; after work the men would run down a steep path by the side of the steps, but I never worked up the courage to try that.

The postcard below was not mailed, but the message on the back is one of the most delightful I have ever come across. The eccentric capitalization and spelling mistakes make it even better. It reads in part:

This is the steps that goes up to the Smelter Junction … There is 290 steps on the picture where you see the Telephone Pole and Electric light is just half of the way up. Where the Pole is is where the wagon road goes up the hill. I wish you could see the roads winding up the mtn. It looks a little fishy until one gets used to it. The first time I climbed those steps I was Dizzy and Darned near Peetered out.

The next image is taken from almost exactly the same spot as the one above, but is not the same photo. It’s noteworthy both for the copyright date of 1908 (postcards seldom bore dates other than their postmarks) and the caption labeling them Jacob’s Ladder, which is “the colloquial name for a connection between the earth and heaven that the biblical Patriarch Jacob dreams about during his flight from his brother Esau, as described in the Book of Genesis.” (Thanks, Wikipedia.) It was an odd nickname, for I doubt any employees mistook the smelter for heaven.

The image below, which shows the stairs in better context, is also by Tourner & Co. According to David Mattison’s Camera Workers site, Arthur Douglas Tourner went on to operate a photo studio in Revelstoke from 1911-16. He was in partnership with C.B. Thorpe in 1912 and managed R.H. Trueman’s Revelstoke branch in 1915. In the 1920s and ‘30s, he worked in Vancouver. Tourner’s stay in Trail was brief. He is not listed in the 1905 nor 1910 civic directories. (Directories for the intervening years are unavailable).

This card was not postmarked, but was addressed to a Miss Walker:

I should have answered your nice letter before this but am lazy as ever … Am sending this for your collection. Steps to the smelter. There are 394 of them. The driving road is where the three men are coming off shift.

(Note the discrepancy: the Trail Creek News said there were 328 steps, while the previous postcard writer suggested 290 was only half of them.)

The Tourner images above were published in the September 1966 edition of Cominco Magazine with the headline “Don’t moan, man! Just lift a leg!” The story noted that “besides being more numerous than they are now, the stairs were not covered, nor did they boast more than one feeble light.” The caption added: “While they may bring back painful memories to oldtimers, the ‘newtimers’ think today’s stairs are quite rugged enough. Everyone will agree, though, that Smelter Hill has a lot more trees on it now.” I don’t know when the old stairs were replaced.

Below is a Hughes Brothers view from the 1920s showing the top end of the Golden Stairway.

The following, which is partly cut off at both ends, is another Hughes Brothers view from the Briggeman collection at the Selkirk College Regional Archives. Bill Briggeman is fourth from left.

Another uncredited view accompanied a story by Elsie Turnbull in Pioneer Days in British Columbia, Vol. 4, p. 37.

In his article The Smelter Poets, which appeared in the spring 2013 edition of BC Studies, Ron Verzuh quoted an anonymous poem entitled The Golden Stairs, originally published in the Commentator, a trade union newspaper, on Aug. 17, 1942.

Up the gold stairs I go,
My breath comes fast, my feet go slow;
I decide to rest upon a bench
And deeply breath[e] the exhilarating “stench” ...
The old man resting on the other stair
With the grade A cough and greying hair
Tapped the furnaces as long as he could
Till the fumes started measuring him
for a box of wood.
The poet’s narrator laments his “creaking joints” and scoffs at the “small pension” he’ll get if he doesn’t die first. As the worker prepares to “get on my way,” he says: “But these damn steps are getting too tough / For us old-timers leaded to the cuff.”

I am not sure when the stairs were rebuilt, but it appears to have been sometime in the 1910s. The Nelson Daily News of Jan. 29, 1938 published a photo of the original ones with the caption: “This early facility, which provided quick access between the early settlement and the smelter site that gave it a reason for being, was used up to the war.”

Below is a photo that appeared on the back cover of Cominco Magazine, September 1953, showing a Little League parade down Cedar Avenue. The next set of smelter stairs are seen in the background.

The present staircase, in about the same location, is pictured below in 2004. It’s at the back of the Memorial Centre parking lot and is off limits to the public, but the sign is routinely ignored by determined stair climbers. It has 225 steps including the landings, tying it for the longest staircase in Trail.

The other set of stairs with 225 steps (including 24 landings) is the one in the middle of Rossland Avenue, leading up to Austad Lane. According to A Guide to Historic Buildings and Places in Trail (2008), p. 42, the longest multiple sets of stairs start on Spokane Street at Pine Avenue and continue up to Lookout Street. There are four sets with 323 steps and 17 landings.

Updated on Jan. 13, 2018 with quotes from the Trail Creek News, on April 21, 2018 with the quote from the Golden Stairs poem, on Nov. 6, 2018 with the quote from Ethel Lucas, on April 1, 2021 with the 1953 Cominco magazine photo, on Nov. 15, 2022 with the quote from the Nelson Daily News of 1938, and on Jan. 31, 2024 to add the image from the fire insurance map, and on March 16, 2024 to add the Briggeman photo.

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My father (Bill Burns) did the Smelter steps for over 40 years, two at a time. 322 steps when the roof was installed.

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