-In 1881, Robert Sproule was the first prospector to stake a claim on the ledge, calling it the “Bluebell Mine” after the abundance of flowers in the area. In the 1880’s, the provincial Minerals Act stated that a claim could not be left unattended for more than 72 hours. The nearest claim office was more than 700 kilometers away. To maintain his claim, Sproule had to camp on the remote ledge all summer, and had to return when the mining season started the next year. On July 31, 1882, the District Gold Commissioner, William Fernie, made his way past Sproule’s camp, and, while in the area, legally registered Sproule’s claim.
That should have been the end of this story. However, back in San Francisco, George Hearst realized what was on that ledge in remote British Columbia. He and his business partners sent a team of prospectors, led by Thomas Hammill, back to the Kootenay area. They set up camp at what is now known as Ainsworth Hot Springs, and staked a series of mining claims in the area as they waited for the right moment to take over the Bluebell Mine.
They got their chance towards the end of the season, when Sproule became ill. Sticking to the letter of the law, he filed a formal request for a leave of absence with Gold Commissioner Fernie before leaving his claim for a hospital bed. As soon as he had been gone for three days, Hammill and his men rowed across the lake and re-staked the Bluebell claim. In November 1882, under mysterious circumstances, they convinced Commissioner Fernie to recognize that claim.
Once healthy, Sproule became busy in the winter of 1882. He partnered with Colonel Hudnut of Idaho and several other investors to obtain funding for his mine. They received a nasty shock when Sproule returned to his claim in 1883, only to find the Hammill men encamped. Sproule filed an objection with the Gold Commissioner. On the other hand, his partners, not willing to wait for a court ruling, re-staked the Hammill claims around Ainsworth.
The initial ruling in 1883 by new Gold Commissioner Edward Kelly gave the Bluebell Mine back to Sproule. The Hearst group immediately appealed, and attached the re-staking of the Ainsworth area claims to the case. While the Supreme Court of British Columbia also found for Sproule, they also ruled for the Hearst Group for the claims around Ainsworth, and levied fines and court costs against all parties.
Again, the story should have ended here, with everyone going back to their rightful claims. However, that winter, Colonel Hudnut did not pay his share of the fines and court claims. To recoup the court costs, his ownership in the Bluebell Mine was put up for public auction. The winning bidder was Thomas Hammill.
Sproule returned to the Bluebell Mine in the spring of 1885, partnered by new investors. He lost his temper, and some say his sanity, when Thomas Hammill crossed Kootenay Lake, determined to maintain the Hearst’s stake in the mine. On June 1st, Hammill was shot and killed on the mine site. Sproule was captured on the Kootenay River several days later, taken to Victoria, tried, and eventually found guilty of the murder. Current historians have doubted whether Sproule really did kill Hammill. Sproule was executed on October 29, 1885.
Once Hammill was killed, the Hearst group abandoned their claim to the Bluebell Mine. Sproule’s investors continued to try to work the claim, but the inefficiency of transport in that area simply made the operation “economically unfeasible”. It lay dormant for 20 years until the Canadian Metal Company renamed the mining site to Riondel, and was worked until the mine was closed in the 1970’s. This once fiercely contested piece of land now lies quietly on the shores of Kootenay Lake, an object of interest for tourists and hikers.