The 1958 Commemorative Dollar.

The 1958 Commemorative Dollar.

By: MICC Lifetime member #001

There were two major British Columbia events in 1858, one a direct consequence of the other. First of all, there was the Cariboo Gold Rush up the Fraser River and centered on the immediately-established Barkerville. Because what is now mainland B.C. was “unorganized territory” at the time (even though under the sway of the Hudson’s Bay Company), there was a distinct chance that the U.S. might choose to annex the area and its gold. Therefore, the area was immediately organized as “British Columbia” and united with “Vancouver’s Island”. The chief factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, James Douglas, resigned his position to become the first governor of the territory. Not until 1871 did British Columbia join Confederation and then under the proviso that a railway would reach her within ten years. The C.P.R. was four years late but that they made it at all, was nearly miraculous.

A century later, the Dominion of Canada decided to commemorate the dual event of Gold Rush and Crown Colony with the words:

       “. . Our Governor in Council has advised that a proclamation do issue prescribing the design of a one dollar piece to be struck to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of the gold rush and the creation of British Columbia as a Crown colony in 1858.”

The government allowed themselves adequate time for this project, competition for the reverse design opened in June, 1956, and the above proclamation dated February 21, 1957. Most significantly, the proclamation goes on to describe what the new reverse is to be, all competing artists forced to give their interpretations of it. It reads:

       “The design of the reverse impression shall be a representation of a totem pole, with the word “CANADA”at the upper left, the figures “1858-1958” at the left, the words “British Columbia” on the right, mountains in the background, and at the bottom the word “DOLLAR”. The coin shall have a graining on the edge.”

The winner of the competition was Stephen Trenka, the same man who designed the reverse of the 1951 commemorative 5-cent piece. There was a certain amount of controversy over the design, even before it appeared. Opponents held that a totem pole was emblematic of the aboriginal peoples and had nothing to do with either the Gold Rush or B.C.’s becoming a Crown Colony; proponents, on the other hand, pointed out that few things were more emblematic of British Columbia than a totem pole. As we well know, the latter carried the day.

Mr. Stephen Trenka of Thornhill, Ont. whose design for the B.C. Silver Dollar was selected from some 150 entries, was born in Budapest where he studied at the Royal School of Design. He came to Canada in 1929 and continued his studies at the Ontario College of Art. Since then his works have won acclaim at many national and international exhibitions.

The above images courtesy: National Gallery of Canada

West Coast totem poles – as we know them – probably do not predate the arrival of white traders in the 1770s. In the writings of James Cook from 1775, totem poles as such are not mentioned – and they surely would have been. All the same, there certainly were forerunners of these cultural icons and it would seem that the art form blossomed when technology (in the form of iron and steel carving tools) allowed it to. An engraving from Cook’s report on the visit to the Nootkas on the west coast of Vancouver Island shows an interior view of one of their huge meeting houses where the post supports (actually cut-off trees) are carved with designs – but very shallowly. Almost from the first, the native peoples demanded copper and iron in trade for their furs and other wares. In white inventories, iron is frequently listed as “chisels” – probably not chisels as we know them but rather chisel-like steel bars. These, too, had ancestors in the jade “celts” from the Lillooet area.

Trenka incorporated all the elements into his design as prescribed by the government but seems to have used those of interest to him that he perhaps took to be “generic”. They weren’t – but then the government panel members never caught it either. Rather than being generic, totem symbols have potent, specific meaning, much more so than heraldic symbols in our coats-of-arms. In this case, Trenka had used as the upper character “Raven”, a carrion bird, that in this case was in the guise of “Trickster Raven”, the sign for the irreversible nature of death. If that wasn’t bad enough, Raven surmounts “Bear Mother”, one of the parents of man.

Reverse: Stephen Trenka

Obverse: Mary Gillick

Silver, .800 fine; weight: 23.327 grams; diameter: 36.07 mm. Edge: reeded. No. Struck: 3,039,630 (66 of them in 1959).

As might be expected, the coin was unpopular with the West Coast native peoples. But not with the rest. The mintage for this coin was very nearly triple that of its closest competitors for the title: the 1953 First-Regnal-Year of Elizabeth and the 1939 Royal Visit issue. In fact, 1,315,000 of the issue (43%+) was shipped to and distributed to the banks by the Vancouver agency of the Bank of Canada – very successfully. If anything, dealers and sellers were given an edge by the notoriety of the “Death Dollar”.

In addition, 33,237 of these dollars were especially struck in “Proof-like” (a record to the time by double) and of these, 18,259 were included in the 1958 “Proof-like” Sets (another record but one shattered in only the next year).

As might be expected, the RCM used a lot of dies striking this big issue: the Mint Report says 84 obverse and 65 reverse working dies were used. Apparently the bottom die, the reverse, was more subject to wear than breakage and this sometimes shows up as a weak strike on the reverse, usually on the face of the Bear figure. When grading, it is best to check the nose and beak of Raven for first signs of wear.

Incidentally, the Gold Rush was commemorated by the Canadian government – in the form of a 5-cent stamp depicting a prospector panning for gold, the date 1858-1958 and “British Columbia” rendered in both English and French.

Previously printed in the MICC Numismatic Journal Vol-02, Issue-02