Mine Money Triangle – By Leslie McFarlane (Maclean’s – April 15, 1938)

Inco Advertising 1939Prosperity, modernity, pioneer color and a relief problem
– You’ll find them all in the Big Three of Ontario mining

Considering Northern Ontario’s glittering triangle. At the apex, toward the eastern border of the province, lies Kirkland Lake; one hundred miles west and a little north, timmins; southward, along that invisible boundary that makes Ontario two provinces in one, Sudbury.

No communities in all of Canada are busier, none more prosperous. The same golden light shines on each. Close together geographically, speaking the same language of mines and mining in a score of tongues, with a common tradition of pioneer luck and labor and a common destiny in that their wealth is derived from the rock, it might seem that they would share a common personality. They don’t. They are too vital for that.

Each of the three communities is distinctive in its own right.

Timmins suggests a shrewd, lean Westerner on a prairie town street corner, jangling a pocketful of gold pieces and roaring cheerfully at a crowd of derby-hatted machinery salesmen: “I’ll buy, boys, but I need the biggest and best. Bring your catalogues up to the house and stay for supper.”

Kirkland Lake – a good natured prospector in a brand-new suit with a red bandanna dangling from the hip pocket, adding up real-estate profits on the back of an envelope, and planning to sneak down to the poker game with the boys at Jake’s place instead of hanging around for the wife’s bridge party.

Sudbury – a foreman from the Tower of Babel, with a festoon of ten-dollar bills in his hat, skidding his new car into a telephone post outside a cafeteria while simultaneously winking at a Finnish waitress and thumbing his nose at Scotch cop.

Payrolls That Mean Prosperity

Distinctively different, the three areas share a common prosperity that has created common problems. The triumvirate represents a purchasing power that flows in a steady stream.

Consequently, it is a triple Mecca of the Have-nots. The fantastic prosperity of each is based on a huge mines payroll. And payrolls create payrolls, snowball fashion.

International Nickel Company and Falconbridge Nickel hand out $1,750,000 a month to 12,000 employees in the Sudbury area.

Mining companies pay out more than $600,000 a month in wages at Kirkland Lake.

Mine payrolls in the Timmins field aggregate close to $1,000,000 a month.

To all this money add the tremendous expenditures of the mining companies on supplies and equipment – and some big mines will spend as much money on materials and freight as on wages. Forget the millions paid out in taxes and dividends if you wish. Forget, if you like, the additional local payrolls – an extra $450,000 a month in Sudbury alone. Ignore the heavy expenditures of the mining companies that haven’t reached the production stage. Concentrate on the spending power of the two dozen big producing mines of the three areas, and an estimate of six million dollars a month for wages, supplies, freight and power will be close enough to the mark.

During 1935 it was estimated that the major purchases made by the mining companies and business houses of Kirkland Lake alone amounted to $11,685,358, more than half of which was spent in Southern Ontario. Last year’s spending was a good deal higher. Canadian exports to South America that year were values at $12,595,641, exports to Asia totaled $28,900,933. As Kirkland Lake’s spending power is considerably less than that of Timmins and Sudbury, it is not too much to say that these three Northern Ontario mining camps represent an internal trade value to Canada equal to that of South America and Asia.

And quit aside of the payrolls, all Northern Ontario mines agree that, of their huge supply expenditures, ninety-two per cent is spent in Canada.

In size the three communities are not large – about on a par with St. Catharines, Ont., or Sydney, N.S.

Sudbury and Timmins rate about 26,000 in population, and Kirkland Lake has mushroomed to within 4,000 of that figure. Each passed through the gaudy, old-fashioned mining-rush stage a good many years ago, and each is now experiencing the excitement of another sort of gold rush that has been going on for the past five years and isn’t over yet. Each community has virtually doubled its population in that time – but not its housing accommodation.

The old-time prospector used to head for the Northland with a packsack and a prayer.

The 1938 sourdough has an order book and an expense account, a transfer from head office, a letter from Brother Jim promising to fix him up with an underground job – or perhaps just a railway ticket from his municipality and a request to get off the relief roll and go North where the streets are paved with gold, jobs grow on trees and there’s pie in the sky for all.

Unfortunately, they aren’t, they don’t, and there isn’t. The old axiom that to make money your have to go where money grows is as true as it ever was. The catch is that too many other people know it.

The three camps are prosperous, rolling in wealth. No doubt of it. But their golden light lures the derelict, the outcast and the criminal, just as irresistibly and consistently as it lures the expert, the intelligent and the ambitious.

Figures tell an inadequate story of their amazing growth, can give but a sketchy notion of the mining epic that is being written in that Pre-Cambrian Triangle. Figures can’t convey the salty flavor of these most cosmopolitan of all Canadian communities peopled by émigrés and the children of émigrés from all provinces and nations. Color and vitality cannot be conveyed statistically. One must see.

A City With a Personality

Of the three, Sudbury has masked its essential personality most completely. The stranger is invariably startled by the chromium and neon-glitter of the business thoroughfares of these mining communities. If there is a certain chain-store uniformity to the smarter Main Streets of the continent in the past few years, at least the facelifting has eradicated a good deal of shabbiness and ugliness. The store fronts, window displays and illuminated signs of these towns are definitely of the post-depression era.

Downtown Sudbury reproduces an average Toronto business section so faithfully on a small scale wit its smart shop fronts and its familiar signs that a visiting Torontonian would be smitten with homesickness. And because Sudbury is past its first youth and was a railway town and lumbering centre long before the nickel monopoly reached Gargantuan proportions, its native character was more readily effaced by the commercial veneer.

But the local color is there. Get away from downtown and you’ll find it in gaudy splashes, in the back streets and sprawling suburbs, in the bleak, barren terrain of the nickel basin itself, in the Finnish, Italian and Ukrainian influences that dominate the city’s foreign life.

Miners don’t work in Sudbury, but they spend their money there. Capital city  of the area containing the biggest mining and smelting operations in the Empire – controlled by the giant International Nickel Company and the smaller Falconbridge – it is encircled by the mining and smelter communities of Frood, Creighton, Garson, Levack, Copper Cliff, Consiston and Falconbridge.

The companies maintain essential services in their company towns. Everything else is centralized in Sudbury, with its bank clearings of $50,000,000 a year, where building permits to a value of nearly a million and a half dollars were issued last year.

Ten years ago the nickel and copper output of the area was valued at $20,000,000 a year.

Last year’s production hit the dizzy figure of $115,000,000. More than fivefold increase in a decade.

Back in 1922 nickel’s principal market lay in the armament industry. But thanks to an intensive research program, nickel now has a thousand commercial uses that it did not have in 1922. Furthermore, the development of the enormously rich Frood Mine has uncovered gold and platinum as side lines. The platinum output of the area was valued at $10,000,000 last year. The Frood is so rich that two of the biggest steam shovels in the world will soon be at work “mining from the grass-roots,” excavating low-grade ore to dilute the rich rock from the lower depths.

Growth of Timmins

A recent travel book that purports to describe the Province of Ontario ignores Timmins and Kirkland Lake – a feat of omission comparable to an attempt to describe an ostrich without mentioning the neck.

The two great gold camps are not only of vital importance to Ontario; they are of unquestioned importance to all Canada. It is proper, but perhaps misleading, to refer to them as camps.

The word conjures up a picture of tents and shacks and log cabins, snowshoes and dog teams. It is a fact that within a mile of either town you will find these familiar properties. It is also a fact that you will find public buildings, apartments houses, stores and homes equal to and often better than the average in any other Canadian community.

All the modernism of Fifth Avenue, however would not erase their individualities. Replace shaftheads with grain elevators, and the prairie city atmosphere of Timmins would be complete.

It is flat and treeless as a cattle town, with the same wide streets, the same climatic extremes of dry heat and cold, the same breezy friendliness and hospitality that one has come to associate with the West. There the resemblance ends. Its history, tradition, thought and color are of the North.

Timmins is a mining town that has grown up but is still growing. It celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary last summer. It is the capital of the Porcupine, including the near-by towns of Schumacher and South Porcupine, which produced close to $40,000,000 worth of gold last year.

Its ace is the “Holly” – Hollinger Consolidated Gold Mines Limited – a tremendous gold factory as far removed from the layman’s conception of a gold mine as a modern automobile plant is removed from a bicycle shop. Hollinger pays out half a million dollars a month in wages, a quarter of a million dollars a month for supplies, employs 3,000 men, has produced more than a quarter of a billion dollars worth of gold and silver in its lifetime.

Timmins itself, had a population of 3,500 in 1921, it has a population of more than 25,000 now, and the big buses that trundle through its broad streets carry an average of 5,000 fares a day.

The secret of all this growth lies in the depth of the Porcupine ore deposits, the big-scale efficiency of its mines and the boost in the gold price, encouraging development of new properties and enabling established producers to take a profit from low-grade ores on the upper levels.

Kirkland Lake’s Big Production

Kirkland Lake, although its gold discoveries date back to the genesis of the Porcupine, didn’t get going until after the War. Five miles east of the railway, lacking the spectacular surface showings of the Porcupine area, hampered by early financing difficulties, it suffered more than its share of adversity. But if the gold wasn’t lavish on top, it was rich and deep-seated below.

Along a “break” of less than a mile, bordering the community to the north – so that the mines are right in the town or the town is right around the mines, as you like – Kirkland Lake now produces about forty per cent of Ontario’s gold supply from an ore tonnage a little over half that of the Porcupine. And where the camp had a population of about 3,500 ten years ago it now has 22,000 people, shares with the other two communities such luxuries as first-run movie theatres, artificial ice rinks, local broadcasting stations, and window displays identical with those of Granville Street, Portage Avenue, or Yonge Street.

But you can’t look very citified with shaftheads and mine mills in your backyard and avast of the front porch. Kirkland Lake, for all its commercial polish, still looks and feels very much like a mining camp.

Government Road – main thoroughfare and business artery – follows the erratic course of the original prospectors’ trail, the general night effect being that of a cockeyed gentlemen lugging home a lighted Christmas tree. The informal note. And if, as Europeans say, you will meet everyone you ever knew if you sit  long enough in the Café de la Paix, any Northerner can say the same of almost any Government Road corner.

Who The Workers Are

For nowadays it is the fashion to go North, instead of West, to grow up with the country. Kirkland Lake and the other large mining communities of Northern Ontario have represented opportunity to thousands from other parts in the past few years.

In the early days, the mining camps were regarded as the logical goals of adventurers and foreigners. Drudgery in the dank, dark, dangerous depths of a mine was the privilege of muscular immigrants who were glad to take whatever jobs they could get. Things are different now. The depression taught Young Canada something about jobs.

There are plenty of foreign names on the mines payrolls, of course. Hundreds of them. But the John Shovanoski who loads ore cars in the depths of the Lake Shore or the Dome or the Frood is indistinguishable, off-shift, from the other young fellows who yell themselves hoarse at a Mines League hockey match. He is probably a son of the John Shovanoski who came over in the steerage, worked on a T. & N. O. construction gang, and went underground as a mucker at the Coniagas in the old Cobalt days.

And John’s mate at the loading chute may be young Tom Robinson, of Sweet Grass Hollow, Saskatchewan, who came east on a freight when the seven lean years struck the West, laying siege to the mine employment office a month before they took him on.

Machinery has eliminated a good deal of the more back-breaking drudgery of the mines, but the general run of underground jobs are still rough and dirty, demanding physical strength and endurance. Also, they demand experience. The business of acquiring that experience is apt to be very painful to the casual laborer or the greenhorn who ambles blithely into the mining camps “willing to do anything.”

Job-Seekers Disappointed

Which brings us to the great problem of the North – the problem of the job-seekers. If you are out of work at the moment or dissatisfied with your present employment, if this article has thus far emphasized the growth and prosperity of the North to such an extent that you are already meditating setting out for this Promised Land early tomorrow morning – wait a minute!

There are hundreds ahead of you, and most of them are having a very tough time.

The depression, as was remarked a few paragraphs back, taught Young Canada something about jobs. It taught hem that when you can’t get the work you want you must want the work you can get. And like it.

The gold mines didn’t shut down during the depression. They didn’t run part time. They expanded operations. They created more jobs, and the consequent expansion of the towns created still more jobs. More miners meant more business, and more business meant more clerks and truck drivers and bookkeepers and stenographers and other workers in the towns. So began the Great Trek to the North, and at the worst of the depression the mining communities faced a transient relief problem that made them feel as if half the male population of Canada had suddenly gone broke and landed on the doorstep, begging a job or a handout.

It was to one who saw some of it firsthand, pitiful, terrible and appalling. The mining communities did the best they could, to the extent of staggering relief bills. It’s best forgotten, if that is possible. The worst is over. They don’t have policemen at the junction of the Ferguson Highway and the Government Road to Kirkland Lake any more, warning job-seekers away. The would be a flat contradiction of Premier Mitchell Hepburn’s statement in the autumn of 1937 to the effect that there was plenty of work for all in Northern Ontario.

Fresh from a sweeping political victory at the moment, Mr. Hepburn doubtless felt that God was in heaven and that all was right with the world, but obviously his hasty campaign tour of the district had not included visits to the employment offices by day and the police stations by night. However, the burghers of a good many Southern Ontario municipalities were so impressed that they lost no time in passing on the glad news to their unemployed, in some cases even outfitting them with clothes and supplying them with railway tickets to the mining camps.

At about the same time a couple of Midland truck drivers who had just returned from a trip to Timmins, told the folks back home such a roseate tale of mining camp prosperity – they had met a few former townfolk who happen to be working at the moment – that their glad tidings were hastily telegraphed to the Toronto newspapers.

Inasmuch as mining companies were laying off surface employees, lumber and pulpwood companies were seeking only experienced bushmen, every police station had its nightly  quota of homeless men seeking shelter, and every mine employment office had its daily line-up of jobseekers – some of whom had been waiting for weeks in the hope that their numbers might be called – the joyous propaganda that reduced a few Southern relief rolls was not appreciated.

The stream of workless that had been trickling steadily through the mining communities for months became a flood. Sudbury city council flatly and indignantly named the Premier in a resolution deploring his statement, blamed him for the influx. Every editor in the three camps rolled up his sleeves and waded in with a pen dipped in acid.

6,000 Applicants: 400 Jobs

The job hunters came, as they had been coming from the south, the east and the west. The Ferguson Highway was closed for repairs, so Sudbury got the worst of it. They came on foot, by car, by truck, by freight and by day-coach. They crowed the employment offices, they begged under the neon signs and at the back doors. They slept where they could. In cheap flop-houses if they had the money, in the police stations if there was room, in railway depots, in makeshift shelter by the railway tracks.

There were no mine jobs. Surface workers were being laid off. One Kirkland Lake mine had received 6,000 job applications in the year, had hired only 400 men, most of them for summer surface work.

Very few of the job-seekers could claim experience in mining work. Even during the height of the expansion period at Sudbury when inexperienced workers were being taken on at Frood Mine, many of them couldn’t stand the gaff. Scores didn’t last more than a shift underground. Men softened up by privation and idleness were especially apt to crack, unable to take it.

During the year it had been said in the mining camps, wherever men talked about working conditions, that a man from the West had the best chance of getting taken on a payroll, a man from the South had better bring his luck, and a man from Quebec had no chance at all. Although there was certainly nothing official about this, there did appear to be a sympathetic disposition to give the breaks to the men from the drought areas while, on the other hand, Jean Baptiste discovered an altered attitude.

Over in Quebec an effort was being made by Premier Duplessis, it was said, to get the proportion of French-Canadian names on mine payrolls up to seventy-five per cent of the total. Ontario mining companies operating Quebec properties didn’t take too kindly to this request, coming on top of Regulation No. 5 which compelled them to take out Quebec charters for their operations in that province. They liked to use their own experienced miners. So if Jean Baptiste couldn’t get a job in his own province he was apt to find a lot of frost in the atmosphere when he crossed the border into the Ontario mining camps.

A Young Man’s County

Thus was the transient unemployed problem intensified needlessly and cruelly in the early winter. Some of the hardships suffered by poor devils who ventured, ill-clothed and penniless, into the better winds of the North Country would tax the pen of a Dostoevski.

For all their flush prosperity, the three mining communities are not flowing with milk and honey, even for those who have jobs. Competition in nearly every line of business is terrific. With labor plentiful, wages are in line with the good old law of supply and demand. And with rapid expansion, each community is over-crowded, with correspondingly high rents. You need a mighty good job if you are paying $20 a ton for coal, $75 a month for a six-room house that would rent for half that sum anywhere else.

So that’s the other side of the picture. Local boosters will not be offended by its presentation. Their problems have arisen inevitably form their prosperity. It’s a grand country up there in the Golden Triangle. A young man’s country, splashed with color, surging with vitality. No one who has ever been there can deny its powerful fascination. At the moment it is here that one finds Canada at the height of its tumultuous vigor.


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