Big Nickel – By James H. Gray (Maclean’s October 1, 1947) – Part 2

Busy People

Well, if Sam Ritchie will settle for that kind of monument, there it is. It’s the only kind there is at the moment, for the guys who owe their jobs to Sam Ritchie’s stubbornness haven’t got around to anything else. We wondered about this and asked Dan Dunbar, Inco public relations man, why not.

“I guess they just haven’t had time. This is the participatingest community on the face of the earth. Everybody is always up to something, usually three or four things at the same time.”

Actually, instead of one community at Copper Cliff, there are as many communities as there are mines. Each settlement has its community hall and in the winter the lights in the halls are seldom out. The outdoor skating rinks are jammed with small fry. Teams from the district have an excellent record in national competition and each mine has its hockey team, bowling team, badminton team and baseball team.

Last year a two-night skating carnival attracted more than 5,000 spectators with its 200 performers. The skating club at Copper Cliff has been going for 11 years. It has its own full-time professional instructor.

One of these days it is confident that it will come up with a successor to Barbara Ann Scott. The artificial ice plant in Sudbury stadium operated all through this summer for a skating school under the direction of Ferdinand Chatte. He came to Sudbury from Europe by way of Winnipeg and Vancouver.

Musically the Nickel Belt can give cadenzas and obbligatos to many of the culture-proud metropolises of the country. The celebrity concerts sell out regularly. Every mining community has its own orchestra. Concerts are staged at the first hint of public desire. Amateur actors and actresses abound and when they can grab the stages from the boxers, wrestlers, dance hands and community parties, they give out with the living drama.

Visiting artists coming to Sudbury for the first time, sometimes get thrown for a loss by the timing of their performances. Oscar Peterson, booked into Sudbury for a piano recital, discovered that his performance did not start until midnight. But when he started pounding out the boogie-woogie, the walls of the hall bulged with the enthusiastic faithful. The weird timing stems from the fact that mines operate on two shifts at the production end, while the mill, smelter and refinery are round-the-clock propositions. A midnight show hence, will catch most of the miners off work.

Though name bands book regularly into Sudbury, the Nickel Belters provide most of their own entertainment. They fish, hunt, ski, curl, bowl, skate, sing, dance, golf, play bridge and tennis, lift weights, throw horseshoes, knit, sew, gossip, drink beer, go to church, fight, wrestle and play pool. Or they take over the Sudbury Inco club Tuesday nights and play chess. Or they sit home and collect stamps.

The champion stamp collector of the camp is Justyn Krysa of the Creighton mine. His collection of 45,000 stamps and covers has been appraised at $20,000. Krysa, who came to Sudbury from the Ukraine in 1928, is secretary of the Canadian Ukrainian association in the Nickel Belt.

Krysa is a typical Nickel Belter in that he came from “outside.” Sudbury was made by immigrants like Krysa. Every country of Europe is represented on the Nickel payroll. So is almost every state of the United States and all the provinces of Canada.

“If you’re running away from something,” a chance acquaintance in a Sudbury poolroom pointed out, “you’d better stay away from this neck of the woods. It’s the doggonedest place for bumping into people from your old home town.” I’ll bet there are guys here from every town in Finland, and most of them in Norway, Sweden and Czechoslovakia, too. If there’s no one here when you get here, chances are there’ll be someone in next week.

“You don’t notice it so much now, but it used to be common for a couple of guys from some place in Russia or Poland or Germany to bump into each other walking down the streets in Sudbury. They’d let out a whoop, bang each other on the back and then get a celebration going. Boy, some of those guys could really celebrate!”

The next afternoon I had a date to go through the smelter. Don Dunbar turned me over to the assistant superintendent, a tall young fellow in his early thirties. Bob Saddington, it turned out, once lived a hundred yards up the street from my home in Winnipeg.

Like most of the young men who run the show, he came up from the bottom. His first job in the smelter was with a shovel and broom 12 years ago when he was taking his mining degree at Queen’s University. When he got his sheepskin he came back to the smelter and has been there ever since.

Nickel Skyrocket

Already one of the largest of its kind in the world, “Inco’s” big Sudbury smelter plant is nevertheless scheduled for expansion soon, to keep up with the growing world demand for nickel. That’s a significant far cry from the second year after the last war when the whole operation at Copper cliff and all the mines closed down. It took years to liquidate the nickel surplus that was created by the end of hostilities. Nickel then had few peacetime uses. From Ritchie’s first big order from the United States Navy, until 1921, the armament makers were almost the only nickel users outside the mints.

In 1922 the company went out to create markets, to get nickel into steel and copper used for consumers’ goods. In five years it succeeded so well that International Nickel became a spectacular skyrocket on the New York exchange. Ultimately, it went the inevitable way of stockmarket skyrockets, but the basic markets that were being slowly acquired remained and were expanded.

Today the stuff is shipped out at the rate of six freight-car loads a-day. With 45 tons of nickel in a freight car, there is still room inside for a couple of automobiles, a tractor and four horses. Forty-five tons makes a poke about the size of one ton of coke in each end of the car. A boxcar loaded full of nickel would collapse in a heap from the strain.

Sixty years after Sam Ritchie’s railroading troubles began, history has completed a full circle. Nickel is now the prized metal and copper is the byproduct. But copper bulks large in International Nickel’s operation. It sold 150 million pounds of copper last year compared with 201 million pounds of nickel. As byproducts, it sold a million ounces of silver, 46,000 ounces of gold and 320,000 ounces of platinum metals.

This several million dollars worth of precious metals represents impurities in copper. To get rid of it requires still further pushing around of what use to be ore. From the smelter the molten, impure copper ore is ferried over to the refinery in giant soup cups and put through more heat treatment. Eventually it is cast into anodes three feet square and a couple of inches thick.

The anodes are hung vertically in acid-filled tanks. Between each one and the next is hung a paper-thin pure copper cathode. Electricity is turned on and the current takes the pure copper from the anode and deposits it on the cathode. In 28 days the anode has been reduced to less than half an inch in thickness, while the cathode has picked up the girth the anode last. The gold, silver and platinum settles to the bottom of the tank in a black slime. Eventually the muck is collected, dried, boiled and out come the precious metals.

Given peace, plus full employment, and Nickel thinks it will get along. It can go on digging out 22,000 or more tons of ore a day for many years without exhausting its Sudbury deposits. Constantly improving mining and milling techniques have lengthened the life of the mines. Low-grade ore once regarded as useless now goes through themill to profitable markets.

Wherever you go in Copper Cliff, from the stopes of the Frood mine to the front office, from the grinding mills to the smelter and refinery, there is evidence everywhere of the universal passion for trying something new. New techniques, new gadgets that seem to come straight out of Rube Goldberg, new ideas or very old ideas in new dress.

Above all, there are new men in new jobs. The conclusion that Nickel at the production level is a young man’s job is irresistible. Fourteen years ago Jim Parlee was wondering, really, about the worth of his band-new college diploma. It didn’t seem to be very helpful to a mucker in a stope in the Frood. Today he is the superintendent of the gargantuan Copper Cliff Mill. There are literally hundreds of other men in their 30s in jobs of high responsibility in Nickel.

Where Opportunity Knocks

Executives seem to wear well in Nickel where ulcers are not an occupational disease. R.L. Beattie came all the way from an office job to the vice-president’s chair without noticeable physical wear and tear. Eighteen years as on-the-spot boss of Canada’s biggest mining operation has done nothing to the color of H. J.  Mutz’s hair. A. E. “Obie” O’Brian, boss of the Frood mine, could spot most policement 20 years and walk them into exhaustion in half a day.

The idea that young Canadian scientists have to go to the United States to carve out careers gets short shrift at Copper Cliff.

“I wish somebody would tell them about Nickel when they start thinking about hading south,” Mr. Beattie remarked when the subject was raise. “Nickel can use them, lots of them. In fact we brought scores of college men into Copper Cliff this summer with the idea that they will like us and come back to permanent jobs when they complete their courses.”

So nobody at Nickel seems too much concerned about the future. The armament and other industrial plants of Germany and Japan, once important customers, no longer exist and Russia, one of the greatest prewar consumers, has stopped taking Canadian nickel. To replace these customers Nickel is engaged in expanding its markets in the United States, particularly in the stainless steel and cast iron fields. Last year more than 40 million pounds of nickel went into stainless steel alone. The automobile industry, now Nickel’s most important single outlet, is using more nickel than ever before, 75% more for plating than it did in 1939. New war-developed alloys are hitting the market. New techniques in processing and casting are being perfected.

No one will argue that either International Nickel, or nickel, has been an unmixed blessing to mankind. Indeed there are many people who take the dimmist view of International Nickel. The United States Attorney General has charged it with being a monopoly; the company has denied every point in the allegations and the case has not yet been taken to court and may never be.

There are many Canadian who sincerely believe that the company sold too much nickel to Germany and Japan when the war clouds were gathering, though the company points out that these sales were cleared with the Canadian and British Governments. There are hundreds of farmers in the Sudbury district who still regard nickel as the Devil’s metal because of damage to crops by sulphur fumes from the refinery, although in great part there are now being used to make suphuric acid.

The men who run the show are prepared to take up any criticisms and argue the company case until the cows come home. On no point are they more emphatic than on staff relation. They point to the pioneering the company has done in mine safety and the enviable record maintained for a low accident ratio. They mention the community halls, the hospital, the schools and recreational facilities that have been provide.

They talk about the company’s pension fund, now worth $30 millions, and the housing accommodation that it provides. And, anyway, once the mines were unionized in 1943 the company bent every effort to getting along with the Mine, Mill and Smelter Worker Union. Despite widespread labor disturbances in the mining industry, Nickel’s relations with the unions have been what Mr. Stanley called his last report, “generally satisfactory.” All its hourly rated employees are covered by union contracts now.

All of this boils down to the fact that a mineral that was virtually useless to the world only 60 years ago has built a virile Canadian community and been transformed into an industrial necessity which provides Canada with $100 millions a year in sorely needed American exchange. It has added to the amenities of modern life in untold thousands of ways. Not even Nickel’s severest critics have ever accused it of lack of enterprise in developing and promoting its product. It was a big day for Canada when Sam Ritchie decided to get stubborn about staying in the railway business.


For more historic print articles about Canadian mining, click here: