Some Kind of Damn Metal in Cobalt – Michael Barnes

When railway contractors found traces or ore along the tracks at mile 101 north of North Bay in 1903, they did not know what they had. Fred LaRose said it was some kind of damn metal. But what? They needed a rock doctor to figure it out.

In modern day Cobalt, just around the corner from the Lang Street hotel, on a dead end, there is a monument to the man who ‘read the story of the rocks’. Few people have heard the story of the moonlighting geologist it remembers, but without him, well, let’s just say Cobalt would have been a lot slower to develop.

Willet Miller was thirty-seven when his story and the discovery of the first great mining camp after the Klondike became linked. He worked his way through the University of Toronto to become a geologist and became a Professor at Queens University. But professors did not make very much money so Miller looked for work in the summer months when school was out.

He had a lucky break when he was appointed Provincial Geologist. Today the post has a huge staff but then it was a summer job. One of his first assignments was to check out iron at Steep Rock. He felt the pay-off would be big if the lake were drained. Many years later this took place.

In 1903 the Bureau of Mines sent Miller to Haileybury. He went by boat up the Ottawa River and steamer on Lake Timiskaming. He was easy to pick out for he wore a straw boater hat and had a thick black beard which sank Niagara Falls-like toward his vest.

Miller was to check out unusual rock specimens found at along the tracks of the then building Timiskaming and Northern Ontario railway. We know it today as the Ontario Northland.

These samples looked like niccolite, a host of nickel. This excited locals who thought it would be another Sudbury. But the careful geologist sent the stuff south to be analysed. The report came back that there was much Cobalt, then used to glaze pottery. A second account indicated a base of silver.

Miller worked late in the fall tramping the area. In one place he saw lumps of native silver as big as stove lids and cannonballs, just lying on the ground. Later he saw silver veins cascading down a cliff, so wide it seemed to him like a ski run. The advent of snow sent him back to Queens.

In 1904 his opinions were confirmed. Amateur prospector Fred LaRose showed his silver samples to Mattawa merchant Noah Timmins who bought the claims and went on to become rich. Word of the finds leaked out and the rush was on. Miller was there that summer as hopeful prospectors arrived. He took a board and used precious sketching ink to inscribe the name Cobalt and set his sign up on a rock cairn. The name stuck and the silver camp would keep it forever.

Willet Miller stuck to his profssion and never did profit by the silver funds at mile 101. He became regarded as an expert, highly impartial mining expert. Visit Cobalt today, view his monument and see the great crevices in the rocky bluffs across the lake. These are the ones Miller saw 80 years ago but the precious metal has long since been mined out.

After Willet Miller determined that Cobalt had so much silver it would become a fully fledged mining camp, he felt the whole Canadian Shield would become one of the world’s biggest mining areas.

How right he was. He went on to visit the emerging camps of Timmins, Kirkland Lake and Red Lake. There were also many more smaller mineral areas and they, too, provided fortunes from the ground.

Let us not forget one further benefit of Miler’s discoveries. In the Second World War, that Cobalt ore, which was formerly only used in pottery finishing, suddenly acquired premium value. The mineral which changes to pretty hues when exposed to the atmosphere became the centre piece for an exciting new medical process. The Cobalt Bomb, as it became known, was a prime tool in the treatment of cancer.

Willet Miller’s sharp diagnosis was of benefit to many people. Prospectors and engineers who meet to discuss current mining events in the auditorium named for him at the mines ministry in Sudbury, often spare a thought for this great pioneer in their field. He did a good job of reading the rocks.

Michael Barnes is a published Canadian author who has written extensively on Northern Ontario.