Samuel J. Ritchie: A Tower in Early Sudbury Mining – Gary Peck

There are many tales yet untold pertaining to the formative years of the area’s mining industry. Numerous prospectors, the names of some unrecorded, are part of the history. The various workers who toiled with the rock are also an important facet of the story.

As well, entrepreneurs and their companies have to be examined. Not surprising, more of the early companies met with failure than success. One company and one name towered above the others during the early years of mining – the Canadian Copper Company and Samuel J. Ritchie. Ritchie’s introduction to nickel and the events leading to formation of the Canadian Copper Company constitute an interesting story. 

Ritchie, born in Ohio in 1838, had a varied career as a teacher, was involved in the lumbering industry and such diverse ventures as carriage manufacturing, a sewer pipe factory and coal mining in West Virginia. In 1876, he first came in contact with nickel as an alloy while in Washington.
Ritchie later recalled that 1876 was the time of the yellow fever or malaria epidemic in the cities bordering the Gulf. As it happened, also in Washington was an Englishman, John Gamgee, who happened to be staying in the same hotel in the adjoining room.

Seeking Cure

Gamgee was seeking a remedy for yellow fever. Apparently, it was generally known that frost would kill the germs. Gamgee’s solution was to build a large refrigerator ship. This ship, complete with refrigerator, would travel to the cities where the disease prevailed. The patients, once on board, would be cured through their exposure to the germ-free frosty atmosphere. Ritchie, it seems, was intrigued with the Englishman and his experiments.

Gamgee, with Ritchie’s assistance, was able to secure from the United States Senate Committee on Epidemic Diseases the promise that $250,000 would be appropriated when he was able to demonstrate to the committee that he could “produce and maintain the proper temperature” for such experiments. Gamgee was provided with a large room and the required machinery. The naval yard at Washington was to be the site of the experiments.

Gamgee’s first task was to build an immense machine the purpose of which was to direct the ammonia to produce his frosty temperature. Problems soon were encountered because of the gases the liquid ammonia emitted when coiled. The gas escaped through the cast iron and any of the alloys that were subsequently used. Months of experimenting and continued failure followed as Gamgee strove to contain the gases.
Ritchie spent several weeks assisting Gamgee. In his own words he was attracted by “the object of the enterprise and the (novel) manner of conducting the experiments.” Then, after numerous failures, Gamgee recalled meteorites he had seen at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. The fragments were closely grained, nearly all containing nickel. Perhaps nickel would be a suitable alloy with iron. Experiments followed with Gamgee finally determining the correct combination. Ritchie could not “even mark the alloy with the heaviest blow from a ten-pound sledge.”

Suddenly, all was to be naught. Gamgee was unable to secure the $250,000 needed to begin the building of the refrigerator ship. He did not take out patents on the alloys. Also, both sides could not agree on the cost and management of the ship. The ship would not be built. Gamgee drifted into relative obscurity though it appears he continued experimenting. For S.J. Ritchie, he had been introduced to nickel as an alloy – seven years before he was to become involved in Canadian mining.
Shortly after the Gamgee experiments, Ritchie met George McMullen, of Picton, Ontario. At the time, McMullen was in Washington in quest of aid in order that he might purchase the Prince Edward County railway and develop iron ore deposits north in Hastings County. S.J. Ritchie and McMullen pooled their resources. In 1882 the Ontario Legislature incorporated the Central Ontario Railway. However, after the road was built, it was found that the iron ores contained too much sulphur.

With a railway and no marketable ore, Ritchie looked farther afield. In Ottawa at the Geological Museum he examined ores from across the country. Included were specimens from cuts near Worthington and near Murray mine. The richness of the copper was of particular interest.

Ritchie soon discovered that others controlled the areas in which he had newfound interest. However, in 1884 Ritchie purchased prospects from W.B. McAllister and J.H. Metcalf, and in 1886 from Rinaldo McConnel, James Stobie and R.T. Tough. These and a few other purchases provided Ritchie with the required prospects.
On January 5, 1886, two corporations under Ohio charters were formed – the Canadian Copper Company with an initial capital of $2,000,000 soon increased by $500,000, and the Anglo-American Iron Company, capital at $5,000,000. Ritchie and his wife deeded to the Canadian Copper Company lands purchased from McAllister, Metcalf, and the others. Ritchie and his Ohio associates in the Central Ontario Railway were the incorporators and first shareholders.

Ritchie now had more than just a railway without resources to haul. The required deposits were now in the fold. The Canadian Copper Company, with Ritchie and president, within a matter of months would cause him to recall the experiments ten years previous with James Gamgee and Nickel. However, that is another story.

Gary Peck is a retired Sudbury school teacher with a passion for history.