Cobalt: A Mine was Something to Fall Back On for MJ – Michael Barnes

Most people have never heard of M J O’Brien- not in the north anyway. He died in Renfrew in 1940 and was one of Canada’s richest men. But in 1903 he made a deal at the King Edward hotel in Toronto which made him more money and created much work in the silver town of Cobalt.

O’Brien was born in the Ottawa Valley in 1851. He started off as a water boy on big construction projects and ended up owning countless big companies. He made his money through careful research and driving hard bargains. His real money came from railways and lumbering.

In 1903 the heavy set, black bearded magnate from Renfrew heeded some advice from his friend, Robert Borden, then leader of the Opposition in Pariament. Borden put him onto a lawyer who who had some business ideas.

While the two men talked at the Toronto hotel. They were interrupted by prospector Ned King, a scruffy looking jack of all trades from the Ottawa Valley. He had rich silver samples and wanted to sell claims.

O’Brien refused a request for $5,000 and gave $4,000 instead. It was a deal that was to make him millions. He gave the lawyer one fifth interest to draw up the sale papers and look after the legal side of the new deal.

Later the venture capitalist had his new property independently assessed and the prelimary value estimate was placed at $10,000,000, which turned out to be rather low. The deal was not without its share of headaches. The Timmins interests owned land in the same area as what became the O’Brien Mine.

O’Brien bought out his lawyer partner and won court battles with the Timmins interests. He wound up with all the land surrounding the LaRose Mine and, on and off, the O’Brien property worked up to the 1950’s.

O’Brien was a tough, hard fisted owner, but he made the mine a model property, well appointed for its workers. A grateful province made him a commissioner of the provincial railway. O’Brien liked that, because he could travel north to check up on his mine and did not have to pay fare.

Once he travelled in the parlour car and a fellow was talking about the state of mining. He said that most mines were owned by syndicates but here was actually one mine in Cobalt that was owned by one man. O’Brien did not enlighten his travelling companion as to the company he was keeping.

O’Brien liked to think he made his money from railway construction. After all he built much of what we know today as the Canadian National. But he said a mine was a nice thing to fall back on. So much so that he bought two more, a silver mine in Gowgnda and a big gold mine in Cadilac, Quebec.

Actually M J did make some mistakes through his hard bargaining. He could have had the Hollinger Mine in Timmins but insisted on trying to get a better price and his old rivals, the Timmins interests snapped it up instead.

O’Brien lived in a big mansion but was not really ostentatious in life style. He did have a solid silver telephone at home, though, and gave a solid silver eucharistic chalice to his church, which was later presented to the Pope.

During the first world war, the O’Brien interests employed 3,000 workers at Renfrew making munitions. He financed a Batallion of 1,018 men to work in France building and maintaining esential rail links for Allied troops.

On his post war visit to Canada, Edward, the Prince of Wales visited the O’Brien mine at Cobalt, where he was royally wined and dined, made quite tipsy, and given a silver bar to take home as a souvenir.

Later there was a problem in Cobalt with refining silver from ores steeped in arsenic. O’Brien solved this nuisance by building a special plant for such refining at Deloro, north of  Belleville. He profitted from all the other Cobalt Mines, for they sent their ores to be refined there also.

M J O’Brien died in 1940 but the family businesses and fortunes just keep rolling right along. He was one of the founding fathers of the NHL through interests in the Renfrew Millionaires team, which his son Ambrose parlayed into Stanley Cup contender stature.

A silver mine in Cobalt, was maybe a sideline for the Renfrew capitalist but he created jobs and wealth in the north.

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