Since the beginning of mankind, access to important mineral deposits for economic or military applications have changed the destinies of entire civilizations.
The rich gold mines of Thrace gave Alexander the Great the enormous wealth to bankrole a powerfull army and establish one of the greatest empires the world had ever seen. Ancient Chinese metalurgical expertise with iron and steel allowed the Middle Kingdom to become a powerful military and economic force during the prosperous Han dynasty.
For much of the twentieth century, the nickel mines of Sudbury were not only the principle source of this strategic metal, but also had a disproportionate impact on the industrial and military history of the world.
As with all good things, this story begins with a bang. Actually, it was one cosmic explosion and two smaller earth-bound blasts. The first happened about 1.8 billion years ago when a massive ten kilometer wide meteor, wider than Mount Everest, and traveling at about 75 km per second, collided with the earth at a site roughly 400 km north of present day Toronto. The impact, equal to the force of about 10 billion atomic bombs, melted the crust and concentrated the nickel-copper mineralization already at the site.
An eternity later, in 1856, government surveyor Albert Pellew Salter and geologist Alexander Murray from the Geological Survey of Canada noted iron, copper and nickel in the location of the present day Creighton Mine. Their report gathered dust.
The second much smaller blast or rather a series of explosions occurred in the Sudbury district in 1883, during the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway as it was carving its way through the tough Precambrian shield. A blacksmith named Thomas Flanagan noticed copper colored ore in a mineralized outcrop but he didn’t stake a claim not realizing the importance the discovery. The site eventually became the Murray mine. Other discoveries were quickly made by many prospectors some of the more famous included Thomas Frood, James Stobie, Francis Crean, and Rinaldo McConnell. But nickel mines were very capital intensive and wealthy outsiders were needed to develop these potential deposits.
Samuel J. Richie
News of fabulously rich copper deposits spread throughout the country bringing a wide assortment of hucksters and characters including an American businessman named Samuel J. Richie. He eventually bought up the most promising properties and established with backers the Canadian Copper Company in 1886.
The initial interest with this ore-body was its copper content. The first shipment of ore was sent to the Orford Copper Company of New Jersey, owned by Robert M. Thompson. When news came back that the ore contain nickel, Sudbury’s future became uncertain.
At that time, nickel was considered a nuisance as there was not much use for the material. The metal was only isolated in 1781 by Swedish mineralogist Axel Fredrik. Sixteenth century copper and silver miners in Saxony despised troublesome nickel ores and called them “Kupfernickel” – The Devil’s Copper.
Thompson eventually discovered an economic smelting process but the financial stability of the Canadian Copper Company and Sudbury were still in doubt until 1889 when metallurgist James Riley delivered a paper titled, “The Alloys of Nickel and Iron.” He claimed that nickel-steel alloys were the best material for armour plate and its potential military applications.
The following year, the third and most important blast was heard at the American navel testing yards in Washington. They confirmed that nickel-steel plate was impervious to shells fired at a velocity of 1,700 feet per second. Nickel-steel alloys became the metallurgical equivalent of the Atomic Bomb – the perfect metal for war. During the Spanish-American conflict of 1898, the American ships fortified with this new material proved invincible.
The special toughness of nickel-steels fueled a navel arms race among European Powers. The age of the dreadnoughts had arrived, demand for nickel skyrocked and the Sudbury mines exploded with activity.
Originally a Lumber Town
Most people would be surprised to learn that forestry was the first major industry in the area. Sudbury was so densely forested with gigantic and commercially valuable white and red pine trees that the community was originally named “Ste-Anne of the Pines”. James Worthington, superintendent of the CPR, renamed Sudbury in honour of his wife’s birthplace in England.
An infamous cow belonging to a Mrs. O’Leary knocked over a lantern and started the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. When it was over, 300 people were dead, 90,000 homeless, and the property loss was $200 million. The previous year, an enormous forest fire in the northern states caused a shortage of timber for American North Atlantic seaboard wood mills. The combination of these two events forced the Americans to look north and much of the timber in the Sudbury district helped rebuild Chicago.
Sudbury’s thriving lumber industry produced many timber barons, one of the most famous was William Joseph Bell. He is best known for donating the land for Bell Park, located on the shores of Ramsey Lake, a beautiful emerald oasis that has been enjoyed by generations of Sudburians. At the turn of the last century, an estimated 5,000 men worked in the lumber sector in the surrounding districts.
Railroad construction also consumed much of the regions timber. The clear cutting practices of the time led to many fires and the ensuing mining operations and their sulphur pollution prevented natural reforestation ensuring the region’s barren landscape.
Sudbury was rapidly growing as the population of the entire basin in 1901 was about 7,500 and increased to 12,500 by the next census in 1911. From the beginning, the mines attracted a varied population. People of British and French background usually made up 50 and 35 per cent of the population respectively. The remainder included large German, Polish, Ukrainian, Finnish, Jewish and Chinese communities. The Chinese suffered much discrimination in the early years however Sudbury was the first major Canadian city to elect a mayor of Chinese background – Peter Wong who served from 1982 to 1991.
Stan Sudol is a Toronto-based excutive speech writer and communications consultant who writes extensively on mining issues. He can be reached at [email protected]