Thomas A. Edison the famous inventor came to Sudbury in 1901 searching for nickel. He was unsuccessful as he didn’t drill deep enough. Years later Falconbridge would develop a mine on this very claim.
The strategic military importance of nickel attracted major American corporations. In 1902 J.P. Morgan of U.S. Steel helped establish the International Nickel Company by combining the Orford Copper Company’s New Jersey refinery with the Canadian Copper Company’s Sudbury mines. Samuel Ritchie was ousted be his partners back in 1891 giving Robert M. Thompson control. Ambrose Monell, who came from U.S. Steel was the first president.
In 1905, Sudbury nickel production surpassed that of New Caladonia for the first time and would continue it stranglehold on the world’s largest supplies of nickel until the late 1970s.
The growing importance of Sudbury and all of northern Ontario was formally recognized by the provincial government of Premier James Whitney (1905-1914) by appointing Sudbury businessman and former mayor Frank Cochrane as the province’s first northern cabinet minister. He served as the as the provincial minister of lands, forests and mines from 1905 to 1911. At the turn of the last century northern Ontario’s vast resources were supplying about 25 per cent of Queen’s Park revenues.
First World War
The start of the Great War in 1914 had an immediate impact on the local economy. Nickel production jumped from 45.5 to 92.5 million pound a year between 1914 and 1918. The two main beneficiaries were International Nickel and its chief competitor, British owned Mond Nickel which was established in 1900.
International Nickel Company experienced one of its most severe crisis during World War One. Sudbury nickel was sold to the Germans via a neutral United States. The general public was in an uproar calling for the nationalization of the company. Inco quickly stopped shipments and to further assuage Canadian anger the company finally agreed to demands to build a refinery inside Canada at Port Colborne.
At the end of the war, nickel markets collapsed. International Nickel completely shut down operations in November 1921 until the following September. Mond Nickel also cut back but European customers kept its facilities operating. In 1922 Robert Stanley was elected president of International Nickel. He is widely credited for saving the company from bankruptcy by investing heavily in research and development that found many peacetime uses for nickel.
In 1928, Falconbridge Nickel Mines Limited was incorporated and in the following year International Nickel Limited merged with Mond Nickel. This merger helped achieve significant cost savings in the development of mines and surface operations in the Sudbury Basin including the legendary Frood Open Pit which played a significant role during the Second World War.
Depression Years Were Somewhat Prosperous
As new markets were found for nickel the devastating bust of the early twenties subsided and the community continued growing. In 1929, world consumption of nickel reached an all time high of 125 million pounds and in October the stock market crashed. Like the rest of the country, Sudbury felt the Depression but its effects on the city were not long lasting. In 1930, International nickel completed a major construction program including mines, smelters, refineries and power plants.
The newly completed smelter also put an end to heap roasting. This environmentally destructive process entailed piling crushed ore over a fuel source, usually white pine. Setting the wood on fire would eventually ignite the sulphur in the rock which would take several months to burn off, sending sulphur fumes throughout the surrounding areas and destroying all the vegetation. Sudbury’s infamous “blackened moonscape” was the resulting legacy.
International Nickel’s investment in finding new uses for nickel was paying off and the world was also rearming for war throughout the 1930s. Job seekers across Canada were migrating to Sudbury increasing the population from 18,500 to 32,200 over the decade, a growth rate three times greater than any other Canadian city.
In Northern Ontario, the Sudbury region had the highest number of vehicles per capita in 1932. Three years later the community had the highest per capita of sales of new cars in Ontario. But a Sudbury Star report of July 17, 1935 stated that the community was “the worst city in North America” for car accidents and that speeding on the very bad roads was too common. The working men of Sudbury were the highest paid in Canada.
Nickel production rose from 30.3 million pounds in 1932 to 225 million pounds in 1937. Production fell off slightly towards the end of the decade. That was about to change.
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]