Brief History of Ontario Mining

Prospecting and Developing

Ontario has become one of the most fortunate and richest regions of the world primarily for two reasons. It has vast natural resources including mineral deposits of untold potential. The increasingly complex skills and knowledge necessary for the discovery and development of these deposits have been acquired, refined and applied vigorously by residents of Ontario with growing sophistication during the last 200 years.

Although native peoples knew of some of its mineral deposits and drew on them to meet their own needs, the extent of Ontario’s mineral potential did not begin to become clear until major discoveries of silver and gold were made early in the 20th century on the province’s section of the Precambrian Shield, Canada’s primary geological formation. Massive deposits of copper-nickel ores had been uncovered near Sudbury in the 1880s. But knowledge of their presence did little to change the prevailing view that the Precambrian region of northern Ontario was a barrier to progress. Something of the character of that region, and of what had to occur before its rocks would yield up their riches, may be found in the poetry of Robert W. Service:

I am the land that listens, I am the land that broods;
Steeped in eternal beauty, crystalline waters and woods.
Long have I waited lonely, shunned as a thing accurst,
Monstrous, moody, pathetic, the last of the lands and the first;
Wild and wide are my borders, stern as death is my sway,
And I wait for the men who will win me — and I will not be won in a day.

Men and women, with the qualities that Robert Service identified, settled in Ontario as the 19th century ended and the 20th century began. The record of how they and successive generations transformed its mineral potential into the reality of wealth, with few of them becoming rich in the process, is a central though often neglected feature of the history of Ontario and Canada. Indeed, the emergence of Ontario as the most populous and wealthiest Canadian province, and of Canada as an industrialized and respected nation, cannot be fully understood without some appreciation of the key roles that prospecting and mining have played in that development.

The Loyalist Pioneering Era

When the Loyalists came to Upper Canada they found it was a magnificent, heavily forested, almost entirely aboriginal territory. Its population consisted of perhaps 100,000 native peoples, small groups of French farmers at the western end of Lake Erie and soldiers stationed at British military posts. Transportation over distances was primarily by rivers, lakes and essential portages.

In Upper Canada the Loyalists found good farmland along the Ottawa and St. Lawrence rivers and in Prince Edward County. They encountered stony ground between the present cities of Brockville and Kingston. In due course they learned that the stoney ground stretched north to the Canadian Shield — the vast, rock-bound region covering more than half of the land mass of Canada. Subsequently, the large tract of land now known as Southwestern Ontario (north and west of Lake Ontario and between Lake Erie and Lake Huron and its eastern arm, Georgian Bay) was found to be — and became —one of Canada’s most fertile regions.

The Early Search for Minerals

Among the immediate material needs of the Loyalists and later pioneers were nonmetallic materials such as building stone, shale, slate, gypsum and clay for the making of brick, roofing, tile, drainpipe, cement and plaster. Fortunately all of these were available in Upper Canada. Various types of stone — limestone, sandstone, granite and marble — were soon quarried in several areas. A considerable number of brickyards were established. Gypsum was first mined in 1822 in Upper Canada at a place later named Paris, about 30 miles west of Hamilton. The quality of these natural building materials and the skill of the artisans who used them may still be noted in the lasting beauty of some of the early homes and public buildings in Brockville, Perth, Kingston, Cobourg, Toronto, Niagara-on-the-Lake and other Ontario towns established nearly 200 years ago.

Another major need in Upper Canada’s early years was iron for the local manufacture of stoves, kettles, pots, pans and other iron goods. In 1801 the province’s first successful blast furnace for the smelting of iron was built at a place called Furnace Falls (now Lyndhurst), a few miles north of Gananoque in Leeds County. This plant operated until 1811 when it caught fire; efforts to continue iron-making there ceased. Limited success was enjoyed at an iron works set up in 1813 on the north shore of Lake Erie, south of the village of Simcoe, until Joseph Van Norman took it over in 1822 and ran it successfully for a quarter of a century.

The primary problem for ironmongers in that early period was securing an adequate continuing supply of iron ore. The basic material then used — bog iron — was of a generally inferior quality found in bogs where it had been laid down over a long period through the dehydration of iron-bearing mud. Although Van Norman produced pig iron of good quality and had markets for his products in the United States as well as in Upper Canada, the ore supply problems made his Normandale operation unprofitable. In the late 1840s he revitalized an iron-making operation at Marmora, east of Peterborough, where a “Big Ore” bed, later called the Blairton Mine, had been discovered in 1824.

There was, however, a greater need: there were few geologists who understood the origin and environment for the occurrence of metal deposits. Fortunately, in the late 18th and early 19th century major advances were being made in the development of geology as a theoretical and applied science. William Logan, a Canadian of Scottish descent, was one of the scientists who made key contributions to that development.

William Logan and the Establishment of Mining as an Industry

After completing his early education in Montreal, where he had been born in 1798, William Logan entered the University of Edinburgh in 1816 and studied geology. An applied apprenticeship followed when, in 1831, he went to Swansea, Wales to manage copper/tin production. While there Logan devoted much time to the study of the origin, composition, distribution and succession of strata or layers of rock and related minerals. He also became an active member of the highly respected Geological Society of London.

While in England, Logan developed the original theory that coal deposits were of sedimentary origin. This theory gained wide acceptance among leading geologists including Charles Lyell (1797-1875), author of the three-volume study, The Principles of Geology. Lyell’s high regard for his work was a key factor in Logan’s appointment in 1842 as the Canadian government’s first geologist. During his 27 years as the founder and first director of what came to be known as the Geological Survey of Canada, he served with great distinction. As the boundaries of Ontario and Canada were gradually extended, so also was the work of the Survey across the entire country.

Special reports and, in many cases, topographical and geological maps were prepared in conjunction with many discoveries and explorations: copper mining on the north shore of Lake Huron at Bruce Mines following discoveries there in 1847-48; oil and natural gas southeast of Sarnia in southwestern Ontario in the 1850s and 1860s; salt and gypsum in the Goderich region from 1866 onwards; gold near Madoc and Marmora in 1866 and slightly later the first gold discoveries in the Canadian Shield; silver at Silver Islet in Lake Superior in 1868; the discovery of copper near Sudbury in 1883 by Tom Flanagan, a blacksmith working on the construction of the right-of-way for the Canadian Pacific Railway. Not all of these discoveries led to major metal production mining, but some did.

In his thorough and highly disciplined manner, Logan personally completed extensive field and laboratory work to acquire the information set out in his masterly 938-page volume Geology of Canada, the summation of knowledge in its field to that time. It was published in 1863. Two years later an atlas was published and then a larger geological map in 1869. With the appearance of these maps Canada entered a new and more informed era in the search for minerals. The Geological Survey of Canada, under a succession of capable directors and field officers, continued in the traditions Logan had established and thereby contributed to the development and maintenance in Canada of a mining industry of world stature.

The New Era in the Search for Minerals, 1842–1890

The availability of information and advice, reports and maps from the Geological Survey from 1842 onwards enabled early prospectors, as individuals or small partnerships, to strike out more successfully on their own. They soon realized that the best place to search for any mineral was in areas where evidence of it had already been found earlier by native people, trappers or explorers. In addition they knew that mineral deposits, like bananas and grapes, come in bunches. Some reflective prospectors also realized that in all likelihood the best deposits would not be found first and so any evidence of mineralization demanded serious study and probably wider search. Adding drama to the search for precious minerals in the 19th century were the celebrated gold rushes in California in 1848 and the Cariboo Mountains in British Columbia from 1860 to 1863.

Prospectors have long known that mineral discoveries are often made by chance or serendipity. They know, more importantly, that every time the soil cover of the earth is disturbed, by nature or by human action, another window is opened for the inquisitive prospector. A select few sensed that, if they were to be rewarded, they had to see not merely what everyone else could see but to understand what they saw. Thus emphasis on formal education increased.

Studies in geology and mining engineering were initiated in several colleges and universities in Ontario in the 19th century. Geological studies were offered at University College, Toronto early in the 1850s and William Logan endowed a professorship in Geology and Palaeontology at McGill in 1855. By the end of the 19th century, six Canadian universities had geology departments. Attention was also given to the education of mining engineers at McGill, Queen’s, Royal Military College and Toronto.

The need, however, was not merely for knowledgeable prospectors or well-trained geologists and mineralogists. Metallurgists, individuals who knew how to extract and separate minerals from their ores, refine and alloy them, were also required. Often the contributions of gifted research metallurgists determined whether a new mineral discovery would succeed or fail. A notable example of such a problem was the separation and purification of the complex nickel-copper ores found in the Sudbury region in the 1880s.

After “copper” had been discovered at Sudbury, American businessman, Samuel J. Ritchie, acquired mining properties in the Sudbury area. He assumed his lands had major financial potential because of the visibly high copper content. He learned, however, after 1,200 tons of the ore had been shipped for processing to the Orford Copper Company in New Jersey, that the ore contained four-and-a-half percent copper and two-and-a-half percent nickel with no known way of separating the two metals.

An English research metallurgist, John Gamgee, eventually solved the problem and rendered the deposits profitable. Gamgee, continuing his research with man-made nickel alloys, developed a rust and bullet resistant nickel steel alloy which the American and other national military agencies soon popularized. A second process, the Thompson/Orford, was developed for the same purpose. While these activities were under way, the government of Ontario appointed a Royal Commission on May 16, 1886 to report on Ontario’s mineral resources and ways to develop them.

The Charlton Royal Commission of Ontario’s Mineral Resources

The half century from 1890 to 1940 was, perhaps, the most dramatic in the history of prospecting and mineral development in Ontario. Important discoveries were made of silver and gold. The immense deposits of copper and nickel uncovered in the Sudbury Basin enabled the International Nickel Company to emerge as the world’s primary nickel producer. Some of the precious metal deposits discovered in Ontario proved to be among the richest in the world.

Successful mining corporations such as Hollinger, Lakeshore, Noranda and Falconbridge were developed. They retained their Canadian identity; their head offices in Toronto contributed to its emergence as a national and international financial centre. During the same period Ontario put in place mining legislation that became the model for other jurisdictions.

A key event in the half century — 1890-1940 — was the publi- cation of the report on the province’s mineral resources prepared by the Royal Commission chaired by John Charlton. This report, a well-organized 566-page document, is a veritable encyclopaedia of information on the development of Ontario’s mineral industry during its first century. The primary recommendation of the Commission was that an Ontario Bureau of Mines be established. The central work of the Bureau, as viewed by the Commission, was to be the systematic mapping of areas contiguous to new discoveries to encourage further discoveries and to develop “camps” of several mines to justify the government’s infrastructural costs.
The Ontario Bureau of Mines was established in early May 1891 with Archibald Blue, who had served as Secretary of the Royal Commission, as its first director.

Thomas W. Gibson, who was among the first employees of the Bureau, served as Ontario’s Deputy Minister of Mines for a quarter of a century. One of his unique contributions is his volume, Mining In Ontario which although published in 1937, is still one of the most comprehensive reports and reference sources on mining in Ontario during most of its first 150 years. What their colleagues in the Geological Survey of Canada have done and are doing for Canada, the Ontario Bureau of Mines is doing for Ontario.

In addition to creating the Bureau of Mines, the government of Ontario established the School of Mining and Agriculture at Kingston on May 27, 1893; it offered special courses of instruction for mineral assayers, mine foremen, prospectors and others engaged in the mining industry. Within five years, after it was incorporated into Queen’s University, the School was offering complete degree courses in geology and mining.

In 1892 amendments were made to the legal arrangements that governed prospecting and mining in Ontario.

Laws Governing Prospecting and Mining in Ontario

During the first half century in the history of Ontario (known then as Upper Canada) there was no formal legal code governing mineral development or prospectors. From 1845 onwards, however, the Union government of Upper and Lower Canada made regulations governing the search for minerals. An exploration fee of $100, a large amount of money at that time, was in effect until 1867.

A series of legislative acts from 1864 to 1867 established the legal rights of prospectors and miners. The Act of 1868 authorized owners of private lands to mine their properties for gold and silver. Prior to that time the sites could be mined only for base metals. Others who paid the necessary licence and royalty fee of $1.05 per year could explore and mine public lands for any base or precious metal. This removal of legal impediments on prospectors and miners in their search for gold and/or silver was a great incentive for them. Additional legislation was passed between 1868 and 1906. The legislation of 1906 was particularly significant.

While earlier legislation sought to encourage mining activity by abolishing all royalties and prior restrictions, the object of the Mines Act of 1906 was to provide simple means to secure interests in mining claims. That Act was also intended, once work requirements had been satisfied, to ensure certainty and security of title and the simple and speedy settlement of disputes concerning the ownership of mining claims.

The Mines Act of 1906 established a legal and governmental environment, hospitable to private-sector mining activities, which contributed to substantial domestic and foreign investment in Ontario mining ventures. It abolished all crown royalties on production, authorized the appointment of mining recorders and the granting of a miner’s licence, now known as a prospector’s licence, which gave prospectors exclusive rights to stake and work upon designated Crown lands not otherwise in use. The Act also established staking and recording procedures and authorized the appointment of a mining commissioner to decide disputes. The 1906 Act governed prospecting and mining in Ontario during most of the 20th century including its first three decades in which an unprecedented series of major mineral discoveries were made.

Major Mining Developments 1890–1940

By the early 1890s two separate methods for the processing of nickel and copper ores from the Sudbury basin had been developed The Orford process had been confirmed by the Orford Copper Company of New Jersey. The Mond process developed by Dr. Ludwig Mond, a successful chemical manufacturer, and his associates in Cheshire, England had also been proven. Mond offered to sell his patent to the Canadian Copper Company which declined to buy it. He then purchased mining properties in the Sudbury area and in 1900 the Mond Nickel Company Limited was incorporated and subsequently began operations.

From the outset of mining activities in the Sudbury area, the Canadian Copper Company gained a commanding lead in the field. As the market for nickel and its alloys was developed, it became increasingly obvious that uniting all activities in the nickel industry in a single organization would be highly advantageous. In 1902 the International Nickel Company was incorporated in the state of New Jersey through the amalgamation of the Canadian Copper Company, the Orford Copper Company, the Société Minière Caledonienne and other leading companies engaged in one or more of the branches of the nickel industry.

In July 1916, The International Nickel Company of Canada Limited (INCO) was incorporated. Control of all mining, smelting and refining processes of the United States International Nickel Company was transferred to the Canadian company. The Mond Nickel Company, retaining its independence, also emerged as a significant producer of nickel and related products from the Sudbury basin. INCO and Mond controlled the world’s nickel industry during the first quarter of the 20th century. The two corporations eventually merged in 1928.
During the quarter century in which INCO emerged as the world’s leading nickel producer, important discoveries of precious metals were made in northern Ontario at Cobalt, Porcupine Lake, Timmins, Kirkland Lake and later at Red Lake and Pickle Lake. These discoveries took Canada into the first rank of the world’s producers of gold and silver.


In 1902, when the construction of the Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Railway (T & N O) a project of the Ontario Government to assist the development of communities in northern sections of the province, had reached about 104 miles north of North Bay, two chance discoveries of silver were made — one by two men, James H. McKinley and Ernest J. Darragh, working as timber cruisers, and another by blacksmith Fred LaRose, employed in railroad construction. These two events led to other important discoveries. Willett Miller, Ontario’s recently appointed chief geologist, who was among the earliest to arrive at the site of the new discoveries and who later named it “Cobalt,” was amazed by what he found. Some of the veins he examined were extremely rich in native silver and an associated mineral identified as cobalt. There were “chunks of silver as large as cannon balls” beneath the moss.

Within a year work was under way on three separate mines and in the years that followed more than one hundred mines came into production in the vicinity of Cobalt. Only a small number of these mines were long-lived, but their joint operations raised Canada to fourth place in world production of silver, known colloquially as “the poor man’s gold.” The contribution of Cobalt, however, went far beyond the mere discovery and production of silver.

The relative ease with which discoveries were made by untrained bushmen and the rapid cash sales of the mining rights they had gained stimulated numerous individuals in the Cobalt camp to become prospectors. The Cobalt experience produced another huge dividend. A vigorous, competitive source of small business “grubstakers” or syndicates began to develop in Ontario among individuals willing to provide funding for prospecting farther afield. In addition, the readily accessible Cobalt camp was visited by technical officers of the Ontario and Federal Governments and consultants for investors. Some of these experts contributed through “camp fire lectures” to the sharpening of the prospecting skills of their eager listeners. Many, including both prospectors and grub-stakers, profited from the Cobalt experience as the potential extent of Ontario’s mineral wealth was explained to them.

Cobalt has been justly called “the cradle of Canada’s mining industry.” It enhanced the prospecting and mining capabilities of Canadians and was soon followed by important discoveries at other places on the Precambrian Shield.

Porcupine Lake and Timmins

In June 1909 while prospecting about 90 miles north of Cobalt, near Porcupine Lake west of the T & N O Harry Preston, slipping on a small knob of rock, ripped the moss cover from a quartz vein. He and his colleagues — Jack Wilson and George Burns — found, after more stripping of moss, that the vein was more than 20 feet wide and led to a large mound of quartz “all covered with gold.” The three prospectors staked the site where the celebrated Dome mine was later developed.

News of the spectacular discovery stimulated a “rush” to the adjoining area. Among early arrivals following the Preston party were Benny Hollinger and Alex Gillies, who were advised by Harry Preston to prospect near some small lakes to the north where he had seen evidence of gold. Later Gillies reported what happened:

Benny was pulling the moss off the rocks a few feet away when suddenly he let a roar out of him… The quartz, where he had taken off the moss, looked as though someone had dripped a candle along it, but instead of wax it was gold. The quartz stood up about 3 feet out of the ground and was about 6 feet wide with gold all splattered over it for about 60 feet along the vein.

About the same time another prospector, Sandy McIntyre, working not far away, staked claims on Pearl Lake, which subsequently became the site of the mine which bears his name. Preston, Hollinger and McIntyre were not the earliest prospectors in the Porcupine field, but the gold mines which resulted from their discoveries — the Hollinger, McIntyre and Dome, centred in the later Timmins area — became three of the most productive gold properties in Canadian history.

Kirkland Lake

In 1906, just prior to the spectacular Porcupine-Timmins discoveries, claims had been staked by two brothers, named Burrows, at the site that subsequently became known as Kirkland Lake. Here in Teck Township, just east of Swastika and roughly half way between Cobalt and the Porcupine-Timmins camp, the Burrows brothers had discovered evidence of gold in that area but not gold of obvious importance. Nonetheless, they staked claims that attracted others to the area. One of these men, William H. Wright, a native of England who had worked as a butcher before serving in the British army, staked claims near those of the Burrows brothers. Later the claims Wright had staked with his brother-in-law, Ed Hargreaves, were found to be on the main ore-bearing fault structure, the “spinal column” of Kirkland Lake ore bodies and mining camp.

Another individual of prospecting temperament and energy, Harry Oakes staked lands on the southern shore of the lake immediately west of Wright’s claims. Although half of his property was under the lake, Oakes resolutely determined, against the advice of purported mining experts, to develop his prospect, which became the Lake Shore Mine. After the First World War Oakes was finally able to bring the Lake Shore Mine into production. It produced $100 million in dividends, much of it to Oakes himself. He had demonstrated an ability that became increasingly rare among prospectors as time went on. Oakes had identified the site, staked the claims, secured the necessary financing and brought the mine into exceedingly profitable production — while retaining in his own hands a substantial equity in the venture.

Sandy McIntyre, the “tie-on” staker to the Hollinger and Dome discoveries, whose claims subsequently became part of the mine bearing his name, also played a useful role at Kirkland Lake. He was employed by Jim Hughes to prospect claims that he and Hughes had purchased in Kirkland Lake next to Harry Oakes’ Lake Shore property. The exploration program proved successful and led to the incorporation in 1913 of the Teck-Hughes Gold Mine Limited, which up to 1968 had produced gold valued at more than $100 million.

In 1912, when its boundaries were finally established, the area of Ontario had increased from nearly 261,000 square miles to an estimated 407,262 square miles. Included in the enlarged Ontario was the entire area north of the Albany River to the south of Hudson Bay, known as the district of Patricia. Little was known of its mineral potential. This changed when major gold discoveries were made at Red Lake and Pickle Lake in the 1920s and mines were developed in that region in the 1930s.

Red Lake and Pickle Lake

In 1912 Willett Miller, Ontario’s chief geologist, released a report noting the gold potential of the Red Lake area. Two years later a further report was published on the geology of Red Lake prepared by Dr. E.L. Bruce, Professor of Geology at Queen’s University for the Ontario Department of Mines. Following up on these reports, two skilled prospectors, Lorne and Ray Howey of Kirkland Lake, went to Red Lake to prospect for gold. In late July 1925 they identified gold-bearing outcrops and the rush to Red Lake was “on”.

The Howey mine began production in 1930 with the financial support of Jack Hammell, a veteran promoter of Cobalt, the Porcupine and Kirkland Lake. Seven other mines were developed in the district. By 1988 the original eight mines and those developed later in the Red Lake camp had produced an estimated $1.8 billion in gold bullion.

The rush to Red Lake in 1926, involving more than 1,000 prospectors, was the last old-style rush in which dog teams and prospectors jostled for space along the narrow trail leading to the site of the discovery. In 1928 “Doc” Oakes, a flyer in the First World War; James A. Richardson, a Winnipeg businessman and Jack Hammell established Northern Aerial Minerals Exploration Limited (N.A.M.E.), the world’s first aerial prospecting company. These men had concluded that in the winter an aeroplane could fly, in an hour and a half, the same distance a dog team could travel in ten days. Since “getting there first” is essential in any rush to stake claims, the advantages to prospectors of travelling by air soon became obvious.

Two of Hammell’s prospectors served by N.A.M.E., — Jock MacFarlane and H.H. Howell — discovered gold in 1928 at Pickle Lake, about 200 miles almost due north of the present city of Thunder Bay. Despite its remoteness, Hammell’s courage and persistence were richly rewarded after Pickle Crowe came into production in 1935. A second mine, the Central Patricia, was developed beside Hammell’s Pickle Crowe; it operated profitably from 1934 until 1951.

The development of these and other gold-mining and prospecting ventures benefited substantially from action taken by President Franklin Roosevelt which, by early 1934, raised the price of gold from $20.67 to $35.00 per ounce. As a result, many individuals involved in such ventures did not experience the adverse effects of the Great Depression. Soon, however, all were caught up in the Second World War and the profound changes it set in motion.

New Technologies Take Command

The pattern of mining activities that had developed in Ontario by the late 1920s continued in much the same manner until the outbreak of the Second World War. The demands of war, however, required that more effective ways of doing things, new technologies, be employed. Comprehensive plans were put in place to ensure that the wartime search for strategic minerals was carried out efficiently. Teams of prospectors were sent into the field. The old-time prospector who worked alone, or the syndicate-financed prospector practically disappeared. Many of that type became “bush operators” for “junior” publicly financed corporations. New field instrumentation, such as Geiger counters, ground and, later, airborne magnetometers and other types of equipment, made possible the detection of mineral deposits beneath the top soil cover, in some instances for appreciable depths in the “basement rocks.”

These new devices, which reduced but did not eliminate the need for visual on-the-ground prospecting, facilitated the making of new discoveries. Use, however, was costly and aggressive junior, unlisted companies were forced to become senior listed, highly capitalized, corporations. Or the small company could convey its partially developed prospect to a larger, more adequately financed corporation.

As the search for minerals became increasingly sophisticated, the work of the Prospectors and Developers Association, which had been brought into being to protect the interests of Ontario prospectors in the early 1930s, took on new significance. Gradually it was transformed from a small, regional group into a highly respected, educational association of professionals engaged in mining exploration. Viola MacMillan, an experienced prospector who, with her husband George had developed a number of significant mining properties in several sections of Canada, was the person primarily responsible for this transformation with Federal Government endorsement. She rallied prospectors during the Second World War to learn of the Allies’ strategic mineral needs and to work in the field to find such minerals. She became the only woman appointed to Canada’s Wartime Metals Control Board.

Prospectors who worked with Viola MacMillan began to call her “The Queen Bee.” During her 20-year presidency of the Prospectors and Developers Association, until the early 1960s, she demonstrated in many ways how fully she merited the high regard and affection her fellow prospectors had for her. When the Canadian Mining Hall of Fame was founded, she was chosen as one of its early members.

A highly significant development early in the half century from 1941 to 1991 was the acceptance of collective bargaining in the mining industry. Prior to the Second World War, mine owners and managers were opposed, for the most part, to unionization by miners. A strike which began in Kirkland Lake in November 1941 proved to be a turning point in the gradual acceptance of collective bargaining not only in Ontario mines but in Canadian industry generally.

In March 1944, INCO, Ontario’s largest mining company, signed its first collective bargaining contract. From that time onwards a basic principle has been accepted. Since miners, individually and collectively, provide the labour that transforms potential mineral wealth into actual wealth, and since normally they have no legal status as individual employees within the mining companies, they merit the right, as a group, to organize and to bargain collectively, through their own freely chosen representatives, concerning wages, working conditions including occupational health and safety, and related matters. That principle was incorporated in the Ontario Collective Bargaining Act, passed in April 1943.
New technologies employing technical instrumentation were employed in the mining industry during the latter half of the 20th century and resulted in many discoveries.

Key Discoveries in the Last Half Century

Throughout the 19th century one of Ontario’s most urgent needs was to find a major source within the province of iron ore for the manufacture of steel. The need was abundantly satisfied during the last half century. Earlier, however, from the 1850s to the 1890s, many unsuccessful attempts were made to develop iron ore properties in Lanark, Leeds, Hastings and Renfrew counties. The failure of these initiatives led the Government of Ontario to offer generous bounties for the discovery of new sources of iron.

In the 1880s an immense iron deposit was discovered near Atikokan, 150 miles west of the present city of Thunder Bay, Ontario. It was brought into production in 1905. At the end of the 19th century the Helen Iron Mine near Wawa, north of Sault Ste. Marie, was put into production by the Algoma Steel Company. Earlier, Professor A.P. Coleman of the University of Toronto, working on an assignment for the Ontario Bureau of Mines north of Atikokan, had discovered a boulder of hematite iron ore on the shore of Steep Rock Lake. Following this discovery sporadic efforts were made to develop the Steep Rock iron ore potential.

Steep Rock Iron Mines

In 1902 Willett Miller, Ontario’s chief geologist, recommended that the bottom of Steep Rock Lake be examined, but a subsequent search was not successful. Through the persistence, however, of Julian Cross, a mining engineer and prospector who was convinced that an iron ore body was present, and in association with Joseph Errington and Thayer Lindsley, renowned for his development of Falconbridge Nickel Mines, a major ore body was identified, developed and placed in production by Steep Rock Mines Limited after an ore sales agreement was concluded with Cyrus Eaton, a Nova Scotia-born American industrialist and financier.

To gain access to the estimated 200 million tons of high quality ore for open-pit extracting, 90 feet of water — 70 billion gallons — and 300 feet of glacial silt and sand and 100 feet of boulder clay forming the lake bottom had to be removed and a river had to be diverted. Finally the amazing engineering feat was completed; by 1944 an open pit operation was under way and ore production commenced. Although operations came to an end in 1979, this was one of the most remarkable Canadian mining developments of the 20th century in Ontario. The exercise of skills of a different order resulted in the development of major mineral deposits near Manitouwadge, to the north and east of Marathon, on the northeast shore of Lake Superior.


The possible presence of copper deposits in the Manitouwadge area was first indicated in a report by James Thomson, a field geologist of the Ontario Department of Mines. In late June 1953, Roy Baker and William Davidowich, two part-time prospectors, staked claims that sparked a frenzied staking bee. Eventually more than 10,000 claims were staked in the area and four base metal deposits were defined. Two major mining companies, General Engineering Company Ltd. (GECO) and Willroy Mines Ltd., went into production in 1954. A variety of minerals— copper, gold, lead, silver and zinc—were mined.

The development of the Manitouwadge community was one of the first model projects planned jointly by the government of Ontario and the mining corporations involved. Experience gained in Manitouwadge proved to be of great value when the much larger Elliot Lake community was organized and brought into being shortly thereafter.

Elliot Lake Uranium Mines

In 1949 a prospector, Karl Gunterman, located and staked a radioactive oxidized conglomerate at the eastern end of Lauzon Lake, about 75 miles east of Sault Ste. Marie and a quarter mile north of the CPR line. Franc Joubin, trained in both chemistry and geology at the University of British Columbia, examined Gunterman’s find. While he encountered high radioactivity, he could not confirm the presence of uranium analytically. Subsequently Gunterman let his claims lapse, but Joubin continued to be intrigued by the paradox of high radioactivity and low assay results. Three years later, on the basis of new technical information gleaned in England, he concluded that perhaps the Lauzon Lake conglomerate could have been surface-leached of its uranium content.

Financed by Joe Hirshhorn, a mining promoter, Joubin staked a few claims. Drilling results proved that substantial uranium was present in unoxidized rock at depth. A search was launched for geological details of the extent and distribution of the unique conglomerate bed. Fortunately for Joubin and his colleagues, they found two copies of a map prepared by W.H. Collins and P. Eskola of the Geological Survey of Canada some 30 years earlier. From this now rare map, the radioactive conglomerate was traced out on the ground in the pattern of a huge “Z” measuring 90 miles in aggregate length. The “Backdoor Staking Bee” followed quickly. Details of this significant event and other features of Joubin’s fascinating career as a prospector and geologist are set out in his memoirs, Not For Gold Alone.

Two major mining companies, Rio Tinto Zinc of Great Britain — Rio Algom in Canada — and Denison Mines, a Canadian company, were the primary developers and eventual operators of the several mines on the “Big Z” whose potential value was estimated at $30 billion in 1980 dollars and which had produced $8 billion by 1990. This major development had resulted from the individual use of a primitive Geiger-Mueller counter and the intuitive application of geochemical knowledge. Different geophysical technology was utilized by Norman Keevil when he discovered high-grade copper in Temagami.

Temagami Mining and Teck Corporation

Norman Keevil, a native of Saskatchewan and early professor of geophysics at the University of Toronto, along with other mineral explorationists, began to use airborne magnetometers in their geological mapping and mining exploration activities soon after the Second World War ended. Late in 1954, with the most advanced geophysical equipment, Keevil located a number of small but very rich copper ore bodies on Temagami Island near Cobalt, Ontario. These deposits had been indicated earlier in a regional survey performed by others who had viewed them as too small for their objectives. The ore Keevil produced from his Temagami Copper mine was possibly the highest crude ore grade ever mined in Canada.

The success Keevil achieved through his operation in Temagami enabled him to acquire the assets of the celebrated Teck-Hughes Corporation, which became the base for the mighty Teck Corporation whose later worldwide interests he and his colleagues developed.

Kidd Creek

In 1963 the Texas Gulf organization, a wholly owned Canadian subsidiary of a United States Company, began to diamond drill the Kidd Creek airborne survey anomaly in the Timmins area. The following April (1964), Texas Gulf issued a press release reporting, in a limited way, on what they had found. Later it was established that a rich base metal mine of gigantic size had been discovered at Kidd Creek.

The zinc-copper-lead-silver deposit was placed into production in 1966; two smaller satellite deposits of gold, also at Kidd Creek, were brought into production later. Their discovery marked a technical milestone in mineral exploration.

The discovery of this enormously large and profitable ore body, coupled with the Gunterman-Joubin Geiger counter discovery of the huge Elliot Lake uranium field, clearly marked “the coming of age” of ground and airborne geophysics as an effective technique for the discovery of outcropping and/or overburden covered metal ore bodies. Prior to that time such discoveries could only be made by the presence of outcrops visible to a prospector on the ground.


Historically, the discovery of a gold deposit was always foremost in the mind of the prospector. In 1869 an Indian prospector, Moses Pe-Kong-Gay, found evidence of gold near the present town of Heron Bay on Lake Superior in Ontario. While shafts were soon sunk and some ore shipped, little of significance occurred during the next 70 years. A geologist of the Bureau of Mines recommended in 1931 that the area be explored further.

In 1944 another Indian, Peter Moses of Heron Bay, also discovered gold in the same general area near Hemlo. Some minor staking followed. Among those who staked and subsequently leased claims was Dr. J.K. Williams of Maryland, U.S.A. On his death his claims, still of unproven value, were inherited by his widow. A number of companies explored the area and performed casual examinations over a three decade period.

In December 1979 two professional prospectors, John Larche and Don McKinnon, restaked much of the general area and optioned it to others who then tested it by a relatively new technique— soil geochemistry. This involved systematically collecting samples of soil below the overburden and as close to bedrock as possible. Such samples were submitted to ultrasensitive analysis for several elements including gold. The program was conducted by the Corona Company, a junior unlisted British Columbia company under the direction of geologist David Bell. A gold anomaly was revealed in the soil with subsequent core drilling of the bedrock financed by larger mining corporations, Teck-Corona, Noranda and Lac Minerals. The drill development revealed some of the largest and richest newly discovered gold ore bodies in Ontario. The prosperous mining area is known as the “Hemlo Camp” after the nearest established community situated beside the Trans Canada Highway.


During the past two centuries prospecting and mining in Ontario have developed in a colourful, often accelerating, and highly dramatic manner. The following figures provide a glimpse of economic realism into the dramatic changes that have occurred.

The emergence of prospecting and mining in Ontario as a multi-billion dollar enterprise, based on a widening complex of increasingly sophisticated activities, is one of the amazing developments during Ontario’s last century. Knowledgeable authorities now estimate that one-seventh of all individuals employed in Ontario hold positions in, or closely related to, the mining industry. This is clearly understandable given the extent to which the industrial civilization that has brought us so many conveniences and so much comfort is dependent on a vast array of minerals.

Advances in the mining industry also reflect ongoing progress in geophysics, geochemistry, geobiology, satellite mapping and many other fields. But will the progress continue? Are “the glory days” in Ontario mining nearing an end? Given increased recognition of the need to attend to environmental concerns, will the industry be able to compete? Is the day of the individual prospector done? A few knowledgeable advocates, one of whom is the co-author of this chapter who has had long experience in the Canadian mining industry, are convinced the day of the individual prospector is not done!

Clearly the financial role played earlier in the mining industry by individuals or small syndicates has been taken over by multi-million or billion dollar public share corporations. Large amounts of money are necessary to bring promising prospects into production — but not necessarily to find them.

This has been demonstrated repeatedly as noted in this article. The work of the dedicated prospector is never finished. Every time the top- soil is disturbed a new window of opportunity is opened for the informed and serious prospector. Such new windows are opened every hour of the day and night.

Over a century ago Dr. Alfred Selwyn, then director of the Geological Survey of Canada, noted that “not one-tenth part of the country has been explored” and concluded that there were “great mineral resources awaiting development in Ontario.” That observation is as valid now as it was when it was made. But, in Robert Service’s words, the challenge “will not be won in a day.”

For the “Top Ten Mining Events in Northern Ontario History”, click here: