Northern Ontario: A Golden Klondike – 192 million ounces of gold and counting – by Stan Sudol

(Wiki Photo)

Stan Sudol is a Toronto-based communications consultant and mining columnist.

A much shorter version of this article appears in the September, 2011 issue of the Northern Miner’s Mining Markets: A Resource for Investors magazine.

A fever is spreading throughout northern Ontario, from the eastern districts adjacent Quebec to the far reaches of the northwest right up to the Manitoba border. This raging malaise is caused by a metal that has captured mankind’s attention from the dawn of time. I am referring to “gold fever” and many in northern Ontario – a vast northern territory, which is almost equal to Germany, United Kingdon, Greece and Ireland combined – are thoroughly infected or obsessed over this beautiful precious metal.

Historically, Ontario’s gold mining industry has played a major role in the settlement of the province’s northern regions and along with the Cobalt silver boom and further gold and base metal discoveries in northwestern Quebec were primarily responsible for the establishment of Toronto as today’s mine financing capital of the world.

The many gold mines that came into production during the Depression of the 1930s made a vital contribution to keeping the province solvent and with over a century of experience building many underground mines helped solidify Ontario’s hard-rock mining expertise that is well respected globally.

However, northern Ontario’s gold rushes have always seemed to play second-fiddle to the legendary Klondike in the Yukon, aided by famous writers like Jack London, Robert W. Service – of the Cremation of Sam McGee fame – and Canadian literary icon, Pierre Berton. At it’s peak, the Klondike gold rush only lasted for a few years – 1896-99 – and produced a miserly 12.5 million ounces of gold. “Chump change” compared to northern Ontario’s four major gold rushes and a number of smaller gold districts, most of which are still producing the precious metal today.

Considering the record setting price of gold, moving upwards almost daily, the political stability of northern Ontario and its strong world-class mining infrastructure versus lesser developed countries like Tanzania, Guatemala or Papua New Guinea, exploration in all current and former gold mining camps is booming.

Ironically, the first gold discovery in Ontario occurred in the province’s southeast at Eldorado, a small community about 45 kilometres north of Bellville in 1866 by an amateur prospector named Marcus Powell. A minor gold rush occurred and a small mine went into operation but proved uneconomical closing two years after the discovery. Over the next fifty years various mines, some profitable were developed in the region but their output was not very significant.

Ontario Greenstone Belts (Map: Ontario Geological Survey)

Ontario Greenstone Belts (Map: Ontario Geological Survey)

In the early 1870s small gold deposits were found at many sites in the Lake of the Woods district of northwestern Ontario but again, they did not amount to much production. In 1890, a small gold rush in the Kenora region resulted in some gold production however the truly big elephant deposits were yet to be discovered.

No discussion about Northern Ontario’s major gold rushes could begin without mentioning the Cobalt Silver boom of 1903. This major silver discovery was made during the construction of the Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Railway which was funded by the provincial government to help colonize the north.

There were basically three early discoveries that started the silver rush. The first was by contractors James H. McKinley and Ernest J. Darragh who were providing lumber for the railroad. On August 7, 1903, they were scouting for suitable trees when they noticed a pink stain on a rock cut. They sent their samples to a Montreal assayer who reported native silver assaying at an astonishing 4,000 oz of silver to the ton.

The second discovery came a few weeks later in mid-September when blacksmith Fred LaRose allegedly threw a hammer at a fox. The hammer missed the fox but broke off a chunk of rock to reveal a vein of silver that eventually became a mine. Tom Hebert made the third discovery that eventually became the “Big Nip” mine.

The silver mines finally ran out by the 1990’s but the Cobalt camp had yielded a phenomenal 460 million oz of the precious metal.

Cobalt has been often called “the cradle of Canada’s mining industry.” It trained the prospecting and mining capabilities of Canadians, provided enormous capital financing, and set the stage for important gold discoveries in the immediate region.

Timmins the Porcupine

In June 1909, 90 miles north of Cobalt near Porcupine Lake, prospector Harry Preston slipped on a rock and scrapped off the moss covering. Underneath, he and his partners including Jack Wilson discovered a ledge of quartz covered with gold. The site became the famous Dome mine that is still producing to this day. News rapidly spread and the next big discovery was made in October by Benny Hollinger, a former barber from Haileybury (near Cobalt), and Alex Gillies, a professional prospector.

Their claims were later developed into the world-class Hollinger mine by entrepreneur Noah Timmins who founded the city of the same name. The Hollinger mine operated from 1910-68, producing 19.3 million ounces of gold, the country’s biggest historical producer.

At about the same time, Scottish-born and hard-drinking Sandy McIntyre and his prospecting partner Hans Buttner staked four claims north of the Hollinger discovery that eventually became the basis of MacIntyre Porcupine Mines Limited. Prospectors Hollinger, McIntyre and Wilson never made great fortunes from their discoveries having been grubstaked by others who were in fact their employers.

By 1930, Canada became the world’s second largest producer of gold with Ontario responsible for most of that output, all from the north. The Porcupine camp has produced about 67 million ounces of gold over the past century. New gold deposits are still being found in Timmins today which is experiencing a booming economy unaffected by the recent recession.

Kirkland Lake

The next major gold discovery occurred at Kirkland Lake, located about 55 miles north of Cobalt. In 1911, prospectors William Wright and Ed Hargreaves became separated while hunting for rabbits. Hargreaves fired his rifle to attract Wright’s attention. While rushing through the bush towards the rifle shot, Wright stumbled across a quartz outcrop with gold.

They staked their claims on the main ore-bearing fault of the Kirkland Lake gold camp which later became the nucleus of three large mines – the Sylvanite, Wright-Hargreaves, and Lakeshore. Wright quickly bought out Hargreaves and held on to his claims becoming a very wealthy man in the process. In 1936, he founded the Globe and Mail that became Canada’s national newspaper.

The Kirkland Lake gold rush attracted many characters including Sandy McIntyre who staked claims that founded the Teck-Hughes mine. American-born Harry Oaks is one of the most famous people who profited from the Kirkland Lake gold rush, his claims became the Lakeshore mine, one of the richest in the world. He was mysteriously killed in the Bahamas in 1943.

During the 1930s depression years, the Kirkland Lake/Larder Lake area was one of the most prosperous in the country due to 22 producing gold mines.

Historical gold production from this mining camp is about 42 million ounces, the second highest in Canada. Kirkland Lake is experiencing another gold boom. A recent report stated that the town needs to build 600 new homes in the next six years due to the 1,000 new jobs in the mining sector.

Red Lake

In the summer of 1925, two Haileybury brothers, Lorne and Ray Howey, discovered gold under the roots of an upturned tree a few hundred feet from the shores of Red Lake, an isolated spot 110 miles northwest of the train station at Hudson, just west of Sioux Lookout. This event triggered the last great gold rush in North America.

Prospectors Dan Williams and brothers Bill and Ed Cochenour were the second team to make it to Red Lake before the enormity of the discovery spread like wildfire around the world, yet it took 14 years before their property – the Cochenmour-Williams mine – was finally put into production.

John E. (Jack) Hammell a well known promoter/mine-maker played a key role in the development of the camp as well as pioneering the use of aircraft to quickly get supplies and men into the site.

More than 3,000 people converged on Red Lake at the height of the Klondike-style gold rush of 1926. They traveled by dog team or by foot on the frozen rivers and lakes, over the 180-mile gold rush trail. In spring, they used canoes or small boats, and before long, airplanes.

Eventually the bush plane came to dominate travel to the goldfields. In 1936, Howey Bay, in the heart of Red Lake was the busiest airport in the world, as aircraft of all shapes and sizes, on floats or skis, transported freight and passengers in and out of the area at 15-minute intervals.

About 26 million ounces of gold has been dug out of the rich greenstone belts of the Red Lake district. Goldcorp’s Red Lake Gold mine is Canada’s largest and lowest cost producing gold mine.

Jack Hammell’s “bush plane prospecting” helped confirm the richness of the isolated Pickle Lake gold camp in 1928 when two prospectors John MacFarlane and H.H. Howell found the Pickle Crow mine, north of Sioux Lookout. The previous year, another brother team, Murdock and Alex Mosher, went into the same area by dog-sled and staked the ground that eventually became the Central Patricia Mine.

Depression Boom Times for Gold

The gold mines of Ontario were one of the few sectors of the provincial economy that prospered during the Depression of the 1930s. The price of gold was guaranteed at $20.67 avoiding the low prices for base metals like nickel and copper. By 1930, Canada became the world’s second largest producer of gold with Ontario responsible for most of that output – 1.7 million ounces out of a national total of 2.1 million – all from the north.

In the summer of 1931, Bill “Hard Rock” Smith and his partner Stan Watson discovered valuable ground that eventually became the Hard Rock Mine. This was the first of many gold mines in the Beardmore/Geraldton mining camp.

To get the economy moving, President Roosevelt raised the price of gold to $35.00 an ounce. Marginal properties became valuable and northern exploration exploded with activity. Gold mines were given a tax exemption in 1936 to encourage development in Canada. Ontario’s large production of gold allowed the country to maintain her credit and substantially reduce the debt.

From 1931 to 1941 Timmins doubled in population from 14,200 to 28,500 people while Kirkland Lake grew from 1,170 to 9,915 during the same time period. The precious metal was used to obtain U.S. dollars for war materials until gold mines were declared a non-war industry in 1942 resulting in severe restrictions on labour and supplies. Workers from Timmins and Kirkland Lake were encouraged to move to Sudbury where their valuable skills helped mine strategic nickel and copper for the war effort.

However, Inco was very reluctant to hire the left-leaning Kirkland Lake gold miners who had recently lost a bitter strike. That legendary strike for union recognition is well-known in Canadian labour history – Remember the Kirkland Lake – and helped finally establish unions in the Ontario mining industry during the war. Inco which had no union until 1944 feared the militant Kirkland Lake miners at the time.

Post War and Hemlo

The gold mines had a tough time recovering after the war and by 1948 the federal government passed the Emergency Gold Measures Act enabling the mines to be more globally competitive. This legislation was in place for two decades. It cost about $11.2 million annual, however the Act was a tremendous help for communities dependent on gold mining to either find new industries, base metal deposits or better prepare for their eventual closing.  Higher operating costs did close many mines in the next two decades. According to history professor Morris Zaslow, “By 1967 the eighty-seven auriferous quartz mines of 1948 had dwindled to forty-four, 90 per cent of which were receiving subsideis under the act.”

In 1971, gold became freely convertible and by 1980 climbed to a then all time high of about $875.00 U.S. before retreating in price.

Although the very rich Musselwhite gold mine did not go into production until 1997, it was originally staked by brothers Harold and Allan Musselwhite in 1962 while the Detour Lake gold mine was first discovered in 1974 by Amoco Petroleum and operated by Campbell Red Lake and Placer Dome between 1983 – 1999.

Just off the trans-Canada highway, half way between Thunder Bay and Sault Ste. Marie, near the highway to Marathon, Don Mckinnon, John Larche and David Bell discovered Ontario’s fourth largest mining camp, Hemlo, in 1981. A fierce legal battle errupted over the ownership of one of three mines – the Williams – between Teck-backed junior miner Corona and Lac Minerals. In August 1989, the Supreme Court of Ontario awarded the property to Teck and Corona. Over the past 25 years the Hemlo camp has produced 21 million ounces of gold.

Ontario Gold Production Compared to Other Jurisdictions

Since that first gold discovery in 1866 and subsequent rushes, Ontario has produced approximately 192 million ounces of the precious metal up to 2010. Ontario is Canada’s largest gold  producer (1,770,600 ounces in 2010) followed by Quebec (890,000 ounces in 2010), Nunavut Territory (265,659 ounces) and British Columbia (195,000 ounces) – Natural Resources Canada preliminary 2010 statistics. This was the first year of gold production in the territory of Nunavut. Agnico-Eagle’s Meadowbank mine moved the territory into third spot among the provinces, a position traditionally held by British Columbia.

The great California gold rush of 1848 is probably the most famous in the world. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that about 12 million ounces of gold was produced in the first five years by panning for the metal. Most historians agree that the gold rush ended between 1853 and 1855. By 1853 a more industrialized type of mining that used high pressure hoses and needed more organized manpower and capital resulted in a further 11 million ounces of production up to the mid-1880s.

According to the California Geological Survey, the state produced 174,446 ounces of gold in 2009. They estimate historic production through to 2009 is slightly over 131 million ounces (131,640,000).

Today, the richest gold mining region in the United States is Nevada which has produced about 162.3 million ounces from 1835 to 2010. The state mines almost 80% of U.S. gold and is considered the fourth largest producer in the world. In 2010, it produced  5,338,559 ounces of gold, up from the previous year’s total of 5,033,00 according to Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology.

Alaska is the second largest American gold producer, at 780,657 ounces in 2009. Historic production from the gold rush days of 1880 to 2009 totals 40,416,575 according to the State of Alaska, Division of Geological & Geophysical Surveys.

Utah is in third place – most of its gold production is a byproduct of base metal mining, followed by Colorado, Washington, Arizona and California.

A number of gold discoveries in Western Australia in the late 1800s, ranging from the Kimberly gold rush of 1885 to Kalgoorlie in 1893, helped establish that state as one of the world’s most productive gold mining jurisdictions. Total historic gold production in Western Australia up to 2010 is 211.6 million ounces of gold.

South Africa’s Witwatersrand gold mining district, which was discovered in 1886 and helped establish that country as a mineral producing powerhouse and the most dynamic and richest ecomony in Africa,  is the world’s largest historic producer of the precious metal though it has lost the top global spot in recent years.

According to Wiki, “since the 1880s, South Africa has been the source of about 50% of all gold ever produced in the world. Production in 1970 accounted for 79% of world supply. Since 1905, South Africa had been the world’s largest yearly producer until China overtook them in 2007.”

In 2010, the top five gold producing countries were China, Australia, United States, South Africa and Russia. Canada was in ninth place in 2010 producing only 90 tonnes, well below the 177 tonnes the country produced in 1991 and the 166 tonnes produced in 1941.

Prospectors often say that the best place to find a new mine is in the shadow of an old one. With over a century of amazing world-class discoveries throughout northern Ontario and record prices for the precious metal due to global economic instability, the future of gold mining is bright indeed.

Historic Ontario Gold Mining Camps and Major Mines (Up to 2010 MNDMF Statistics)

Total Ontario historical production (Natural Resources Canada Statistic) – 192 million ounces of gold *

Porcupine Camp (Timmins) – 67 million ounces

Kirkland Lake Camp (includes Larder Lake, Matachewan, Matheson) – 42 million ounces

Red Lake Camp –  26 million ounces

Hemlo Camp – 21 million ounces

Beardmore-Geraldton Camp –  4.1 million ounces of gold

Wawa District – 2.6 million ounces

Pickle Crow Camp – 2.5 million ounces of gold

Mussellwhite Mine – 3.1 million ounces

Detour Mine – 1.8 million ounces

* This figure also includes by-product gold from base-metal mines as well as small deposits from eastern Ontario, Lake of the Woods and other regions.

MNDMF = Ontario Ministry of Northern Development, Mines and Forestry


Canada Gold Production by Province (Natural Resources Canada preliminary 2010 statistics)

Ontario – 1,770,600 ounces

Quebec – 890,000 ounces

Nunavut Territory – 265,659 ounces

British Columbia – 195,000 ounces

Manitoba – 156,772 ounces

Yukon Territory – 83,493 ounces

Saskatchewan – 49,666 ounces

New Brunswick – 7,725 ounces

Newfoundland and Labrador – 5,855 ounces

Top Gold Producing American States in 2010 (State Geological Surveys)

In 2010, the United States produced 228,000 kilograms (8,042,463 ounces) of gold, the third largest amount globally. Nevada produced 163,000 kilograms (5,749,656 ounces) and the remaining other states mined 65,000 kilograms (2,292,808 ounces). (United States Geological Survey)

Please note that the statistics from individual State Geology branches are not always in sinc with the United States Geological Survey. (1 kilogram equals 35.2739619 ounces)

Nevada – 5,338,559 ounces

Alaska – 845,144 ounces

Utah – 283,220 ounces

Colorado – 231,000 ounces

Washington – 198,810 (gold equivalent production: Kinross)

Arizona – not available

California – 174,446 ounces (2009)

South Dakota – not available


Historic Western Australian Gold Production by Region (Up to 2010)

Total Western Australia historical gold production (Western Australia State Statistics) – 212 million ounces of gold

Eastern Goldfields – 132.8 million ounces

Murchison-Southern Cross – 52.9 million ounces

South West Yilgarn – 7 million ounces

Pilbara – Kimberly – Peak Hill – Gascoyne – 18.9 million ounces

For more mining history, click here for the Top Ten Historical Mining Events in Northern Ontario: