This column was also published on the Huffington Post – the “New York Times” of the web: http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/stan-sudol/ontario-mining_b_4885841.html
Klondike Versus Northern Ontario
For crying out loud, I continue to be astonished with our collective Canadian obsession over the Klondike Gold Rush while northern Ontario’s rich and vibrant mining history is completely ignored by the Toronto media establishment, especially the CBC.
Discovery Channel’s recent six-hour mini-series on the Klondike – vaguely based on Charlotte Gray’s book, “Gold Diggers: Striking It Rich in the Klondike – once again highlighted this glaring snub.
Unfairly, the Klondike did have the benefit of terrific public relations due to famous writers like Jack London, Robert W. Service and Pierre Berton, but I still don’t understand how this brief mining boom continues to dominate the “historical oxygen” in our national psyche.
At its peak, the Klondike only lasted a few years – 1896-1899 – and produced about 12.5 million ounces of gold. And unlike the California gold rush that created one of the largest and richest states in the union, the entire Yukon Territory’s population today is about 36,000. Contrast that with booming Timmins with 45,000 hardy souls who have dug out of the ground about 68 million ounces and counting of the precious metal, since the Porcupine Gold rush of 1909.
It’s enough to make to make Benny Hollinger, Jack Wilson and Sandy MacIntyre – the founders of this extraordinary deposit – spin in their collective graves!
Before I continue, I will come clean with readers as I have a certain “bias” on this topic, being born and raised in Sudbury – the richest mining city in North America – whose mines have been producing nickel, copper and platinum group metals for over 130 years.
And Timmins and Sudbury are only two of many world-class mineral discoveries that have established Ontario as this country’s largest metals producer and contributed enormously to the province’s international reputation as a mining powerhouse.
Let’s not forget, the great 1903 silver boom in Cobalt, the gold rushes in Kirkland Lake (1911), Red Lake (1925), Hemlo (1981) and a host of base metal camps that all provided Ontario history with a wide range of saints, sinners, dubious politicians and hard working men and women, native born and immigrants from around the world. Under isolated and primitive conditions, these individuals populated much of Ontario’s harsh, unforgiving northern frontier and built prosperous and thriving communities.
And if you think this is just a Northern Ontario story, you would be very wrong. Toronto’s much vaunted financial sector is based on those enormously rich mineral deposits. In 2012, 70% of all global mining equity ﬁnancings were done on the TSX/TSXV stock exchanges while thousands of financial analysts, bankers, geologists, and other technical people have historically and today make a good living from this sector.
So why has the CBC, CTV, Global and other cultural bodies, including book publishing, ignored such an integral part of this province’s business, regional and cultural fabric?
This is an industry populated with multi-generational families involved in prospecting, underground mining and company building and financing. As cliché as it may sound, there are millions of stories in the vast land north of the Matawa and French Rivers that make up roughly 90% of Ontario’s geography as well as in the towers around Bay and King Street in Toronto.
Unlike the Discovery Klondike series, we don’t really need to fictionalize northern Ontario’s mining history as the truth is more than compelling.
For instance, the union battles between Mine Mill and Steelworkers in Sudbury during the early 1960s saw car bombs and riots, the failed gold miners strike in Kirkland Lake in 1941 helped start the massive unionization of industry during Second World War, while the secretive uranium staking rush of the 1950s created enormous wealth and jobs during the terrifying cold war but also saw the tragedy of silicosis in Elliot Lake miners in the 1970s.
From the selling of strategic nickel to the Germans during the First World War which almost led to nationalization of Inco, and extensive gold smuggling out of the rich Timmins gold mines to the mystery of who killed gold magnate Harry Oakes and one of the biggest claim jumping scandals in Canada at Hemlo in the early 1980s, Ontario’s mining history has enough thrills, chills and drama to captivate anyone.
While the Klondike series was entertaining, one historian commented that the producer basically took a typical American western and grafted it on the Yukon with lots of gun fights, murders, mayhem, ineffective Mounties and “Indian” bad guys. But this is what we get when we allow Canadian history to be produced by Hollywood.
In reality, the RCMP was very effective in keeping law and order in the Yukon Territory. And the initial discovery was made by three Aboriginals, an American and a Canadian – Skookum Jim, Tagish Charley, Kate Carmack (not officially recognized but many feel she deserves credit) George Washington Carmack (Kate’s husband) and Robert Henderson, respectively.
CBC’s mandate is supposed to “be predominately and distinctively Canadian, reflect Canada and its “regions” to national and regional audiences …” They seem to be failing miserably in “reflecting” northern Ontario’s unique hardrock mining culture.
In the interest of enlightening the leadership at CBC television’s entertainment division, which might translate into some future programming about my part of the country, I thought a list of the top 10 mining events in Ontario’s history is in order.
Needless to say, this is not an easy task with over 150 years of astonishing history to choose from. The list encompasses traditional discoveries as well as certain events or the creation of institutions that have had long-lasting provincial or global impact.
Parts of Ontario’s mining history are brutal and tragic, but it is also filled with stories of hope, courage and sacrifice, of enormous wealth creation and technical and social innovation. Ontario’s modern 21st century mining sector is the culmination of this amazing past that helped forge a distinct regional culture in the province’s north and contributed enormously to the wealth of the entire province and country.
Northern Ontario’s Top Ten Mining Events: Ring of Fire Honorary Mention
Before we get to the top ten most significant mining events in Ontario history, I have to make an honorary mention of the Ring of Fire, located about 500 miles northeast of Thunder Bay in the isolated swamplands of James Bay.
In 2007, an interesting mix of six geologists and junior mining executives – Richard Nemis, Mac Watson, Neil Novack, Frank Smeenk, John Harvey and Don Hoy – collectively found the most significant mineral discovery in Canada since the Sudbury Basin in 1883 and the Timmins gold camp in 1909.
Although there are many problems to resolve including transportation and power infrastructure and First Nations issues, the Ring of Fire is so enormously rich – most mining experts believe this world-class camp will have at least a century of production if not longer even though we have just “scratched the proverbial surface” – that this event had to be included in the list.
This mining camp contains chromite – the fourth largest reserves in the world after South Africa, Zimbabwe and Kazakhstan – plus nickel, copper, platinum group elements, gold, zinc and vanadium, estimated to be worth at least $60 billion according to the Ontario Ministry of Northern Development and Mines.
Unfortunately, Cliffs Natural Resources’ decided to indefinitely suspend its Ring of Fire operations (Black Thor chromite deposit) in November, 2013 primarily due to the global economic slump in metal demand, the company’s current financial problems and the provincial government’s inaction on a number of critical issues.
However, there are two other juniors – Noront Resources (Eagle’s Nest nickel/copper/PGM project) and KWG Resources (Black Horse(80% owned) and Big Daddy(30% owned) chromite deposits) – with major proposals and a host of other companies with good exploration potential that will eventually see the development of this enormously rich mining region once metal demand recovers.
10) Toronto Stock Exchange: International Centre of Mine Financing
The development of Ontario’s mining industry is closely associated with the rise of Toronto as Ontario’s and Canada’s financial centre which is why it must be included in this list.
Several Toronto-based exchanges were founded and closed during the 1850s-1860s until the Toronto Stock Exchange became formally incorporated by an Act of the Ontario Legislature in 1878. Various mining exchanges also formed, the last one – the Standard Stock and Mining Exchange in 1908 – specifically to deal with the enormous public interest in junior mining issues due to great Cobalt Silver Boom.
Further discoveries of gold in Timmins, Kirkland Lake, Red Lake and both base metals and gold in northwestern Quebec together greatly solidified Toronto’s lead over Montreal for both mining and other stock market activity.
During the Depression, Toronto’s financial community weathered the economic upheaval much better than Montreal, partly due to the boom in gold mining activities across northern Ontario and northwestern Quebec after the price of the precious metal was increase to $35.00 an ounce by President Roosevelt in 1934.
Stock swindles, bucket shops, boiler rooms and fraudsters have been a fascinating and colourful part of Toronto’s mining past. One of the biggest scandals involved the Timmins staking rush in 1963 when a former PDAC president Viola McMillan was found guilty of stock manipulation and served eight months in jail.
The 1997 Bre-X gold mining scandal by a junior miner with Indonesian properties shook the entire Canadian securities sector resulting in the creation of National Instrument 43-101 to protect investors from misleading or fraudulent information by companies on the TSX/TSXV exchanges.
Today, the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSX) and the Venture Exchange (TSX-V) combined have slightly over 1,600 mining companies valued at about $240 billion in 2013, the vast majority are junior explorers, critical for finding the next generation of mineral deposits. From 2009-2013, TSX/TSXV raised $157 billion of international mining equity capital, 44 per cent of total, making the city the leading global centre for mine financing.
9) Ontario’s Other Major Gold Rushes: Kirkland Lake, Red Lake, and Hemlo
There are so many significant events in Ontario’s mining history that I have taken some “creative license” and combined three of the major gold rushes into the number nine spot.
The Kirkland Lake gold rush began in 1911 when prospectors William Wright and Ed Hargreaves became lost and stumbled on a quartz outcrop with clear evidence of gold. The Kirkland Lake gold rush attracted some of the most colourful characters in Canadian mining history including the “cantankerous Yankee” Harry Oakes who discovered one of the richest gold mines in the world, the Lakeshore.
In the summer of 1925, two brothers, Lorne and Ray Howey discovered gold under the roots of an upturned tree. This event triggered the last great gold rush in North America at Red Lake.
More than 3,000 people converged on the tiny isolated outpost traveling by dog team or by foot on the frozen rivers and lakes, over the 180-mile gold rush trail. 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 to the area.
The world-class Hemlo deposit, located near the pulp and paper town of Marathon, half-way between Thunder Bay and Sault Ste. Marie., was discovered in 1981. The three individuals who were responsible for finding one of the country’s richest gold camps are Don McKinnon, John Larche and David Bell.
Initially, they could not convince Toronto financiers to fund exploratory drilling and had to go to Murray Pezim, a flamboyant Vancouver mining stock promoter. Hemlo became one of the biggest claim jumping battles in Canadian mining history between Teck-backed junior miner Corona and Lac Minerals over the ownership of the Williams mine. In August 1989, the Supreme Court of Ontario awarded the property to Teck and Corona.
Kirkland Lake has produced roughly 42 million ounces of gold, Red Lake 26 million and Hemlo 21 million in its short 28-year history. All of these camps are still in production.
8) Kirkland Lake Gold Miner Strike: Impacted the Nation
The bitter gold miner’s strike of 1941-42 is one of the most important industrial disputes in Canadian labour history, a watershed struggle for union rights. During the 1930’s depression, the Kirkland Lake-Larder Lake area, with 22 producing mines, was one of the most prosperous areas in Canada. The community grew from 1,170 people in 1931 to 9,915 by 1941.
In the United States, the Wagner Act of 1935 guaranteed workers the right to organize into trade unions and conduct collective bargaining. At the time, there was no similar legislation in Canada. On November 18, 1941 roughly four thousand workers walked out on strike. The mine owners held firm and Ontario Premier Mitchell Hepburn even sent 180 provincial police to keep the peace which angered and intimidated the workers. The strike came to a humiliating end on February 12, 1942.
While this was a bitter defeat for the workers, the strike galvanized the Canadian labour movement and heavily influenced Canada’s and Ontario’s wartime and post-war labour policy.
The rallying cry of “Remember Kirkland Lake” throughout the entire province and the close political ties developing between labour and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF)political party (today’s NDP) forced both the federal and provincial governments to finally enact legislation compelling all employers to recognize unions fairly elected by workers and to bargain in good faith. (Ontario Collective Bargaining Act – April 1943 and the federal Privy Council order, PC 1003 for the entire country)
“In 1941, the Kirkland Lake miners were part of a growing industrial movement, responding to the pressures of the war economy and to existing government policy,” said Laurel Sefton MacDowell author of the definitive book on the issue, “Remember Kirkland Lake: The Gold Miners’ Strike of 1941-42.”
7) Ontario Mine Safety: International Success
The rough geographic triangle that includes Sudbury, Timmins to the north and Kirkland Lake to the northeast has the third largest cluster of underground mines outside of South Africa’s Witwatersrand gold mining district and the rich platinum/chromite mineral belt called the Bushveld. So it is no surprise that the province is a world leader in mine rescue.
This global expertise was the result of a horrific fire at the Timmins Hollinger Consolidated Gold Mine on February 10, 1928 that tragically claimed 39 men. Roughly 900 carloads of flammable waste were stored in a stope on the 550 foot level. When the fire started, the company or the province did not have the resources and expertise to fight the flames.
Mine rescue teams from Pittsburgh needed about 40 hours to travel the 1,600 kilometres by railcar, equipped with breathing apparatus and special equipment to put out the fire. Justice T. E. Godson headed a Royal Commission into the tragedy and made several recommendations including the removable of all flammable waste to the surface and establishing stench gas systems in mines to alert the men of emergencies.
The most significant recommendation was the creation of a provincial mine rescue service which has established well trained teams in Sudbury, Timmins and Kirkland Lake. In 1984, after four miners were trapped and killed in a rock burst at Falconbridge No. 5 Shaft near Sudbury, the organization’s mandate was expanded to include the appropriate training for non-fire emergencies.
6) Aboriginal Conflict and Involvement in Ontario Mining
The mining industry is the largest private sector employer of Aboriginals in the country. There are many, successful examples between First Nations communities and mining companies including, Glencore/Xstrata’s Raglan venture in northern Quebec, Vale’s Voisey’s Bay mine in Labrador and Cameco’s uranium mines in northern Saskatchewan, just to name a few.
However, the high-profile conflict between junior explorer Platinex Inc. and the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation (KI) over the Big Trout Lake Property and other clashes in the middle of the last decade started a chain of events that have made significant changes to the province’s mining sector with mixed results.
In 2008, six KI leaders including Chief Donny Morris were imprisoned and ultimately became martyrs while the company was given $5 million to relinquish their claims. Subsequently the province withdrew 23,000 km2 of land that included KI traditional territory from claim staking. Other conflicts with juniors ensured, the most recent being Northern Superior Resources.
The Ontario Mining Act has been updated to ensure changes to prospecting procedures and proper Aboriginal consultation by junior explorers but problems remain. The Far North Act which is bitterly detested by Aboriginal communities and supported by southern environmentalists, forces half of the territory in the Far North to be set aside for parks. Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN), which is one of the most important Aboriginal organizations in northern Ontario, has nine resolutions opposing the Act.
Without a doubt, most First Nations in northern Ontario want sustainable mining development viewing the sector as a way to create jobs and significantly improve living conditions on most reserves.
But the continuing conflicts keep occurring and the present Ontario government seems unable to resolve some fundamental issues that threaten to significantly reduce mining investment in the province, especially in the promising geology of the Far North. This is why Aboriginal conflict and potential involvement in the mining sector have become the sixth most important event in Ontario mining history.
5) Peter Munk: Canada’s King of Gold
Amazingly, Peter Munk knew little about mining as he previously developed resorts in the South Pacific and owned a high-fidelity stereo system company which went bankrupt. In 1983, with a small oil exploration company which was losing money, he decided to buy a half interest in the Renabie gold mine near Wawa and a piece of an Alaskan placer miner which together produced 3,000 ounces that year.
In 1984, he bought Camflo Mines with operations in northwestern Quebec, but more importantly, acquired an experienced mine management team that would help Barrick takeover mines in Ontario, the United States and around the world. A significant success was the Nevada Goldstrike mine in 1988 when company President Robert Smith saw its huge potential.
Munk’s greatest success was the acquisition of Placer Dome in 2006 during the foreign takeovers of some of Canada’s legendary miners that included Inco, Falconbridge and Alcan, ensuring that the world’s biggest gold operations would still be controlled by Canadians.
His possible worst was the buying copper producer Equinox Minerals in 2011 which had a subsequent writedown of $4 billion. Investors were very concerned that the copper miner would considerably dilute the company’s primary “gold producer” status that commands a premium in investment circles.
While the past few years have not been kind to all gold and base-metal miners, Munk has taken a significant beating in the media for the underperformance of Barrick stock. At last year’s AGM, the soon to retire Founder and Chairman of the Board reminded disgruntled shareholders that for most of the company’s existence, he has made them extremely well-off and to judge his entire career on the current downturn would be short-sighted and that the company would turn around.
Notwithstanding his recent trials and tribulations Peter Munk, who has been very generous with his wealth – giving millions to establish a cardiac centre in Toronto – has successfully created the world’s biggest gold company and definitely deserves the number five spot on the ten most significant events in Ontario mining history.
4) Elliot Lake: Boom, Bust, Boom, Bust and Hope
Over the past 60 years, tiny Elliot Lake has experienced a very volatile and complicated history.
From vital military importance during the cold war and a health care crisis of dying miners, to a pleasant retirement community and world-class mine restoration and revegetation, the uranium mining industry in Elliot Lake encapsulates the worst and the best of Ontario’s mineral industry.
After the atomic bombs were dropped Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end the Second World War, uranium become one of the most sought after and strategic commodities in the world.
Two men, mining promoter/financer Joseph H. Hirshhorn and geologist Franc R. Joubin are responsible for the discovery of the Elliot Lake uranium mines. Both became millionaires and went on to explore, and discover other mineral deposits.
The 83 mining claims that entrepreneur Stephen B. Roman purchased during the frantic staking rush of 1953, contained the world’s largest uranium deposit and was the basis on which he built Denison Mines and its affiliate Roman Corporation.
Between 1956 and 1959, Elliot Lake was the most important supplier of yellowcake (uranium) to the U.S. military from no fewer than twelve operating mines. Building one mine in an isolated wilderness – abet only thirty kilometres from the trans-Canada highway – would have been quite an accomplishment. Consider the logistics of twelve, eleven with their own mills treating 35,000 tons of ore a day.
In 1959, the United States declared that it would no longer buy uranium from Canada after 1962 creating the first of many busts and booms. During the 1970s, federal plans for CANDU Reactors and Ontario Hydro’s interest in atomic energy encouraged the town to expand again. However, by the early 1990s depleted reserves, competition from much richer deposits in northern Saskatchewan and low prices caused the last mines in the area to close.
During the 1970s, uranium miners in Elliot Lake became alarmed about the high incidence of lung cancer and silicosis, and they went on strike over health and safety conditions. In 1976, the Ontario government appointed a Royal Commission to investigate health and safety in mines.
Chaired by Dr. James Ham, it became known as the Ham Commission which made numerous recommendations that were adapted by the industry and resulted in the passing of the first Occupational Health and Safety Act in 1978.
The community’s population has bounced with several boom-and-bust cycles from the 1950s to the 1990s, from a high of about 30,000 to a low of about 6,600. Today the community with roughly 11,000 people is known as a retirement haven due to extensive marketing and the low cost of homes that were vacated when the mines closed down.
3) Timmins: Porcupine Gold Rush Still Going
The third most important event in Ontario mining is the Porcupine Gold Rush of 1909. It was the first major gold rush in Ontario with three legendary mines discovered by separate prospecting parties a few miles from each other. These extraordinary discoveries made by Benny Hollinger (Hollinger Mine), Sandy McIntyre (McIntyre Mine) and John (Jack) Wilson (The Dome Mine) led to the development of one of Canada’s premier mining camps and the founding of Timmins, the second largest mining town in the country.
Unfortunately Hollinger, McIntyre and Wilson never made great fortunes, however Noah and his brother Henry Timmins – after whom the town is named – bought the original Hollinger claims and along with other partners built one of the most famous gold mines in the world. During the Hollinger’s 58 years of production, 19.5 million ounces of gold were dug out of the ground, ranking that mine as the largest producer in Canadian history.
Noah Timmins went on to help finance the Noranda Horne smelter in Quebec and many other gold mines throughout the country. Henry Timmins son Jules was the driving force for developing the iron ore mines located in the isolated region of northern Quebec and Labrador. He convinced six American steel companies to form a consortium to fund the project which eventually became the Iron Ore Company of Canada.
The Porcupine was the largest gold rush in North America, far exceeding both the California and the Klondike discoveries. The Porcupine mining camp has produced about 69 million ounces of gold over the past century and new mines are still being found. Jack Wilson’s legendary Dome Mine which also started production in 1910 as an underground operation has now been expanded by owner Goldcorp to include the super open pit. It is the longest running gold mine in Canada and has produced 15 million ounces to date.
By 1930, Canada became the world’s second-largest gold-producer with Ontario responsible for most of that output – 1.7 million ounces out of a national total of 2.1 million ounces. The population of Timmins exploded growing from 3,800 in 1921 to 14,200 in 1931 and doubling again during the Depression to a city of 28,500 by 1941.
A major copper/zinc/silver deposit was discovered at Timmins in 1963. The Kidd Creek Mine is still in production and is considered the deepest base-metal mine in the world at its current depth of 9,100 feet. Mine owner Glencore-Xstrata has invested $120 million to extend production until 2017 and deepen the mine to 9,600 feet.
Currently, the Timmins gold camp, part of the enormously rich Abitibi greenstone belt that stretches in an east-west direction between northeastern Ontario and Northwestern Quebec is experiencing enormous exploration activity and new gold deposits are being discovered.
2) Sudbury: Canada’s Most Important Mining City
Very few people can argue about the final two most important events in Ontario mining history, but there could be some contention over first and second place. Truth be told, it’s almost a “statistical tie” between the Sudbury Basin and the Cobalt Silver Boom.
But if we must make a choice, Sudbury comes in at number two and Cobalt number one, by just a fraction of a second if this was a horse race!
The Sudbury Basin, which is still the richest hard rock mining district in North America, was discovered in 1883 during the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, by blacksmith Thomas Flanagan. He did not gain financially from his good fortune even though the site was turned into a mine by Pembroke merchants, Thomas and William Murray. Thomas Frood, Rinaldo McConnell, Francis Crean, Thomas Cryderman, Henry Ranger, and James Stobie are among the many amateur prospectors who found valuable deposits that would eventually become mines, but most did not become rich from their discoveries compared to many in the silver and gold camps.
Sudbury is a pollymetallic ore body composed of nickel, copper, platinum group metals, cobalt and other minerals. Due to the complexity of separating these metals, the camp was very quickly dominated by American and European investors due to the high capital costs of development and technologies.
Ohio-born businessman Samual J. Ritchie was the driving force who really started mining production in the basin with the founding of the Canadian Copper Company in 1886. A subsequent merger in 1902 with the New Jersey-based Orford Copper Company, which had the vital technology to separate the nickel from the copper, lead to the creation of the legendary International Nickel Company.
Nickel is an exceptionally strategic metal, used in all forms of military hardware including tanks, battle ships, planes and ordinance. For much of Sudbury’s history, its economic prosperity was closely tied to global conflicts and until the 1970s, up to 90% of western nickel supplies came from the basin. Inco’s well-respected metallurgical research and development, conducted in the U.S. and Europe, created high-tech alloys for turbine engines – ushering in the jet age – and many of the key components for nuclear submarines and other industrial applications.
During the 1950s, the metal was in such short demand that the U.S. government stockpiled nickel. A 1954 U.S. Department report stated that nickel was “the closest to being a true “war metal,” and that “it deserves first priority among materials receiving conservation attention.”
During the cold war hysteria, from 1955-1963, the fear of communist infiltration of the established local left-leaning Mine Mill union resulted in a prolonged struggle for control with the new right-winged Steelworkers union. The violence included car explosions, riots, fist fights and intimidation. In 1962, the Steelworkers finally triumphed in a very close vote.
For 130 years, no other resource community in Canada has impacted the national conscience quite like Sudbury. A devastated local environment that resembled the moon, lengthy strikes, acid rain pollution, U.N. recognition of successful revegetation, and foreign ownership debates during the 2006 takeovers of Inco and Falconbridge by Brazilian-based Vale and Swiss-based Xstrata respectively, constantly kept the city’s mining issues on the front pages of the country’s newspapers.
Today Sudbury boasts a more diversified economy – primarily from public sector investment in the health, education and tourism fields and a federal tax centre – however it still has a globally significant cluster of mining supply and service companies, post-secondary mining education and research facilities that have turned the community into an international Silicon Valley of the hardrock mining.
1) Cobalt: The Cradle of Canada’s Mining Industry
Many historians have often called the Cobalt Silver Boom of 1903 “the cradle of Canada’s mining industry.” Cobalt enhanced the prospecting and mining capabilities of Canadians and most importantly, provided the necessary financing for future mine development. The camp’s close links to the Toronto stock exchanges and banking community, significantly helped that city become a global mine financing powerhouse.
Prospectors, mine developers, managers, engineers, financiers and bankers all learned their trade and gained valuable insight from this frenzy of mining activity. In addition, during the first decade of the 20th century, important technological advances in mining and metallurgy were being discovered and applied at Cobalt.
The “Cobalt fraternity” would fan out throughout the rest of Ontario and the entire country, with the knowledge gained in the silver mines, and not only discover many other important deposits but also establish and spread the country’s reputation in mining technology.
Furthermore, the “Cobalt fraternity” would pass down their knowledge to their children and grand children. In Canada’s mining circles, one will often find a family link that will lead back to Cobalt or the other gold and base-metal booms that followed.
It all started with the publicly funded construction of the provincial Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Railway – today’s Ontario Northland that the McGuinty government foolishly wanted to sell – to help colonize and economically develop the rich clay-belt region of northern Ontario.
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 the LaRose Mine which would go on to produce 26 million ounces of silver.
Tom Hebert made the third discovery that eventually became the “Big Nip” mine, the largest producer in the camp at 91 million ounces, by the time it closed in 1950.
The Cobalt discoveries made news headlines throughout North America. The frenzy of Cobalt mining stocks even spread to New York in 1906 when police had to break up mobs of people frantically trying to buy silver mining shares on Wall Street.
Since it only took an overnight train trip to get to Cobalt from Toronto, the town was basically considered a colony of the Ontario capital. And Toronto’s King Eddy Hotel which opened in 1903, was the prime spot where any business connected to the silver camp was conducted. Very quickly, King Eddy bell boys and desk clerks got used to carrying heavy luggage filled with rock samples and disheveled and rough looking prospectors walking through the opulent lobby.
During the Cobalt silver rush, the Northern Miner – the bible of the industry – started publishing but eventually moved to Toronto and the Haileybury School of Mines, which was established to meet the demands for educated mine workers, first opened its doors in 1912.
Roughly 100 mines were developed over the life of the camp producing an astonishing 460 million ounces of silver. The boom reached its peak in 1911 when silver production hit an all time high of 31.5 million ounces. There were still a few small mining operations in Cobalt in the 1990s but today there is only silence.
The Cobalt boom was directly responsible for a number of other world-class discoveries over the next few decades that included the Porcupine in Timmins, Kirkland Lake, Gowganda, Red Lake, Rouyn Noranda, Val d’Or and many, many others.
Without a doubt, the transformative events during and following the Cobalt Silver Boom defined Canadian mining, which is why it is the number one event in Ontario mining history. The annual Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada convention during the first week of March – the largest gathering of people connected to the mining sector on the planet – is an enduring legacy to McKinley, Darragh, LaRose and Herbert and to all the other prospectors that followed.
Toronto Media Ignores Northern Ontario’s Rich Mining Heritage
So why has the Klondike Gold Rush been so thoroughly embedded in Canada’s historical conscious while the Cobalt Silver Boom is largely unknown and why is no entertainment programming about northern Ontario’s rich mining heritage with its enormous wealth of amazing stories – a good question to ask the leadership at the CBC and the rest of the all powerful Toronto media.
Stan Sudol is a Toronto-based communications consultant, mining policy analyst and owner/editor of www.republicofmining.com