INCO HISTORY: MOND: The Man, The Process, The Company – by Marty McAllister (Inco Triangle – September, 1989)

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This article came from the September 1989 issue of the Inco Triangle:

Just enough paint has peeled off an old tank in the Nairn powerhouse to partially reveal the hand-lettered words: Mond Nickel Company.

At least on this side of the Atlantic, there remain few such reminders of the proud organization that became part of Inco sixty years ago. As an independent company, “the Mond” barely lasted thirty years; its spirit, however, began much earlier with its founder, and its contribution is not yet complete. In a reverse version of the Canadian Copper story, Mond Nickel began as a process looking for raw materials.

Remember the Bunsen burners in high school? Well, Robert Wilhelm Bunsen was Ludwig Mond’s chemistry prof at the University of Heidelberg. The lessons stuck, and Mond went on to earn a sizable fortune in the chemical business in England.

His home, known as The Poplars, was an ornate mansion north of Regent’s Park, and he converted one of the stables into a research lab. It was in this lab in 1889 that Mond, then 50, set out with Carl Langer to develop a bleaching powder.

What they found instead was nickel carbonyl – using, ironically, a Bunsen burner. What evolved from that discovery was the Mond process for the refining of nickel. The ensuing decade was a frustrating one, but Dr. Mond’s faith was such that he finally decided to enter the mining business himself.

In the late 1890’s, gossip ran rampant in Sudbury’s Balmoral Hotel. Rinaldo McConnell, they said, was hob-nobbing with the aristocrat Mond, aiming to close a big property deal. Some of the unflattering gossip about Mond cast doubt on the extent of his wealth, and suggested that his son was somewhat dissipated and not very strong-minded. That son would become Sir Alfred Mond, later Chairman of Mond Nickel upon Ludwig’s death in 1909, was named Lord Melchett in 1928, and became a director of International Nickel after the merger. Not bad for a dissipated kid.

Anyhow, in 1899, Ludwig Mond did buy McConnell’s mine, and re-named it the Victoria. He also bought the Garson and the Little Stobie, and took out an option on the Levack. Near Victoria, a smelter was built (you can still see the granulated slag heap today, along the Worthington Road) – and construction began on the refinery at Clydach, in Wales. In May of 1901, stock was finally sold in the Mond Nickel Company Limited; it was time for Ludwig to recover his heavy private investment.

The Victoria Mine, not far to the west of today’s Crean Hill road, was about two and a half miles due north of the smelter. Halfway between the two sites was the roastyard – all three points being connected by an aerial tramway or “bucket line”. Near the mine was the Mond townsite; adjacent to the smelter was the Victoria Mines village. The mine produced until 1923, but the smelter lasted only until 1913, no longer of sufficient size to handle the British company’s continuing expansion. Properties now included the North Star, Garson, and Worthington; Levack was coming on stream, and the Frood Extension was being developed.

For a time in 1904, the Victoria smelter had even been called upon to handle low-grade matte from Canadian Copper, when the latter’s Ontario Smelting Works burned down. Since the Copper Cliff competitor’s West smelter was also in ashes, Mond did a booming chunk of extra business.

In May of 1913, Mond’s new smelter at Coniston went into production, and the Victoria plant was closed. Thereafter, Coniston would be the district headquarters of Mond operations – with the Head Office, of course, in Great Britain.

In 1909, the Lorne Power Company, a Mond subsidiary, commissioned its new Wabageshik hydroelectric plant on the Vermilion River. In 1916, it added the Nairn Falls plant, on the Spanish. Both plants still operate.

Overseas, in 1919, Mond acquired the rolling mill facilities of Henry Wiggin & Company at Birmingham, retaining the entire Wiggin staff. In 1924, the subsidiary Birmingham Electric Furnaces Limited (Birlec) was established, to produce furnaces for heat-treatment plants. The precious metals refinery at Acton was constructed in 1925, and subsequently expanded several times.

Just when everything seemed to be going right, disaster struck. An entry in the Wabageshik log book for October 4, 1927, reads simply: “Worthington Mine caves in at 5:55 a.m.; a total loss.” Talk about understatement! Virtually the entire surface plant, including the main drum hoist, ended up in the hole. Fortunately, there had been warnings that all was not well; thanks to the heroic quick action of Superintendent W.J. Mumford and his men, not a single life was lost. Today, at the foot of the hill on which we can see the Totten headframe, a fenced-off, flooded pit is all that remains of a once-great mine.

Just over a year later, on New Year’s Day, 1929, The Mond Nickel Company became part of The International Nickel Company of Canada, Limited – as discussed last month. The process that made it all possible continues to serve us well at Clydach, and in a high-pressure version at Copper Cliff’s much newer nickel refinery.

The Company

As we conclude this modest summary of the Mond story, it is both timely and fitting to wish a happy 100th birthday to nickel carbonyl – yet another brainchild of our industry’s greats.