Canada’s forgotten silver boomtown – by Douglas Baldwin (CIM Magazine – June/July 2016)

Douglas Baldwin is a retired history professor from Acadia University, Nova Scotia. This piece has been adapted from his new book, Cobalt: Canada’s Forgotten Silver Boom Town.

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Most Canadians know about the Klondike Gold Rush, but few realize that the stampede for silver in Cobalt, Ontario only five years later far surpassed the Klondike in terms of profits, production and long-term impact.

Concentrated in an area less than 13 square kilometres, Cobalt mines supplied almost 90 per cent of Canada’s silver production between 1904 and 1920, and by the time the boom petered out in the 1920s, the camp had become the fourth-largest silver producer ever discovered. The early history of hard rock mining in Ontario is essentially the story of the discovery of silver near Cobalt in 1903.

In August 1903 two J.R. Booth Lumber Company employees, Ernest Darragh and James McKinley, were exploring near the southeast end of a boot-shaped lake called Long Lake (Cobalt Lake) for timber suitable for railway ties for the proposed Temiskaming & Northern Ontario Railway (Ontario Northland) when the unusual colour of several rocks attracted their attention.

When ore samples assayed at 4,000 ounces of silver to the ton – about twelve per cent silver – the prospectors soon became richer than they had ever dreamed. The next month, Alfred LaRose discovered rich silver outcroppings at the north end of Cobalt Lake. Provincial geologist Dr. Willet G. Miller noted that although there were “pieces of native silver as big as stove lids and cannon balls” laying about the lake, they were so tarnished that previous prospectors had overlooked them.

In October, Tom Hébert made the final discovery of the year. The lumberjack from Hull, Quebec was working for the J.R. Booth Lumber Company when he stumbled upon a rich vein on the east side of Cobalt Lake. Fearing that other workers might jump his claim, Hébert only showed his ore samples to Haileybury hotel owner Arthur Ferland. The two men subsequently established a prospecting syndicate that uncovered several other rich veins.

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