[Uranium City] ATHABASKA’S ATOM BOOM – by Ronald Schiller (MACLEAN’S Magazine – March 1, 1954)


Uranium City, Sask., can’t afford the time to develop the social graces— companies are formed in the beer parlor, women are outnumbered fifty to one, there’s no plumbing, and every man you meet wants to let you in on his own private bonanza

ONE DAY in the summer of 1952 Gilbert LaBine, the almost legendary Toronto mining millionaire who discovered the original deposit of pitchblende on Great Bear Lake, received a radiogram in Toronto from young geologist Albert Zeemel at Lake Athabaska in northern Saskatchewan. “Come quick,” the message read, “I’ve shot an elephant.”

Although LaBine is aware that there are no elephants in the northern wilds, he chartered a plane immediately and flew to Lake Athabaska. Zeemel strapped a Geiger counter to his boss’ hack, clapped a set of earphones on his head and conducted him to Crackingstone Peninsula. There LaBine heard a crackling roar in his ears like a thousand eggs frying in a pan.

Wherever he walked -for three days the sputtering continued, sometimes fading to a whisper, sometimes rising to a howl, but never stopping. Finally he look the phones from his tingling ears and exulted: “It’s an elephant, all right! Biggest one I’ve ever seen.”

“Elephant” was LaBine’s code name for a uranium strike. He had sent Zeemel to the Athabaska region which he considered prime “elephant country” to hunt for one. But he had never expected a discovery of such magnitude. The claim, which was registered in the name of LaBine’s company, Gunnar Gold Mines, Ltd., is the richest uranium find yet made anywhere.

News of the discovery set off reactions around the world. In Toronto, Gunnar stock jumped from forty cents to twelve dollars a share. In many parts of Canada and the United States, and as far away as Saudi Arabia and South Africa, mining men dropped what they were doing and bought plane tickets north. In Washington, atomic energy commissioners, faced with a serious shortage of uranium, breathed a sigh of relief. And in Ottawa officials of Canada’s government-owned Eldorado Mining & Refining Ltd. shook their heads in chagrin.

In 1950, after spending seven years and millions of dollars, Eldorado men had finally located a workable vein at Beaverlodge, just north of Lake Athabaska. Convinced it was the richest uranium deposit in the area, they sank deep shafts, excavated miles of tunnels, erected a townsite for three hundred and fifty workers and a processing plant to convert the ore.

Zeemel’s discovery was a stunning blow to them. The Gunnar claim lay only twenty-four miles from theirs. Its ore was not only cleaner and richer but more plentiful. Moreover, it lay so close to the surface that most of it could he mined by open-pit methods at a fraction of the cost of underground mining.
“It’s a geological freak,” the Eldorado men point out. “It was found in a ‘sheer zone,’ where the rock formations are such that only a fool would bother to prospect them.”

“All great mines are freaks,” answers LaBine, who is not averse to twisting the harpoon.

The Gunnar strike swelled what had been a mere trickle of prospectors to Athabaska into an avalanche. Undiscouraged by geologists’ warnings that the chance of making a successful find was only one in a thousand, storekeepers, salesmen, clerks, farmers, accountants, cooks, even a Polish count and countess swarmed into the bush.

They laid claim to every rock and gully for a hundred miles around. To keep the prospectors alive and supplied, the Saskatchewan provincial government laid out the townsite of Uranium City, eight miles from the Eldorado company’s community at Beaverlodge. The first two buildings erected were the claim recorder’s office and a liquor store.

The huge majority of prospectors, of course, found nothing, and soon went broke. They had to go to work for their luckier neighbors, either to earn enough for a plane ticket home or, more likely, for a new stake that would enable them to go prospecting again. One of these was an old man named Gunnar Berg, for whom the Gunnar company had originally been named. He had made a fortune years before in gold mining, and squandered it.

He hoped to make another in Athabaska and still hopes to make one. Always dangling before him and the other professionals was the lure of the fantastic rewards they could earn for a successful find. Albert Zeemel received almost half a million dollars in cash and stock for his discovery—tax-free.

But the discouraging feature of uranium hunting to the old pros is that, in contrast to any other type of prospecting, it requires no skill, experience or geological knowledge. It helps to know that uranium ore is usually found in rock with a red discoloration or that a flaky, yellowish oxide that looks like unappetizing shreds of dried scrambled eggs sometimes appears on its surface. But outside of these bits of knowledge, a forty dollar Geiger counter is all that is necessary.

A few lucky people have made strikes even without a Geiger. They have simply “tied on” their claims alongside others that have been properly prospected. Airplane pilot Johnny Nesbitt, between flights, tied on to a property next to Beaverlodge that is proving to be worth a fortune. A Chipewyan Indian, Isidore Voyageur, got nine thousand dollars and two hundred thousand shares of mining stock for another tie-on near Tazin Lake. Three Irish bricklayers sold ten tie-on claims on Laird Island for five hundred thousand dollars.

Last fall, feeling a reporter’s curiosity about what was happening up north, I took a plane from Edmonton for the five-hundred-mile flight northeast to Athabaska. (Except for four ice-free months during the summer, when rivers and lakes are open to navigation, the only access to the region is by air.) I believe I was the only man aboard without a Geiger counter in my kit.

On landing I quickly discovered that although the two communities of Beaverlodge and Uranium City were only eight miles apart, the contrast between them could scarcely be greater. Beaverlodge, built by the Government to house Eldorado workers and their families, is a model town of attractive, green and red roofed homes and bunkhouses, complete with lawns, picture windows, modern furnishings, hot and cold running water. It has its own school, church, recreation facilities and a blooming social life.

Uranium City, privately built, is a raw drab looking pioneer settlement that stands like an open gash in the bush.

There is neither plumbing nor a water system; drinking water, hauled up from the lake, sells for a dollar a barrel. Its three main streets are dust bowls in dry weather, quagmires when it rains. It is scarcely two winters since herds of caribou migrated through its streets to the considerable advantage of the local meat supply.

But U-City will not remain a shack town for long. Provincial decree requires that every lot owner build a structure worth at least three thousand dollars within three years. Stores, barbershops and assayers’ offices, housed in tents the first year, moved into frame structures the next. A movie theatre, hospital, police station and iron-barred jail were dragged over the ice from the nearby ghost town of Goldfields.

Last autumn a school, two churches, a hotel, a men’s style shop, garages, banks and a poolroom were added. And in the town’s restaurants I experienced again that exasperating phenomenon of the northland: in a country teeming with game and practically submerged in lakes filled with fat trout and whitefish, it was impossible to get anything to eat except canned salmon and preserved beef, imported at huge cost to the importer— and to me.

The atmosphere of U-City pulsates with feverish enthusiasm and unsubstantiated rumors of fabulous uranium strikes. It is impossible by their clothes or manners to tell millionaires from miners. There are few middle-aged people to be seen. The inhabitants are likely to be old veterans, like Jock McMeeken, editor of the Uranium Era, who has followed mining booms across Canada for decades. Or they are youngsters, like twenty-three-year-old Dave Good, editor of the rival Uranium ’Fires, a lad who came north with his wife and baby to grow up with the country.

The handful of unmarried women usually have backgrounds as remarkable as that of Beverly Auten, the attractive twenty-five-year-old who, singlehanded, runs the local brokerage house where fifty thousand shares of stock have been traded in a day. Watching her in action, it is difficult to realize that she was born a deaf-mute and did not utter a word until she was twelve. For weeks before there was any bank in town, Beverly used to leave her cash on a table in the brokerage office at night with a light shining on it. It was never touched. Lawlessness in this frontier community is almost non-existent. The town’s three young Mounted Police constables occupy their time chiefly by locking up drunks and handing out tickets for traffic violations on Athabaska’s twenty miles of rough road.

Perhaps the best-known citizen in town is Gus Hawker, a sad-faced little Englishman who three years ago regarded himself as “the unluckiest man in Canada.” He had come to the Dominion twenty years ago to homestead, but every single crop he sowed was either burnt up or eaten by grasshoppers. He switched to trapping but tipped over his canoe and lost his entire first year’s catch. When he got jobs, his employers invariably failed. He turned to storekeeping and went bankrupt repeatedly. His wife finally deserted him. Whereupon Gus gathered up his meagre supply of trade goods, his six children and moved to Uranium City. On arrival he took the children prospecting—and promptly got lost for a day and a night.

Then came the Gunnar strike and Gus, in his tent store, began to do thousands of dollars’ worth of business each day. He accepted claims in lieu of payment until he accumulated some six hundred claims. He sold two hundred of them for two hundred and ten thousand dollars. Last June he chartered a plane and took his family to the Coronation in London, where they were all invited to Buckingham Palace. Now back in his store in U-City, Gus is more sad-faced than ever under the unaccustomed burden of wealth. He spends most of his time talking nostalgically of the days when he was broke.

At the other extreme are sharp young promoters like pleasant baby-faced Ralph Rooney from British Columbia. Ralph went to work in a garage at eighteen as a mechanic’s apprentice, for five dollars a week. At twenty three he bought an automobile distributorship for six thousand dollars, much of which was borrowed. Two years later, after developing the largest automobile agency in the province, doing six hundred thousand dollars’ worth of business annually, he sold out to go into mining.

He set himself up in a hotel suite in Edmonton where he kept both open house and an open pocketbook for prospectors coming down from Athabaska. He bought their properties at an average nine thousand dollars apiece each evening, sold them by telephone in Toronto the following morning for an average twenty-seven thousand dollars. Today at twenty-nine he heads his own mining company and, asked to estimate his net worth, guesses it to be “somewhere around a million dollars—on paper.”

Everybody Has A Strike

The social and business centre of life in U-City is the town’s one beer parlor. More syndicates and companies are formed here, more claims bought and sold than in a stock exchange. A man would no more dream of entering the beer parlor without a pocketful of ore samples from his claims than without his pants. Sooner or later in the course of a conversation a visitor must expect to have a handful of rocks thrust up to his face and be asked to admire their exquisite beauty and rich uranium content. “I can make Gunnar look like a gopher hole if you can help me get the money for drilling.”

In self-defense one day I picked up some stones from the road before entering. When the conversation reached the inevitable turn I produced my “ore samples” before the man next to me could get out his.

“Sa-a-ay!” he said. “Those look good. Where did you get them?”

I pocketed my rocks with a crafty smile and said nothing which instantly established my reputation in the beer parlor as a shrewd operator.

Anyone, citizen or not, may go prospecting in Athabaska provided he buys a miner’s license costing five dollars, and a map showing the territory still unclaimed. Only way to reach the unclaimed area is to charter a float-plane. The pilot agrees to pick you up again at a specified date—and never fails you.

A man can’t survive long in that wild country once his supplies have run out.
On arriving at his destination the prospector paces off plots fifteen hundred feet square, affixes his name and license number to “witness posts” at each of the four corners. He has ten days, plus one additional day for each ten miles of the distance from Uranium City, to register his claims at the recorder’s office. Every prospector may register nine such claims for himself and six more for each of two friends, or “proxies” —a total of twenty-one.

The registration fee is five dollars for each personal claim, ten dollars for each proxy claim. But the number can be expanded indefinitely by buying licenses for employees, wives, Indians and others who may not be able to afford the costs. At the height of the rush Indians were charging as much as two hundred dollars to go along and “pat the stake,” as this procedure is called, plus twenty dollars for each day spent en route.

“Tent-staking” is a venerable prospecting method sometimes used at Athabaska, and it frequently leads to claim-jumping. In tent-staking, men sit in their tents in winter studying maps, pick out likely spots, register them, then rush out to the sites in spring, hoping to get there before anyone else. 1 f someone has beaten them there, they may shave the man’s name off witness posts, substitute their own and try to beat the original claimant to the recorder’s office. Honest mistakes can occur, too. It is easy in the dense bush to miss stakes that are already there and to claim land that belongs to someone else. Unless a hundred dollars’ worth of work has been done on a claim in a year, title must be renewed annually.

If prospecting in Athabaska is comparatively cheap, other expenses are not. The only way to ascertain the quantity and quality of the ore underground is by diamond drilling at a cost of six dollars per foot—and it usually requires several thousand feet of drilling to determine whether or not a mine is worth developing.

Beyond this, every item of equipment, building material, food and clothing must be brought in by barge at a cost of seven cents per pound during the frantic weeks between June and October. Otherwise airfreight from Edmonton is the only transport—at a cost of a dollar and a half per pound. Twenty million dollars was sunk into the Beaverlodge mine before a single pound of ore could be processed, and seven million dollars will he invested in Gunnar.

Mine employees are usually brought in under eighteen-month contracts, with air fare, food and shelter guaranteed. Ordinary laborers make two-fifty an hour, skilled workers several times that much. Twenty-five-year-old driller Mike Schmerchynski earned $1,176 one month last year without exhausting himself. With only two dollars a day exacted for board and lodging, and little else on which to spend money, a man can bank most of his salary—provided he doesn’t drink it up or gamble it away.

Such financial opportunities have attracted workers from all over the world, giving Athabaska a decidedly international atmosphere. Alberto Cohen, a debonair boulevardier in Rome until he lost his fortune, works as a truck dispatcher for Eldorado. Philipp Kniesel, a Yugoslav whose factories were expropriated by the Communists, works as a cook to earn a new stake.

There are a considerable number of ex-German soldiers like tank commander Karl Kapp, who fought the American landings in Normandy, and Corporal Oscar Anderisch, whom Canadian occupation forces once gave two hours to clear out of his house in Duisburg.

U-City Ahead Of Paris!

There are some people—a decided minority —who have come to Athabaska for reasons other than money. Stenographers and waitresses do not remain unmarried long in a country where men outnumber women fifty to one. Brilliant young surgeon Don McMillan gave up a lucrative practice in the east to become the only doctor in seven thousand square miles. In spring and fall, when the ice is too soft to allow planes to land, he has sat by the radio for as long as forty-eight hours telling an isolated trapper how to deliver his wife’s baby. He and a Mountie, each carrying forty pounds of food and surgical equipment, once trekked five days through the snow to perform an operation on a woman who appeared to be dying of a gall bladder condition—only to find her fully recovered from an attack of indigestion.

Twenty-one-year-old schoolteacher Orland Larson originally came north to earn enough money to study painting in Paris. He found his work so interesting that he has changed his plans. He calls his evening language classes, in which he strives to impart to new Canadians a feeling for democracy, “the most important work I could ever do.”

There are at present three thousand people in the vicinity of Uranium City. When all the nearby mines are in production its population is expected to reach ten thousand. Athabaska’s prosperity is assured at least as long as the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, the only uranium buyer in the Western hemisphere, and the Dominion Government continue a contract whereby the AEG is allowed to purchase all the uranium oxide produced in Canada. Canada’s raw uranium is shipped to a primary refinery at Port Hope, Ont., then shipped to the U.S. for final refining. That used at the Chalk River project is shipped from the U.S. under the present arrangement.

With the development of atomic powered ships and aircraft, and nuclear reactors for civilian use, the demand for the fissionable metal is rising sharply. However, a richer source of uranium closer to the centres of population may some day be found to supply our needs. The AEC is also experimenting with “breeding reactors” which, if successful, will create more fissionable material than they use up, conceivably bringing both the price and demand for new uranium down sharply. Or a new fissionable or fusionable — material may be developed that is cheaper and more efficient than uranium.

None of these possibilities worries the folks in Athabaska. An estimated six million dollars was spent in diamond drilling last summer; double that amount is expected this summer. Nearly a hundred and fifty mining companies are digging or ready to start. Exploration is still going on, and news that someone has “pulled a good hole” will empty the town of prospectors in a matter of hours. Nobody doubts that there are still “elephants” around, and everyone wants to be the man to shoot the next one.


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