[Timmins Legendary Hollinger Mine] Burrowing for a Billion – by James A. Cowan (MACLEAN’S – June 15, 1927)


Hollinger is more than a billion’dollar gold mine: it is an astonishing augury of what our Canadian brains and courage can accomplish

HOLLINGER, in Northern Ontario, is North America’s greatest gold mine. No one can dispute this, even for the sake of argument, since there can be no argument about it.

In the contest for the title of ‘the greatest gold mine the world has ever seen’, the race has now narrowed down to an all-British affair between Canada and South Africa, and Hollinger, leading the Canadian entries, is the favorite. Working at top speed, it produced during 1926, gold worth $13,342,491—more than a million a month.

Benny Hollinger, novice among prospectors, eighteen years ago, stumbled on the outcroppings of one of the greatest known reserves of gold ore, but for the first twelve years of its history, Fortune presided over the activities of Hollinger with a twisted smile. Not till six years ago did this mammoth among gold mines begin to hit its stride. Nevertheless, after battling most known handicaps, it had to the beginning of this year, added gold worth $115,170,531 to the world’s supply.

Every few minutes, day and night, since this total was calculated, Hollinger has been adding hundreds of dollars more to this dizzy figure. Its output is jumping. It literally sets up a new production record one day to tear it down the next. Every day, six thousand tons of ore are hoisted up its central shaft—enough tonnage to fill 120 freight cars. By fall, this daily figure will be seven thousand, and by 1928, it is expected to reach eight thousand.

Three thousand men and ten million dollars worth of machinery, pushed to the limit, will not be capable of draining the scores of veins of the mine during the active lifetime of the present generation of miners. Engineers have burrowed into the earth’s interior for half a mile but the gold goes still deeper, and one expert, at least, has declared that it may continue down far beyond human reach.

Gold is always a gamble, but the gamble, as far as Hollinger is concerned, seems to be just how stupendous a total will be chalked up before finis is written to the history of this great producer. Hundreds of millions are a certainty. A billion is a probability. Should Hollinger reach this vast figure, almost any one of the seven conventional wonders of the world could consider itself ousted.

Yet, not a generation ago, that section of the Dominion was rated as so much useless landscape, barring the passing value of its pulp and timber. Then, the ever restless prospector began to wonder, and indulge his curiosity in lonely and back-breaking investigations. He revealed to Canadians that Nature had cached her treasures all over the countryside, and now Hollinger’s acres are among the most valuable bits of the earth’s crust known to man.

Even after the word was out, Hollinger, richest strike in Canada’s richest camp, the Porcupine, was passed over and discarded. Staking had been going on for three years when Benny Hollinger and his partner, Alex Gillies made their way, laboriously, into Porcupine. There had been no fever and little rush.

Pioneers had been in years before, staked their claims, and let them lapse. They had drifted on unsatisfied. Others followed and repeated. When Hollinger and Gillies arrived, these two wandered about and looked over the ground already staked. Old timers directed them, freely and casually, to the present Hollinger under the impression that the choice locations had been taken, up and they were sending the newcomers to some of the second-rate property that was left.

Tossing For Millions

HOLLINGER and Gillies, the tenderfeet, staked twelve claims and decided ownership by tossing a coin. Unsuspecting, they flipped for millions. Hollinger took the west and Gillies the east. Both properties were eventually combined, but Benny Hollinger’s six claims were the foundation of the record-breaking workings.

Rusty and forgotten, lying among the rocks that hid a thousand fortunes, was an abandoned prospector’s forge. This, at any rate, is the story—now a legend and a tradition. Beside it were some weed-grown workings. No other trace has ever been found of the unknown who had fortune within his fingers and let it slip. The odds are that he never knew he tossed it all away.

Nor was he the only one. Hundreds of others had worn a trail over the quartz veins. A portage crossed Hollinger Hill, and many a pack-laden woodsman had noted its existence only to enlarge upon the difficulties which it added to his enforced walk.

Just such a series of freaks and flukes mark the whole first period of Hollinger’s history. By contrast, they make the later chapters even more weird and remarkable Astounding as the mere cold figures of its output and a guess at its reserves are, and despite the romantic quirks of circumstance that accompanied the discovery, these are matched by the stories of struggle, seeming failure, an ultimate success which marked the development.

Simply by comparing these with the huge, high-speed miracle of machinery, which is the Hollinger of 1927, we get a slice of industrial romance with more thrill packed into it than a library of mystery fiction. Hollinger gold is not mined. It is manufactured. That, perhaps, is an exaggeration, but it does sum up in half a line the story of an industrial triumph of a very rare species. Hollinger is a remarkable factory, and that is one of the chief reasons why it is a world-famous mine.

At Hollinger, at the moment, 2,700 men are toiling continuously in a plant which cost ten millions to create, in a plant which is turning out bullion with the same regularity that another factory might turn out axle grease or pearl headed pins.

Visiting mining engineers of foreign extraction have been quoted as declaring that, all in all, there has never been anything in the history of gold-mining to equal it. That is their opinion and they stick to it. This Canadian accomplishment,’ achieved by engineering brains and much sweat of the brow, commenced when Timmins was a patch of bush five hundred miles from the nearest city and forty-five miles from the end of steel, has not yet been matched by any other nation under any circumstances whatsoever.

Hollinger, today, is a marvel of skill and science. Its surface plant sprawls out over a thousand acres. Underground, its tunnels cut back and forth, up and down, through the earth’s interior, till levels, cross-cuts, shafts and the rest of its network of subways, would run for a hundred miles if it were possible to straighten them all out into one.

The surface plant, seen at night from the other side of the drab lake of waste and trailings, which separates it from the town of Timmins, stands out of the dark like a family of grain elevators at some great lakes’ port, and hums as if half the ships of the upper lakes were being loaded.

There is no such thing as the end of the day’s work. At the surface, the mill runs ceaselessly, staffed by nearly nine hundred men, working in eight-hour shifts. Below, there are twice that number. At the shafts, they split up and disappear in little gangs, a score or so in a group, dropping off at different levels and working as independent units.

In the gloom of the levels, faces acquire a gray sameness that makes all miners look somewhat alike, but this underground battalion, nevertheless, is a curious hodgepodge of nations—MacDonalds, Manzinis, Ostojichs, O’Rourkes, Shulaks, Hawkins, Costellos, Belangers, Landowskis, Schneiders, Holgevacs, and also Smiths.

This mixture of races has one particular trait in common, the desire to do more than a day’s work in each eight hours. In case this may create the suspicion that Hollinger’s miners are unique among the earth’s inhabitants, it is just as well to note that much of the underground work is done on a contract basis. The gang is paid according to the amount of work done, and not the number of hours spent doing it. If a loafer ever succeeds in edging his way in, it is more than likely that he will be either cured by his co-workers or eliminated.

Time, at Hollinger, is not something to put in, but to work against. This contract-system is, naturally, an added driving force, but Hollinger miners do not look like lazy men at any time. Nor do their homes resemble the houses of people inclined to tolerate any of the symptoms of indolence. They all have the incidental accessories, the odd trimmings and fixings of the man who gets enjoyment out of working with his hands.

Underground, they work rapidly and almost automatically. They have every sort of mechanical assistance. Pipelines carry compressed air to every vein where operations are proceeding. Drills, sometimes eight to ten feet long, bite viciously into the ore, and explosives finish the job.

It takes two hundred boxes of dynamite a day and thousands of cubic feet of compressed air a minute to keep things going. The rock, ripped out of the veins, is shovelled into cars in the same way that shovels are used the world over. If there were a more rapid, effective and efficient way of loading, the present method would be replaced.

A glimpse at the other processes in the business of extracting gold makes it obvious that every step in the job has been re-vamped and developed to eliminate all waste effort. Affairs underground are controlled as carefully and precisely as the moves in a chess tournament. They must be. Even a comparatively slight delay could seriously upset the smoothness and swiftness of the process. The mill, hundreds of feet above the miners’
Sixty Miles of Electric Railway

SIX thousand tons of raw ore is a staggering amount of rock to come out of one hole in the ground every twenty-four hours, day in and day out. It could not be removed with the methods in vogue ten years ago. Even with the most advanced systems and the most modern mechanical aids, it could be accomplished only with almost super-organization.

There are, for instance, no romantic and pathetic mine mules in this establishment. Everything is electrified and, where possible, made automatic. On every level where ore is being taken out, a dwarf of an electric railway runs from vein to shaft. There are more than sixty miles of track in this hidden transportation system, and an additional five miles are operated above the surface.

Ore-laden trains, drawn by compact but powerful infants of locomotives, roar through the tunnels as fast as many surface freights. Their steel cars dump automatically. Tons of rocks go into the bins at each trip.

When the first tracks were laid, storage battery trains were the last word in underground hauling. By the time work had reached the 400-foot level, they were replaced by overhead trolleys, operating like civic street-cars.
Though every pound of ore mined comes to the surface by the central shaft, there are more than twenty shafts altogether.

The levels branch off the shafts, one below the other, like corridors in a skyscraper. They, in turn, are connected by cross-cuts, by minor shafts linking two or more levels far below the surface, by a whole network of subterranean hallways, striking off in all directions. An underground tourist, left to himself, could be hopelessly lost in a few minutes. More probably he would tumble to the next level and kill himself.

There are more miles of streets, so to speak, in this little section of the earth’s insides than there are avenues, alleys and roadways of all sorts, in any one of a whole host of Canadian towns.

This maze of tunnels is constantly changing. Statements concerning it, which are fact while this article is being written, might be fiction before it is published. New levels are constantly being cut and old ones altered. A vein may be exhausted, filled with waste sent down from the top, abandoned, and to all intents and purposes, forgotten. No one man could hope to know, with mathematical exactness, the geography of Hollinger’s subterranean workings. The veins alone, already opened, number more than eighty. Thirty-one surveyors are always on the job.

Every week they plot on a detailed chart in the general offices, the new developments, the alterations and all the changes in the underground railways and highways. Were this not done regularly, Hollinger could easily become a muddle, and its underground operations hopelessly tangled.

The actual mining goes on within a quarter mile of the surface. But shafts are already down 3,200 feet, and steadily going deeper. Engineers are blocking out the ore, which will lie untouched for months and even years. Getting it out is a factory process. When one vein is cleaned, another is ready.

As the gangs blast and drill, tests are made every few minutes. By means of fifteen hundred assays a day the exact value of the ore that each little group of men is tearing loose is known, almost to the cent.

One of the most remarkable features of this large-scale drive for precious metal is the fact that the value of the ore per ton, as it is sent up, is practically constant. The veins vary in richness, but the orders are that the rock coming to the surface crushers must always be worth approximately eight dollars a ton. This, of course, is not high-grade ore. There are veins in Hollinger which run triple that figure, but by keeping steadily at the eight-dollar mark, and mixing the output from the different levels, the rich with the low-grade, almost all of it can be utilized.

Down on the 1,550-foot level, a huge crusher has been built, close to the central shaft. Every bit of ore, from every part of the mine, comes here, spilling down chutes from the upper levels, and hauled in from all parts of the workings. Here it is mixed for the mill. The orders, as mentioned before, are to make it average eight dollars a ton. Last year, the average value of the hundreds of thousands of tons hoisted to the surface was seven dollars and ninety-nine cents.

From seven in the morning till eleven at night, the gangs concentrate on getting the daily six thousand tons. From near midnight till morning, special crews go down to clear everything for the next sixteen hours’ attack. They do all the repair work. They examine each level as carefully as the track-walker in the mountains watches each foot of railway lines. They handle the trickier jobs of blasting, check and re-check the past day’s work, leave everything ready for the next day’s operations.

Half an hour after a thousand men have gone underground, you may follow them and find that they seem to have been utterly swallowed up. You have the curious sense of being in the heart of some immense mechanism which is operating quite independently of any human assistance or direction. You hear the rattle and purr of drills in the distance. A headlight cuts through the level and a train roars past, the operator of the locomotive looking a part and parcel of the machinery. There is a rumble from the other end as the cars dump.

It would still be dim underground under the most powerful of lights and there is something spectral about a gang of miners, with their figures etched out on the rock wall of a tunnel by their working lights.

But unlike many mines, the air is comparatively pure, and the workings are not wet—just damp enough to prevent dust. Nature has her own ventilation system in action, foolproof, always working. The central shaft is a huge vent with a constant blast of used air pouring out of it, while the other shafts automatically act as intakes.

When work commences on the lower levels, two and three thousand feet down artificial systems, already installed, will supplement the natural drafts.
The mill on the surface makes a deafening uproar after the comparative quiet of the mine. The building of the first mill was one of the crucial undertakings in the pioneer development. Today it is a massive automaton, demanding its thousands of tons each day, keeping up its never-ending pounding, and turning out its bricks of gold as regularly as a clock striking the hours.

Once the ore strikes the surface, its subsequent career can best be described as hectic. There is no pause in the process. The ore comes up in buckets, six tons to a load, in lumps the size of a man’s head.

The buckets dump automatically, and the ore rolls into the crushers. It goes straight from the crushers to the grinders but, as it passes across, workmen toss in limestone with each batch. So exact is every step in the process that a record is kept of the number of scoops of limestone added each hour by each man on the job.

No Chances Taken

THE grinder, a machine-age adaptation of the old mortar and pestle, wobbles about and crunches rock endlessly, seemingly crushing it with one third the effort required to mash a boiled potato. After the grinders come the rollers. The ore is crumbled to half-inch sizes between two steel cylinders, and dropped on an endless belt, ready for the mill proper. But, on its way out, there is one interesting little incidental. A powerful electro-magnet, hanging over the belt, snaps up every bit of iron or steel which may have tumbled into the ore— nails, spikes, bolts, fragments of piping, bits of metal the size of a pinhead. It is just a passing example of the official policy of leaving as little as possible to chance.

Battered to bits, the ore returns underground—this time to a 1500-ton storage bin, sixty feet below the surface. The bin is a reserve of raw material to forestall any mill tie-up, should an unforeseen emergency affect production in the mine another instance of the policy of giving chance little or no chance.
Though the ore is now about to pass through the final processes, there is nothing of the precious metal about its appearance. It is neither more nor less glittering than the crushed stone on our county roads.

Two cars, each carrying seven tons a trip, operate up and down an incline from the underground bin to the top of the mill. They, too, dump automatically and as the ore tumbles down to the first mills, the rod mills, a solution of cyanide of potassium is slowly added.

The rod mills, with their thick end doors, resemble nothing so much as a battery of huge, round-doored bank vaults in solemn revolution, and pound the mixture into coarse sand and pass it on to the tube mills, from which it emerges, after more cyanide solution has been poured in, as a liquid mud.
The cyanide performs a simple but important service. In it, the pure gold dissolves as sugar dissolves in water. To give the cyanide every chance to do its work, the muddy mixture is poured into agitators—steel tanks fifty feet high— where blasts of compressed air are forced through, and it bubbles steadily for twenty hours. By this time, the cyanide has dissolved all the gold worth getting.

The sediment which remains, therefore, is paste, and the sooner it is eliminated, the better. The mixture is washed and rewashed till it is clean of mud and gold-laden solution can be poured off into separate tanks. This solution, a liquid as clear as crystal, looks, to a casual onlooker, as if it contained even less gold than the waters of Niagara Falls. For all its innocent appearance it is deadly poison. A sip means death. Every part of the building is plastered with warning signs.

Even the task of disposing of the waste mud, which has now been taken out of the mixture, is a problem in itself. Obviously, there are more than five thousand tons of it to throw away each day—more than a hundred carloads. To haul it off and dump it, would involve tremendous expense. The whole lake which once sparkled beside the mine has now been filled with it. As traces of the deadly cyanide mixture may still remain in it, at least a year must pass before vegetation of any sort will grow in the mine waste. So it is again mixed up, this time with water, and forced by powerful pumps through three miles of pipe-line’ to be poured off into some abandoned claims.

All that remains to be done in the mill is to filter the gold out of the cyanide solution. Zinc dust is added to it, and the new mixture flows into huge box-like filters. It is squeezed through sheet after sheet of paper-covered canvas, which catch the gold and zinc while the cyanide drips on through. The filtered solution goes back to be mixed with ore once more. Theoretically, it goes on and on forever.

Once a week the sheets are removed from the filters. On them is seven days’ production of gold. Even yet it is far from recognizable. Perhaps the most accurate description of it is that it is a dirty sludge. The final product of the mill, it is carried to the refinery—gold, with the added zinc and a small amount of silver. The process of refining, though complex, is a standard one. The mixture is smelted and the gold poured off, molten, to cool into bars of bullion.

Not So Simple

EXACTLY ninety-six per cent, of all the gold in the ore is secured by this process. To get the remaining four per cent, would cost more than it is worth. As described, it sounds like a comparatively simple and certain method, simple, at any rate, when compared with the intricacies of some of the machines used in other varieties of manufacturing. Week after week, it never fails.

Yet it was here, in the business of getting from the crushed ore to the semi-finished gold that the hitches came in the past. It was the seeming failure of the mill which, at one time, threatened the future of all Hollinger.
It was not till Dominion Day, 1912, that the first real mill was started. Mr. P. A. Robbins, who was general manager from 1911 to 1918, was in charge, and he tells of the first clean-up. There was no gold, and the mine was thrown into an uproar.

“There were about fifty flasks of mercury used in that system,” Mr. Robbins said, when describing the first mill. “This was retorted. No gold! No gold in the safes. No gold in the grinding pans. The total yield should have been about forty thousand dollars, but it was exactly nine dollars and forty cents. I still have the button of gold we got that day and have named it nil desperandum.’ Luckily, the gold was not lost. A quick clean-up showed that it was still in the presses.

Other steps in the process caused more trouble. Today, the giant agitators, where the crushed ore and the cyanide boil away together, need little more than casual watching. But in the first mill a gong was always kept near the tanks. The minute a workman saw an agitator stopping, he pounded on the gong, and all hands rushed to the rescue. Grappling hooks and lines, always kept in readiness, were dropped in the mixture and for hours, sometimes for days, a gang of men would drag on the lines to keep the mill going.

Porcupine was then an untried camp. Mass production of gold in Canada was new. Engineers and workers were unfamiliar with methods. New ones had to be devised, and it was an era of experiment.
Hollinger’s very first mill, a small stamp mill, is still in evidence. It is preserved on a slab of cut stone in front of the general offices. Minus its pedestal, it could be comfortably housed in a telephone booth.

Compared with the fortune in equipment which marks today’s plant, and the broad acreage which the surface workings cover, the first machinery is almost comic. Yet it required a prodigious effort to get development started. The T.& N.O. Railway was forty-five miles away. Roads had to be cut through bush and swamp to get the machinery in. Eight hundred teams of horses and many yoke of oxen were kept moving during the entire summer of 1910, carting equipment and supplies. By 1911, erection of a thirty-stamp mill was well under way when bush-fires swept the property clean.

Further Complications

THE fires, so the rumor went, were inspired. Hollinger, said the gossipmongers, was a failure, and the fire would enable those interested to cover things up after they had unloaded their stock with the help of the rich samples which had been brought.

In 1912, when things were once more under way, a six-months’ strike tangled it all up again. There were several times in its history when Hollinger’s backers were about ready to throw up the sponge. No sooner had the mine recovered from its disastrous strike than the war came and swept it nearly clean of workers.

When someone refers to Hollinger, therefore, as a great piece of luck, it is well to remember that the luck was of widely varying sorts. It could not have reached its present peak without perseverance that almost amounted to stubbornness, and engineering skill that had nothing whatever to do with chance.

Each twenty-four hours, it is now worth repeating, eighteen hundred men pry loose six thousand tons of ore and send it up for nine hundred more men to treat. Ten millions were spent for mills, machinery, development and equipment, to enable these hundreds of men to do the job properly.

But as far as its bulk is concerned, the finished product, after a day’s work, might almost be wheeled off in a perambulator. Bulk, however, means nothing. Each small brick is worth $25,000 and a week’s production is valued at more than a quarter of a million. Should Hollinger stop suddenly, for good and all, the gold market of the world would feel the shock.

Benny Hollinger laid the foundation for this colossal enterprise on a grubstake of seventy-five dollars, not enough capital in these days to finance a peanut stand. He got fifty dollars from John F. MacMahon, of Haileybury, in return for a half interest in anything he might find. McMahon, in turn, sold half of his half interest to his cousin, James Labine for fifty-five dollars, thus making thirty dollars on the deal.

Hollinger sold his claims to Messrs. Timmins, McMartin and Dunlap for $330,000, and Labine, therefore, got $82,500, while McMahon received a similar amount. The only comment McMahon had to make when he heard the final result of his investment was: “Well; I’m glad it stayed in the family.”

Noah H. Timmins, one of the original group and now Hollinger’s president, began his business career as a small country storekeeper at Mattawa, Ontario. In 1922, he was said to be worth twenty-five millions, and his yearly income is enormous. Almost entirely out of Hollinger, he is on the way towards becoming the Dominion’s richest man.

Dividends of $36,000,000

HOLLINGER has already paid dividends of more than $36,000,000— more than any Canadian bank and most industrial concerns. Today the original syndicate of Canadians are greatly commended for their enterprise, but in 1909 their flyer in Porcupine was publicly rated as a foolhardy undertaking. It was said that they were gentlemen who possessed either unusual nerve or superhuman foresight—but more probably the former. They were not then considered mining experts, for their only previous venture had been the La Rose silver mine in Cobalt, where they had made comfortable fortunes digging rich ore out of shallow trenches.

The courage which they showed in taking hold of the Hollinger claims, however, cannot compare with the courage required to carry on the development in the face of all the obstacles which steadily appeared. Even the accessories of mining involved a stupendous outlay.

There is, for instance, one machine shop, a whole factory in itself, devoted exclusively to re-sharpening drills. Its capacity is four thousand drills each eight hours. In another shop all the buckets, ore-cars, skips and tanks used in the mine are made.

Several hundred yards from the mill, in a solid concrete structure is one of the world’s finest compressor plants. Inside, it is as spick and span as a hospital ward. Each one of its series of machines can produce at least ten thousand cubic feet of compressed air a second. Bedded in concrete, they run with practically no vibration. In one corner of this plant there is a group of oil-burning engines. They represent an entire fortune in themselves, and they have no part in the mine’s daily operations. But they are always in trim and tested, ready to start on a minute’s notice. Powerful enough to operate everything required in an emergency, they are held in reserve in case storm or accident should wreck the main transmission line and cut off the mine’s supply of electricity.

At each shaft-mouth, the hoisting machinery is the most modern and efficient obtainable. It, too, represents, a staggering outlay. It is exact to the fraction of a foot. In the engine-house, a separate building away from the shaft, the engineer at the levers knows the exact position to an inch, of the cage which may be nearly a half mile below him. He can control its rise and fall within half an inch and check its drop almost instantly.

A. F. Brigham is Hollinger’s present general manager. An American by birth, he has spent most of his life under the British flag. He works in the general offices at the front of the plant, a set of offices, incidentally, which are as unique as the rest of the organization. Though, in appearance, there is no resemblance, they have the atmosphere of a battleship cleared for action. They are stripped clean of all non-essentials. They are bare of any elaborate office etiquette or any sign of the business flunkey.

A caller stops at the switchboard and says that he would like to see the assistant general manager, Mr. Knox. A man passing by, stops and asks him: “What did you want?” The caller repeats that he wishes to see Mr. Knox. “You are speaking to him,” he is told. The executives are on hand at the plant to work, not to appear as the central figures in an elaborate setting representing Industry-in-Action. If they feel that, by hedging themselves about with formalities, they interfere with the job, they cut out the formalities.

In this office, too, is a system of cost accounting, records and statistics covering every phase of operations, which is one of the most complete on the continent. You can learn for instance, the exact position of any cage or bucket in any shaft at any second of any day since it was first installed. An automatic needle in the engine-room plots every move of the hoist, and all these records are carefully filed.

The statistics obtainable would run into volumes. The average profit last year on each ton of ore mined was $3.70, you are told, and you can also find out the cost, to the cent, of each step in the operation. There are records of the value of the untouched ore in each vein opened and the approximate amount. There is a complete check on every article which passes through the stock-room, one section of the plant which handles a million dollars worth of minor equipment a year.

Romantic and interesting to the layman as more informal and less modern methods of getting the gold have always been, a machine like Hollinger is, in operation, even more, fascinating. Hollinger is an industrial spectacle, adapting every advance of engineering to the job of outstripping, in Northern Ontario, the gold production of any other single mine on the face of the earth—and succeeding.


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