[PORT RADIUM’S ELDORADO] THE MINE THAT SHOOK THE WORLD – by Ronald A. Keith (MACLEAN’S Magazine – November 15, 1945)


A vivid first-hand report on Eldorado, the supersecret mine in the Arctic, which produces the raw material for atomic bombs

IT WAS cold and wet and eternally midnight. Our helmet lamps were bleared with rock dust as they flickered along the cavern walls, tracing bright patterns of ore stain against the black velvet of the perpetual darkness. The icy breath of ventilating air reminded us that this was no ordinary hard-rock mine but a cave under the floor of Great Bear Lake, within 26 miles of the Arctic Circle.

Our oilskins were beaded with moisture; everywhere was the drip of seepage, the silent flow of water underfoot, the trickle of subterranean streams and the clean cool smell of wet rock. Suddenly, our tunnel halted against a rugged face of pre-Cambrian rock. There, jet-black and glistening in the torchlight, was a broad vein of ore. “That” said Joe Belec, “is it!”

We stood there in the Eldorado mine, 1,000 ft. below the surface of the largest subarctic lake in the world, and gazed thoughtfully at what might have been a seam of coal, but what we knew to be the black magic of pitchblende, the source of uranium, the earth-quaking substance of atomic power.

This was the vein that supplied British, Canadian and American men of science with raw material for their epic experiments. This was the dark ore out of which had come the energy that shocked the Japanese into shuddering surrender.

Eldorado has had an exciting history. It was discovered in 1930 by Gilbert Labine while his prospecting partner lay helplessly snow-blind in a tent nearby. Twice it has glittered in the floodlights of world publicity. In the first decade of its development it yielded enough radium to break the world monopoly. The price of the cancer-healing mineral was forced down from $75,000 to the present $25,000 a gram as tons of the black concentrate came from the Arctic pit.

Then, with 1940 and the fall of France, the radium market dwindled, ore reserves mounted. The mine closed; its pumps were stopped; the frigid waters of Great Bear flooded the subterranean workings. Eldorado was drowned and dormant. For nearly two years the flooded ghost mine on the rim of the Arctic Circle was guarded by only two men.

Alone in a quarter million square miles of rock and snow and stunted spruce, Sam Oja, Finnish Canadian, and Chris Bouey, a giant Netherlander, kept their vigil. Once in four months a plane flew in to their isolated domain. For the rest of the time there was just Sam and Chris and the saturated mine.

Then, unexpectedly, a strange airplane came sloping down out of the dullness of the winter sky. For the watchmen it was the end of their lonesome assignment. For Eldorado it was another beginning.

Science had come to Great Bear for the source of atomic power.

Port Radium

I FLEW to Great Bear Lake to penetrate for the first time the shroud of super secrecy which had enveloped Eldorado for nearly four years. On the assignment I started from Toronto, and travelled 6,820 miles. A sleek airliner spanned the 800 miles from Edmonton to the booming gold town of Yellowknife, N.W.T.

Then we piled into the gun blister of an RCAF1 flying boat to drone over monotonous miles of rock and lakes and straggling timber. A blizzard forced our pilot to land on a nameless lake in the wilderness and anchor for five hours until the ceiling lifted.

But finally, with Edmonton more than 1,000 miles to the south, and the Arctic coast just beyond the northern horizon, we were circling a hump of rock which rose from the edge of a bay like a wrinkled elephant. Clinging to its slope we could glimpse the white patches of buildings, Port Radium!

Then we were slanting down to the rippled water of Labine Bay. The hull of our Canso jittered over the green furrows of swell, then the spray hissed as she settled and white water foamed over the blister canopy.

Peering through the dripping canopy I had my first good look at this fabulous Eldorado, this fragmentary island of habitation in a petrified ocean of rock, where for three years and seven months men had been toiling in secrecy and virtual oblivion to secure the raw material for the most astonishing project of this or any generation.

Rising steeply from the water was a rugged slant of almost naked rock. The buildings of the settlement, no more than 20 in number, were strung along the narrow shelf of the water front and straggled up the craggy face of the cliff. They speckled the slope with their assortment of black tar paper, grey asbestos shingles and corrugated tin. The population, as I was to learn, is 225, consisting of 199 men, three single girls, 13 wives and 10 children.

There was a single street. It snaked along the water’s edge from a cargo jetty and a sawmill at the head of the inlet, past a dock built on pilings, past a row of tin warehouses, to a powerhouse, which poked the sooty finger of its chimney skyward to trail a dark plume of smoke in the sky. Near it the head-frame of the mine stood like a dismal sentinel.

The Cliff-dwellers

HILL dwellings, each perched on a shelf blasted from the rock, seemed to be linked with a web of wooden stairways and stilted sidewalks, the equivalent of streets and avenues in this cliffside community. Crowning the summit, about 100 ft. above the water front, were the rectangular silhouettes of more buildings and the slender twin pinnacles of radio aerial towers standing against a reddening sky.

The dock was crammed with men, most of them wearing red checkerboard shirts. Several were aiming cameras. A raucous horn blast sounded from a frame building inshore. The miners deserted the dock and ran as if for their lives. It was the call of the cookhouse! Even a strange aircraft from outside was apparently a poor second to the lure of hot chow.

We climbed to the stilted dock. The reception party had been reduced to one man wearing a tired-looking felt hat, a rumpled overcoat and a generous smile. This was our host, Edmund Bolger, unobtrusive manager of the most important mine in the world. Now for the first time since the hush-hush revival of Eldorado he was welcoming an outsider.

“I suppose you’ll be interested in seeing the cookhouse first,” he observed, and got no argument, for it was getting dusk and our only food since early morning at Yellowknife had been RCAF emergency rations.

Soon we were seated at one of the long plank tables of the cookhouse. Seeing the flanked tables fairly creaking with food, I wondered where were the privations of Arctic isolation. I engaged a bowl of steaming bean soup, followed by a man-sized slab of hot beef, a small mountain of mashed potatoes, carrots, green celery, bread with lots of butter, raisin pie, tea with canned milk and plenty of sugar. There was obviously no food rationing here.

We were told that 250 tons of food are freighted in by the bargeload every summer, and it was not hard to believe. Mr. Bolger explained that they had blasted a big subterranean pantry in the mine to store the winter supplies.

To vary the canned diet, fresh eggs, fruit, celery, vegetables and choice beef are flown in all the way from Edmonton at regular intervals. On our table were jars of little brown pills— specially prepared poly-vitamin tablets to compensate for any diet deficiencies.

After juggling the fat sausage of a sleeping bag, a suit-case and a typewriter along the road and up two flights of rock-scaling stairs, I entered Mr. Bolger’s cabin, which was to be our headquarters. There was no evidence here of northern austerity. Shaded electric lights illumined the living room. There was soft music from the radio, deep-cushioned chairs, soft rugs, a well-filled bookcase, comfortable cots, even a modern bathroom and a hot shower.

We relaxed, listened to the radio, and talked about the mine that shook the world.

There was Emil Walli, former mine manager (1933-1939), who had left to mine copper and gold in Africa and returned to help direct organized prospecting for new uranium sources in the Territories; Major William G. “Doc” Baker, who presides over the small hospital on top of the hill; Joe Belec, mine captain and nephew of the discoverer, Gilbert Labine; and Ed Bolger, the manager.

My host explained that the main shaft of the uranium mine was down 1,386 ft., with lateral workings every 250 ft. all the way down. Another shaft was being sunk from the top of the slope, while a third was being started a couple of miles away. There were about seven miles of underground passages.

“The mine is definitely not exhausted,” he said. “I can see ahead a couple of years at least. Beyond that we don’t know.”

The big hazard was the water constantly seeping and streaming into the underground corridors from Great Bear Lake, he explained. “You have to know what you’re doing. One false move and the whole mine might be lost.”

As it is the pumps have to be kept working constantly. To keep the mine bailed out they send water gushing up the pipes and back into the lake at the rate of 42,000 gallons an hour, 24 hours a day.

Arrangements had been made for us to go underground that evening. With Joe Belec, Emil Walli and Ed Bolger, we soon found ourselves in a locker lined dressing room at the head of the mine. The actual entrance looked like a railway tunnel boring into the side of the cliff. Processions of mine cars, like rusted, deep-bellied bathtubs, were clicking along the narrow rails and being swallowed into the inky interior.

A short distance inside the tunnel we detoured through a side passage into the hot brilliance of an underground room where rows of damp oilskins, gloves and boots were being dried in preparation for another shift in the dark wet world below.

Joe Belec explained that special precautions had to be taken to protect the health of the men, particularly during the months when they emerge from eight hours underground into the perpetual twilight of the Arctic winter. He showed us the curtained sun-lamp cubicle where naked men basked in artificial sunshine after coming off shift. We were soon outfitted for the underground—heavy rubber boots, a broad leather belt with its battery holster, red plastic helmet with helmet lamp, green oilskin slicker and heavy leather gloves.

Instead of using the elevator cage we went down the man-way to see more of the mine. This proved to be something like a manhole with no lid and, apparently, no bottom. Our host led the way. He sat on the floor of the tunnel beside a jagged black hole, swung his feet into it and disappeared. Looking down I could see the sinking circle of light from his helmet lamp against the walls of the well. I was next and not too happy about it, even when Joe explained that there would be a platform and a jog in the ladder every 20 ft. or so, “to break your fall.”

Down I went, hand over hand. Each platform was a narrow shelf bordering another drop until finally, deep in the rock, we came down through the roof of a horizontal tunnel 250 ft. underground. We now found ourselves groping along a roughhewn passage-way about seven feet in diameter, with shaggy walls of rock which showed gray and brown and silver, and sometimes sparkling white in the light of our lamps.

Joe Belec stopped once to aim his lamp at a patch of crystal quartz on the jagged wall. He probed with the point of his short-handled pick. White rock clattered to the floor, revealing flecks of brassy metal—“fool’s gold”— and chunks of embedded ice. “See that ice?” he said. “The geologists claim that it’s glacial ice, been here for thousands of years, never melted because it’s always so cold down here.” The mine temperature is an even 30 deg.

Down in the Earth’s Belly

To get deeper into the mine we took the elevator, which was simply a wire cage on a cable. It dropped swiftly and noiselessly.

We explored on the 500-ft. and 800-ft. levels. Here we sloshed through shallow streams of water and saw the moisture seeping from the rock walls, dripping from the ceiling and, in one place, spurting out in a steady stream.

“We’re under the lake here,” explained the mine manager. “You can see that water is a problem. When we uncover a spurt like this we drill into the crevice, then plug it with concrete.” Like a dentist filling a cavity.

Near the vertical shaft of the mine we peered through board cracks into an underground torrent where thousands of gallons of seepage swished and foamed in a gigantic sump. Nearby were humming pumps and the iron columns of the pipes carrying the water to the surface.

In the working cavities, or stopes, were small groups of miners. Coated in rock dust they seemed to merge with the substance of the mine itself and could only be distinguished clearly by the wavering beams of their head lamps.

As we watched a mucking machine at work, Joe Belec gave us a short lecture on rock mining. There were only two men here and a snorting, jerking scoop shovelling robot on wheels which was the mucker. An operator rode on the side of this machine, manipulating levers as the mucker rolled forward, dug its scoop into a heap of broken rock, then heaved the load back over its shoulder into a waiting mine car. The number two man then wheeled the loaded tram into the darkness and returned with an empty.

When the muck at one face has been removed the power drills bore in with their deafening chatter, sinking holes which are then stuffed with explosive. At the end of a shift the fuses are touched off, there is a muffled roar as a rock wall caves in. When the next shift comes on the muckers go to work on the pile of rubble.

The working face of the rock is a rugged slate-grey seven-foot high wall which confronts you at the dead-end of the stope or mining tunnel. Slanting across its surface like a jet black gleaming ribbon is the yard-wide pitchblende vein.

Most of the present miners are of European descent. Many had been gold mining in northern Ontario, had gone to war factories, then had been selected for this top-priority uranium job because of their experience. There was also a sprinkling of lads from western farms.

There are two shifts underground at Eldorado: the day and the night spell, each from 8.00 to 4.30 with a half hour off for lunch. The average miner gets 82 cents an hour plus bonus. He can clear $225 a month.

Before leaving the mine we entered the cavern of the hoist control room, near the surface, and talked to a dark and sinewy young man named Andrew Kornega. We had a special interest in meeting him, for he had been working the levers and brakes of the hoist that had whisked us down and up the shaft.

For eight hours at a time he sits in his underground cave up near the surface, watching the great white saucers of the indicator discs and braking the big cable drums to stop the joists at successive floors far below.

One of Andy’s hoists hauls the wet rock rubble, or muck as it is called, up into the hollow pillar of the headframe, where the buckets dump onto an inclined belt leading into the concentration mill.

Inside the mill we saw the muck coming in, an endless stream of dirty grey and black rock, wet and glistening as it cascaded and disappeared into a crusher bin the size of a sawed-off silo. Inside, ponderous metal teeth grind the rock to gravel size. Then it passes into the fat revolving cylinders of rod and ball grinders which look like prone steam boilers and make an earsplitting din.

After running this gauntlet the rock gushes from a metal spout as a stream of grey sand and is poured onto a sloping table surfaced with rippling red rubber. A flood of water constantly plays over this jiggling, slanting table. As the grey sand jogs down the wet slope, the jiggling motion shakes the heavier pitchblende ore to one side where it forms a stream of black powder, and slides off the edge of the table into buckets. From these it goes into big square drying bins heated over steam coils.

At intervals spouts from these bins were opened to vomit the pitchblende concentrate, now a dry black powder, into white canvas bags, each the size of a small flour sack, ready for shipment to the refinery at Port Hope, Ont., more than 3,000 miles away.

The next day we watched the Diesel powered tug The Great Bear move into Labine Bay with its barge of freight from the outside. The return trip across the 200 miles of Great Bear Lake to Fort Franklin would start another shipment of concentrated uranium ore on its journey over the most intricate water traffic relay in the world.

Unloaded, transferred and reloaded over a succession of portages, the consignment threads the 1,413 – mile Bear, the Mackenzie and the Slave River systems, finally arriving at Waterways, the end of steel. Incoming food shipments are often more than a month en route. Outgoing ore takes considerably longer, Lucking the currents of the rivers that flow toward the Arctic sea.

The Great Bear frequently has to run for the shelter of a bay when big storms blow up on the lake, so it does not operate until the shore line is free of ice. The freighting season thus is» from the end of July to mid-October, during which period it makes 15 round trips.

Incoming water freight to Port Radium amounts to 1,200 to 1,400 tons every season, plus 2,500 to 3,000 tons of oil carried up the Bear River and across the lake from Norman Wells on the Mackenzie.

The cost is $110 a ton, slightly over five cents a pound, from Waterways. Air express from Edmonton costs 70 cents a pound, or $1,400 a ton. The round-trip fare by air from Edmonton to Eldorado is $350. It is not surprising that the mine’s annual transportation bill amounts to about $400,000.

We soon became accustomed to the familiar sights and sounds of Eldorado. Day and night the big Diesel engines in the power plant chug-chug ceaselessly, generating 2,000 h.p.—electricity to light the houses and operate the local telephone system; and, most important of all, to keep the pumps sucking water out of the flooding mine. There was also the intermittent wail of the sawmill as it sheared boards from the native pine logs.

Along the road the caterpillar tractor snorted between the mine and the jetty, hauling incoming freight and outgoing ore. At stages along its route steel rails mount from unloading platforms to the various buildings perched on the rocky incline above.

Miniature flatcars, cable-drawn by hissing compressed air winches, haul supplies to the levels of habitation.

Interlaced with the stairways and stilt-supported gangways crisscrossing the town’s incline are square wooden flumes connecting the various dwellings with the powerhouse.

These are packed with sawdust, and carry the arteries of steam heat, hot and cold running water and electricity. Like the telephone poles, which are supported by rock-filled log cribs, these channels can’t be buried, so they ride the rocky surface.

Life in the Subarctic

Surprisingly the winter weather at Port Radium is no more severe than in Winnipeg, Regina or Edmonton. There is not much sunshine, however, and for a week during December the sun never rises above the jagged horizon. In mid-June this is offset, however, by a week or so of daylight round the clock.

The chief amusements are fishing in summer for lake trout up to 40 lb. and skiing in the winter. The settlement has no church, no hotel, no beer parlor and no jail. Law is administered by steel-blue-eyed Irish Mike Harrington, a veteran northern RCMP constable with a red handle-bar mustache.

The corrugated tin recreation hall on the side of the cliff boasts a general store, two billiard tables and a 500 book library. With only three single girls in the camp of 199 men there are no dances, but a movie is flown in once a week. The company is hoping to set up a curling rink this winter, and they have started blasting a flat shelf on which to build a bowling alley.

Wolves Serenade the Hospital

One of the most important men in the settlement is Major William C. “Doc” Baker, a medical graduate of the University of Saskatchewan, who presides over the hospital. He is an engaging character, an expert poker player, a connoisseur of pin-ups, and a capable doctor. He officiated at the arrival of the second white baby born at Eldorado, last July, and more recently performed a successful complicated operation on a ruptured appendix.

Doc showed us his small efficient hospital on the summit of the hill. Incidentally, he has no radium there. Apparently the miners are not affected by the radioactive ores in the mine. They are much more affected, claims the doctor, by Miss Ceeille Hodgson, dark-eyed, brunette nurse’s aide in the hospital, one of the three single girls in the settlement.

“It’s quite a problem.” said Doc Baker. “I’m going to get a shotgun to keep the wolves away.”

Miss Hodgson was born at Fort Norman, in the Territories, and has lived most of her life in the north. She longs to live in the distant glamour of the cities.

Ed Bolger, the mine manager, is a native of Belleville, Ont., and a Queen’s graduate of 1906. He is a northern enthusiast, having spent 30 of his 59 years in mining camps.
Emil Walli, former mine manager.has been helping to supervise the exploration program started early in 1944. Since January, 1944, under direction of Richard Murphy, Eldorado mine geologist, a widespread survey has been under way for new sources of uranium.

Government geological maps on the wall of a shack overlooking Port Radium have been the guide charts for a two-summer treasure hunt which has extended over thousands of square miles of the Territories. On those maps are green shaded areas indicating regions where the rock formations are most favorable for the occurrence of radioactive ores.

Two planes have been used to deposit the prospecting parties in likely locations, keep them supplied with food, und move them to new areas.

These uranium prospectors use a Geiger box, designed and built by the National Research Council in Ottawa, an ingenious device for detecting radioactive mineral. The gamma rays from radium and uranium will penetrate up to four feet of rock to register on a sensitive Geiger Mueller tube. Their impact is converted into a clicking sound in earphones. The small model of this detector weighs only seven pounds and is slung from the shoulder in a haversack.

Results of the survey to date have not been revealed, although it is indicated that a pitchblende find has been made as far away as Lake Athabaska, in northern Saskatchewan.
How They Heard the News

Until Hiroshima nobody at Eldorado had known the big secret of uranium.

“We did know that this mine was very important to the war,” Mr. Bolger explained. “There was so much secrecy that we didn’t dare discuss what we did know or guess, even among ourselves”

There was some excitement in 1943, when Lord Haw Haw broadcast a special message from Germany to “the people living at Norman Wells and at Eldorado in northern Canada,” announcing that the Japanese were going to bomb them.

When the climactic news of Hiroshima and Nagasaki came over the radio early last August, there was a flurry of excitement and speculation and a thrill of pride Swede Williams, who has since gone “outside,” strode up to his boss, Joe Belec, and said, “That ore from my stope is pretty powerful, eh! It just took two bombs to blow the Japanese to . . . !”

The biggest news story of the age was broken at Eldorado by a simple typed message written by Sergeant Major Drinnan, who operates the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals radio station on top of the hill. His aerial snatched the news from the air and he rushed a special notice onto the cookhouse bulletin board.

There was a wave of backslapping excitement. The whole camp got a day off, except for a few who looked after the pumps and the powerhouse. Then everybody went back to work with new energy.


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