[Manitoba Mining History] Flin Flon – by Jack Paterson (MACLEAN’S – OCTOBER 1, 1938)


Ten years ago Flin Flon was a struggling mining camp in the wilderness; today it is Manitoba’s third city

OVER Flin Flon at 4,000. Visibility excellent. Landing now. Advise Winnipeg. Okay Lac Du Bonnet.”

A quick rattle of sign-off letters and the pilot carelessly tossed sponge-rubber earphones above the cowling. At Lac du Bonnet, 450 miles distant, a young operator of Wings, Limited, would relay the message from loudspeaker to private telephone line. In brief seconds head office would have it. Simple routine.

My mind flashed to an article I had done for Maclean’s short years back, wherein was prophesied general two-way radio for wilderness airplanes. At that time voice distance and sixty-five pounds unit weight had been the sticker. Now here was voice distance handled by a compact set of only thirty pounds, live and simple as a telephone.

Progress. Yes, but 4,000 feet below us, a jumble of wooden boxes, scattered over rocky hills plumed by smoke from a great smelter, was another herald of progress that commanded attention. Ten years! My spine tingled at thought of changes I would see.

Flin Flon, guardian of fabulous mineral wealth that for decades had resisted man, objective of railroad construction that broke stout hearts and turned heads grey, greedy gulper of $30,000.000 before unhanding the first of her riches! Flin Flon, ten years back just a cabin camp in the wilderness; tonight, against a slanting sun, a disrupted, widely scattered ant hill, its winding runways crawling with human life, its phenomenal achievement and romantic history bywords throughout America and the Empire.

We circled to land at Schist Lake, an outpost of docks loosely tied to the main city by a long black ribbon of roadway. Ten years ago I had landed there, oddly enough with the same pilot. Then he had been Brownie, working desperately twenty-four hours a day to sell flying to the Northerners in his area; now he was Roy Brown, one of Canada’s many famed pilots, president of a company operating aircraft throughout the North, completing an inspection tour of his frontier flying bases.

Ten years ago we had perched together in an open cockpit for’ard. booted, helmeted. oil-spattered, searching out a suitable landing. Now four of us lounged in cushioned comfort, gazing from wide windows, a ventilator breathing gentle coolness upon us.

Where earlier had been simply the “end of Schist Lake,” we found Channing Airport, named for the man who in 1925 had wooed with engineering wit and experience this famously fickle property that promised men much but refused to give. Moored ships of three air companies bobbed slow welcome to our silver-and-scarlet sky steed as we taxied in.

“Well, by the overpowerin’ essence of swate sturgeon livers!” On the dock stood Air Engineer Patrick Garrett, no less, “You’ll mind the time on airmail out of Edmonton we played tag with all the beautiful fog?” he chortled as we whacked palms. I minded. So did another member of our present party. Milt Ashton, former Eastern, Northern, and airmail pilot, now general manager of Wings. Limited, turned with a grin. Milt had been our pilot that distant, woolly, uncomfortable day.

“It’s a roarin’ town here,” said Paddy, just in with Alec More from a Barren Lands exploration flight. “Every time I get back they’re blastin’ open a new suburb.”

Built on Rock

IT SEEMED that way. Our drive cityward over the black ribbon that proved to be built of slag still in the rough, showed new buildings throughout its length. The original townsite had overflowed to two new subdivisions, followed a year later by another, and in 1937 by two more. Log shacks sagged in comfortable old age next gaily colored Spanish-type bungalows. Houses on stilts stared aloofly out over our heads.

Reaching a promontory, we viewed a city of wooden steps, unpainted shacks and fine houses tossed in ragged rows along rock faces, the whole bristling with radio spars, giving the general effect of a nondescript fishing fleet, with a sprinkling of staid passenger boats, running before tumbling, mountainous seas.

A crowd was boiling from a playground beneath a rock face topped with houses, softball players and spectators boisterous with noise and color and youth, for Flin Flon is definitely a town of youth. Gone the days of drab dress for miners.

These sun-tinted youths wore the newest garb that would allow easy freedom, their gals the last word in sports toggery. Up a flight of fifty-seven steps they went in pairs, nimble as young mountain goats, short-cutting across to town. Brother, let your wind and waistline be in shape when you sight-see Flin Flon.

We wheeled up to a stop sign, accelerated between a Company truck and a team of Shetland ponies, and were on Main Street. No doubt it has another name; all Flin Flon streets have names. Too. houses are numbered, but with the same result. No one uses names or numbers. Oldtimers knew each house “when,” and we got our directions from old-timers, as: “Second house past the big slag heap.” “Basement suite beyond the green lawn with flowers.” “First white house on stilts past the sign that says, ‘This Sewer-Box is Not a Sidewalk.’ ”

In Flin Flon, basement suites, like the city sewers, are built above ground, and for the same reason. No householder cares to go down in solid rock. He builds his basement suite, above it his main dwelling; he builds his steps, and he climbs them. Everybody climbs them, for Flin Flon citizens maintain frontier traditions of great good-fellowship.

The sewage system is in plain sight on most streets, but at first you wouldn’t know it. Four-foot-square wooden flumes fully enclose the lines, running up and down hill before the houses, the flumes trestled over depressions where necessary, sometimes finding themselves fifteen feet above ground level. Where individual service connections are made, neat twelve-inch-square flumes idle across front yards, being somewhat narrow for pedestrian traffic, the mother system offering a method of escape from mud or snow that Flin Flonners were quick to recognize.

Steam pipes within the closed and insulated flume prevent the system freezing. Which facts are cited only to show the mastery used by company and incorporated municipality officials to overcome town-planning obstacles. The important fact stands, that Flin Flon householders have every utility, gained, like most things in the North, only by high ingenuity . . . And so aboard a convenient sewer-box and back to city centre.

Golf Course in Lake Bed

A MOTORIZED machine was oiling Main Street. Private cars, trucks and taxis lined its length. A husky young filling-station attendant with uniform cap and proud grin answered our query.

“You bet we need a station here. About 250 motor vehicles in Flin Flon. Longest road stretch is to Beaver Lake, sixteen miles. New summer resort. Start of the Flin Flon to Nipawin Highway. Everybody here’s boosting for that right now.” “How many?”

“Not 8,000. Only over 7.000 so far, but it won’t be long; seventy-three kids born one month last year. That takes hospitals, and we got ’em. Got four schools, twenty-five teachers, 800 kids, and more of everything coming up. When we get the Flin Flon to Nipawin Highway—”

“People Outside would be afraid to bring a car in here,” I cut in. “Y’ou have knee-deep mud the year round, or fifty below zero, or swarms of flies, or fever, or perpetual labor troubles. You—”

“Sa-a-ay,” he grinned, “you been reading that stuff? It’s bunk. Skip the labor trouble—we have less here than most places. But take the weather. Sure it gets fifty below sometimes. So it does in Winnipeg and Regina. Anybody that’s lived in the bush knows it’s warmer than Outside, even at fifty below. There’s a natural warmth to the air here that you don’t get most places, see? And mud? There was once, sure.

That was before the Community Development Company did their ditching. See that street now? Hard as bone, and stays that way. Our roads are slag, and better built than most roads. Tourists’ll soon be using ’em. We got deer, moose, caribou, and wolf-hunting; and talk about your fishing! Trout in Athapap up to sixty-three pounds. All we need is the Flin Flon to Nipawin Highway put through—”
“Think you’ll get it?” I pried.

The young six-footer grinned. His brow, formerly knit in concentration on his subject, suddenly cleared. He was on safe, sure ground now. “Mister,” he stated with tolerance, “if you knew us Flin Flon folks you wouldn’t have to ask that.”
The kid was wrong on one count. I did know Flin Flon folks, droves of them, it seemed, on rejoining the others. Many of them I had known when Flin Flon was mostly a gleam in everyone’s eye. They were gathered about Brownie, drawn like proverbial, if mythical, Flin Flon flies at the news he was in town.

Ernie Foster, expansive hotelman, elected Flin Flon’s first mayor in 1933, was M. C. There was Jack Osborne, who started his frontiering at Aklavik; Archie McDonnell, crowding ninety, who has contracted, and still will contract, on anything from a cart-train of buffalo hides to a haulage job for a fleet of trucks.

A backslap that loosened three teeth left me just wit enough to recognize Concrete McDonald. Over 300 pounds yet catty on his feet, I recalled the consternation he had caused this same Flin Flon hamlet when, acting as spare goalie, we had stuffed him between the posts to bulwark our Cranberry crew playing open-air hockey at thirty-eight below zero.

I saw him years back at Fort Churchill, saw him in driving rain on railroad construction, but most clearly I remembered him one night at Cranberry Portage when forest fire had beaten the settlement, staggering wearily lakeward beneath a bloody sky with the last of 1.000 boxes of dynamite and caps. Years of outdoor strife, and here he was, just one of many such men, anchored in a snug harbor that the sweat and freezing and laughter and curses of men had made possible. “With the Company,” he said simply, Company referring always to the Hudson Bay Mining and Smelting.

A shy grin in the background, white teeth beneath spectacles and lank black hair, disclosed an old friend. Our first Northern meal in 1928 had been eaten at Wing Wong’s. Him I recalled too during the Cranberry fire. With all available help, for three days Wing had fed the droves of fire-fighters and refugees. Cases of tobacco and oranges stood open upon his counters; payment was waved aside. “Some lose; others fight fire. We help this way. Please tell all people,” Wing had said then. Now as we shook hands I mentioned it.

“Oh, that. I got fine place now,” he said. “Golden Gate Café. One time we talk lots about Flin Flon, huh? Just hoping then. Flin Flon good place now. Best town.” He hustled back to work. (Remind me to tell you later about the luncheon he threw.)

Names and faces, every face grinning. There was a deal more to those grins than the mere meeting of old friends. What those grins meant was plain.

“Ten years since you saw this place,” those grins said. “You have a vague idea about some changes.” Grins broadened here. “Wait. Wait till you see what we’ve done. Wait till you look for the lake that was there. It’s gone. Took only three years to pump it out. It’s a golf course now.” More grins. “Remember the toy test mill, the piddly underground layout you threaded then?

Last year we mined a million and a half tons of ore. Tons! Imagine 60,000,000 pounds of copper in a heap; nearly 70,000,000 of zinc—purest in the world, 99.99 per cent; more than 1,500,000 ounces of silver; close to $5,000,000 in gold. All in a year. And cadmium, for airplane and electric motors; worth from $1 to $2 a pound. We’ve got it; been storing concentrate for three years. We finish it here now.”

Grins said: “Once we lived in tents and log huts, just a few of us. Now 1,700 men work three shifts, with an annual payroll of $2,000,000. Once we chased tractor trains north out of here to Island Falls, seventy miles. Seemed then like that 36,000 tons of power-plant material never would reach there.

Now we reach up and turn on lights here. We swing a switch and great crushers grumble, we flick a lever and a cage of men sails upward from great caverns of wealth below ground. Island Falls is paying us now for the grief and heartbreak she cost us then. We’re grinning; and why not? What we have is ours. It’s new. We made it.”

Each Flin Flonner met is a prideful booster. Flin Flon is everybody’s baby. Jack Allen, early-day blacksmith, may sit in no mine executive’s chair, but he’s proud that his blacksmithing and welding helped harness this monster, that as chairman of the first school board in 1929 he helped plan and build Flin Flon town.

A banking business in a tent was Tommy Heyland’s Flin Flon start; now he sits back of a polished desk in a fine new bank building, transacts business by telephone if he wishes, and chuckles about his school-treasurer days, when blacksmith and banker faced the no mean task of raising school funds either by public subscription or through local entertainments. Other good school men followed them Hollett, Feldman, Dow, Evans, Sparling, Wright each proud of his part in the work. Sale of townsite lots changed the Flin Flon picture. Today, taxes carry the main load, with the Company paying twenty-five per cent of the total cost of school operation.

Old-Timers’ Reunion

THROUGH THE kindness of Mayor George Evans and Board-of-Trade-President Phil Foster, we found ourselves at Rotary luncheon, a vigorous session of reunions, brisk community business and old-time music. This same, whammed forth by three masters of stirring muskeg melody, brought about a series of rhythmic tremors traced finally to the gleeful tapping of Police Chief Otto Klutz’s size seventeen boots. ‘They’re built at the Coast and shipped one at a time,” Chief Klutz obliged later. “Only time they shipped the pair, the train was three hours late.”

We saw the town, Company and private homes in lawn and garden settings, black soil hauled for the purpose; we saw hospitals, schools, the rink famous throughout the West for its bonspiel hospitality and prizes; rows of large bunkhouses, some of them remodelled as apartment blocks. We did the mill, smelter – in short, the works. At Flin Flon in 1928 it was not hard to visualize those first discoverers— Tom Creighton, the Moshers, the Dions, Jack Milligan — camping on the shore of Flin Flon Lake in 1915. Twenty-three years that now seem a century in a town where even the lake has disappeared, where old-timers are proud members of the 1927 Club, the youngest old-timers’ club known and composed of the youngest old-timers.

Tom “Creighton, the discoverer, is at Flin Flon; R. H. Channing and R. E. Phelan spend much time there; W. A. (Baldy) Green, general superintendent, lives there. All these and many others have seen Flin Flon change in those short years from a wilderness camp to Manitoba’s third city. And not only Flin Flon. Railroad steel, cracking through wilderness to Flin Flon, has offered life to many other smaller mines and mine prospects in that area.

“Come and see something.” We went. Past massive crusher plant, across the end of an open mine pit rivalling that of Fiction Hero Flintabatty Flonatin from whom Flin Flon derived its name, down steps, steps, steps, and we were on the golf course, walking, dry-shod, fathoms directly below where years earlier we had paddled a canoe.

“Dammed off this square mile, pumped a lake and 750,000 tons of mud and clay over the dam,” our guide explained. “There’s grass planted, see!” Proudly: “Man with lawn mower. Baseball diamond at the other end. For softball we use the kids’ playground, centre of town.”

We inspected the smart, hospitable little clubhouse and played the course, replete with rock hazards once islands. Tees located high up on island or old shore-line rockeries provided carry, and a good view of fairway obstacles, rim-rock traps, water runs nine holes of tricky, enjoyable challenge. whose par thirty-four was miraculously cracked four strokes by Binks Woolley, ex-Winnipeg pro., now of the Company. The ladies have a strong club, as have the juniors; Flin Flon kids buy their way into the two modern movies with dimes acquired outputting their dads.

Flin Flonners Are Sports Conscious

MUCH should be said about Flin Flon sport, but Ogre H. Dwindling Space taps our shoulder. One moment, O. H., while we mention the Flin Flon Olympic Athletic Club, sponsors of field and track; the Canadian Northwestern Bonspiel; the Annual Junior Dog Mushing Championship of the World; Flin Flon Boating and Angling Association; Schist Lake Annual Regatta; Boy Scout and Girl Guide camps; basketball, not forgetting the girls who won the 1937 provincial title; skating, curling, tennis, badminton, ping-pong, boating, fishing, skiing, football; baseball teams and fans travelling by plane; and by no means least, the Flin Flon Bombers, Saskatchewan Senior Hockey champs, pride and joy of every Flin Flonner, resident of valley or hill.

To the spacious Golden Gate for lunch. Host Wing Wong hovering over his many invited guests; a hurried chat with an old friend, still young – a nurse heroine of that ghastly typhoid epidemic far up the Hudson Bay line, when scores of construction cases housed in out-tents were handled by three nurses battling gamely through a howling three-day blizzard. Miners, prospectors, businessmen; women who know the North and love it of such was our luncheon party made up, and of such is made up the Flin Flon citizenry.

Rightfully proud of past accomplishments, keen boosters for other things to come, friendly hosts to those who visit their North.

At Channing Airport, rare Northern sturgeon were being deplaned, to be iced and shipped south by rail. We shook hands with the gang, piled in, lifted silver floats and circled for height. Earphones went on. Again the new miracle of communication reached out across the wilderness:

“Wings aircraft AYT calling Lac Du Bonnet. Over Flin Flon, four p.m., headed south …”


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