Will the nickel boom make a new man of Manitoba? – by Robert Collins (MACLEAN’S Magazine – April 13, 1957)

http://www.macleans.ca/

It’s been a have-not province for years. Now its “worthless” north is bustling with an epic strike and staking rush. Some enthusiasts insist it’s the biggest thing since the CPR went through

Until a couple of decades ago every Canadian schoolboy was aware that the prosperity of our three prairie provinces — Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba — depended on agriculture. Given a bumper wheat crop, the prairies were rich.

Hit by drought or rust, they were poor. Then Alberta broke the mold with a series of oil strikes, and in the bonanza that followed became a fat and flamboyant Canadian Texas. Times changed in Saskatchewan too with the advent of the atomic age and the discovery of major uranium deposits.

Manitoba was left in the lurch, with a horse-and-buggy economy hitched to agriculture in the south and a desolate pile of rock in the north that yielded a modest treasure without changing the basic pattern of the province’s economy.

Many Manitobans were inclined to regard their pile of rock—125,000 square miles of the PreCambrian Shield—with mild resentment. For, while it’s half the area of Ontario’s slice of the Shield, it produces only a tenth of the wealth— forty-eight million dollars in 1955—principally from mines at Flin Flon, Lynn Lake, Snow Lake and Bissett.

Now, however, with a dramatic new nickel find at Moak Lake, four hundred miles north of Winnipeg, and $175 million being spent on its development, Manitoba’s attitude to its north has changed suddenly from resentment to heady confidence.

Moak Lake has inspired an unprecedented staking rush. Last year twelve thousand new claims were recorded, twice as many as in any previous year, and this spring the fever is running even hotter. While work is being rushed on mine shafts, a smelter, hydro-electric project, townsite and railway spurs at Moak Lake, prospectors like Walter Johnson, a sixty-eight-year old veteran who made the original find at Moak Lake, are convinced it’s only the beginning.

When their nickel hit the Jackpot the partners threw a party, with frogs’ legs and champagne as rich as Ontario’s,” he says. “Maybe richer!”

The province’s deputy minister of mines and natural resources, J. G. Cowan, has called Moak “the biggest thing that’s happened to Manitoba since the CPR arrived in 1881.”

Actually, the International Nickel Company’s interest in Johnson’s nickel discovery was the modern equivalent of the CPR pulling into Manitoba, lnco took up options on Johnson’s claims, and Moak Lake is its name for a five-by-eighty-mile area of claims stretching from Moak Lake to Setting Lake, lnco engineers are hopeful that by 1960 the property will produce a hundred million pounds of nickel a year, adding thirty percent to Canada’s nickel output, which is already eighty percent of the production of the entire Western world.

But Moak Lake is going to do more than that for Manitoba. It will:

• Build Thompson, a mining town of at least eight thousand, twenty miles southwest of Moak Lake.
• Create a market for a 130,000-acre farming development now being reclaimed from floodland near The Pas.
• Bring new business to the port of Churchill, on Hudson Bay, and to the controversial CNR-operated Hudson Bay Railway, which runs 510 miles between Churchill and The Pas. Thompson will be thirty miles north of the railway. A five-million-dollar spur will link the town with the main line.
• Stimulate northern industry. The Manitoba Hydro-Electric Board’s thirty eight-million-dollar power plant, to be built on the Nelson River with a loan from lnco, will generate two hundred thousand horsepower at first; with additional sites, this could easily be doubled, lnco holds an option on most of this potential but might be willing to allocate surplus power to other industry, such as a pulp-and-paper mill.

In the story-book fashion of many major ore discoveries, the present Moak Lake bonanza had meagre and rather sorry beginnings. In the Twenties prospectors staked the land around Mystery Lake, immediately west of Moak, for lead and silver. There were nickel showings, but assays indicated low-grade ore. Nickel was worth only thirty-five cents a pound, there was no power development nearby, and so claims simply expired.

In the Thirties, trappers Walter Johnson and Joe Kerr stubbornly resumed the hunt around Mystery. “Never found anything big but we got information we’ve cashed in on since,” says Johnson.

In the late Forties, when nickel went up to forty cents a pound (it is now seventy cents), Johnson and Kerr took a second look at Mystery Lake. They sprinkled grey-rock showings with a powder called dymethol-glyoxene. When the rock turned fiery pink they knew it was nickel. They staked a few claims in 1948. Any Manitoban with a five-dollars-a-year prospector’s license can stake, but it costs considerably more to “work” the claims by drilling or surveying for four consecutive years, according to government requirements.

Accordingly, the partners formed the J-K Syndicate with financial backing from a Flin Flon group. International Nickel took an option on twenty-two claims, paying the syndicate about $112,000 within two years. Johnson, Kerr and a Flin Flon geologist, Gordon Crosby, staked more. Last fall lnco took options on another 121 claims and will probably pay the syndicate $469,000 for them over the next eight years. Other companies optioned other claims; although much of the money is ploughed back into syndicate explorations, the partners suddenly found themselves rich.

Last December they permitted themselves a splurge: a banquet in Flin Flon for a hundred friends and stockholders. “We had pheasant, frogs’ legs, lobster and champagne,” says Johnson happily.

Johnson stayed on at his cabin for awhile, and trapped a few weasels out of long habit. Then three years ago he married; he’d never been able to afford marriage before.

Johnson’s and Kerr’s first discovery at Mystery Lake narrowed, but did not end a search lnco had been carrying on for a long time. Since World War II the company had been exploring every likely looking corner of Canada for nickel. From 1948 on, with Mystery Lake as a focal point, lnco swept the region with aerial geophysical surveys, ground surveys, diamond drilling.

A sudden boom in the bush

By 1956, ten years and ten million dollars from the beginning of its search, lnco had found enough to justify its new project. lnco had promised the Manitoba government a twenty-million dollar loan for the Grand Rapid hydro project. Now, anxious to begin moving supplies during the freeze-up, it agreed to start the thirty-mile spur railway, since the CNR couldn’t begin the job without parliamentary approval.

Then lnco and the government announced the development, and the rush was on. lnco was besieged by would-be workers, businessmen and promoters. Imperial Oil by early 1957 had heard from a dozen would-be service-station operators. All seemed to think the Thompson townsite was nearly completed; actually, it was still a tract of bush.

In December two New York investment bankers and a pulp-and-paper-company representative flew into the north to scout pulp-mill possibilities. Manitoba offered them the findings of a newly completed forest survey: the north had enough potential pulpwood to supply two five-hundred-tons-a-day mills. Pulp-mill negotiations were continuing into February.

A few weeks ago I watched the boom begin at Thicket Portage on the Hudson Bay Railway, jumping-off point for tractor trains into Moak Lake. I rode in from The Pas by plane and landed on a frozen lake near Thicket. A week earlier Thicket had been a bush community with two general stores, church, railway station and log-cabin Indian village. Now, workers were pounding the last spikes of a new spur line to handle chains of boxcars.

Norsemen, Cessnas and helicopters buzzed on and off the lake. Messages crackled from the radio shack to Moak exploration camp, fifty miles north. Bulldozers of the Patricia transport company had carved a campsite out of the timber. The first of a hundred and ten men, thirty diesel tractors and about two hundred sleighs were on the job.

In Patricia’s office, general superintendent Ernie Wright, a mild-mannered, sandy-haired man of fifty, was getting ready to open another frontier. Wright broke into the transportation business at seventeen, when haulers used horses instead of tractors. He’s helped open mining communities from northern Ontario to Alaska. A few years ago he helped Patricia move the town of Sherridon— 145 buildings and fifty thousand tons of freight—over 165 miles to Lynn Lake.

Only four days before my visit. Wright and a companion were seventeen miles out of camp with a snowmobile full of food when the vehicle caught fire. They jumped out, hiked to the nearest bush cabin and calmly waited for the next tractor train. The snowmobile was a total loss.

What does all this mean to the world nickel situation? To a large extent Moak will help end a scarcity that has existed since 1950, as a result of the industrial boom, Korea and the cold war. In past years defense and government stockpiling have taken about forty percent of the nickel supply.

Nickel is essential to jet-engine alloys and air frames, for example. To help build its stockpile, the U. S. government has paid premium prices—ninety-eight cents a pound or more—for a high-production-cost nickel that the nickel industry couldn’t afford to produce and sell at normal market prices. In 1955 Inco produced twenty-four million pounds of premium-price nickel, plus 256 million pounds of regular-production nickel.

Johnson’s and Kerr’s first discovery at Mystery Lake narrowed, but did not end a search lnco had been carrying on for a long time. Since World War II the company had been exploring every likely looking corner of Canada for nickel. From 1948 on, with Mystery Lake as a focal point, lnco swept the region with aerial geophysical surveys, ground surveys, diamond drilling.

A sudden boom in the bush

By 1956, ten years and ten million dollars from the beginning of its search, lnco had found enough to justify its new project. lnco had promised the Manitoba government a twenty-million dollar loan for the Grand Rapid hydro project. Now, anxious to begin moving supplies during the freeze-up, it agreed to start the thirty-mile spur railway, since the CNR couldn’t begin the job without parliamentary approval.

Then lnco and the government announced the development, and the rush was on. lnco was besieged by would-be workers, businessmen and promoters. Imperial Oil by early 1957 had heard from a dozen would-be service-station operators. All seemed to think the Thompson townsite was nearly completed; actually, it was still a tract of bush.
In December two New York investment bankers and a pulp-and-paper-company representative flew into the north to scout pulp-mill possibilities. Manitoba offered them the findings of a newly completed forest survey: the north had enough potential pulpwood to supply two five-hundred-tons-a-day mills. Pulp-mill negotiations were continuing into February.

A few weeks ago I watched the boom begin at Thicket Portage on the Hudson Bay Railway, jumping-off point for tractor trains into Moak Lake. I rode in from The Pas by plane and landed on a frozen lake near Thicket. A week earlier Thicket had been a bush community with two general stores, church, railway station and log-cabin Indian village. Now, workers were pounding the last spikes of a new spur line to handle chains of boxcars.

Norsemen, Cessnas and helicopters buzzed on and off the lake. Messages crackled from the radio shack to Moak exploration camp, fifty miles north. Bulldozers of the Patricia transport company had carved a campsite out of the timber. The first of a hundred and ten men, thirty diesel tractors and about two hundred sleighs were on the job.

In Patricia’s office, general superintendent Ernie Wright, a mild-mannered, sandy-haired man of fifty, was getting ready to open another frontier. Wright broke into the transportation business at seventeen, when haulers used horses instead of tractors. He’s helped open mining communities from northern Ontario to Alaska.

A few years ago he helped Patricia move the town of Sherridon— 145 buildings and fifty thousand tons of freight—over 165 miles to Lynn Lake.

Only four days before my visit. Wright and a companion were seventeen miles out of camp with a snowmobile full of food when the vehicle caught fire. They jumped out, hiked to the nearest bush cabin and calmly waited for the next tractor train. The snowmobile was a total loss.

What does all this mean to the world nickel situation? To a large extent Moak will help end a scarcity that has existed since 1950, as a result of the industrial boom, Korea and the cold war. In past years defense and government stockpiling have taken about forty percent of the nickel supply. Nickel is essential to jet-engine alloys and air frames, for example.

To help build its stockpile, the U. S. government has paid premium prices—ninety-eight cents a pound or more—for a high-production-cost nickel that the nickel industry couldn’t afford to produce and sell at normal market prices. In 1955 Inco produced twenty-four million pounds of premium-price nickel, plus 256 million pounds of regular-production nickel.

The navigation season runs only from about mid-July to mid-October; drift-ice and fog keep ocean traffic away. However, Inco and the Manitoba Hydro Electric Board may both use Churchill to import construction material. Inco also may ship some semi-processed nickel through Churchill to England. Such activity would probably bring better dock facilities for Churchill and encourage other Manitoba importers to try the Bay route.

“The Bay railway will start to pay oil now,” says Lawrence E. Ostrander, CNR industrial commissioner in Winnipeg.

Meanwhile, other mining areas in Manitoba arc beginning to feel the impact of the Moak Lake discovery. Almost obscured last year in the general excitement was the Hudson Bay Mining and Smelting Company discovery of zinc and copper at Snow Lake, eighty-five miles east of Flin Flon; but the company has described it as a find of “major significance.”

All of it adds up to a story of rapid development in Manitoba’s once “worthless” north. No one enjoys the spectacle of this expansion more than F.L. “Bud” Jobin, the province’s minister of industry and commerce. Jobin went north himself in the Depression, became a staunch booster and stayed to become the mining area’s representative in the provincial legislature.

“This thing,” he says, referring to Moak Lake, “has sparked everybody’s imagination. Inco’s development is only the beginning. Who knows what lies farther north?”

END

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