VAL d’OR: HALFBOOTS AND HIGH HEELS – by McKenzie Porter (MACLEAN’S Magazine – December 1, 1949)

Quebec’s lusty young city of gold defiantly kicks up its heels but progress and plumbing are taming it into respectability

LAST AUGUST police raided Lew Gagnier’s so-called Hunting and Fishing Club in Val d’Or, Northwest Quebec, and seized chips, dice, shakers and gambling machines which had been used in the Yukon 60 years ago.

Not since Dawson City burgeoned to the ballads of Robert W. Service has such a lusty town as Val d’Or been whelped from the strike of a bonanza.

Fifteen years ago it was matted muskeg, the lair of timber wolves, 65 miles east of the then new gold mines in Rouyn-Noranda. Today it is a gilded city of 10,000 glittering in the heart of a forest.

The paradoxes of the old and the new are plain in Val d’Or. You could stand bathed in Neon light at either end of the mile-long main drag and bag a too curious moose in the bush which huddles up to the city limits. Where else would you see a woman in a halo hat trimmed with black lace, cocktail gown and high-heeled shoes threading her way through men in tartan mackinaws and halfboots? Val d’Or is a town where a millionaire lives in a shack on the main street and 600 Knights of Columbus can sit down to a Christmas banquet dressed in full white tie and tails.

In the side streets unpainted log cabins jostle new ranch-type bungalows and square-plan houses. Fast interurban buses bounce along right-of-ways blazed by Indians and pioneering woodsmen from a dozen lands. A children’s playground has been laid out in a park but two minutes’ walk from a miniature “Broadway.”

On every hand there is evidence of Val d’Or’s transformation from the boisterous ways of the rip-roaring frontier town to the sobriety and diligence of a city with modern plumbing and a promising financial future.

But the hang-over from the great jag in which Val d’Or was born hangs heavily in the air.

In the 17 licensed establishments liquor and beer drinking begins before noon. In one hotel dancing starts at 1 p.m. By early evening there are four places to dance within the city limits and three others within half an hour’s drive.

In three night clubs, one inside Val d’Or and two outside, dancing and floor shows go on until 3 a.m. A word in the ear of certain waiters, taxi drivers or touts will open the doors of a gambling joint to a man with money.

Prostitution ranges from brazen solicitation to discreet introduction.

For months Pastor L. T. Heron, of the Evangel Baptist Church, has been standing on corners calling on the city to renounce the carnal life. Recently he was jailed for obstructing the highway.

“Sinister Forces” in the Streets

ALTHOUGH they are only 20 strong the presence of energetic evangelists in Val d’Or foreshadows its ultimate envelopment in that respectability which comes to the rawest of new communities when churches, schools and libraries begin to rise on the site of the pioneer cabins.

Already the city is feeling the influence of the adjacent and genteel township of Bourlamaque where many mining executives live in big-city standards of comfort and taste. In some quarters this influence is resented and resisted as stuffed-shirt virtue.

The Canadien Mayor of Val d’Or, Oza Tetrault, said on September 7 at the trial of two Baptists who had broken bylaws with street meetings that their concentration on Val d’Or and exclusion of Bourlamaque from their activities would disclose “sinister forces,” and was a cause for “sober questioning and, if possible, strict judicial probe.”

With his city in transition from the mores of the outpost to the rectitude of an established workaday hub. Mayor Tetrault sees himself as the mediator between the amusement caterers and the reformers.

There are few vices offered down the Rue Pigalle in Paris which cannot be found along Third Avenue, Val d’Or, yet you could count on your thumbs the Canadian cities which in so short a time have built themselves such splendid high schools and churches and so magnificent a modern 70-bed hospital.

Anglicans, Presbyterians, and United Churchers all have places of worship among the more numerous Roman Catholic edifices.

To trappers, prospectors and diamond drillers in from the bush Val d’Or is a place to let off steam and sleep between sheets in a room with a bath. To single miners—and there are thousands in the area— it is a place in which to cavort on twice-monthly paydays. But to the growing numbers of commercial, professional and technical families it is a home in which children must be brought up decently.

Came Two Slav Blockbusters

MEANWHILE Finns, Poles, Italians, French, Irish, Scots, English and Welsh live in the rollicking camaraderie of the frontier, and a handful of Chinese and Negroes have forgotten the color of their skin.

If Mike Mitto, the millionaire sourdough, ever got mad at the braying of saxophones he could stand by the wall of his unpainted shack, the city’s first building, and heave a lump of gold-bearing rock right into the plush belly of the Morocco Club which pulses seductively until 3 o’clock every morning, including Sundays.

But this hulking Russian who struck it rich 10 years ago is not likely to so affront Bert Fillion, Morocco’s proprietor, who arrived in Val d’Or with $2, worked seven years in the mines, then set himself up as king of the local carnival. For one thing Mike Mitto’s boarding – school – educated daughter might be dancing down there. Again, around midnight, Mike likes to go across himself, flick the top off a beer bottle with his thumb, and watch the latest floor show from New York or Montreal.

Peppy, spick-and-span, 20th-century teenagers can look out from their streamlined high school on a knoll above the town, over the roofs of shiny new bungalows and sombre log cabins, toward a lake along whose shores squaws still carry the papoose on their backs and over whose emerald ripples feathered warriors paddle their dead to the happy hunting ground on a litter across two canoes.

The high school has been visited and admired by educationists from all over the Eastern provinces. The classrooms are linked by a loudspeaker system. The blackboards are made of green plastic to aid students’ eyesight. When the grounds are finished the school will be entirely surrounded by lawns and flower beds.

The hospital (run by nuns) has one of the finest operating theatres in Canada.

Thirty-five-year-old Chinese Archie who came to Val d’Or from the galley of a Great Lakes steamer sometimes looks out from his clapboard Windsor Cafe, where many a prospector now gets a grubstake, at the smooth brick walls of the Variety Department Store, saying: “First come a coupla Hunks, then me. Then come a handful of bums. Next come a taxi. Soon half a dozen gals is tearing around. Before I know what is goin’ on there’s a city at my front door.”

It started in 1933. Many of the men who saw the beginnings of the Siscoe, Lamaque, Louvicourt, Golden Manitou and other mines whose headframes now dominate Val d’Or like leaning towers of Pisa, roared and fought their way eastward along the gold fields which arc down from Yellowknife through Northern Manitoba to Kirkland Lake, Ont., and cross into Quebec at Rouyn-Noranda.

Among them were two blockbusters of Slavs. Mike Mitto and his partner, The Russian Kid (A. W. Balzimer) who had teamed up in British Columbia 18 years before. These smoldering giants reserved their admiration for each other and a woman. The woman was Mitto’s wife, The Russian Kid’s sister.
For all other things which stood in their way they showed a vast and terrible disdain. Mrs. Mitto followed their wanderings from tent to shack from lean-to to cabin and waited for them at base while they went off by canoe, tractor-train, aircraft, husky team and barge in search of gold.

She had not complained some years before when they refused half a million dollars for a group of claims at Dasserat, a few miles east of Kirkland Lake, because they thought it wasn’t enough.

Mitto left the Russian Kid to put in some statutory work on the old Dasserat claims and moved eastward to the swamp which became Val d’Or. Others contented themselves with tents, but he built a shack for his wife and three children. Jealous of his presence a gang from another claim came one day to burn his shack down with gasoline and wood shavings.

Mitto stood at the door, arms akimbo, and glared at them. “Go ahead,” he said grimly, “Light her up!” The gang looked at his bulk and moved sheepishly away.

How to Kill a Bear

By the time the shafts were being sunk Chinese Archie had opened his eatery next door to Mitto.

In 1934 Joe Morrisette, who later became mayor, drove a dog team in and started to build a store for an optimistic druggist. He stayed on. His two sons followed and began to haul water round the tents and shanties in a great wheeled barrel yoked to an ox.

A barber opened up on the bare face of a rock, now the hub of the town.

Ben Self and his wife Viola came in from Flin Flon, Man., with $4. They opened a hardware store in a rented cabin, bought stock on credit in the hamlet of Amos and shipped it down the river by canoe.

A bawdy house and a tavern or two followed. Beer was $1 a bottle, liquor $12.

The beer swillers listened fascinated to Mike Mitto’s stunted English: “Bear chase me. Throw stick. Bear stop to catch. Kill bear with axe.”

The Post-office Department sent G. O. Germain to organize the chaotic letter service. “First,” he said, “this dump’s gotta have a name.” The rhapsodist in him ran amok. Without any regard for geological veracity he christened the camp Val d’Or—Valley of Gold. The terrain was so flat the Indians called the river Harrieanaw, which means pancake.

In early December, 1935, the Val d’Or Star flexed its wings with an excited black banner line: “Val d’Or Lit Up at Christmas.”

The following year a night club opened in a store. Proprietors insisted on evening dress and bush pilots did well out of emergency flights to Toronto for tuxedos. Formal attire imposed a superficial atmosphere of propriety on the revels: one man about to throw a bottle through the bar window suddenly seemed to remember where he was and subsided, blushing.

In 1937 the first train steamed into Val d’Or. The Canadian National Railways linked the new city with the head of Ontario Northland Railway at Rouyn. This brought Val d’Or within 24 hours of Toronto by way of Kirkland Lake and North Bay on Lake Nipissing. For every man working down the mines five others were exacting a living from the town.

The population swelled to 6,000. Real estate boomed. That year there were six doctors, 60 retail establishments and 66 taxis. A Montreal woman who had paid $200 for a lot in 1935 sold it over a bottle of rye for $6,666.66 cash.

On paydays, twice a month, the mines distributed nearly $200,000 in wages, and the population was swollen by 2,000 transients.

Where $2,000 Lasts a Week

Paydays were a fiesta. Ontario miners, hearing of the new Nirvana, poured over the border at week ends. Barbotte was the favorite gamble. As the night wrore on, cheques were written and jewelry sold to buy chips. One logger joined a game with $100, left with $30,000. A prominent Val d’Or doctor was beggared in a night. Even his home, his car and his insurances went. Next evening he returned with borrowed money and won it all back again. Barbotte operators, taking a percentage of the stakes, were averaging $400 an evening.

A highly qualified engineer came out of the bush with $2,000 savings in cash. Prudently he deposited this with a hotel management. “If I want anything,” he said, “I’ll just call for it and you deduct the cost from this.” Lonely he drifted into the cocktail bar and started talking to some girls. The party lasted a week and the hotel management told him his credit was finished.

About this time The Russian Kid felt ill. “Just a cold,” said Mike Mitto. “I got medicine.” When Mitto returned, The Russian Kid was dead. Soon afterward Mitto lost his wife too. He sent the three children away to school. Alone in his cabin he displayed more emotion one night than he had ever shown before. “Feel tough,” he said. He went of to Yellowknife with a new partner who was the antithesis of The Russian Kid. This was Frank Salerno, a soft-spoken, well-educated young man who earlier had been a radio announcer in Buffalo. They trekked 300 miles northward from Yellowknife, up the caribou trails, into the midnight sun, seeking a crock of gold.

In a land where an assay of $10 to $12 a ton was considered profitable they struck a lode averaging $30 a ton and yielding up to $1,270 a ton. They christened the mine with a fusion of their own names—Salmito.

A Paradise for Wallflowers

Mike Mitto returned to Val d’Or a millionaire, then found himself twice a millionaire when he got from Bordulac Mines Ltd., 500,000 shares and $50,000 cash for one of the old Dasserat claims, and $300,000 for a series of claims nearby.

He was offered $90,000 for the site of his shack on Val d’Or’s main street. He looked up at the pictures of his wife and The Russian Kid. “Get out !” he said. He bought an expensive house on Conrad Avenue near affluent Forest Hill in Toronto for the sake of his children. But he continued to spend most of his time in the shack alone with his memories of The Russian Kid and a wife who should have shared his fortune.

By 1940 there were four night spots in Val d’Or, eight swing-door saloons, and a fluctuating number of brothels, some of them carefully regulated. Bulldozers sheered the shacks off Third Avenue to make room for five-and-ten stores, women’s hairdressers, and new hotels.

In 1912 Bert Fillion came out of the mines and bought the Morocco Club, moving it to a basement in the Chateau Inn where bellhops wore beige and maroon uniforms.

In 1946 Ben and Viola »Self sold the hardware business they had opened with $4 for $20,000, retaining $100,000 worth of real estate and several thousand shares in mines given them by men they’d grubstaked.

Today Mayor Tetrault, a 41-year-old insurance salesman, is reforming Val d’Or, but slowly. “Those Baptists,” he says, “are trying to move too fast.” The mayor says there’s no question of persecution of Baptists by the 80% Roman Catholic population. “If we give them permission to hold street meetings how can we stop Communists gathering?” He adds: “Besides, they are not the only ones who know what’s in the Bible.”

Fifty per cent of the men in Val d’Or, he says, are single. Men heavily outnumber women. “We’ve got to give these men some gaiety when they come out of the mines or the bush. If we didn’t they’d only go off and spend all their money in Montreal.”

‘The mayor says he knows there are gambling joints and brothels still in town but as soon as they are detected they are raided.

He points with pride to the well-kept streets, the excellent lighting, the bus, rail and aircraft services, the schools, hospitals and a new library, and asks that these be remembered too.

“When you’re sitting on the lid of a flesh pot,” he says, “you let the steam out slowly. You don’t just turn it upside down and spill the contents all over the town.”

‘‘Give me the Shimmy!”

Before you leave, the mayor is quite likely to ask: “Have you seen the new floor show at the Club Morocco?”

Today this club is the pivot of Val d’Or’s social whirl. Seven nights a week from 8 until 3 a.m. it is packed with up to 300 revelers. The majority of the clients are Val d’Or residents hut there is always a strong contingent of visiting salesmen, promoters, politicians and technicians.

Etiquette of the south is contemptuously abandoned. Most of the women are accompanied by three or four men. Girls accept invitations to dance with men from strange tables. Recently a magnificent blonde with a quarter
Eskimo blood danced six hours solid with eight different men in turn.

Fillion imports cabaret artists from New York, houses them in the best, hotel, pays between $200 and $400 a week for twice-a-night appearances.

The evening-dress rule has been abolished and plenty of rawhides get in. But the place is well run by 28 employees. An alarm goes direct to the police station. The management figures that a brawler can be removed from his seat at a table to the point of his ear in the gutter during a single roll of the drum.

A fairly regular visitor is 81-year-old Captain Georges Blondín, who settled in the bush around Val d’Or 35 years ago. His tanned, finely traced features, and blazing blue eyes rivet attention from a nimbus of snow-white, shoulder-length hair and a chest-deep beard.

Last winter he outskated youngsters 60 years his junior in a Val d’Or contest. He dances frequently, and extremely well, in Val d’Or clubs and hotels. Once, in the Morocco, in answer to popular demand, he did a passable solo tap dance. He is the embodiment of the average man’s idea of “a character.” Striking his stick sharply on the pavement he says:

“They’ve got hydro, refrigeration, heating and drains. They’ve got the Kiwanis, the Rotary and the Kinsmen. But the last straw was when they got a symphony orchestra. Faugh ! Give me the trap drummer and a shimmy!”

Another client is Gustave Girouard, the chief of police, whose laugh at the artists’ jokes is like a volcanic eruption. Girouard is popular in Val d’Or because he’s stamped out flagrant vice and brawling and soft-pedaled on discreet dissipation.

The man who looks after the washroom in one night spot is a tall, gentle Negro, aged 70, reputed to be worth $100,000.

A waiter in another owns his own speedboat and airplane.

In many of Val d’Or’s four nightspots and 13 juke music taverns couples sit drinking with toddlers at their feet.

There are about 3,000 gold miners working in the district. The payroll from the mines is $5 millions a year. Dependants of the married men bring the number of people living directly off the mines to around 5,000. For every miner gainfully employed one nonmining resident has moved in the doctor, the lawyer, the merchant, the taxi driver. In turn these have brought their families. That is why Val d’Or now has more than 10,000 population.

The volume of money circulating in the city is out of all proportion to this staple income. Some of the merry-go-round of free spending in night clubs and gambling is powered by highgraders-miners who steal pieces of ore with heavy gold content and smuggle them out for illicit disposal. Recently a man fishing near the Siscoe mine hooked a sack containing $20,000 worth of high-grade ore, which was cached in the river.

One well-known Val d’Or tycoon openly boasts that he got his kick-off capital out of five years of highly profitable high-grading.

With gold prices fixed at $38.50 an ounce and free gold selling at up to $80 an ounce there is plenty of demand for stolen ore and fat profits in its disposal.

Although they cannot prove it Val d’Or police believe that organized gambling and prostitution are linked with the receivers of high-grade gold.

One Reprobate, 100 Honest Citizens

An accepted code of silence among miners protects the high-graders from police and managements. So long as this attitude prevails it is almost impossible to stop them.

But, as George MacKenzie, chairman of the Val d’Or School Board, points out, for every reprobate there are 100 hard-working honest men, and the high-standard education now being given to their children will in time cause vice to wane through sheer lack of demand.

If you praised the rough, tough Val d’Orions for driving a wedge of civilization into the northern wilderness, they would laugh in your face and say that what really drew them was a notice outside the town reading: “Come Here for Your First Million.”

That sign isn’t there any more but the lure of quick riches still heightens the pulse of the place. But there is something else too. Under their hard shells the Val d’Orions take pride in the fact that their rip-roaring outpost is now well on its way toward maturity, that they have played a pioneer part in making a greater Canada.

Why else would Mike Mitto, with his big house in Toronto, and the money to settle in any lotus land he likes, choose to spend most of his time in a rude shack, opposite a gaudy night club, near a beautiful school, in a bullfrog’s bush, under the beckoning lights of the Aurora Borealis?

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