The word cobalt came from kobold, a variant of the German word kobalos, a satyr and shape-shifter of Greek mythology who mocked the work of humans. By the Middle Ages, miners in the dark depths reported that touching the metal burned their fingertips, a sure sign that demons were watching them. And so the “demon metal” it became.
Cobalt – with a capital C – is synonymous with the silver rush of over a hundred years ago in northern Ontario. The town of Cobalt got its start when silver was discovered in 1903, and that mining rush outshone any gold rush in the previous 200 years.
“Near Famine Point at the Porcupine!” was the lead headline from the Toronto Globe newspaper in May 1912. The paper got all hot and bothered because word went out that the trestle bridge at Boston Creek was out and train service, on which the North depended so readily, was cut off and everyone in the Porcupine was in dire straits.
Well, nothing could be further from the truth, and the editor of the Porcupine Advance took it upon himself to defend the honour of the North.
“The unkind and ungallant reference to our dependency on Southern Ontario is an impertinent insinuation especially so coming from a Canadian journal styling itself ‘Canada’s national newspaper…’
Located in the heart of northeastern Ontario, the city of Sudbury is often referred to as the ‘Nickel Capital’ for its historic relationship with this particular metal. Indeed, by the eve of the First World War, it had become the world’s leading producer of nickel, and by 1950, its share of the global supply peaked at 95 percent.1
Also known as ‘devil copper,’ worldwide demand for nickel remained strong throughout much of the 20th Century, largely as a result of its far-reaching military applications. While the citizens of Sudbury are generally well aware of this mining legacy, others may not be as familiar with the significance of nickel in Canadian political and military history. This is hardly surprising. As renowned historian J.L. Granatstein once asserted, there is a lack of “…serious scholarship on Canada’s industrial [war effort],” including its mineral and mining sectors.2
Please note that this column is from 2007 – Stan Sudol
The metallic “Achilles heel” for any military and navel production has always been nickel
Sudbury was definitely going to be “nuked” by the Russians. At least that was our conclusion back in 1976 when I worked at CVRD Inco’s Clarabell Mill for a year.
During one graveyard shift, a group of us were talking about Cold War politics and atomic bombs. We all agreed that if there ever was a nuclear war between the Americans and Russians then there must have been one Soviet “nuke” with our community’s name stenciled on it. We all laughed a little nervously, but there was also some pride in knowing Sudbury was important enough to get blown-up in the first round of missiles.
Access to strategic materials has always affected the destinies of nations. The Romans conquered Britain in AD 43 to control valuable tin deposits in Cornwall. Combining tin with copper produces bronze, a more valuable and militarily important alloy. Ancient Chinese metallurgical expertise with iron and steel allowed the Middle Kingdom to become a dominate military and economic force during the prosperous Han dynasty.
Back Roads Bill Steer is the founder and remains the GM of the Canadian Ecology Centre. He teaches part-time at Nipissing University (Schulich School of Education) and Canadore College. His features can be found across Village Media’s Northern Ontario sites.
With the help of the region’s scholars, Back Roads Bill recounts the struggles and horrific working conditions endured by early miners and the reason we should all remember them
It is part of a history lesson we know little about, so perhaps we need a little schooling. Envision hard rock miners, once toiling far underground in dark, cramped and dangerous conditions; it was arduous and risky work.
They emerged tired and dirty at the end of their shifts, walking back to small wood-sided homes and their immigrant families. Mining, along with forestry, created what was then called ‘New Ontario,’ — what we know as Northern Ontario.
Indigenous mining in the north began after the last period of glaciations, people of the Plano culture moved into the area and began quarrying quartzite at Sheguiandah on Manitoulin Island. Mining is an important economic activity in Northern Ontario. It has been since the first copper mines at Bruce Mines in 1846 and Silver Islet in 1868.
As work continues to create a greener, cleaner future for the planet, the rush to find critical minerals that will spearhead the transition away from fossil-fueled energy has taken on a greater urgency. Explorers and developers are actively seeking out new sources of nickel, copper and lithium throughout the globe.
And then there’s cobalt, a metal whose ability to store energy has already made it crucial for everything from laptops to smartphones, and gives it an even more important role in the green revolution. This has led to a renewed interest in securing sources of the metal across Canada, including around the namesake community of Cobalt, in northern Ontario.
“There’s something absolutely beguiling about these great mineral rushes,” Angus says.
There were the cockroach races that saw miners betting as much as a $1,000 on the outcome. There was the day vaudeville performer Daisy Primrose walked down the street in Harem pants, a new form of female apparel so scandalous that it had been condemned by the Pope. There’s even an appearance by a dog named Bobbie Burns who may well have been the inspiration for Hollywood’s most celebrated canine star.
So if Charlie Angus had wanted, he could easily have confined himself to delivering a robust history of Cobalt, the fabled Northern Ontario mining town in which the New Democrat MP has long lived. But although he is a born storyteller with a passion for popular history that matches the best of Pierre Berton and James H. Gray, Angus had a lot more on his mind when he set out to write his latest book, Cobalt.
Town was ‘somewhere between a squatter’s camp and elegant cosmopolitan power’ Angus says
The rich, colourful history of Cobalt, Ontario is the subject of Charlie Angus’ new book Cobalt: Cradle of the Demon Metals, Birth of a Mining Superpower. In it, Angus traces Cobalt’s history– the community was one of Canada’s first boomtowns– and the eccentric characters who dotted its landscape .
“There was a great description of Cobalt in 1909,” Angus said. “It looked somewhat like a cross between a wild west town and a medieval slum.” The town had its own banks, theatres and bordellos, Angus said, and even had a stock exchange long before Vancouver or Toronto.
Charlie Angus looks at lessons from an early 20th-century mining rush. An excerpt from the new book by the New Democrat MP for Timmins—James Bay, “Cobalt: Cradle of the Demon Metals, Birth of a Mining Superpower.”
The world is searching for cobalt, the miracle ingredient of the digital age. The metal’s capacity to store energy and stabilize conductors has made possible the proliferation of rechargeable batteries, smartphones and laptops. More crucially, in the face of catastrophic climate change, cobalt offers the hope of a clean-energy future.
Just days before Christmas in 1958, some 14,000 Sudbury miners and their families got the news they had been praying for: the three-month strike at Inco was over. Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers Local 598 president Mike Solski announced an agreement had been reached with Inco.
A three-year contract and a six-per-cent wage increase over three years was offered. This amounted to pennies on the hourly wage at the time of less than $3, but union leaders considered the settlement a victory.
James E. Churchill believes that telling the history of Monel and renewing the scientific data will empower conservators to educate and preserve key metallurgical heritage.
In 2019 I was introduced to a material I had only heard of in passing, Monel®*. Having previously come across it through the wrought craft of Samuel Yellin, a field trip to the southern tip of Manhattan placed me in front of a gleaming Monel elevator in an art-deco lobby. My interest was piqued. What was this alloy, how was it used and was it still popular?
In an attempt to hunt down interiors, I found redevelopment of department stores and banks, where the metal had flourished, had sadly led to total loss. I also discovered I was not alone in my ignorance.
The pessimism about the Ring of Fire is extraordinary. With two multi-billion-dollar Australian mining corporations fighting tooth and claw over this valuable mineral-rich camp, with one confirmed nickel/copper mine and one of the largest chromite deposits in the world, it is unjustified.
Many of the most prominent geologists in the country privately say that this is Sudbury Basin 2.0. For those outside the mining world, Sudbury’s polymetallic mineral deposits – nickel, copper, platinum group metals, cobalt, gold and silver – is the richest, multi-generational ore body in Canada and one of the most important integrated – mine, mill, smelter, refinery – mineral complexes in the world.
For much of the history of the last century, the city’s mines were the main source of nickel to the western world, a strategic metal vital for military weapons. In fact, the old Inco had long-standing connections to key people in the American Military Industrial Complex.
Gary Lew has had many opportunities to move south to be closer to his children but he and his wife Bella are reluctant to leave Timmins. “We enjoy the life, we enjoy the people here. That’s why we have a hard time moving,” he said.
“Timmins is still the best place to raise children. It’s all kinds of recreation, friendly people. I have no regrets because I’ve made lots of friends here.” Lew, 83, has been living in the area since he first arrived in South Porcupine from Hong Kong as a 12-year-old boy in January 1950.
Karen Bachmann is the director/curator of the Timmins Museum.
And what, pray tell, occupied the hearts and minds of Porcupine residents during the summer of 1923 – if you answered with a “who cares?”, then don’t bother finishing the article – if you want to know, keep on reading.
This should tell you just how rich the area was when it came to gold: teamsters and labourers working on the road between Timmins and the Paymaster Mine (the Back Road, or Gold Mine Road as we know it today), reported finding excellent samples of high grade gold in the rock they were using from the mine dump as the top dressing for the new road.
The government had struck a deal with the mine to use their waste rock to finish the work; workers were thrilled to find some pretty spectacular samples in their carts and on the road itself.