(The following has appeared in numerous Northern Ontario newspapers and was submitted by the author.)
The Yukon Klondike
I have a small complaint about Canadian mining history or more importantly, our media coverage of past gold rushes. The Yukon Klondike gold rush of 1896-99 seems to take all the glory – thanks to writers like Jack London, Robert W. Service and Canadian literary icon, Pierre Berton – while northern Ontario’s four globally significant gold-silver discoveries in the first half of the last century do not get the historical respect they deserve.
The initial Klondike discovery, on Aug. 16, 1896, at a fish camp near the junction of the Yukon and Klondike rivers, is credited to George Carmack and his Tagish Indian brothers-in-law, Skookum Jim Mason and Dawson (Tagish) Charlie. Robert Henderson, a Nova Scotia prospector is credited as a cofounder, since it was on his advice that the discovery was made, however he made no money from the find.
At the height of the rush, Dawson City, the main staging town at the mouth of the Klondike River had a booming population of about 30,000 and was known as the most cosmopolitan city west of Winnipeg and north of Vancouver. Due to its isolation, all the claims had been staked by the time most people finally arrived. Some of the most memorable photographs from the period show a thin line of thousands of people climbing the legendary Chilkoot Pass – the shortest but most difficult route to the goldfields – bringing the required year’s supply of food and living material.
Fortunes were made and lost in Dawson City’s “rip-roaring” frontier atmosphere where prostitutes were tolerated and nearly everyone was on the lookout for charlatans and con men. Many became rich just supplying services to the stampeders. In total, about 12.5 million oz of gold was produced during this short-lived rush that lasted for less than a decade.
Cobalt’s Silver Dreams
No discussion about Northern Ontario’s major gold rushes could begin without starting with the Cobalt Silver boom of 1903. This major silver discovery was the result of the construction of the Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Railway which was funded by the provincial government to help colonize the north.
There were basically three discoveries that started the silver rush. The first was by contractors James H. McKinley and Ernest J. Darragh who were providing lumber for the railroad. On August 7, 1903, they were scouting for suitable trees when they noticed a pink stain on a rock cut. They sent their samples to a Montreal assayer who reported native silver assaying at an astonishing 4,000 oz of silver to the ton.
The second discovery came a few weeks later in mid-September when blacksmith Fred LaRose allegedly threw a hammer at a fox. The hammer missed the fox but broke off a chunk of rock to reveal a vein of silver that eventually became a mine. Tom Hebert made the third discovery that eventually became the “Big Nip” mine that yielded more than 91 million ounces of silver over 40 years.
Cobalt’s enormous silver discoveries made headlines around the world and silver fever even hit New York’s Wall Street in 1906 when unruly mobs of people trying to buy Cobalt mining stocks had to be broken up.
The silver mines finally ran out by the 1990’s but the Cobalt camp had yielded a phenomenal 460 million oz of the precious metal far exceeding the value of the gold produced at the Klondike.
Cobalt has been often called “the cradle of Canada’s mining industry.” It trained the prospecting and mining capabilities of Canadians, provided enormous capital financing, and set the stage for important gold discoveries in the immediate region.
Timmins the Porcupine
In June 1909, 90 miles north of Cobalt near Porcupine Lake, prospector Harry Preston slipped on a rock and scrapped off the moss covering. Underneath, he and his partners including Jack Wilson discovered a ledge of quartz covered with gold. The site became the famous Dome mine that is still producing to this day. News rapidly spread and the next big discovery was made in October by Benny Hollinger, a former barber from Haileybury (near Cobalt), and Alex Gillies, a professional prospector.
Their claims were later developed into the world-class Hollinger mine by entrepreneur Noah Timmins who founded the city of the same name. The Hollinger mine operated from 1910-68, producing 19.3 million ounces of gold, the country’s biggest historical producer.
At about the same time, Scottish-born and hard-drinking Sandy McIntyre and his prospecting partner Hans Buttner staked four claims north of the Hollinger discovery that eventually became the basis of MacIntyre Porcupine Mines Limited. Prospectors Hollinger, McIntyre and Wilson never made great fortunes from their discoveries having been grubstaked by others who were in fact their employers.
By 1930, Canada became the world’s second largest producer of gold with Ontario responsible for most of that output, all from the north. The Porcupine camp has produced about 72 million oz of gold over the past century. In addition, an enormous copper, zinc and silver deposit was discovered near Timmins in 1963 and that is still in production. New gold deposits are still being found in Timmins today which is experiencing a booming economy unaffected by the recent recession.
The next major gold discovery occurred at Kirkland Lake, located about 55 miles north of Cobalt. In 1911, prospectors William Wright and Ed Hargreaves became separated while hunting for rabbits. Hargreaves fired his rifle to attract Wright’s attention. While rushing through the bush towards the rifle shot, Wright stumbled across a quartz outcrop with gold.
They staked their claims on the main ore-bearing fault of the Kirkland Lake gold camp which later became the nucleus of three large mines – the Sylvanite, Wright-Hargreaves, and Lakeshore. Wright quickly bought out Hargreaves and held on to his claims becoming a very wealthy man in the process. In 1936, he founded the Globe and Mail that became Canada’s national newspaper.
The Kirkland Lake gold rush attracted many characters including Sandy McIntyre who staked claims that founded the Teck-Hughes mine. American-born Harry Oaks is one of the most famous people who profited from the Kirkland Lake gold rush, his claims became the Lakeshore mine, one of the richest in the world. He was mysteriously killed in the Bahamas in 1943. During the 1930s depression years, the Kirkland Lake/Larder Lake area was one of the most prosperous in the country due to 22 producing gold mines.
Historical gold production from this mining camp is about 38 million ounces, the second highest in Canada. Kirkland Lake is experiencing another gold boom. A recent report stated that the town needs to build 600 new homes in the next six years due to the 1,000 new jobs in the mining sector.
In the summer of 1925, two Haileybury brothers, Lorne and Ray Howey, discovered gold under the roots of an upturned tree a few hundred feet from the shores of Red Lake, an isolated spot 110 miles northwest of the train station at Hudson, a few miles west of Sioux Lookout. This event triggered the last great gold rush in North America.
More than 3,000 people converged on Red Lake at the height of the gold rush of 1926. They traveled by dog team or by foot on the frozen rivers and lakes, over the 180-mile gold rush trail. In spring, they used canoes or small boats, and before long, airplanes.
Eventually the bush plane came to dominate travel to the goldfields. In 1936, Howey Bay, in the heart of Red Lake was the busiest airport in the world,
as aircraft of all shapes and sizes, on floats or skis, transported freight and passengers in and out of the area at 15-minute intervals.
By 2006, about 23 million ounces of gold had been dug out of the rich greenstone belts of the Red Lake district. Goldcorp’s Red Lake Gold mine is Canada’s largest and lowest cost producing gold mine.
Without a doubt, the enormous wealth dug out of the ground at Cobalt, Timmins, Kirkland Lake and Red Lake is disproportionately larger than the legendary Klondike gold fields. And except for Cobalt, Ontario’s gold mining centres are still in production creating enormous wealth for the provincial economy.
Put that in your golden pipes, Pierre Berton, Jack London and Robert Service and smoke it!
[Editor’s note: The Hemlo gold camp, where three mines were commissioned in the mid-1980s, produced 24 million oz of gold in the first 20 years of operation. Two of the mines are still active.]
Stan Sudol is a Toronto-based communications consultant, who writes extensively about mining issues.(firstname.lastname@example.org)