In the Town of Cobalt
Intrepid travellers from Eastern Canada heading to Western Canada frequently turn towards Northern Ontario and drive around the north side of the Great Lakes. This route rewards them with an experience into a rough and tumble, turn of the century mining town, a history as rough as the ore they extracted, and as enticing as the silver that was refined.
At North Bay continue north on Highway-11 roaming deeper into the rugged Canadian Shield, an ancient land of eroded mountains where just the stubs of their former glory remain. Sometimes travellers grow tired of seeing so many kilometres of trees, hills and rocks. That’s unfortunate. Here you will find some of the prettiest, yet uninhabited landscapes in Canada. It may seem the same but it’s continually changing - lakes constantly reveal themselves where you least expect them. Chortling rivers bash their way down narrow ravines and spread out into quiet marshy areas where hundreds of wild fowl are making their homes in the summer.
There are many more things to see. After driving through the rocks of the Shield you don’t expect to emerge in a flat farming area. This is the Great Northern Clay Belt, 16 million acres of fertile clay soil. In the early 1900’s the government helped build a railway to service the growing number of farmers in the area and to carry out lumber. The Ontario government was promoting the area as a great untouched farmland just waiting for settlement. It turned
out that growing conditions were not good. Farms failed, and a great many people suffered financial loss.
Something good did come from the fiasco. As the railway dynamited their way through rock outcrops they laid bare the ancient geology and filled in the depressions with the rubble. Tie for the railway were cut from the nearby forest, and while in the forest searching for good trees a pair of contractors became interested in some shiny rocks along a lakeshore. This
Clockwise from left: Cobalt Mines, Mining machinery and the Cobalt Visitor Centre
glitter soon became a fortune for the two men. It was a rich deposit of silver. Shortly afterwards a chance discovery turned up another silver deposit. It was incorrectly identified as a large valuable nickel deposit. When W.G. Miller, Ontario’s chief geologist, had it analysed it turned out to be silver. It’s hard to visualise the large chunks of silver that the first exploratory holes discovered. Later, once prospecting forged ahead, there were several more discoveries. Production of silver over the 60-year period of easy mining produced more than 400 million ounces of silver. If you are ever in Kingston, a visit to Miller Hall, and the Miller Museum of Geology might interest you.
But there was more to the story! The ore analysis showed that the mineral cobalt was also present. Miller set up a name sign near the
new mining camp that said, “Cobalt Station”. Cobalt is now the name of the town and it is located along the shores of Cobalt Lake. The Cobalt Ontario Northern Railway (ONR) station building is beautifully designed, with wide sweeping rooflines and an extended roof that covers the walkway. This is perhaps one of the nicest old stations from the early railroad years in Canada. It was once an excellent Visitor Centre, preserving the old design while being functional as well. The architect also designed Union Station in Toronto.
The ore bodies were not deep and mining was relatively easy, but the amount of silver was vast. Over 70 mines once operated here. Of course, they eventually were exhausted, and much of the population left. Enough people remained to keep the town alive and it avoided becoming a ghost town - Cobalt is a huge museum of the history of the silver years. Take time to get off the main highway-11 and stop in Cobalt. You can drive the Heritage Silver Trail, a simple road tour with stops at points of interest. You’ll immediately sense the mining atmosphere when you drive into town. Cobalt has retained the old head frames that mark the shafts from which silver ore sprang as if by magic, but actually required back-breaking work. On the tour, there is an overlook stop with a great view of the town. All of this activity was good for the railway, moving machinery to the mines and also bringing supplies for the town. It carried the silver riches of the earth south to be sold.
You will also note the large number of brick buildings from the early 1920’s. Wooden buildings jammed together and ramshackle cabins scattered willy-nilly on the hillsides made for definite fire hazards. In both 1906 and 1909, fire left many homeless. In 1977, a carelessly thrown cigarette caused a huge fire and the loss of another 140 homes. Lesson partially learned! Brick soon became the siding of choice, but unfortunately it didn’t stop all the fires as having a shingle roof is not a good idea when glowing embers fly.
A suggested walking tour points out several historic buildings of interest to the mining era. A look at the present town shows the original lack of planning. Tents and cabins were placed wherever the incoming miner stopped. The townsite was itself an interloper, often sitting on active claims. The Heritage Trail tour stops at one mine that located itself right in the midst of town. The mine owners placed the mine tailings and rubble wherever they wanted to, sometimes right on top of existing businesses.
Visitors can also enjoy several large murals painted on walls around town. The Mining Museum has a large data base of photographs and artifacts from the mining era. There are several samples of minerals and ore from the hills and mines nearby. Black light is used on some samples to bring out dazzling colours not seen by regular light.
If you are an adventurer and would like to hike and clamber around the surrounding countryside it’s important to remember there were many shallow holes and trenches dug in the search for silver. Their sides may crumble and drop you into eternity. Wear good boots and stick to trails. Fences surround several sites for good reasons.
For those who like history and ghostly ruins, you will enjoy the visit to the mines of Cobalt. It’s quiet, yet if you listen with your imagination, you might hear the sounds of mining - the explosions, the noise of the mills, and the tramp of tired miners going home after their day’s work. Best of all, Cobalt is a Canada Parks National Historic Site.