Min­ing His­tory(ON)

In the Town of Cobalt

Snowbirds & RV Travelers - - Contents - STORY AND PHO­TOS BY WIL­LIAM EN­NIS

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.

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