Historically, Ontario’s gold mining industry has played a major role in the settlement of the province’s north and, along with the Cobalt silver boom and further discoveries in northwestern Quebec, helped establish Toronto as today’s mine financing capital of the world.
Ironically, the first gold discovery occurred in southeastern Ontario, at Eldorado, about 45 km north of Bellville. Amateur prospector Marcus Powell made the find in 1866 and a minor gold rush followed. A small mine went into operation but proved uneconomic, closing two years later.
No discussion about Northern Ontario’s major gold rushes could begin without mentioning the Cobalt Silver boom of 1903. This major discovery was made during the construction of the Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Railway, which was funded by the provincial government to help colonize the north.
The silver mines were finally depleted by the 1990s but the Cobalt camp had yielded a phenomenal 460 million oz. of the precious metal far – exceeding the value of the 12.5 million oz. of 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 that followed.
In June 1909, 145 km north of Cobalt, near Porcupine Lake, prospector Harry Preston slipped on a rock and scraped 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 that fall by Benny Hollinger, a former barber from Haileybury, 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 oz. 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. Hollinger, McIntyre and Wilson never made great fortunes from their discoveries having been grubstaked by their employers.
The next major gold discovery occurred at Kirkland Lake, located about 89 km 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 visible 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, which became Canada’s national newspaper.
The Kirkland Lake gold rush attracted many characters, including Sandy McIntyre who staked the claims that became 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.
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 177 km northwest of the train station at Hudson, just 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 Klondike-style gold rush of 1926. They travelled by dog team or by foot on the frozen rivers and lakes, over the 290-km 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. Aircraft, on floats or skis, transported freight and passengers in and out of the area at 15-minute intervals.
Depression era boom
In 1930, Canada became the world’s second largest producer of gold, with Ontario’s north responsible for most of that output. The gold mines were one of the few sectors of the provincial economy that prospered during the Great Depression.
To get the U.S. economy moving, President Franklin Roosevelt raised the price of gold to US$35 an oz. in 1934. Marginal properties became valuable and northern exploration boomed. Ontario’s large production of gold allowed the country to maintain its credit and substantially reduce the debt.
From 1931 to 1941, Timmins doubled in population to 28,500 people while Kirkland Lake grew eight-fold to 9,915. The precious metal was used to obtain U.S. dollars for war materials until gold mines were declared a non-war industry in 1942, resulting in severe restrictions on labour and supplies.
After the war, the gold mines faced tough times. In 1948, the federal government passed the Emergency Gold Measures Act, however many mines closed over the next few decades due to high operating costs. In 1971, gold became freely convertible and climbed to the then-record of US$875 by 1980.
A year later, just off the trans-Canada highway, halfway between Thunder Bay and Sault Ste. Marie, Don Mckinnon, John Larche and David Bell discovered Ontario’s fourth-largest mining camp, Hemlo.
A fierce legal battle errupted over the ownership of one of three mines – the Williams – between Teck-backed junior miner Corona and Lac Minerals. In August 1989, the Supreme Court of Ontario awarded the property to Teck and Corona.
Since that first gold discovery in 1866, Ontario has produced 175 million oz. of gold, including byproduct gold from base metal mines, and production outside of the major camps.
By comparison, the second-richest gold mining region in North America is Nevada, which dug out of the ground about 162 million ounces from 1835-2010.
Prospectors often say that the best place to find a new mine is in the shadow of an old one. With over a century of amazing world-class discoveries throughout northern Ontario and record prices for the precious metal, the future of gold mining is bright indeed.
Stan Sudol is a Toronto-based communications consultant and mining columnist (www.republicofmining.com).