Cobalt Silver Rush
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The Cobalt Silver Rush started in 1903 when huge veins of silver were discovered by workers on the Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Railway (T&NO) near the Mile 103 post. By 1905 a full-scale silver rush was underway, and the town of Cobalt, Ontario sprang up to serve as its hub. By 1908 Cobalt produced 9% of the world's silver, and in 1911 produced 31,507,791 ounces of silver. However, the good ore ran out fairly rapidly, and most of the mines were closed by the 1930s. There were several small revivals over the years, notably in World War II and again in the 1950s, but both petered out and today there is no active mining in the area. In total, the Cobalt area mines produced 460 million ounces of silver.
The Cobalt Rush was instrumental in opening northern Ontario for mineral exploration. Prospectors fanned out from Cobalt, and soon caused the nearby Porcupine Gold Rush in 1909, and the Kirkland Lake Gold Rush of 1912. Much of the settlement in northern Ontario outside the Clay Belt owes its existence indirectly to the Cobalt Rush.
Before the Rush
In the late 19th century the Ontario government started a program to establish settlements in the Clay Belt, a band of rich soil running north of Lake Temiskaming. The government wanted to open what was then known as "New Ontario", after it had been merged into the province from formerly Northwest Territories land. At the time, direct settlement to farms was still fairly widespread, and the towns of New Liskeard and Haileybury formed in the 1890s as the hubs of this activity.
The settlements generated some commercial interest in building a railway from North Bay to New Liskeard, but these plans ended when the rate of settlement dwindled at the turn of the 20th century. In 1902 the government decided to take over the project and started development of the T&NO, contracting out construction to a wide array of companies. By the summer of 1903 the line was about 100 miles (160 km) long and was approaching Haileybury.
James McKinley and Ernest Darragh were contractors supplying ties to the T&NO, working north of the Montreal River, about 5 miles (8.0 km) south of Haileybury. On the banks of Long Lake (one of many lakes in northern Ontario with this name) they found a number of pebbles bearing small metal flakes, and on 15 August 1903 they staked a claim and sent several samples to an assayer in Montreal. These proved to be disappointing, but a number of further samples they sent in in the fall returned 12% silver.
Fred LaRose, a blacksmith also working on the railway, had set up small cabin at the north end of Long Lake, near the Mile 103 post of the line. About two weeks after McKinley and Darragh, LaRose found similar rocks. LaRose noted "One evening I found a float, a piece as big as my hand, with little sharp points all over it. I say nothing but come back and the next night I take pick and look for the vein. The second evening I found it." LaRose had no idea what the metal was, he thought it might be copper, but staked a claim anyway.
When the contract ran out, LaRose started on his way back to his home in Hull, Quebec. On the way he stopped at the Matabanick Hotel in Haileybury, where he showed his samples to the owner, Arthur Ferland. He then started on his trip, and on the way stopped in Mattawa where he visited a store owned by locals Noah Timmins and his brother Henry. Larose showed the samples to Noah before moving on to Hull. Henry was in Montreal at the time, so Noah cabled him, telling him about LaRose's find. Henry immediately set out for Hull, meeting LaRose and offering him $3,500 for half of the claim. Some time later a story developed that he found a vein when he threw a hammer at a fox walking by his tent.
Shortly thereafter, Ferland had another guest stay at the Matabanick, Thomas W. Gibson, the Director of the Ontario Bureau of Mines. Gibson identified the mineral in the samples as niccolite, a nickel-bearing mineral, which was intensly interesting to the Bureau after finding the deposits in Sudbury in 1883. Gibson sent the samples to Willet Green Miller, a professor at Queen's University and Ontario's first Provincial Geologist. With the samples Gibson included a note which stated that "If the deposit is of any considerable size it will be a valuable one on account of the high percentage of nickel which this mineral contains. I think it will be almost worth your while to pay a visit to the locality before navigation closes."
In October another railway contractor, Tom Herbert, came across an open vein of silver on the east side of Long Lake. He told Ferland about it that night, and the two set out for the site the next day. Due to a loophole in the Mining Act, surface veins allowed prospectors to stake up to 320 acres (1.3 km2), rather than the typical 40. Ferland formed a syndicate with four railway engineers, purchased Herbert's claim for $5,000, and jointly staked a total of 846 acres (3.42 km2).
Meanwhile, Miller had examined the samples Gibson sent him, and was disappointed to find that only the surface had any niccolite, the interior being mostly cobalt of little commercial value. He nevertheless sent the samples for further analysis, which returned a report stating they had 19% silver within. Miller soon set out for Long Lake, arriving in November 1903.
Miller visited a number of the veins that had been discovered, reporting that at the base of the LaRose vein he observed "lumps of weathered ore weighing from 10 to 50 pounds carrying a high percentage of silver", while the Little Silver Vein had "pieces of native silver as big as stove lids and cannon balls" and that "loose silver is common in immediate proximity to the vein; every depression in the rock on the top of the hill contains much free silver. The earth occupying these depressions is deemed by the owners of sufficient value to sack and ship for treatment".
William Trethewey arrived in the spring of 1904 and set out prospecting the area. On his second day he found a vein, and staked it with another prospector, Alex Longwell. Immediately thereafter he found a second vein, staking it for himself, while Longwell went off to stake another of his own. All three would later develop into major mines, the Trethewey, Coniagas and Buffalo. Millar had returned to the area to continue work, and posted a sign alongside the railway tracks which read "Cobalt Station T. & N.O. Railway". Still, there was relatively little work being done commercially, and nothing like a "rush" started.
When travel re-opened in the spring of 1905 word was out that there was silver at Cobalt Station. Prospectors and developers started pouring into the campsight, and by the end of the year there were 16 operating mines that had shipped $1,366,000 worth of ore. The next year another $2,000,000 worth of ore was shipped, but the obvious surface veins were mined out. To continue production, trenches were dug in criss-cross patterns hoping to cut through a vein. The Nipissing Mine introduced the use of high-pressure water to simply wash off all of the topsoil, and by 1913 Long Lake, now known as Cobalt Lake was "tainted or yellow green, and is opaque". The lake was later drained, both to clear out the brackish water as well as to expose further veins.
Although one of the richest veins was known as early as 1904, development was slowed by disagreements among the shareholders. These were finally worked out and mining the "Lawson Vein" started in 1908. Once mining was underway it became clear that the vein was incredibly large, as much as 10,000 tons of processed silver, making it the largest single find in the world to this day. It is better known today as the "Silver Sidewalk".
The rush reached its peak in 1911, shipping 31,507,791 ounces of silver. The town had grown considerably, and had a population of between 10,000 and 15,000.
World War I made labour hard to come by, and by 1917 most of the mines had closed due to a lack of men to work them. Instead, the small number of workers available were put to work using new extraction methods to work the tailings, which required far fewer people to keep in operation. At the end of the war Cobalt had a population of about 7,000. In 1918, in spite of the problems, 10,000 tons of silver were shipped.
As the best veins were mined out the cost of extracting silver from the Cobalt area made it increasingly unprofitable. By the 1922 many of the smaller mines were closed, when the Great Fire of 1922 swept through the area. Most of the veins ended less than 300 feet (91 m) below the surface, limiting the total amount of silver in the area. The stock market crash of 1929 led to a major devaluation in metal prices, rendering even the deeper mines unprofitable. The LaRose closed in 1930, and by 1932 only the Nipissing Mine and a few smaller operations were still working. All of these were closed by 1937.
In the World War II era and immediately thereafter, cobalt became a valuable mineral in its own right, and a number of operations opened to process the tailings again, this time for the cobalt. Increasing silver values and better mining processes started to make the area profitable, and the 1950s saw a brief resugence of mining. Most of these closed by the 1970s, and the few remaining ones by the early 1980s.
- Charles Dumaresq, "The Rise and Fall of a Mining Camp", Cobalt Mining History, 2006
- Andrew Hind, Maria da Silva, "Visit to Cobalt has a silver lining", Toronto Star, Travel Section, 15 May 2008
- "History", Agnico-Eagle Mines, 2008
- Arsenide ore from Silver Centre, Ontario, shows a sample of typical ore, containing a huge amount of silver