Cobalt's First Bloom: Early Views of Ontario's Silver City
In the 1920s, Cobalt, Ontario was world famous. It was home to some of the most productive silver mines in the world. Over 600 million troy ounces (around two million kilos) of silver were produced there from 1903 to 1926.
Putting Cobalt on the map
In 1884, a Geological Survey of Canada party noted "cobalt blooms" in rocks near Lake Tamiskaming. A cobalt bloom pattern in red cobalt (erythrite) indicates that silver is present. Over the centuries, people in the area — Indigenous peoples, fur traders, explorers, farmers, loggers — had been living on top of treasure in the ground.
Major interest in the area wouldn't be sparked until 1903, during construction on the Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Railway (to run from North Bay along Lake Temiskaming). Its purpose was to serve the clay belt around Haileybury and New Liskeard and open the area up to agriculture. However, as construction proceeded near Long Lake at mile 103, something in the rock formations captured the interest of a few.
Partners J. H. McKinley and E. F. Darragh, who had contracted with the railway to supply timber for the ties, were looking for suitable trees near the railway right-of-way. What they noticed was heavy soft mineral deposits. They staked their claim on August 13, 1903 and sent rock samples down south to be analyzed. The first samples had a high bismuth content but the second set were found to contain a high silver content, over 4,000 ounces of silver per ton. A ton is 1,000 kilograms.
A few weeks later, blacksmith Fred LaRose hurled his hammer at a fox that was hanging around his forge. When he retrieved the hammer, he found it had chipped off the rock to reveal a glittering vein of silver. He sent away for a government pamphlet about how to stake a claim and followed the instructions. This developed into the highly profitable LaRose mine.
Rock samples from Temiskaming ended up in the lab of Dr. Willet Green Miller, Ontario’s first provincial geologist. In October 1903, he traveled up with a small crew to survey the rock. His report on the silver discovery generated little interest in the wider world. The locals were the only people prospecting and staking claims.
William Trethewey was one of a few outsiders who came in the Spring of 1904 to try their luck. That year, Trethewey got $250,000 (1904 dollars) of silver out of a cut 50 feet long and 25 feet deep. His silver veins were so near the surface that he only needed a pick and shovel to dig the ore.
Dr. Miller then made his second visit. Around the campfire, Miller and the others agreed that the current name “Long Lake Construction Camp” was inadequate for the boom-town to be. He suggested Cobalt. At the site of the future railway station, a sign soon appeared announcing “Cobalt Station, T. and N.O. Railway”.
Mining operations ramp up
In 1904, only 158 tons of ore was shipped out from 16 mining operations. Things picked up in 1905, when 29 mines shipped 2,144 tons of ore containing 2,451,356 ounces of silver. This was over 1,143 troy ounces of silver per ton, and worth two million dollars. That year the Ontario government cancelled claims that had produced no minerals and appeared to be held for speculation purposes only. This opened up the territory to prospecting and people flocked from the south on an overnight train ride into silver country.
At one point there were roughly 2,000 crews mining or looking to mine. In the coming years, more than 100 mines were operated in the area. Cobalt was the birthplace of Canadian hard rock mining.
International interest and expansion
Capital was needed to finance deeper pits with better equipment and more miners. Shares were offered. Historically, mining companies and their share prices boomed and busted on the Toronto Stock Exchange. Canadians did not buy up all the shares. As there was a far greater pool of venture capital in the Unites States, shares were bought by Americans leading to a level of American control. New York investors visited in private rail cars to keep tabs on the operations.
Experienced miners from as far as British Columbia, Arizona, Senora and British East Africa descended on Cobalt along with the rest. The town grew rapidly to house and service the miners. New businesses opened. Without any formal planning, buildings sprung up on flat outcroppings with streets curving erratically around them. Living conditions were cramped and relatively expensive.
While on a tour of Canada in 1919, Edward H.R.H. the Princes of Wales visited Cobalt. His impression: "This is a grey wee town."
The population of Cobalt grew to over 10,000. There were hotels, saloons, stores, banks, a Red Cross Hospital, fire department and even an opera house. The first detachment of The Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) was stationed there. The town's hockey team, the Cobalt Silver Wings, played in the National Hockey Association (the first iteration of the NHL).
The Canadian Bank of Commerce was the first of four banks in the town and was originally housed in a large tent. A saying common at the time was, "Silver Street built Bay Street"; so important was the wealth generated from the mines to the province of Ontario.
But when the silver was gone, so were the men. They went there to mine silver, not necessarily to build a community. Today, 1,100 people live in Cobalt. Still, they may see mining in the area revived. As car companies increase production of electric vehicles, more cobalt will be needed for lithium-cobalt batteries.