The mining history of the Sudbury area

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From Rocks and Minerals in Canada, Spring 1983

By Tom Jewiss

Often, if not always, when the mining history of the Sudbury region is considered, 1883 is treated as the starting date. For it was in August of that year that Thomas Flanagan, a blacksmith on the Canadian Pacific Railway, noticed a rust coloured patch of rock while working with a crew in a recently blasted rock cut north-west of present-day Sudbury.

group of miners gathered outside of mine

Mining in the area actually began long before Thomas Flanagan –at least 10,000 years before. After the last period of glaciations 11,000 years ago, people of the Plano culture moved into the area and later began quarrying quartzite at Sheguiandah on Manitoulin Island. They crafted this raw material into tools and weapon heads. Cultures succeeding the mainly big game hunting Planos continued obtaining materials for tools and weapons by open pit mining until people known as the Northern Shield Culture became dominant throughout North-Eastern Ontario. These people discovered and used native copper to make not only tools and weapons, but jewellery and ornaments. Long before western civilization arrived on the North American continent, trade routes were operating throughout Northern Ontario with items of copper, silver and other materials changing hands.

distant picture of layout of mine buildings

In 1870, Alexander Henry, a fur trader was shown outcroppings with copper occurrences north of Sault Ste. Marie by the Ojibway Indians who are one of the present day groups descended from the Northern Shield culture. Experienced miners were imported from England and a small shaft was sunk. The copper zone was not extensive, however, and there were many problems in mining and processing it which could not be overcome and the venture was quickly abandoned. Copper was also discovered at Brice Mines, 100 kilometres east of Sault Ste. Marie in 1846 and traders, surveyors and others observed mineral occurrences at various locations between Bruce Mines and Sudbury in subsequent years.

In 1856, W.A. Salter, a surveyor running lines throughout the territory between Lake Nipissing and Sault Ste. Marie, was running a meridian north from his base line which ran east and west through the Whitefish Lake post. Between the fifth and eight mile of the meridian he “discovered considerable local attraction, the needle varying between from four to fourteen degrees westerly”. He later met Alexander Murray, another surveyor who made a similar observance. This line is only two hundred yards west of Inco Metals Ltd’s Creighton open pit mine. Salter and Murray reported their findings to the government but were ignored. (1917 Royal Ontario Nickel Commission, pg., 20-28).

two miners standing with mine cart in dark mine tunnel

Later, Dr. Howey who counted rock collecting among his many interests showed some interesting specimens to Dr. Selwyn, Chief of the Federal Government’s geological survey but was told that they had no commercial value. Finally, returning to Thomas Flanagan and his find on the new rail line, this was the first local discovery to cause enough interest to spur further exploration. Further ore was exposed, samples were tested and the first land purchased for mining by William and Thomas Murray, Henry Abbott and John Laughrin. This discovery and claim became the Murray Mine, still producing intermittently in recent years.

With Flanagan’s discovery developing into a claim and production, prospectors were Henry Totten, Fanois Criean, Thomas Frood, James Stobie and Thomas Baycroft most whose names eventually became associated with local mines.

Mining, then as now, required capital and Samuel J. Ritchie, a capitalist from Akron, Ohio, arrived in 1886 to form the Canadian Copper Company with several partners. This new company quickly acquired property in copper where the McAllister Mine (later Lady McDonald Mine) was established. It also brought the Copper Cliff, Stobie and Creighton Mines and it was Copper Cliff Mine, located behind the present police station, which became the first feasible producing mine in the area.

Early ore was shipped to the United States for refining and it was at the Orford Refinery in New Jersey that the refining process produced a pinkish gray material of no purpose or value.  This was a mixture of copper and kupfer nickel or copper of the devil or simply nickel as we know it. Nickel had been used with copper and zinc in China for many centuries and its use had eventually spread to Europe where the alloy of these metals became known as German silver. In the Sudbury area, however, separation of the nickel and copper in the local ores proved very difficult and most local mining companies enjoyed short existences.

close up image of mine buildings

The Canadian Copper Company nevertheless survived and in 1904 the Mond Nickel Company was formed. Ludwig Mond, a German chemist, who developed a method to produce pure nickel, bought Garson and Victoria mines to insure a supply of ore. Increasing industrialism and World War I encouraged expansion and by 1914 several more mines had been acquired.

Copper and nickel were not the only minerals to be found in the Sudbury basin. Henry Ranger discovered gold and began the Vermillion Gold Mine in 1887. Like gold discoveries all over the world, this one attraced large numbers of prospectors who staked hundreds of claims. The Vermillion Mine proved to be an isolated situation, however, and the gold boom never got underway. Interestingly, though, the Vermillion Mine also contained a high-grade nickel-copper ore body, platinum, silver, tin and other minerals proving to be a forerunner of future Sudbury area mines. Iron has also been mined in Sudbury until recent times, and along with the already mentioned precious metal ores and others, has been a by-product of the nickel-copper mineral processing.

Back in 1902, the International Nickel Company was formed to combine the Canadian Copper Company’s operations with those of the Orford Refinery Company in New Jersey. The development of Monel Metal, a nickel-steel allow and the establishment of the Port Colbourne Refinery were; along with the outbreak of the First World War, factors which greatly increased mining production in the Sudbury area. Since nickel was being utilized mostly for military purposes, however, the market almost disappeared with the coming of peace and most mines were shut down. Conditions gradually improved though in the 1920’s with the railway, lumbering and the flour mill filling some of the unemployment gap.

In 1928 the International Nickel Company amalgamated with Mond Nickel and Falconbridge Nickel Mines was founded thus giving Sudbury its present line-up of two giant mining companies with smaller concerns coming onto the scene for prief periods of time. Thomas Alava Edison had come to Sudbury in 1901 to develop a nickel deposit in Falconbridge township. Attempting to sink a shaft in quicksand discouraged Edison, but eventually the Longyear Company drilled through glacial sand to find the orebody. Thayer Lindsay developed the Longyear claims into production and formed Falconbridge Nickel Mines Limited.

two men operating a piston drill on the surface of an open pit that is 300 feet down

Nickel was finding much wider use by the late 1920’s, and mines were again reopening. The boom part of the boom and bust mining cycle was short lived however, and by 1931 –the depression had brought another poor metals market. With the world re-arming by the mid 1930’s, the armaments industry aided a recovery and finally an expansion to the point where Sudbury experienced a severe housing shortage and for the first time, women were recruited to work in the surface plants of the mines.

By the end of World War II, unions had finally gained recognition and after a long struggle, the Mine Mill and Smelter Workers Union became the representative of workers in Sudbury’s Nickel-Copper Industry. This union thrived until the early 1960’s when a dispute with the United Steelworkers of America (U.S.W.A) resulted in the U.S.W.A. becoming the union at INCO and the Mine Mill union remaining at Falconbridge.

The post war metals market did not sink into the disastrous recession which followed World War I. There were new demands for nickel in the automobile industry and although the world was temporarily at peace, the United States was increasing its defence stockpiles. The Korean War and the Cold War of the 1950’s helped sustain a demand for nickel. Falconbridge began to receive a larger share of the market as the United States government attempted to reduce its dependence on INCO for nickel. Both companies prospered throughout the 1950’s and entered the next decade with expansion plans that went beyond the North American and European continents where they had previously restricted themselves.

Using their connections with big American banks, INCO and Falconbridge expanded into third World countries where laterite ores were found and became the multinational companies that they are today. Demands of the Cold War, and later the war in Vietnam kept INCO and Falconbridge expanding locally as well until 1972. That year represented a peak in both production and the size of the local mining industry work force which may not be reached again. The mid 1970’s saw Canada’s position as the leading supplier of nickel weakened and many newcomers emerged onto the mining scent to compete with the local giants. These factors led to the unstable market conditions which are presently at their worst. Inco and Falconbridge are competing with other multinational companies to recover the laterite ores which they helped develop with their investments. Canada’s share of the nickel market which was once 95% is now closer to a third.

Sudbury’s economy, although slightly more diversified than it was, is still very dependent on the mining industry. Recent production shutdowns of many months duration have left little doubt about the need to diversify. Many attempts have been made in recent years and the results are beginning to show. The awareness of this need is now shared by local leaders in all fields. Further diversification may depend as much on national and world economic trends, however, as on local efforts.

There is one new development on the Sudbury mining scene which may represent a diversification within mining which is not dependent upon production demands. Inco Ltd. has begun to develop its Copper Cliff North Mine into a company research facility and Science North is redeveloping its Big Nickel Mine into a facility which not only welcomes tourists and local visitors, but may eventually provide underground and surface space for mining research, testing, education and training.