Silver in Canada

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From Rocks and Minerals in Canada, March/April 1981

By Don Demaray

Even though it may lack most of the romantic connotations associated with gold, silver has played a significant role in the drama of Canadian mining. Even before the discovery of gold, a mining engineer in Champlain’s company reported finding silver in Nova Scotia –the year, 1604. But it was not Nova Scotia that was to excite the minds of North American investors. It was, instead a tiny island, Skull Rock, surrounded by one of the most treacherous freshwater bodies in the world and lying 4,000 feet from the Mainland at Thunder Bay, Ontario, that was destined to put Canada on the map as one of the world’s major producers of silver.

Skull rock, later to be renamed, Silver Islet, was first prospected and patented by Joseph Woods in 1845 but it was not until 22 years later, in 1868 that Thomas MacFarlane and a party of six other men arrived from Quebec to ascertain whether their company’s holdings of 15,000 acres warranted the two cent of an acre tax recently imposed by the Crown. In the afternoon of July 10, 1868, MacFarlane and his small party hacked out this tiny bleak rock enough pure silver to pay the Crown’s tax for the next twenty years. This handful of men could not have realized that their exciting find was to produce one of the most epic battles in Canadian mining history as they and other dedicated men attempted to wrest their silvery treasure from this time speck in Lake Superior.

In 1884, after fire, underground explosions and almost innumerable flood-outs by an always capricious Lake Superior, the Silver Islet Mine was abandoned –it had yielded more than three and a half million dollars in silver.

After nature had forced the abandonment of the Silver Islet Mine in 1884, the production of silver in Canada dripped to a mere trickle, until 1903, nature and fortuitous luck by two railway tie contractors put Canada back on the world’s silver production map. A former factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, being impressed with the agriculture potential of Clay Belt, he secured a large land grant near the present side of Haileybury and, as a result of a strong campaign with the Ontario government, a railroad from North Bay was constructed to open up the area for development of its agriculture and forestry resources. It was while J.H. McKinley and Ernest Darragh were looking for suitable timber for railroad ties at the southeast end of Long Lake that they noticed metallic flakes in the rock and in the beach gravel. After testing the flakes between their teeth, in the traditional manner, these two enterprising contractors sent a number of rock samples to Montreal. When the report returned verifying an assay of 4,000 ounces to the ton, McKinley and Darragh applied for and received a mining lease from the government –the silver boon at Cobalt, Ontario was on. During the first 60 years of silver production from the Cobalt Mining camp more than 420,500,000 ounces of silver were removed from the earth.

It is indeed fortunate for the rockhound and mineral collector that some of the very fine spectacular silver specimens survived the refineries. Several such specimens will be on display in London at Geminex’81 courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum, Cobalt Mining Museum and the Geology department of The University of Western Ontario, as well as from a number of private collections. It is also fortuitous that, because native silver was so abundant in the early mining camps and that it was valued at less than $1.00 per troy ounce, many fine specimens were overlooked and even today provide the rockhound with the occasional prize.

With the exception of a few other areas (South Lorrain, Elk Lake and Gowganda areas of Ontario as well as Great Bear Lake area, District of Mackenzie) most silver is being produced, today, as a by-product of the following types of deposits:

  1. Skarn deposits, mined essentially for their copper, zinc and lead contents
  2. Massive Ni-Cu sulphide deposits (Sudbury type), mined essentially for their nickel, copper and cobalt contents
  3. Massive Cu-Zn sulphide deposits (Flin Flon type) mined essentially for their copper and zinc contents
  4. Gold-quartz deposits, mine essentially for their gold content

Even though the type of deposits described above produce native silver specimens only rarely, these same deposits are responsible for some of the more rare silver-bearing minerals so avidly sought by the species collector. Over eighty silver bearing minerals have been described by the end of 1979 and of this number, approximately half are known to occur in Canada. The following is a partial list of the more prevalent species and an indication of where they have been found.

Name Formula Location
Acanthite Ag2S Cobalt, ON, BC, NWT, NS
Allargentum Ag1-xSBx Cobalt, ON
Andorite PbAgSb3S6 Takla Lake, BC
Argentite Ag2S Cobalt, ON, BC
Canfieldite Ag8SnS6 Revelstoke, BC & Nigadoo Prop., NB
Dyscrasite Ag3Sb Cobalt, ON & McDame, BC
Empressite AgTe Handscrabble Creek, Pitman, BC
Eucairite CuAgSe Martin Lake Mine, SK
Freibergite (Ag,Cu,Fe)12(Sb,As)4S13 Cobalt, ON
Freieslebenite PbAgSbS3 Cobalt, ON & Mt. Nansen Mines, YK
hessite Ag2Te ON, BC, QC, NWT
Larosite (Cu,Ag)21(Pb,Bi)2S13 Foster Mine, Cobalt, ON
Matildite AgBiS2 O'Brian Mine, Cobalt ON & Camsell River, NWT
Owyheeite Ag2Pb5Sb6S15 BC
Pavonite (Ag,Cu)(Bi,Pb)3S5 South Lorrain Twp., ON
Pearceite Ag16As2S11 Cobalt, ON & Abitibi County, QC
Petzite Ag,AuTe2 Timmins, ON, QC, NWT, NB
Polybasite (Ag,Cu)16Sb2S11 BC, ON, YK
Pyargyrite Ag3SbS3 ON, BC, YK, NWT
Stephanite Ag5SbS4 ON, BC, YK
Stromeyerite AgCuS Toad Mtn. BC & Cobalt, ON
Sylvanite AgAuTe4 ON, MB, BC, QC, YK
Xanthoconite Ag3AsS3 Christopher & La Rose Mines, Cobalt, ON

The amount of silver produced in Canada over the past ninety or so years has been anything but stable as illustrated by the accompanying graph. The great fluctuations in production have been the result of several factors. Some of the more significant ones are listed below.

  1. Discovery of an ore-body; e.g., Cobalt area, 1904- 1914
  2. Availability of the refining techniques to efficiently mill the ore available; e.g., the Sullivan mine at Kimberley, B.C., the largest producer, was discovered in 1892, furnished some ore from 1900 to 1907, and closed because of metallurgical difficulties in treating the ore.
  3. Lower priorities for silver production during war time; e.g., first two world wars
  4. Loss of production time by labour strikes; e.g., four-month shut down in 1974 of Cominco Ltd. at Trail, B.C.
  5. World demand for silver as a result of adverse economic climates and decreased demand for the major base-metals with which silver is produced; over 95% of the silver produced today in Canada is derived as a by-product or co-product in the mining of the major base-metal ores.
  6. Increase in the amount of secondary recovery of silver from industry, speculative holdings, hoarded coinage, etc.

Silver has always been an important metal for industrial applications. This is because it strongly resists corrosion, has good allowing properties, an attractive appearance and intrinsic value. Even though industrial demand continues to increase, significant amounts of silver are still used in coinage manufacturing in the form of commemorative coins; for example, the Canadian Olympic sets and the Bicentennial 40 per cent silver coins of 1976 in the United States. The following tables as reported by the Canadian Minerals Yearbook, 1975 lists the major end products of silver in the U.S.

Graph showing silver production and table showing uses of silver

Geminex’ 81 will feature numerous exhibits which illustrate the silver industry in Canada from the prospector to the refined bullion and the end products of the master silversmith. Some of the exhibitors include the Royal Ontario Museum, the Cranbrook Institute of Michigan, the Cobalt Museum, the University of Western Ontario, as well as displays from private collections. In addition to the many fine displays, presentations will be made by experts on investing in the precious metals with special reference to silver as an investment.