Cobalt Ontario: Canada's silver town

Cobalt was the birthplace of Canadian hard rock mining

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Cobalt, Ontario, played an important role in the evolution of the mining and financial industries in Canada. Silver was discovered in the area in the summer of 1903, during construction of the Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Railway. Soon, Cobalt was a boom town, as the district became one of the largest silver-producing areas in the world, eventually yielding a total of 460 million ounces (more than 13 million kilograms) of silver. That’s almost $16-billion worth at today’s silver prices (June 2011). The peak year was 1911 when 34 mines produced about 30-million ounces (about 850,000 kilograms) of silver.

map of ontario showing point locations of cobalt and waterloo

The location of the town of Cobalt.

The silver rush extended far beyond Cobalt. At its height in 1906, investment in mines, operating or prospective, was estimated to be $75-million. That year in New York, for three days in a row, mounted police were called upon to clear a street of people who were frantically trying to buy Cobalt mining shares from curbside brokers. People were attracted from around the world to seek their fortunes in Cobalt, including Russians, Poles, Chinese, Greeks, Italians and Finns. The population of the town, and surrounding area, went from 100, in 1903, to a peak of 10,000 in 1909 (compared to 1,223 in 2006).

Cobalt is called the birthplace of Canadian hard rock mining because technology developed in Cobalt was later applied to other mine sites. Hard rock mining refers to the extraction of metals and gems from, literally, hard rocks, while soft rock mining refers to the mining of soft materials, such as tar sands, coal or salt. Innovations included developments in silver ore extraction and a compressed-air power system which took advantage of the power of the nearby Ragged Chutes waterfall on the Montreal River. The Haileybury School of Mines, in nearby Haileybury, has been training mining professionals from around the world since Cobalt’s heyday.

The wealth extracted from Cobalt helped drive the Ontario economy in the early 20th century and the business activity associated with Cobalt mining helped build up the Canadian banking industry and the Toronto stock exchange.

By the late 1920s the boom was winding down and Cobalt started to decline. Mining was revived in the 1950s then slowly dropped off, so that there are no active mines now. However, one mill still operates and there is exploration in the area.

The Cobalt silver boom has left a rich legacy of old buildings and mining structures, leading to its recognition by TV Ontario as Ontario’s Most Historic Town and designation as a National Historic Site.

2 men wearing hard hats and other equipment work together in a mine tunnel underground

Loading an ore cart in a Cobalt mine. Photo courtesy of Historic Cobalt.

 

man places detonator into rock wall of mine tunnel

Loading explosives into a blast hole. Photo courtesy of Historic Cobalt.