Cobalt Mining Legacy

Fires, Disease and Dangers all Around

Fires, disease, deaths underground, dirty water – all have played an important part in the history of Cobalt, but some may wonder why I would devote so much energy to writing about this. Why focus on this “darker” side of Cobalt’s history, both in this section and the section in the lives of miners in Cobalt?

It is easy to tell the feel good stories of history, but not so easy to tell, or to listen too, the darker stories. But to ignore these stories romanticizes history, painting a false picture of what life was like “back then”. More importantly, ignoring these stories also means ignoring those who suffered and died “back then”. While some profited and became wealthy from the riches of Cobalt’s mines, others paid a huge price, loosing their health, while never escaping poverty. And many died.

This telling of these darker stories of Cobalt is intended to help keep these stories alive, while honouring the memory of those that died in the fires, epidemics and mines that helped shaped Cobalt and its collective memory.

In the Rush to Mine, Why Plan?

When prospectors first started arriving in Cobalt in 1904, they simply got off the train, pitched their tents, and sent off in search of silver. Some, like William Trethewey, found it within hours. Others were not so lucky. But few gave much thought to where they pitched their tents, where they dumped their garbage, or where, quite frankly, where they went to the bathroom. Most thought it would not last, that it was all just temporary and silver would be exhausted within a short time. Besides, if it did last, then someone else could do the planning. These guys had something more important to worry about – silver.

But, as summer turned into autumn that year, some of those in town built cabins to replace their tents. And these were placed as haphazardly as the tents that had gone before. A pattern was set that can still be seen today. Many roads still follow the claim boundaries and homes still seem placed almost haphazardly through town. In the early days, town planning was something of an afterthought in Cobalt. A journalist travelling with the Prince of Wales when he visited Cobalt in 1919 summed things up very well when he wrote:

“Cobalt is a fantasy town. It is a Rackham drawing with all its little grey houses perched on queer shelves and masses of greeny grey rock. The streets are whimsical. They wander up and down levels and in and out of houses, and sometimes they are roads and sometimes they are stairs.” Cobalt, he added, was surrounded by “greeny grey slimes, mill refuse, mills and corrugated sheds. Cobalt is careless how it built itself. Indifference to planning is what makes the place.”

Cobalt was in many ways a town of sharp contrasts, particularly in the early days. As described in the section “Life in the Silver City”, the town had an opera house and theatres that attracted international talent. It had a stock exchange and stores where you could buy all the latest. Yet in the early years the sewer system was almost non-existent and not until 1910 did the town have an acceptable water supply. It was a town built on fabulous riches, famous around the world, yet many of its inhabitants - underpaid miners - were poor. Most of the people who made their fortune in Cobalt lived elsewhere, some as close as Haileybury, some as far away as the United States. In those early days living conditions in Cobalt were in some ways little better than those in medieval Europe, or slums on the outskirts of a modern city in the developing world, yet the town had the semblance of a modern city of the frontier.

The lack of planning and the haphazard growth of Cobalt were due to a number of factors, including the attitudes of those early inhabitants about planning, and the fact that the growth of the town was so explosive. Planning was made even more complicated because Cobalt was not a townsite on the outskirts of a mining camp – mining took place within and under the town itself, and along its margins. Those mining companies within town were quick to assert what they saw as their rights. As if these factors were not enough, the town itself had a very small tax base, despite the incredible riches that gave birth to the town. It is almost unbelievable, but from its creation the town was always in debt and had little money to invest in infrastructure systems like water, sewers or a proper fire department.

The explosive growth of Cobalt really began in the spring of 1905, with the first wave of fortune seekers heading north on the heels of those few that had made the trek in 1904. In May of 1905 there were perhaps half a dozen buildings in town, but by September there were over 600 people making Cobalt home. By the spring of 1906 there were about 1500 residents, including miners as well as merchants, bankers, doctors, lawyers, and various tradesmen to support the mining industry, such as assayers to analyse rock samples. Residents also included women and children since many of the men who moved to Cobalt took their families with them. By the summer of 1905 many businesses were already established in town, including 2 banks, several restaurants, a dozen general stores, a barbershop and 2 drugstores.

Within a few years the population of Cobalt was perhaps as much as 15,000 people, with others living in outlying communities like the one which grew up around the mines at Kerr Lake.

This growth was completely unplanned. The Town of Cobalt was not even established until 1906, and even then its hands were often tied due to lack of money and conflict with the mining companies in town. With no one in charge, so to speak, there was no one to take care of essentials like sewage and drinking water. A reporter wrote in late 1905 that:

“the filth and refuse, or rather the essence thereof, from Cobalt practically drains in to the lake. The town is innocent of even an attempt at sanitary arrangements, which, at this early stage in the game, and until serious epidemic has wrought havoc, is, perhaps, to be expected.”

The provincial medical inspector also visited town that year, and was shocked by what he saw. People were dumping garbage wherever they wanted, drinking water was being drawn from contaminated springs, Cobalt Lake was contaminated from the sewage and there was only 1 outhouse for every 25 residents. The inspector ordered a cleanup and posted warning signs around the lake, but there was no improvement. In February 1906 he returned and reported that:

“Garbage, wash water, urine and faeces were all mixed together in frozen heaps out in the open, on top of rock practically bare in its greater area. The cold has been steady so far and all is frozen, but when the thaws come the accumulations will all be washed into the valleys and the lake, polluting all water sources. If nothing is done, then in all human probability there will be a severe outbreak of disease in and about the settlement”.

Not a pretty picture for a town making headlines across the continent because of the fabulous wealth in the rocks beneath it, and touted in 1906 in the New York Times as “having all the sensations of the most modern city on the continent”.

Despite all the talk, there was little improvement. In the summer of 1909 a committee was appointed by the Cobalt Board of Trade to examine the sanitary conditions. By all accounts they reported few improvements compared to conditions in 1906.

Not until 1910 did concrete efforts begin to improve the sewage and water situation in Cobalt. In the end, it was the mining companies themselves that stepped in and offered a solution that the town itself could not afford. The Cobalt Water Commission was established to finance a waterworks system to draw clean water from Sasaginaga Lake and distribute it through the town. At the same time, the shores of Sasaginaga Lake were protected from any development to ensure that the waters of the lake remained clean and safe. To this day Cobalt draws its drinking water from the clean, clear waters of Sasaginaga Lake. Later the same year, the town received $50,000 from the provincial government to complete a sewer system. The situation began to improve in Cobalt, but sadly, as described below, a heavy price was paid by the citizens of Cobalt before these measures were finally put into place.

It is perhaps surprising that the mining companies themselves stepped up to help solve the water problem, since they themselves were a source of conflict in town. In the early years the town had a difficult relationship with the mines, particularly since the mines operated within the town limits themselves. The town owed its existence to the mines, but at the same time, the mines often acted as if the town and the residents were squatters. All of the land within the town limits was staked for mining and some companies acted with little regard for the residents and businesses of Cobalt.

The Coniagas Mine, in particular, was a thorn in the side of those trying to improve the town. Perhaps Coniagas was a problem because it was practically right in the middle of town. Perhaps it was a problem because of the indifferent attitudes of the mine owner and manager. Whichever the case may be, Coniagas was a problem, and it illustrates how complicated planning could be in Cobalt.

In 1908, the Town had to resort to legal action to try and stop Coniagas from dumping their tailings too close to Argentite Street. Argentite was a main shopping area in town, yet tailings often flowed down the street and sometimes flooded out some of the homes. In 1909 the Town and Coniagas were at odds again. Coniagas refused to allow a sewer line to be built near the mine unless the mine could have the right to destroy it if necessary to run the mine, without being liable to repair it. In 1914, something almost harder to believe even than these stories took place. Coniagas built a shaft right in the middle of downtown, on Silver Street. The shaft still stands today, and is part of the Heritage Trail, and is now a restaurant. A waste rock pile extended out from the headframe, very close to the homes and businesses. Soon the waste rock pile approached the Jamieson Meat Market. Incredibly, Coniagas sent a letter to Jamieson, informing him that it was his responsibility to build a trestle to divert the waste rock pile away from his business. He refused, and the meat market was eventually buried under the ever expanding waste rock pile!!

In another incredible case, the Imperial Bank of Canada was evicted from its location on the Square, right in the heart of town, in 1908. A mining company then set up a diamond drill in the Square and operated it for several months!

Matters were made even more complicated, particularly in the north end of town, since many homes and businesses were built on property held by Coniagas and the Nipissing Mining Company. These companies made it clear that those living there were living on borrowed time and likely to be evicted at any time. In October 1908 Coniagas warned those living on its claim area that it was expanding its prospecting operations and that it required “complete and uninterrupted use of the whole of the surface area of said location, not only for prospecting upon the surface and underground, but for stacking and storing the Company’s products and waste.” As a result, residents and businesses, including some downtown businesses on the Square, were faced with the possibility of moving with little or no notice, and no compensation from the company.

With companies operating in such a cavalier manner, and with such uncertainty, it is little wonder that people were not prepared to invest in infrastructure to improve conditions in town.

But, credit must be given where credit is due. If the companies had not stepped up and financed the town waterworks, it is difficult to know what the town would have done. The town simply had no money. The Town of Cobalt was incorporated in 1906, but from the outset it has a very small tax base. Initially, only a couple of hundred people were on the tax role. Land held by the mining companies but not being used for mining could only be taxed as agricultural land, at a rate of a mere 10 dollars per acre. But on this “agricultural land” there were many residents who were not taxed. Despite negotiating a deal with the province to get a greater share of taxes on mining profits, the town’s finances remained very weak. By 1909, the town’s income was $50,000, but it spent $66,000. By 1911, the year that mines shipped 30,000,000 ounces (get dollar value) of silver, the Silver Capital of Canada was $30,000 in debt.

Thus, even when the town did try to improve conditions for its residents, its efforts were often blocked by the mining companies, and it never had the financial resources to pay for proper planning and infrastructure. It was always an uphill battle.

The Price of Poor Planning

The people of Cobalt have paid a heavy price for this lack of planning. Early observers warned not only of the risk of disease due to the poor sanitary conditions, but also the risk of fire, due to large number of tightly packed wooden buildings, and inadequate fire fighting equipment.

Disaster first struck in 1906. In that year, the town experienced its first of several outbreaks of disease. That outbreak led for the formation of the Town Council. Also in that year, there was a dynamite explosion in an explosives magazine in the middle of town. This explosion started a fire that some feared would spread rapidly, causing similar explosions in other magazines. Men fought hard to put out the flames, and fortunately, they did not reach any of the other magazines. But the fire destroyed 65 homes before the rains came and doused the flames. It could have been much worse. That same year, a serious fire on the Nipissing fire caused $350,000 worth of damage.

In 1907, there was an outbreak of smallpox in town.

The summer of 1909, disaster struck again. On July 2 of that year, a fire broke out in a restaurant in the north end of town, a part of the town known as Frenchtown. The fire jumped to a boarding house across the street, then quickly spread among the closely packed wooded houses. The first raced south towards downtown, unhindered the limited equipment and poor water pressure with which crews battled the fire. It advance was finally halted when crews blasted a firebreak using the ready supplies of dynamite in town. However, the fire left almost half the town in ashes, and left almost 2000 people homeless.

As serious as the fire was, it set the stage for an even greater disaster to follow. The homeless lived out of tents for much of the summer, and having lost so much, many were unwilling or unable to pay the high costs for the clean water being brought into town. Instead many turned to the contaminated streams for their drinking water and trusted in local home remedies for ward of disease. These remedies, long since sharply criticized by the health inspector, were no match for this decline in the already terrible state of sanitation in town. The inevitable happened. Later that summer, typhoid broke out in town. It was to become the worst typhoid outbreak on Ontario’s history. The town was woefully unprepared. In fact, at first, astoundingly, the town tried to deny there was a problem, out of concern for its reputation. An offer to ship drinking water was even turned down. The only hospital in town was a small hospital operated by the Temiskaming Mine Managers’ Association, that was only supposed to be used by mine employees. There were not enough doctors or nurses either.

At the suggestion of a veteran of the Boer War who was working for a company making mining machinery, military surplus hospital tents and supplies were purchased. Carpenters and electricians from the mines helped set up this makeshift field hospital. Advertisements were placed in Toronto, and 100 nurses were recruited to work in these field hospitals to help treat the many sick. The Mine Managers supplied food for the hospitals, and provided room and board for the nurses. Eventually, the outbreak was brought under control, but not before 1119 people were treated in hospital. Many more may have been treated at home, and not included in that total. Tragically, the outbreak claimed 111 lives. Deaths that could easily have been prevented.

In the wake of the outbreak there was plenty of passing of blame and probably more than a few “I told you so’s”. Provincial health inspectors came see the situation first hand in September of that year and received a hostile reception. The inspectors ended up prosecuting and fining about 50 people, including 2 town counsellors and the chairman of the Cobalt Board of Health. The chairman of the Ontario Board of Health concluded that the outbreak could have been prevented “with the exercise of ordinary precautions on the part of the citizens and a proper oversight of the local Boards of Health concerned.” Some however, were more blunt. One nurse was quoted in the Daily Nugget as stating that many of the deaths during the outbreak “were nothing short of manslaughter.”

With the establishment of the Cobalt Water Commission, and the construction of water supply and sewer systems, the sanitary conditions did finally begin to improve after 1909. There were no further serious outbreaks of disease, though Cobalt, as with all of Canada, was hard hit by the Spanish flu outbreak the followed the end of the First World War.

Cobalt did remain under treat from fires. Mercifully, Cobalt was spared from damage in a huge fire the destroyed much of Haileybury and several other communities to the north in 1922.

Cobalt was not alone in being struck by serious fires in the early part of the 20th century. Large fires cursed many other towns and cities as well at that time. However, fire again struck in Cobalt in much more recent memory. That was a fire from which some though the struggling town would never recover.

By 1977 Cobalt was much in decline. The glory days were long past, and while there were still mines operating in the area at that time, the town was much smaller and less vital than it had once been. That year a tragedy struck that threatened the very existence of the town. May of that year started out hot and dry. By the Victoria Day long weekend, the ground was already dry. On May 23, two men were tearing down a couple of old buildings on Lang Street. One took a smoke break, then tossed away the spent cigarette before getting back to work. Within minutes the cigarette had ignited some debris behind the building, and in no time at all the building was engulfed in flames. Fire crews from Cobalt and Coleman Township were called in, but the fire quickly spread north along Lang Street with the strong winds blowing that day. As the fire spread north into Frenchtown, fire crews from Haileybury, New Liskeard and Dymond Township joined the fight. Crews even raced across from the Quebec side of Lake Temiskaming. They had not been called in, but had seen the billowing smoke and came to help. Crews also came from the Sherman Mine in Temagami. As the intense fire spread, cinders blowing north started smaller fires in advance of the main fire. A brush fire started near Mileage 104, and there were fears that if the fire jumped to North Cobalt then it would spread uncontrolled into Haileybury.

The crews fighting the fire that day fought a hard but losing battle. Like those who had fought the 1909 fire so long before, their efforts were hampered by low water pressure, despite their much more modern equipment. However, those crews had an ace up their sleeve unimagined by those who fought the 1909 fire – airpower. Several hours after the fire broke out, crews called in an airstrike – by water bombers from the Ontario Government. It was an unconventional way to put out such a fire. The bomber crews were used to fighting forest fires. But the bombers did their job. The first waves attacked the advancing northern edge of the fire, and successive waves attacked further south. By early evening the fire was under control, and the threat to North Cobalt and Haileybury had passed. The tired groundcrews were able to move into the fire zone and bring the remnants of the blaze under control.

By nightfall most of the fires were out, and the residents moved in to see the extent of the damage. A quarter of the town had been levelled, 140 buildings destroyed, and 459 people left homeless. It was a huge blow for the town. But the fire destroyed more than buildings. The closeknit community of Frenchtown was broken apart, as people moved into other parts of town. Some of the spirit that made Cobalt what is was fell to the flames the hot spring day too. Other fires before and since had taken other landmark buildings too, one at time – eroding the links to the past, threatening the collective memory.

Despite these tragedies, the ongoing threats from environmental pollutants, and the severely eroded economy of Cobalt, the town and its people soldier on. Resilient, stoic, and ever hopeful of the new find, the collective spirit and memory of the town lives on. Tragedy and triumph have shaped this spirit. Today, many in town pin their hopes for the future on tourism, others on diamonds, silver or riches from the ground. Above all though, Cobalters remain proud, and refuse to let their town die.

In the meantime, Fred Larose, a blacksmith working on the railway, had a small cabin at the north end of the lake, near the Mile 103 post of the line. Larose had noticed cobalt bloom on the rocks in the area. To quote Larose "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." Like McKinley and Darragh, Larose had no idea what the metal was – he thought it might be copper – but he was smart enough to recognize that there was something of value in the rock, and staked a claim.

A short time later Larose was in Mattawa, on his way home to Hull, Quebec. He stopped by a store owned by Noah and Henry Timmins, who were also part time prospectors. Larose showed Noah the sample – Henry was in Montreal at the time. Noah too did not know what the minerals in the rock were, but he too recognized an opportunity when he saw it. He sent a message to Henry and a few days later Henry was in Hull, and offered Larose $3,500 to purchase half the rights to his claim.