Cobalt Mining Legacy

Headframes – Markers of the Past

Several mine headframes still stand above the trees and other buildings in and around Cobalt. Many have been lost, and many that remain are now in poor condition, while others have been lovingly preserved. Some visitors passing through town, not appreciating these rough structures, may wonder why they have not long since been torn down. Some may see them as eyesores, or worse, safety hazards. Indeed, these structures and the deep mine shafts that they top can be hazardous to those not careful. Hence the headframes are now fenced, to keep out the foolish and adventurous. Abandoned mines can kill.

But what the passing visitor viewing these “eyesores” may not realize is the essential role headframes play in the collective memory of a mining town like Cobalt. A headframe is a simple structure, essentially serving as the top of an elevator shaft, allowing miners to be transported deep into the mine, and back to the surface again, and also allowing ore and waste rock to be transported to the surface. Yet headframes are often the only visible sign of the work that goes on deep beneath them. And that is the key to their importance to the town like Cobalt.

I love history – the stories of the past fascinate me. Visiting old forts, battlefields, and museums is a favourite pastime. Some may not equate a headframe with a place like Vimy Ridge, or Juno Beach, or Queenston Heights. But the spirits of the past are alive in all these places. Old mines, like old forts, provide a sense of place and a sense of past, and present. You can read about history in books, but to stand in a place of history is to bring the past to life.

In the book “Industrial Cathedrals of the North”, Cobalt author and now Member of Parliament, Charlie Angus, wrote that “Miners talk of specific mines the ways sailors talk about individual ships, the way veterans invoke particular battles.” In talking about the significance of headframes, Angus wrote that “when a new headframe is erected, it stands as a testament to the triumph and heartbreak of transforming the hard rock of the Canadian Shield into treasure”. Acknowledging that mining is a dangerous business, and that sadly many have lost their lives working underground, Angus added that “When a mine shuts down, the headframe remains as a cenotaph. Tear down this cenotaph and you attack a common memory.”

I think this captures the essence of why Cobalters want to see their headframes preserved, or be allowed to fall naturally to the ravages of time, rather than be torn down as part of efforts to clean up and reclaim the area. For to tear down the headframes is to erase history, and remove a powerful sense of identity.

This website includes many pictures of the headframes that still stand in the Cobalt area. But to truly appreciate them, you need to stand in their shadows, listen to the wind whistling through their cladding and timbers, and imagine the miners emerging from them, tired, dirty and hungry, at the end of a long dangerous shift underground. When in Cobalt, take the time to visit a headframe - let the spirits of the past speak, and honour the miners who gave their lives for buried treasure.

Photo Essays

More pictures of headframes in the Cobalt area, as well as some pictures of open mine workings and pictures taken underground in the Colonial Mine are included in the following photo essays. These collections of photos give a better sense of these structures, and of the conditions in which the miners worked.