"A Grey Wee Town": An Environmental History of Early Silver Mining at Cobalt, Ontario (1)

By Baldwin, Douglas O.; Duke, David F. | Urban History Review, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

"A Grey Wee Town": An Environmental History of Early Silver Mining at Cobalt, Ontario (1)


Baldwin, Douglas O., Duke, David F., Urban History Review


Abstract

Cobalt was Ontario's first mining-boom town and at its height was the world's fourth-largest producer of silver. The initial discovery of silver in 1903 led to a rush that saw the town grow to several thousand inhabitants within a decade. In this period, land values rose to astronomical heights, thousands of claims were laid, and the town was hemmed in by mining operations. Initially the mines were relatively small-scale and used simple technology, but soon major mining interests impinged on the town geographically and severely affected it politically and economically. The mining-boom story of Cobalt takes the form of a conflict between the town council on the one hand and powerful mining concerns on the other. The former struggled to provide a reasonable standard of living for Cobalt's inhabitants, while the latter attempted to extract as much silver as quickly as possible from the surrounding land, from beneath neighbouring lakes, and even from within the townsite itself. In this struggle both the urban and natural environments suffered: financial constraints and near-unrestricted mining production resulted in a thoroughly inadequate urban infrastructure, especially in the provision of water for the town's inhabitants, while unhindered mining systematically deforested and denuded the land around the town and even drained the town's original main source of water, Cobalt Lake. Today, almost a century after the silver industry began to decline, the Cobalt region still displays the environmental impact of the mining activities of those early, rush years.

Resume

Cobalt a ete la premiere ville-champignon fondee sur l'exploitation miniere en Ontario. A son apogee, elle arrivait au quatrieme rang des plus importants producteurs d'argent du monde. La premiere decouverte de minerai d'argent, en 1903, a provoque une ruee qui a provoque une croissance demographique a Cobalt de plusieurs milliers d'habitants en une seule decennie. Pendant cette periode, la valeur des terrains a augmente de facon astronomique, des milliers de concessions minieres ont ete octroyees et la ville etait encombree par les operations minieres. Si les mines du debut etaient relativement de petite dimension et qu'elles employaient une technologie simple, d'importants interets miniers ont tot fait d'empieter sur la geographie de la ville, avec des consequences importantes sur les plans politique et economique. L'histoire de l'expansion miniere rapide de Cobalt prend la forme d'un conflit entre le conseil de ville, d'une part, et les grandes preoccupations des prospecteurs, d'autre part. Le premier se battait pour procurer aux habitants de Cobalt un standard de vie acceptable, tandis que les seconds essayaient d'extraire beaucoup d'argent le plus rapidement possible des terrains environnants, des sous-sols des lacs voisins et meme du sol de la ville elle-meme. L'environnement a la fois urbain et naturel a souffert de cette bataille: des contraintes financieres et une production miniere presque illimitee ont cause une infrastructure urbaine inadequate, en particulier a l'egard des ressources en eau potable pour les citadins. De plus, l'exploitation miniere sans vergogne a systematiquement detruit la foret environnante et denude les terres autour de la ville, allant jusqu'a drainer la plus importante source naturelle d'eau de la ville, le lac Cobalt. Aujourd'hui, presque un siecle apres le debut du declin de l'industrie de l'argent, la region de Cobalt porte toujours les stigmates des activities minieres de ces premieres annees de ruee.

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The word Klondike resonates in post-Confederation Canadian history. It is emblematic of Canada's moment as a frontier nation, and the men and women who undertook the arduous journey through the Chilcoot to the headwaters of the Yukon are rightly seen as heroic and driven individuals worthy of their special place in Canada's history. The Klondike rush resonates in us because of its promise of wealth and emancipation from want at the dawn of a new century: it is still celebrated in popular festivals in western and northern Canadian cities more than a hundred years after the rush itself ended.

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