Joseph Tyrrell has been variously described as the doyen of Canadian mining men, the dean of mining, the man who conquered the Canadian North, Canada’s senior geologist, and the last of the great breed of mapmaking explorers and first of the modern mineralfinders and technologists. His life spanned the 19th and 20th centuries and embodies the romantic adventures of the former, and the industrial developments of the latter.
Tyrrell was born November 1, 1858, in Weston, Ontario. As a child, he contracted scarlet fever, which impaired his hearing. Educated at Weston High School and Upper Canada College, Tyrrell graduated in Arts from the University of Toronto in 1881. Advised by his physician to work outdoors, he acquired a position with the Canadian Geological Survey.
In the spring of 1883, Tyrrell went on his first GSC expedition to the unmapped western wilderness. In 1884, he led his own expedition, covering 116,500 sq. km. of Alberta, in what is now known as the Badlands. There, on June 9, in Red Deer Valley, he first discovered dinosaur bones. On June 12, he discovered coal deposits that later made coal mining an important industry around Drumheller.
In the summer of 1893, he set out on an expedition across the Barren Lands, from Lake Athabaska to Hudson’s Bay, through northern Manitoba to Winnipeg, and back home. It was a remarkable feat as his team travelled by canoe, dog sled and snowshoe, covering 5,150 km, 2,655 of which had never been surveyed. He returned to the Barren Lands the next summer, bringing back informative and accurate maps containing a wealth of information on a previously unknown part of Canada.
Tyrrell also led an exploration party to Manitoba, and reported: “The rocks proved to be rather interesting.” As it turned out, they were part of the Huronian formations that continue to support the mining industries of Thompson and Flin Flon. In 1897, he presented a paper on his theory of glaciation at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Debated extensively before it found universal acceptance, his theory advanced the community’s knowledge of the prehistoric development of the continent.
Tyrrell resigned from the GSC in 1898 and joined the search for gold in the Yukon. In 1907, he set up a consulting business in Toronto, identifying Noah Timmins’ Hollinger mine as a good investment for his first client. In 1920, he joined the board of Harry Oakes’ Lake Shore gold mine.
In 1924, Tyrrell heard that Beaver Consolidated Mining did not have enough funds to drill and replace ore being depleted at its Kirkland Lake gold mine. Believing that ore from a neighboring mine trended onto the Kirkland Lake property at depth, he put up some of his own money for the drill program. His faith was rewarded and the mine produced until 1960, turning out over $39 million worth of gold.
In addition to his work as an explorer, cartographer, geologist and mining consultant, Tyrrell published many articles on geological, mining and historical subjects. His wife, Mary Edith, was the founder of the Women’s Association of the Mining Industry of Canada, and became its first president in 1921. The organization, which provides scholarships for earth science students and other valuable support for the mining industry, recently celebrated its 75th anniversary.