Canada’s enviable reputation for engineering excellence owes much to Roland Kilborn, whose vision, technical skills and entrepreneurial spirit led to the founding of one of the nation’s foremost engineering consulting companies. Since its inception in 1947, Kilborn Engineering has designed and built some of North America’s largest mines and become an industry leader in gold milling, potash refining and uranium processing.
Kilborn was born to missionary parents in Chengtuz, a city in China’s Szechwan province. He returned to Canada for his early education, and entered Queen’s University in 1923. He obtained an undergraduate degree in civil engineering in 1927 and was accepted into the Association of Professional Engineers of Ontario in both civil and mechanical engineering in 1931.
After two decades of working and gaining experience at a variety of mining projects in northern Ontario, Kilborn decided to form his own mining engineering firm, a bold move given the cyclical nature of the industry. To compensate, he wisely expanded his organization’s scope to embrace municipal engineering, including water and sewage treatment plants and flood control dams.
Even as a struggling entrepreneur, Kilborn’s professionalism and integrity were remarkable. He once tore up a contract to build a processing plant for a Quebec mine when the owner discovered that reserves could not support such a facility.
In the 1950s, Kilborn’s fledgling company took part in Canada’s uranium boom, supplying services to almost half this new industry. During this period, he recruited the nation’s most talented engineers, several of whom went on to make significant technical contributions to the industry.
His firm’s achievements in the mining industry are numerous, chief among them Canada’s largest open-pit coal mine and wash plant, in British Columbia, and most of the country’s asbestos mines and plants.
Kilborn Engineering also built more than 60 percent of Canada’s potash refinery capacity, in Saskatchewan and New Brunswick.
In addition, the company designed and built a number of gold mines and plants in North America, including two in Ontario’s Hemlo camp, the Goldstrike and Meikle mines in Nevada, and the Casa Berardi mine in Quebec. Some of these mines were metallurgically complex, requiring the understanding and application of complex technologies to extract gold, a task at which Kilborn Engineering excelled.
The firm’s base metals achievements are equally impressive, and include the Mattabi mine in Ontario, the Nanisivik mine in the Northwest Territories, the Ivan copper mine in Chile, the Namew Lake mine in Manitoba and the Selbaie mine in Quebec. In Nova Scotia, the firm built Canada’s only primary tin mine and mill.
Through feasibility studies and due diligence reports, Kilborn helped finance many mines in Canada and throughout the world.
Kilborn Engineering flourished under its leader’s vision, commitment to quality and excellent relationships with employees and clients, even after his untimely death in 1959.
By 1982, the company had grown to more than 1,500 employees, with offices across Canada and in Denver, Colorado. It is now part of the SNC-Lavalin organization.