In 2003 the northern Ontario town of Cobalt marks the 100th anniversary of the discovery of a silver bonanza that to this day reverberates throughout the Canadian economy. In recognition of the impact of the events of a century ago, the Cobalt silver camp today is a protected Canadian government Heritage District and the community has been named “The Most Historic Town in Ontario.”
As a source of silver riches, the Cobalt area led the world in yielding a phenomenal 460 million ounces. That is about US$2 billion worth of silver at today’s prices. In Cobalt’s peak year, 1911, 34 mines produced some 30 million ounces,
Cobalt became the birthplace of a long wave of growth for the Canadian mining industry. The outflow of prospectors and capital from Cobalt’s silver riches also confirmed the enormous mineral wealth of Canada’s PreCambrian Shield. The growth of Canadian mining in turn established the base in both skills and finances to make the industry a world leader and today active on every continent.
James H. McKinley and Ernest J. Darragh were contractors providing lumber for a railway being pushed north through the thick Ontario bush. On August 7. 1903 the two partners were walking the right of way scouting for trees suitable for railway ties. As they passed through a rock cut their curiosity was aroused by a pink stain. They stopped to pick up a few loose rock pieces which were unusually heavy. A quick wash of the rock in a nearby river and then a bite into blackened metal flakes to find the flakes were soft. McKinley and Darragh wisely sent their rock samples for expert examination to two places—Ottawa and Montreal. The Ottawa “expert” reported bismuth; the Montreal assayer reported native silver assaying 4,000 ounces to the ton! The black colour of the soft metal was caused by “tarnished silver.”
Cobalt’s second silver discovery came a few weeks later, in mid-September. Fred LaRose was a blacksmith sharpening drill steels for the railway builders. He had earlier worked in Quebec mines. LaRose had a 50-50 partnership with his employer to keep a prospector’s eye open for minerals. LaRose also noticed a pink-stained rock and took samples which he thought contained copper. The sample was sent to Toronto where it was classified as rich in nickel.
Fortunately for Cobalt, for Canada and the mining industry the then newly-appointed first full-time Ontario Provincial Geologist, the famous Willett G. Miller, followed up on the nickel indication with a visit to the district. Miller found that LaRose had exposed four veins. Three of the veins contained massive native silver including, as he reported, chunks “as large as stove lids or cannon balls.” The pink colour and mistakenly-identified nickel showing was cobalt bloom.
Tom Hebert, a French-Canadian working on the railroad, prevailed on the geologist to examine a vein Hebert had found in the face of a cliff Miller reported:…“silver was lying in profusion at the base of the cliff.” Hebert’s discovery became the richest silver mine in the Cobalt camp and one of the most productive in the world. Affectionately labeled as “Big Nip,” this mine yielded more than 91 million ounces of silver over 40 years of production.