The mining camp came into existence almost overnight with the discovery of rich silver veins at and close to the surface. It has been said that all that is necessary to disclose a new mineral area in Ontario is to build a railway into the wilderness. For example, the discovery of copper and rich nickel deposits on the right of way as the Canadian Pacific Railway construction passed through what is now Sudbury.
Settlement in the area around the north end of Lake Temiskaming had been mainly due to farming and forestry up until the discovery of silver in the Cobalt Mining Camp. The Ontario Government had determined to connect older Ontario with the extensive tracts of fertile land north of Lake Temiskaming, and so constructed the Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Railway.
In 1903 the line was being laid down some four miles west of Lake Temiskaming and south of the township of Bucke. On the 7th of August, two lumbermen, James H. McKinley and Ernest J. Darragh, were cruising the Booth limits for tie timber, and rounding the southeast end of Long Lake (renamed Cobalt Lake) their eyes were caught by the gleam of some flakes, apparently of metal. On examining the spot more carefully, they picked up some loose pieces of rock, which appeared to be unusually heavy, and in washing some of the gravel from the beach they found more of these flakes or leaves. Testing them with their teeth, they found the flakes to retain their tooth marks, and moreover they could bend them. Sending their samples to Dr. Milton Hersey, a well known assayer in Montreal, they received the astonishing news that what they had submitted was native silver, and that the samples assayed carried 4,000 ounces to the ton.
McKinley and Darragh applied at once to the Government for a mining lease, which they received in due course, but did little or nothing on the claim until the following spring. Further prospecting was done and a small plant erected. The claim was dubbed by the surveyor "J. B. 1 ", the first mining claim in the new field. Later the lease was merged into a grant in fee simple, the grantees being the two partners, together with Robert Gorman and William Anderson. The rich and well-known McKinley-Darragh mine was developed on this claim.
The second find was made by Alfred LaRose*, a blacksmith who worked his forge beside the grade of the new railway, about a mile north of the McKinley Darragh claims. With the consent of his foreman, Duncan McMartin, he was accustomed in his leisure hours to poke about in the rocks nearby. Having had a little experience in prospecting, he thought he might find minerals.
LaRose tells the story: "One evening I found a float, a piece as big as my hand, with little sharp points all over it. I say nothing, but come back and the next night I take a pick and look for the vein. The second evening I found it; you can see it on the side of the hill now. Then I go to the boss, Duncan McMartin, and show him the vein and we stake two claims, one in his name and another in mine. We had one-half a share in each."
(*Although he is referred to as Fred LaRose, his application for the claim was signed "Fred Rose", and in the claim grant he is called "Frederick LaRose", His real name seems to have been Alfred LaRose.)
It is to be noted that, in his application to the Department, LaRose describes his discovery as one of copper. T. W. Gibson, Director of the Bureau of Mines, happened to be in the neighbourhood at the time and was shown a sample of the mineral by Arthur Ferland, keeper of the Matabanick Hotel, Haileybury. Ferland regarded it as copper ore, owing to its reddish colour, but did not care to part with the sample, so Gibson was given another specimen by J. F. Whitson, of the Surveys branch, Crown Lands Department, also present at the time.
On returning to Toronto, the specimen was recognized to be kupfer nickel or niccolite, a rich ore of nickel. Gibson sent it to Dr. W. G. Miller, the Provincial Geologist for further identification.
Gibson instructed provincial geologist Willet Green Miller to visit the site and make a report, stating in his letter "it would be rather remarkable if our nickel deposits turn out to have a wider range than has hitherto been supposed, especially if the new outcrop should be a large one containing ore of so high a grade. "
Evidently the Bureau of Mines was not aware of the silver find made by McKinley and his partner a few weeks before. The prospect appeared for nickel, not silver. Miller visited the site during the last days of October 1903 to determine the nature of the deposits. Openings had been made on four veins, from three of which large lumps of a heavy metal had been taken. The prospectors were told that they were rich silver ore with nickel as a minor constituent. In view of the fact that the new silver field was several hundred miles distant from Silver Islet, it is worthy of remark that the minerals it proved to contain were almost precisely the same in range and character.
Miller, who rarely displayed much enthusiasm, says in his report that while the specimens he had received represented high class ore, he hardly expected to find ore of the character and in the quantity which he saw on his arrival. Pieces of native silver "large as stove lids or canonballs" lay on the ground, as well as cobalt bloom* and niccolite. The indications were for a silver field of very unusual richness, and probably of considerable extent. Miller carefully collected specimens of the rich silver ores and also of cobalt and nickel. This unique collection is still to be seen in the show cases of the Department of Mines, Toronto. No general examination was possible until the following spring, when it was shown that the veins already found were but the forerunners of many other veins spread over an area as large as the township of Coleman, six miles square.
The railway soon became the lifeline of the mining boom that saw the 160 acre farm lots converted into very productive mine claims and the population of the Town of Cobalt explode. Over the next sixty years, the mines of Cobalt Camp shipped about 1,185,000 tons of silver high grade and concentrates and produced over 420,500,000 ounces of silver worth more that $264,000,000.
The wealth produced by the Cobalt Camp mines fueled mining exploration, development and mining techniques in other locations in northern Ontario, Quebec, as well as to national and international operations.
The rich local history tells the story of the hard work, gambles, and fortunes made in the Cobalt Camp.
21 Silver Street
Box 309, Cobalt, ON P0J 1C0
Tel: c/o 705-679-5555