Like the boy who cried wolf, the prospector who cried “gold!” had lost some of his power by the time gold was discovered at Porcupine in 1909. “The story sounds like similar stories that have started or rather added to other stampedes into gold camps,” The Globe (Toronto) pointed out in December of that year. The newspaper compared Porcupine to an earlier failed rush at Larder Lake: “The early history of Larder Lake country was such that it disappointed the public.” Even though gold existed at Larder, a lack of proper equipment meant that the “rush” quickly petered out. In addition, The Globe took the indifference of experienced mining men as a sign that the Porcupine finds were not worth getting worked up about yet: “It is a notable fact that right in the Cobalt camp there is not much enthusiasm just yet.”  “The Cobalt camp” consisted of a number of experienced prospectors, miners, and businessmen, many of whom had been educated abroad. Numerous well-publicised disappointments since the legendary gold rushes of the 1850s and 1860s had made everyone cautious about overenthusiastic reports of free gold.
Week two of #DHSI2016 (aka Nerd Camp) begins today at the University of Victoria – so it seems like a good time to reflect on my experiences in week 1.
I attended DHSI with the support of the Sherman Centre at McMaster, and I registered in “Geographical Information Systems in the Digital Humanities” taught by Ian Gregory and Cathryn Brandon.
A sense of community and general informality were my first impressions of DHSI. Our courses kicked off with a group get-together in one of UVic’s massive lecture halls where inside jokes, audience participation, and raucous laughter abounded. To my surprise, a survey of new vs. returning participants revealed that at least half of the people in the room were attending for the first time (myself included). After a few opening remarks we dispersed to our various classrooms to start learning. I found myself surrounded by a collection of fellow historians, digital librarians, english lit people, archaeologists, and linguists all hoping to figure out how to map their data (or, in the case of the librarians, figure out how to map other peoples’ data).
Ian Gregory is a no-nonsense, down-to-earth, and infinitely experienced instructor who had quite obviously spent many hours wrangling the enormous, vague, and unsuitable projects of humanists into quantifiable, coherent, and map-able data sets. We were to cover a semester’s worth of learning in five days, and we jumped right in.
In my overlay project, I’ve started noticing some major differences between the earliest maps and the modern images. My earlier post about “Lots and Lakes” talked about some of them, but more have appeared as I continue to add maps to my project. These differences, I suspect, will form the foundations for my inquiry.
One of the more interested changes is around the damming of the Mattagami river south of Timmins. I’m particularly interested in Wawaitin Falls, which significantly altered the size and shape of Kenogamissi Lake. The first power development here occurred in 1912, with subsequent developments over time, including additions in 1913 and 1918. Lets have a look!
I just got back from the (fabulous) 2016 DH workshops at Guelph. I worked with spatial data this week, but during one of my periodic raids of public government GIS data, I stumbled on the historical census for 1911. Out of curiosity, I put the census numbers for Porcupine into an excel chart to have a look at what was going on.
These numbers show that early residents at Porcupine were a mixed group, but consisted mostly of French and British stock. There were also strong Russian, Italian, and Austro-Hungarian contingents! I’m curious to see how these numbers compare with later years. Did more Scandinavian and/or Asian workers come to Porcupine as the big companies grew? Or did new employees remain mostly of British origin? Do the numbers respond to global events like economic depression, war, or technological innovation?
One of the first experiments I did with mapping showed some interesting results! Here is a map from 1911 overlayed on a modern satellite image from google earth.
I made it by taking this map:
and stretching it over google earth images of the Porcupine, like so:
Its rough, but I think there are two features of note:
1) The Lots: Check out how 1911 lots line up with modern environmental change (pit mines, etc). This is especially visible on the Dome and Dome extension properties.
2) The Lakes: Look at Gillies Lake (top left) – it’s changed a lot! There have also been other, new lakes created in old pit mines and tailings disposal areas (low right, below Dome).
Hundreds of people walked over Canada’s most valuable gold deposit before 1909 without ever knowing what lay beneath their feet. These people included First Nations, Hudson’s Bay Company employees and, most ironically, Geological Survey and Ontario Bureau of Mines explorers. Ontario Bureau of Mines explorers wrote that “the rock is barren,” or “this region will be a valuable addition to Ontario’s agricultural lands,” but failed completely to predict its impending future. Some speculated that “the region might be well worth prospecting,” but qualified heavily this statement by noting that they found “few traces of economic minerals” and “no deposit of value.”
The fact that nobody saw the Porcupine/Timmins region a potential mining camp serves as a potent reminder that mining was only one of many possible ways of using the land. Ontario Bureau of Mines descriptions demonstrate this particularly powerfully because Bureau explorers were in the business of envisioning Ontario landscapes as potential mines. Yet, reports covering the region did not emphasize mining at all, and instead focused on other potential uses (especially agriculture). Ontario Bureau of Mines reports from before 1909 demonstrate that, although the landscape is now irreversibly and powerfully associated with gold extraction, it had different purposes and fostered different human-environmental relationships in the past.
This is the first paragraph of my proposal, going to my committee this spring. The finished dissertation rarely looks like the original idea….which is lucky, because I definitely need a better title.
GLOBAL GOLD: AN ENVIRONMENTAL HISTORY OF PORCUPINE LAKE ONTARIO
The Cobalt Nugget newspaper in Porcupine Lake Ontario unwittingly heralded the arrival of a well-practiced era of ecological change when it declared the discovery of “Free Gold Over Big Area in Porcupine…Quartz Vein a Mile Long and Four Feet Wide!” in November of 1909. After this discovery, the Porcupine gold fields followed a predictable environmental pattern set by gold rushes that had preceded it in the nineteenth century in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, British Columbia, and South Africa. Like its predecessors, Porcupine advanced along a trajectory of deforestation, soil depletion, water-shed modification, human migration, fires, floods, and landslides as it moved from early surface mining to industrial extraction.
My dissertation argues that gold rushes followed predictable environmental patterns because they were transnational events resulting from shared late-nineteenth century relationships with nature. Gold rushes, and their associated ways of viewing and extracting natural resources, thrived globally after 1848 as part of the ascension of a nascent neo-European global industrial market economy which transcended recently-established national boundaries between former British colonies. Because gold rush historiography tends to be nationally inward looking, it has largely missed the connective nature of gold rushes physically linked by people, ideas, technology, and markets. Discrepancies between internationally shared ideas about gold-producing nature and the physical reality of diverse global environments produced conflict, environmental disasters, and technological failures at Porcupine and other global goldfields. Using the Porcupine as a case study, I argue that a combination of the established international context of gold extraction and the reality of a Northern Ontario environment came together over Porcupine to create the existing mining landscape.
The Porcupine rush is a useful case study because it occurred at a pivotal moment in Canadian industrialisation. On one hand, it embodied the culmination of fifty years of global environmental knowledge related to gold mining imported and applied in Ontario’s north. By the time gold was struck in 1909, the patterns associated with mineral rushes had been deeply entrenched on every continent. These patterns came to Porcupine in the minds and bodies of workers, mine owners, and regulators who descended on the landscape with the rush. For example, Porcupine’s major lodes were discovered by prospectors who had mined in the United States and California before finding themselves in Northern Canada. Miners used technology and chemicals invented, developed, and manufactured in older goldfields to extract gold from Ontario bedrock. In deciding how development would take place, regulators, miners, and mining companies drew on experience gained on other fields, and legislation was often copied directly from the law books of other gold-rush states.
On the other hand, the transnational exchange of ideas, technology, and legislation did not always occur smoothly. The physical environmental reality of northern Ontario shaped the knowledge and actions of participants in unprecedented ways. The years surrounding the Porcupine rush saw rapid Canadian development modernization with a particular emphasis on the north. While earlier global gold rushes experienced a slow transition over time from individualistic placer mining to large-scale industrial quartz and lode mining, Ontario was an industrial gold-field almost immediately. Small prospecting operations and companies rapidly gave way to “The Big Three:” McIntyre, Hollinger, and Dome. Many of the physical and intellectual artifacts from earlier rushes were to be discarded or modified at Porcupine – with specific consequences for local communities, miners’ bodies, and the physical environment.
In mixing international precedent with local needs, Porcupine gold rush participants laid the foundation for modern Canadian relationships with a non-renewable resource. I contend that mining landscapes in Canada are not the inevitable products of history, but the end result of a long series of human choices made within the context of the Northern Canadian environment during the earliest years of industrial mining. The history of Porcupine is a history of negotiation between global industrial forces and non-human nature in northern Canada at a crucial moment in national development.
In the spring of 1922, Dome mining company near Porcupine Lake Ontario secretly hired an undercover agent to spy on its employees. This man of mystery, known only to the documentary record as “A.F.,” was to investigate suspected “highgrading,” (gold theft). The company did not have any suspects. They did not even know how the gold was being stolen. All they knew was that distinctive Dome gold had somehow made it out of their mine and into the San Francisco Mint – outside of strictly legal channels.
In order to blend in with the miners and spot potential highgraders, A.F. had to become a miner himself. While the title “gold miner” might conjure the image of an independent self-made man making his fortune in the bush, this construction was radically out of date by the time A.F. started his work at Dome. By 1922, being a “gold miner” meant being a single cog in a great wheel of capital, investors, technology, and other employees. It meant that, instead of one man managing a piece of land from strike to exhaustion, geologists did the exploration, managers decided where to sink shafts, assays collected and melted down the gold, and the investors were the ones that made (or lost) their fortunes. Miners were left with the physical task of collecting ore and shuttling it through various industrial processes at an hourly rate.
Yet, as evidenced by the thefts A.F. investigated, gold’s allure, which had driven men to set off alone into the bush in hope of “striking it rich” all through the nineteenth century, did not necessarily disappear with industrialisation. Rather than on the bottoms of streams or the cracks of rocks, miners were picking gold off of the bottom of the expensive imported slime trays, out of the mesh linings of enormous company sluices, or from the bottom of carefully engineered cyanide vats. These opportunistic “highgraders” subverted the industry by piggybacking on its laboriously constructed infrastructure to pluck its hard-won products. Cases varying from individuals acting alone to complex multi-national (and even mafia-connected) conspiracy appeared regularly in the Porcupine Advance, the Cobalt Nugget and even turned up in Southern newspapers like The Globe and Mail.
In the case of the A.F. reports, corporate efforts to find and stem the flow of stolen gold from their properties have left us with a rich archival record. As he spied for the company, A.F. experienced first-hand the life and labour of an industrial miner. He also spoke to the miners on a daily basis and directly asked them about their complaints. The lengthy reports now sitting in Dome’s archival fonds might be read in any number of ways (a labour historian, for example, might pull different details from their pages than I have). For an environmental historian, they suggest some of the potential consequences, for both miners and management, of the arrival of industrial order in northern Ontario goldfields.
A.F. provides an intimate glimpse into the life and work of an industrial miner by giving a first-hand account of blue-collar work and leisure on a gold-bearing landscape. In doing so, A.F.’s papers highlight a severe disconnect between miners’ versus mine managers’ experiences and understandings of the local environment. This gap is most apparent in A.F.’s descriptions of food, work, recreation, and safety on Porcupine’s industrialized gold field. Continue reading