August 2014

Forges du Saint-Maurice

A troubled history

By Jakub Stachurski

Financing, processing and human resource problems associated with developing projects are not new to the mining industry. Les Forges du Saint-Maurice in Quebec took nearly 200 years of starts and stops to move the iron ore deposit from discovery to production. Nonetheless, all the difficulty would prove worthwhile for New France and, later, Canada.

In 1541, Jacques Cartier first surveyed the areas near what is now known as Trois-Rivières, Quebec, for precious metals and found “a fine mine of the best iron ore in the world.” But it was not until 1670 that serious investigations into the prospects of mining the deposit began, when the first intendant of New France, Jean Talon, oversaw further testing on ore samples in the area. “As the expense of a forge and its furnaces is not inconsiderable, every precaution must be taken not to embark lightly on such a venture,” he wrote, underscoring the capital investment that would be required to develop the resources of the area, an amount of money that could not be provided by private interests in what was then New France. Additionally, there was a dearth of skilled labour in the French colony that would be required to go forward with any mining project.

Despite the success of the initial tests, in which Talon’s ironmaster extracted approximately 800 tonnes of ore, work on the future forge would not go forward until many years later. In the intermittent period, France’s iron industry experienced demand shortages and, in 1717, the Duc d’Orléans dismissed the proposed iron mining project that Jean Talon had researched, stating in reference to iron ore that, “There is enough in France to supply all of Canada.”

In the subsequent years, the demand for iron grew and, in 1730, the King of France provided local merchant François Poulin de Francheville with an advance of 10,000 livres to mine the iron ore deposits of the Trois-Rivières area and establish a forge along the Saint-Maurice River. In 1733, Francheville used the money to launch the Compagnie des Forges du Saint-Maurice. Later that year, however, the 41-year-old Francheville died.

After his death, François Pierre Olivier de Vézin, a French ironmaster, was sent to Canada to assess Francheville’s work on the Forges du Saint-Maurice. On August 20, 1738, after subsequent technical snags and amendments to Francheville’s original design, Vézin and his crew managed to fire up the blast furnace and begin successful bar iron production.

Yet, rumours of financial mismanagement and a lack of skilled iron workers in the new French colony plagued the operation, and it was not long before the Forges du Saint-Maurice went bankrupt. Vézin resigned from the mining project in 1741, and subsequent reports pinned the blame on his financial mismanagement and lack of experience, as he was only 28 years old when he arrived in New France to oversee the project. Still, during his three years in charge at Saint-Maurice, Vézin had overseen the construction of a secondary forge as well as numerous necessary workshops and adjacent structures that would last another 150 years after his departure. The forges, taken over by France following the bankruptcy, were the foundation for shipbuilding in the French colony and a vital resource for its defence against the British.

The forges would remain profitable for more than 100 years, providing the economic foundation for a community of 425 residents at its peak, with new generations of ironworkers learning the craft from the previous generation. Eventually, the once state-of-the-art and technologically advanced forges became bygone relics from a previous era and the operation shut down for good in March 1883.

Today, buildings from les Forges du Saint-Maurice are preserved as a national historic site and serve as a centuries-old reminder of the difficult path to production that miners face.

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