Dec '09/Jan '10

Fools for gold

The gold mining mavericks of Timmins

By G. Woodford


Sandy McIntyre

"Have discovered the golden pole beyond description."

Those hastily dispatched words kicked off the great Porcupine Gold Rush 100 years ago. Since that time, billions of dollars worth of gold have been excavated from the Timmins area, but sadly, few of the adventure-seekers who originally staked the “Big Three” mines – Dome, Hollinger and McIntyre – came out any richer than when they first paddled into that rocky, gilded land.

The Golden Staircase

In the spring of 1909, prospector Jack Wilson headed for Porcupine, near what is now Timmins, Ontario, convincing his old pal and fellow gold-hunter Harry Preston to join him. The pair lined up a crew, headed into the bush and immediately started prospecting.

A restless Wilson soon wandered down to Sudbury to check out a rumoured silver strike, leaving Preston behind to watch the site. Preston kept busy and on June 6 took what must be one of the luckiest tumbles in history. While surveying the dome-shaped outcroppings on the site that afternoon, he slipped on some moss, which caught in his boots and was dragged down with him. Looking up, Preston saw that the moss had been covering a large vein of gold encrusted in the quartz.

With this news, an excited Wilson hotfooted it to Chicago to inform his backers, again leaving Preston behind. That’s when Preston uncovered an even bigger vein with great blobs of gold undulating down out of the quartz. It was so rich that it became known as the “Golden Staircase.”

According to Porcupine lore, when Wilson and his grubstakers arrived, they immediately inked a new deal, bringing a disgruntled Preston on board with the promise of a bottle of whiskey. The man who discovered both showings had to split 40 per cent, plus a thousand bucks, with the four other men on the team — oh, and that bottle of whiskey.

Wilson did well with the initial deal, snagging a 10 per cent interest and a company directorship when Dome Mine was incorporated, but he reportedly lost it all in a wheat venture. Preston is said to have died destitute, forced at the end to beg for handouts from the very company he helped found.

The wealthy barber

Spurred by the Dome strike, another pair of prospectors soon arrived on the scene. Benny Hollinger, a barber by trade, and Alec Gillies headed west of Dome to check out a site near Pearl Lake. It had previously been staked, but soon abandoned by prospector Reuben D’Aigle, now famous for one of the most spectacular near-misses in mining history.

Working not two feet from where D’Aigle had abandoned his search, Hollinger struck gold. “Benny was pulling moss off the rocks a few feet away, when suddenly he let a roar out of him and threw his hat to me,” recalled Gillies. “The quartz where he had taken off the moss looked as though someone had dripped a candle along it, but instead of wax it was gold.”

Hollinger’s backer famously sold the claim to Noah Timmins — the town that sprung up near the mines was named for him in 1912 — for the then unheard of sum of $330,000. But the fates did not smile on Benny Hollinger for long; the young man quickly went through his share and died a few years later of a heart attack — some say a result of his hard-living ways. It is rumoured that Alec Gillies, like Jack Wilson, lost his fortune in a wheat investment gone bad.

The wild rover

Within days of Hollinger’s and Gillies’ arrival, Sandy McIntyre paddled into Porcupine with his partner Hans Buttner. McIntyre had absconded from his native Scotland, dropping his wife and his name — Alexander Oliphant — for adventure in the Canadian wilds. McIntyre and Buttner prospected a site between the Dome and Hollinger finds, hoping the others' luck would rub off on them. It did. They soon found gold.

McIntyre peddled his claim to various potential investors, including Timmins, but the deals always fell through. Legend has it McIntyre eventually sold his interest for a pittance — around $8,000 — and blew it away on a beautiful team of horses and an extravagant tour of Europe. His own version was a little different. “Why, I spent it on the drink and such,” he told prospector-turned-historian Arnold Hoffman. McIntyre was granted a pension from the incorporated mine bearing his name, but like all the others, he died broke.

Today, the “Big Three” are owned by Goldcorp. Dome Mine is still operating — and profiting from the current gold boom — making it Canada’s oldest and longest running gold mine. Hollinger Mine ceased operation in 1968, having yielded over 19 million ounces of gold — Canada’s biggest ever producer. And McIntyre Mine closed in 1988, but Goldcorp is currently investigating the possibility of re-opening it and Hollinger as open pit mines.

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