May 2008

Before uranium

Early mining in Saskatchewan

By D. Zlotnikov


Captain John Palliser, the first to discover Saskatchewan’s coal | Photo credit: Saskatchewan Archives Board, R-A4962-1

Saskatchewan today accounts for a significant portion of Canada’s mineral production. Fourth in terms of overall mineral value, the province is first not just in Canada but in the world when it comes to uranium production.

But before uranium, which only took centre stage in late 1940s, Saskatchewan already had a long and varied mining history, starting as early as 1857. John Palliser, a British aristocrat and army officer, had received funding from the Royal Geographical Society, the British Colonial Office and the Hudson’s Bay Company to explore western Canada. Palliser’s party included a geologist, a botanist and an astronomer, and had collected a great deal of data on local flora, fauna, geography and  potential areas for settlement. The expedition also discovered a number of mineral deposits, the most significant of these being the coal seams near the town of Estevan. Commercial production of coal from these deposits began in 1880, and Estevan remains a coal mining town to this day.

Palliser’s expedition ventured into the Rocky Mountains in search of a passage to the Pacific Ocean and traversed six passes in the south of the range, but was unable to reach the final goal and returned to England in June 1860. Palliser delivered his report to the Colonial Office in April 1862 but no immediate action resulted, possibly due to the American Civil War being waged in the New World.

Even before Palliser had left the continent, Saskatchewan’s next major find had occurred — gold found in the North Saskatchewan River near the town of Prince Albert. The discovery was made by prospectors travelling to a different gold prospecting site: the Cariboo gold rush in British Columbia. The discovery was made in 1859, but prospecting for the placer (also known as surface) gold did not truly begin until 1861. The prospectors used dredges and sluices to extract the gold from the riverbed and operations continued for almost 60 years.

Saskatchewan’s oil and gas production was born in 1874, when the first oil well was drilled at Fort Pelly, followed by a gas well at Belle Plaine in 1883. The  next milestone was the beginning of commercial clay production in 1886 at the Dirt Hills clay deposit. Tom McWilliams, a local homesteader, had applied for permission to mine the rare and rich deposit of refractory — or heat-resistant — clay he had found. McWilliams extracted the clay and sold it to brickmakers in Moose Jaw all the way until 1904, when an official partnership with the Moose Jaw Fire Brick and Pottery Company was formed to exploit the deposit. The site eventually became home to the town of Claybank and the brick plant of the same name. The Claybank plant remained in operation until 1989. Today, the plant is a designated National Historic Site, managed by the Saskatchewan Heritage Foundation.

Saskatchewan was also home to the first major gold discovery west of Ontario when, in 1913, prospector Tom Creighton discovered gold on Amisk Lake. Prospectors rushed to the site, establishing Beaver City near the Hudson Bay post and warehouse, on the south shore of the lake. Beaver City did not last much beyond 1915, when copper and zinc were found in nearby Flin Flon and most of the prospectors moved to the new site. While Beaver City had become a true ghost town by 1918, Flin Flon remains an active mine site today.

Saskatchewan’s mining development continued with discoveries of sodium sulphate deposits in 1918, salt deposits in 1920, and nickel, platinum and palladium in 1928. Today, Saskatchewan provides an enormous variety of these and other minerals, and plays a major part in Canada’s mining production and will doubtlessly continue to do so over decades to come.

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