The industry’s abuzz with activity. With today’s high uranium prices, junior exploration companies are feverishly searching for new deposits as well as revisiting old mine sites across the country. One such place being re-examined is the area surrounding Uranium City, which once was a thriving community that serviced the many mine sites around it.
There’s no denying it, Canada is a beautiful country, and the pristine water of Lake Athabasca is a perfect example. Throughout the 19th century, the area surrounding the lake was mainly used for trapping and prospecting. However, in 1935, uranium ore was discovered in the Beaverlodge area of northern Saskatchewan.
A new industry emerges
During World War II, the Canadian government banned private exploration of radioactive minerals and expropriated Eldorado Mine from C.E. St Paul and G.A. LaBine. Newly renamed Crown Corporation Eldorado Nuclear, the company’s exploration programs eventually led to the development of the Ace, Fay, and Verna mines. Within a few years the ban was lifted and a staking rush ensued.
By the end of the 1940s to early 1950s, close to two dozen uranium mines were in operation in Canada - one of the biggest located in northern Saskatchewan. The ‘tent cities’ that were popping up around the mines in Saskatchewan did not please the provincial government and, as such, in 1952, construction on a new town, one that would service all the surrounding areas, commenced. Uranium City was born.
Located 50 kilometres south of the Saskatchewan–Northwest Territories border on the northern shore of Lake Athabasca, Uranium City was a town planned for 5,000 that was modelled on the company town of Arvida, Quebec. Within four years, Uranium City had become the fastest growing city in Saskatchewan complete with electricity and a sewer system. It had a local administrator, mine recorder, two stores, a garage, restaurant, a 60-person school, liquor store, and hospital. A port was also built nearby at Black Bay.
Between the mid-1950s and 1960s, three mills, one each at Eldorado, Gunnar, and Lorado, as well as a dozen uranium mines were in operation in the Beaverlodge area. However, by 1964, only the mill at Eldorado remained in operation and was the only one left producing uranium in Saskatchewan. By 1959, the population of Uranium City was about 4,600, with an additional 3,000 or so in the mining towns of Eldorado and Gunnar a few kilometres away.
A fluctuating market
Uranium City’s fate was to be determined by the demand for the metal. In the midst of the mine closures of the early 60s in the Beaverlodge area, Uranium City suffered and the population dwindled. It sprang back to life in 1967 and 1968 when the demand for uranium was up. Despite cutbacks in 1969 and almost shutting down two years later, Eldorado began expanding its operations in northern Saskatchewan as the uranium market was performing well. The company set up training programs for employees who wished to get ahead in their career. By 1980, about 10 per cent of Eldorado employees were native.
In the early 1980s the price of uranium dropped to US$19 per pound. In June 1982, Eldorado shut down its Beaverlodge operations, which employed an average of 575 workers per year over its 30-year existence. Uranium City subsequently dropped to a mere couple hundred residents and the waterworks and sewer system were shut off everywhere except for the city’s core and on Hospital Hill.
The city’s prospects
Amidst all the claims staked in Saskatchewan between 1953 and 1981, 16 mines entered production. Eldorado’s Ace, Fay, and Verna mines produced over 40 million pounds of uranium combined. The company’s Beaverlodge operation is the first uranium site in Canada to have a planned decommissioning with regulatory approval. As well, a comprehensive study on the rehabilitation of the former Gunnar minesite began last summer, an effort of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission and Natural Resources Canada.
In 2003, the hospital shut down. Today, about 100 people call Uranium City home and the only access is by the winter road or by air. The normally peaceful city has seen an increase in activity lately with the renewed exploration efforts taking place in northern Saskatchewan. What will the next phase in the city’s history entail? Only time will tell.