November 2008

From Cold War boomtown to retirement haven

The story of Elliot Lake

By M. Sabourin

Buckles Mine,1956

In the cloak-and-dagger days of the Cold War, when the nuclear threat loomed large over North America, a prime concern of governments was securing access to fissile material. To this end, the Canadian government legalized prospecting for uranium and posted rewards for any viable discovery of this strategic resource. This was the force of history that shaped the fortunes of Elliot Lake, Ontario, making the city the world’s uranium capital for 40 years after its discovery there in 1953.

A false start

Radioactivity first buzzed in the Elliot Lake region in 1948 when prospecting partners Aimé Breton and Karl Gunterman found radioactive material in test pits, some 2,000 feet east of Lake Lauzon. This got the attention of Franc Joubin, a prospecting geologist with an enthusiasm for uranium exploration. With his trusty $120 Geiger counter, Joubin confirmed radioactivity at every one of Breton’s and Gunterman’s pits.

However, assays showed that the samples collected from these pits bore only trace quantities of uranium. Attributing the radioactivity to the probable presence of thorium, Joubin returned to his geological consultancy, relegating Elliot Lake to the back of his mind for several years. Little did he know that the Elliot Lake uranium deposits, once mined, would add up to $30 billion to the Canadian economy.

Ruminating over the assays, Joubin surmised that thorium alone could not account for the amount of radioactivity found in the pit samples. Based on what was known about South African uraniferous conglomerates, he theorized that pyrite weathering around Elliot Lake could create enough sulphuric acid to leach uranium from the surface. In 1953, Joubin convinced Joseph Hirshhorn to finance a diamond drilling program in the area to test his theory. Eventually, uranium ore was intersected some 20 kilometres east of Blind River, where Pronto mine was later opened.

The “Big Z” and the “Back-door Staking Bee”

This discovery prompted renewed interest in the region. Soon, radioactivity was also discovered near Nordic Lake, a considerable distance north of the Pronto mine. Quartzite near this new radioactive location was very similar to the Pronto quartzite.

W.H. Collins’ 1915 Geological Survey of Canada map showed a Z-shaped contact between Huronian sediments and pre-Huronian rocks that stretched for about 130 kilometres. As the Pronto ore body occurred along this contact, it was decided in mid-1953 that four prospecting teams — two from Preston East Dome Mines — would explore the “Big Z” contact and stake out any radioactive areas. Discoveries were made as expected and were promptly staked out.

Prevalent staking laws only allowed for nine 40-acre claims per staking license, which were quickly used up by the prospecting teams. Undeterred, they devised an ingenious workaround — the “Back-door Staking Bee.” Front men with staking licenses were flown in. Some of them were Preston employees and many were wholly inexperienced. Accompanied by at least one experienced staker, each such front man would stake the stipulated nine claims, receive normal hourly wages plus a bonus and then be flown back home, his work at Elliot Lake done. The claims would typically be notarized and transferred by lawyers who lived in the field camps.

This staking frenzy led to the opening of three more uranium mines in 1956: Buckles mine, named after Harry Buckles, one of Joubin’s right-hand men and and a member of the original “Big Z” survey team; Lacnor mine and Nordic mine. By 1959, a dozen uranium mines were in production in the Elliot Lake region.

After the boom

Coincidentally, 1959 was also the year that the United States stopped purchasing Canadian uranium. Some of the Elliot Lake mines closed and the uranium economy waned until the late 1960s when uranium began to be used in the energy sector, sustaining production for another few decades. The last uranium mine in Elliot Lake, Rio Algom’s Stanleigh mine, closed in 1996. Today, the city of Elliot Lake has successfully transitioned to a retirement community with a modest but thriving tourism industry.

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