In the 13th century, the explorer Marco Polo travelled through Asia to the kingdom of the Kublai Khan. On the way he passed through Siberia, where locals showed off a fire-resistant material that they claimed was woven out of salamander fur. Myth had it that salamanders were immune to fire – the creatures were often seen scattering through the flames of a campfire, a result of their tendency to hide in firewood.
Marco Polo was impressed by the material, but doubtful about the claims as to its origins: “In this same mountain is found a good vein from which the cloth which we call of salamander, which cannot be burnt if it is thrown into the fire, is made, and it is of the best that is found in the world. And you may know in truth that salamander which I speak is not a beast nor serpent, for it is not true that those cloths are of the hair of an animal which lives in fire, as one says in our country, but is such a thing as I shall say below; it is a vein of earth.”
Marco Polo was, in fact, describing what is known today as asbestos. The fibrous mineral had long been used to strengthen earthenware pots and to make garments, rope and candle wicks. But it was not until the Industrial Revolution that asbestos became a valuable and highly sought-after material.
As industrial production increased during the 1800s, so too did demand for insulation for the steam pipes, turbines, boilers and kilns of the new industrial age. Asbestos, being fireproof and durable, was perfect for the job. When asbestos was discovered in Quebec in 1876, Canadian entrepreneurs were quick to capitalize.
Quebec’s white gold rush
Joseph Fecteau made his 1876 discovery in Quebec’s Thetford township, supposedly while out picking blueberries. The first mines were in operation soon after, run by the Johnson brothers and by William King, who founded the town of Kingsville, which was renamed Thetford Mines in 1905. It was the beginning of a “white gold” rush.
A railway was built through the area in 1879 and, in 1881, another large asbestos deposit was discovered in nearby Shipton township, at what would become the town of Asbestos. A miner named Evan William discovered the mineral while visiting his parents; it was on property owned by farmer Charles Webb. Neither William nor Webb had the financial means to open a mine, but a wealthy farmer named William Jeffrey did, and the Jeffrey Mine opened that same year.
The unprecedented industrial production of both World Wars provided a boon to the asbestos industry, and the number of asbestos applications kept growing: insulation; firefighting and military uniforms; aprons and oven mitts; concrete; drywall, roofing and other building materials; brake linings, clutch discs and gaskets; even cigarette filters and artificial snow.
Rise and fall of an industry
Production at Thetford Mines and Asbestos increased so much that large sections of towns had to be moved several times to accommodate the expanding mine pits – even the downtown areas had to give way to expansion. The Jeffrey Mine became the largest open-face chrysotile asbestos mine in the world, growing to over two kilometres in diametre and 350 metres in depth. Thetford Mines became known as the Capitale mondiale de l’amiante (Asbestos Capital of the World) and the Cité de l’or blanc (City of White Gold). It was one of the largest asbestos-producing regions of the world.
But the industry’s glory days came to an end with the discovery of serious health risks associated with asbestos. The first documented death related to asbestos was in 1906, and the first diagnosis of asbestosis (a hardening of the lung lining) was in 1924. However, it was not until the 1960s, when asbestos was linked to mesothelioma (a rare form of cancer), that the industry began to feel the heat. The 1970s brought a wave of lawsuits, resulting in greater safety standards and health benefits – but it would not be enough. International restrictions and bans through the 1980s brought about the near collapse of the industry – and of Quebec’s asbestos mining towns.