How NAME opened up Canada’s North:

Jack Hammell and the birth of aerial prospecting

By Correy Baldwin

T.M. Reid, Northern Aerial Minerals Exploration’s pilot, poses in front of a Fokker Super Universal equipped with skis in Grande rivière de le Baleine, Quebec, December 1928 | Courtesy of Canada Aviation and Space Museum

In the summer of 1925, two brothers, Lorne and Ray Howey, found gold at Red Lake in northwestern Ontario. The next year saw a gold rush into this remote northern area that was to be the last of the old-style rushes.

The Howey brothers invited a man named Jack Hammell to assess their Red Lake discovery, and Hammell agreed to back the development of their mine. A former prizefight­er whose boxing nickname, “the Whirlwind,” proved apt for his business approach as well, Hammell made a name for himself promoting mining ventures in the North –getting his start in the zinc-copper fields of Flin Flon, Manitoba, before moving to the silver mines at Cobalt, the Porcupine gold deposits near Timmins, and later the gold mines of Kirkland Lake.

The men were eager to begin work, but by then winter was setting in, making it difficult to transport supplies and equipment 300 kilometres through the bush. In the meantime, word had gone out about their gold discovery, and other miners would soon be arriving.

It was then that the ever-industrious Hammell had an idea that would forever change the mining industry. Hammell convinced the Ontario Forestry Department to let him use seven of their aircraft, and arranged to airlift the supplies to the Howey mine, thus cutting a 10-day journey by sleigh to a mere 90-minute flight. The Howey gold mine got a head start on the Red Lake rush, and prospered as a result.

Miners and prospectors journeyed large distances by dog sled through the unforgiving wilderness, as they always had. But for the first time they competed not just with each other but with something entirely new – bush pilots. The Red Lake rush marked a modernization of the industry and a major shift in the way northern mineral exploration and development was done.

Hammell knew he was onto something. Aircraft could allow prospectors and miners to access remote locations quickly and easily, and in all seasons. By 1928, he had teamed up with mining engineer and WWI pilot Harold “Doc” Oakes, and together they started Northern Aerial Minerals Exploration, or NAME –the world’s first aerial prospecting company.

Hammell’s vision was timely. Winter flying had only begun around 1917, but advances in aviation and aircraft design were producing aircraft that were better adapted to the northern climate. NAME took advantage of new aircraft that could be equip­ped with either floats for water landing in summer, or skis for landing on snow or ice in winter. The Fokker and the Fairchild models, both used by NAME, were the most popular. Although American-designed, both were built in the Montreal area and their popularity gave a boost to the Canadian aviation industry.

Oakes had his hand in aircraft innovation as well: he improved engine heating for winter flight while working for an airline supply company in 1926.

NAME prospected throughout the North with a fleet of 10 aircraft and a crew that grew to 100 and then to 200 prospectors. The company established 34 bases, from northern Ontario to the Yukon, to the Ungava region of northern Quebec. Success came quickly. In their first year, two NAME prospectors found gold at Pickle Lake, north of Thunder Bay, and established the Pickle Crow mine. Many more discoveries by NAME prospectors were to come.

A multitude of companies followed NAME’s lead, and soon airplanes – and the bush pilots who flew them – became an integral part of the industry. Although NAME’s efforts did not result in any mine development in the Far North, its legacy in opening up the region to exploration and prospecting is undeniable.

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