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The incredible history of silver in Cobalt

About six and a half hours north-west of the Great Canadian Prospecting shop in Yarker, Ontario and well over an hour north of North Bay, lies the small town of Cobalt. Also known as the Silver City, Cobalt was the highest producer of silver in the world by 1910!


So, why wasn’t the town called “Silver”? Turns out, the silver ore also contained cobalt. And, it’s just as well that the name was chosen, since the demand for cobalt has continued as the mineral is needed for making batteries for mobile devices and electric vehicles.


Although a few people share the title of “The Father of Cobalt”, the most exciting origin story is that of Fred La Rose. Fred was a blacksmith from Quebec who was working on the construction of the Temiskaming & Northern Ontario Railway. One day, he threw an axe at a fox but hit silver instead, and thus started the mining industry. The La Rose silver mine produced millions of ounces of high-grade silver.


The origin story of the silver itself, is also quite incredible! Silver in the Cobalt area formed when the area was volcanic 2.2 billion years ago. Rich veins of molten lava, deep in the earth forced its way through surrounding rock, depositing silver and related metals in the cracks. This created a crystalized layer or rock, called diabase, about 300 m thick. Much of that layer was subsequently lost to erosion, and only a remnant of the original silver veins and diabase remain, but that was still enough to make Cobalt a major centre for silver mining in Canada and around the world. (Image: Natural Resources Canada and Ontario Geological Survey)

By 1911, there were 34 mines producing 30 million ounces of silver in Cobalt. Matching the expansions of the mines, the population of the town grew from just 100 in 1903 to 10,000 in 1909. The newspaper clipping pictured here gives a glimpse of what it would have been like at the time of the boom!


Tragically, the overwhelming growth and insurge of prospectors and workers led to infrastructure that was hastily build and susceptible to fires. In July of 1909, a great fire broke out, starting in a café and easily destroying 150 buildings in the town. Although only a few people perished in the fire itself, 3,000 people immediately became homeless. A crisis ensued as these individuals were forced to live outside, relying on water from a contaminated water table. In connection to this, in the summer and fall of 1909, Cobalt experienced a typhoid outbreak, and 111 lives were lost. (Photo: Canadian Museum of History)


By the 1930’s the mining and number of inhabitants significantly declined. The town went through some ups and downs in activity since, but eventually the city became known as a ghost town! Visiting the town, you can still see much of the infrastructure left from the silver mining at the turn of the century. For instance, in the photo (right) the white head frame on top of the shaft and the wench lifted or lowered workers and trollies full of minerals down to the tunnels.


All of the silver in the GCP store comes from the Cobalt area. By purchasing a piece of silver from our shop, you are connecting with an incredibly rich history of a place and time in Ontario. You can hold the silver and think of the silver boom and the frenzy of the time in this small part of the world that made front page news for Canada for a time. It’s nearly as good as using a time capsule!


​References:


Natural Resources Canada and Ontario Geological Survey 2015. Heritage Silver Trail, Cobalt: Road tour of a historic silver mining camp; GeoTours Northern Ontario series. https://www.mndm.gov.on.ca/sites/default/files/geotour_pdf_files/geotours_cobalt_e.pdf


Pain, S.A. (1960). Three Miles of Gold. Toronto: The Ryerson Press. pp. 2–3.


Wills, John. (2015) "A Glimpse Into the History of Cobalt, Ontario. Canadian Museum of History. https://www.historymuseum.ca/blog/a-glimpse-into-the-history-of-cobalt-ontario/

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