Leslie McFarlane December 15 1931


Leslie McFarlane December 15 1931


Leslie McFarlane

The story of “The Big Strike” on Great Bear Lake which is heralded as the greatest mineral find of the decade

IT WAS the middle of May, 1930. The sub-Arctic was

still in the grip of winter when two prospectors pitched camp on the shore of Echo Bay, one of the many indentations of the McTavish Arm which, in turn, is one of the enormous bays of Great Bear Lake.

Twice as large as Lake Ontario, Great Bear Lake was a white plain of ice, dazzling and interminable. Its fiendish glare had rendered one of the prospectors snowblind.

E. C. St. Paul was one of the old-timers of the Cobalt silver camp, a veteran of mining rushes for a quarter of a century, a man whose movements had been governed by the roll of the dice in the mining gamble for many years. In the course of a few weeks he had been shifted from a prospect in the Red Lake District some thousands of miles to this lonely bay on one of the loneliest and most hostile lakes of the earth. And now he was temporarily blinded by the glare of illimitable ice and never-ending snowfields.

His partner, Gilbert LaBine, also a veteran of the Cobalt rush, had left Haileybury to plunge far into the forbidding wastes of the Northwest Territories in another episode of his lifelong search for the riches of the rocks. Experienced, hardbitten veterans both, inured to hardship.

For six weeks past these men had worked their way slowly north from the headwaters of the Camsell River, following the unmapped shore-line of McTavish Arm. Shod with steel creepers to hold their footing on the glare ice, they hauled a sled loaded with 1,500 pounds of supplies. Their sled was provided with a sail, so that at times the wind became a third partner.

Snow lay deep in the valleys, but the harsh rocks, bristling with sparse growths of scrub timber, had shed the white coat of winter. In the lee of the grim shore of Echo Bay the two men pitched their tent.

St. Paul, being snowblind,

would stay in camp that day, but LaBine prepared to go about his prospecting as usual.

Here, in one of the loneliest and most forsaken spots on the face of the globe, he hoped to find the end of the rainbow. Neither accident nor chance had brought them to Echo Bay.

LaBine, who was managing director of Eldorado Gold Mines, had spent part of the previous summer in the Great Bear Lake country where he had made a rich copper find near Hunter Bay.

Flying south from Hunter Bay at the end of the previous summer after staking his claims, he had seen from the air enormous masses of rusted and colored rock and yellow hilltops in the vicinity of Echo Bay. These gossans, as they are known, told their own story to the prospector. A layman might have remarked upon their barbaric beauty and thought no more about the matter. To LaBine the great gossans indicated mineralization and told him that the Echo Bay region would bear investigation.

Now, after a winter’s planning, a swift, tremendous swoop

b y airplane and six weeks of the most gruelling toil imaginable, they had set foot on the ice of Echo Bay. There was irony in the fact that St. Paul could not see Echo Bay when he reached it.

Leaving his stricken assistant in camp, LaBine set out across the ice, and within the hour had made his way to a tiny island not far from a rocky point.

An Incredible Discovery

'“PHERE was something familiar about that island to the man who had spent twenty-five years in the Temiskaming country. He had seen such rock before. In Cobalt !

LaBine, in short, had made a silver find and a rich one. Native silver, in quantity.

After a while he crossed a hundred yards to the point.

This rocky promontory is now known as LaBine Point and bids fair to become one of the most famous promontories in the world. For when LaBine examined its craggy wall his excitement over the silver find was replaced by incredulity.

A streak of a dark, greenishblack substance, like a narrow ribbon of some deeply colored lava, coursed irregularly down the side of the rock to the ice.

LaBine was alone, so no witness is available to testify that he danced a jig, flung his hat in the air, turned cartwheels or performed any of the antics that commonly signify a delirium of joy. A delicate enquiry elicited this terse statement:

“I went around the point and found another vein, a better one. Then I went back to camp and told St. Paul the

This, to a fictioneer who would devote 3.000 words to a chapter of ecstatic hosannas in describing such a scene as a

stupendous climax to a drama of the Northland, seems the ultimate in restraint. I submit it to students of things literary as a classic of dramatic reticence.

Gilbert LaBine went around the point, found another vein, a better one, and went back to camp to tell St. Paul the news.

What he had done was this:

He had discovered two veins of pitchblende, from which comes radium at $70,000 the gram.

He had, as it developed later, made a discovery of pitchblende, with which there is nothing to compare on this continent, in occurrences of more definite and regular extent than any known previous occurrence in the world.

Incidentally, he had made a silver find which promises to eclipse the glories of Cobalt.

He had made the first find of a discovery of high-grade silver in better width than any Cobalt occurrences, indications of even greater depths. He had made a silver strike from which samples have since been taken running from 1,000 to 15,000 ounces to the ton. Pure silver runs 30,000 ounces to the ton.

He had discovered a promontory from which thirty-two mineral specimens have been taken, specimens which may be roughly classified under the general headings of uranium, gold, silver, copper and iron. He had made the Big Strike.

It is not too much to say that the Great Bear

Lake discovery may prove the greatest mining find of the decade, perhaps of this generation. Subsequent events indicate that next year will see the beginning of one of the greatest rushes of all time. At one stroke the northward thrust of civilization through the Northwest Territoriès to the borders of the Arctic Sea has been given an impetus and an objective.

With all due restraint, under cold analysis, in view of the restrained report of a government technologist who studied the territory this summer, one ventures the statement that the Great Bear Lake discoveries in general and the LaBine find in particular may play a part of the greatest historical importance in the destiny of the Dominion.

Six Hundred Claims Staked

FURTHER articles will deal with the dramatic events that followed the first find, the strange story of how LaBine and St. Paul nearly lost all but two claims of the

twentieth century Eldorado, the history of scepticism regarding this region, the terrific difficulties of development. This rapid summary purports to be nothing more than a survey of Canada’s newest mining field—a field unique in its importance to the nation as a whole. If the emphasis appears to be placed upon LaBine Point, it is because the Spence report and the unanimous verdict of mining men acquainted with the region is to the effect that LaBine Point, scene of the first discovery, is to date the richest of the field and most representative of the area’s possibilities.

Other finds, of course, have been made. The Great Bear Lake Syndicate, Ventures, Ltd., Consolidated Smelters, Dominion Explorers, the N. A. M. E. and other outfits are on the ground. About 600 claims have been staked around Echo Bay. The Hunter Bay copper discoveries have been overshadowed by the monumental discovery at LaBine Point, but they are highly important. The N. A. M. E. opened up high-grade copper showings at Dismal Lake, northwest of Great Bear, this summer, and will start diamond drilling next season. The Great Bear Lake Syndicate, with claims adjacent to the LaBine find, has discovered a hillside of great copper veins in addition to silver.

Difficulties of access, combined with business conditions that made it hard to raise money, slowed down the early development. There was, too, considerable scepticism. Certain geologists and mineralogists who had contended the impossibility of any major discovery at Great Bear Lake stubbornly refused to believe that a major find had been made. Not until Hugh Spence, of the Dominion Department of Mines, issued his preliminary report early in October were the doubting Thomases confounded. That report settled the matter. Half a dozen syndicates were in process of formation next day. Capitalists in the United States and England began scanning the map of the Northwest Territories. Next summer will see a rush of genuine proportions.

The discreet restraint of the average Department of Mines report on a new field is legendary with the mining fraternity. The following remarks, quoted from the Spence report, may thus be regarded as expressing very high enthusiasm. Mr. Spence

Continued on page 61

A Canadian Eldorado

Continued from page 13

studied the new finds in August of this year:

“While at present no estimate of actual available tonnage can be made, the No. 1 and No. 2 veins at LaBine Point may be expected to yield several thousand tons at least of high-grade pitchblende as well as a lesser amount of milling ore. Underground exploration upon their extension inland and under the lake, as well as prospecting of other known veins, will probably materially increase these amounts. Beyond any question the pitchblende deposits at LaBine Point constitute a very valuable source of radium. At the present value of radium, ore could easily meet the cost of shipment to rail ($400 per ton) . . as regards actual mining, the lie of the ground could hardly be improved upon, and development would be of the simplest character.”

The Government technologist personally broke “heavy uranium stain from a fourth, as yet unexplored, vein, lying about one mile beyond No. 3. The importance of No. 2 vein,” he said, “is increased by the fact that for part of its length it carries rich silver ore associated with the pitchblende. From the western outcrop at water’s edge, the vein strikes uphill to a maximum elevation of about 100 feet above the level of the lake. Some of the richest pitchblende found, both on No. 1 and No. 2 veins, was taken out at the shore outcrops, and the width of massive ore was as great at these points as at any other. This suggests the veins may improve l»th in size and grade of ore with depth. The fact that pitchblende has recently been found two miles inland from LaBine Point, and on the strike of the veins there, suggests that the vein system may have a very considerable persistence.”

The silver, he reports, occurs in the native form, as wire or leaf. On the No. 2 vein it occurs in “important amounts” in leaves and film through the massive pitchblende and as a strong vein up to thirty inches wide, silver often constituting about forty to fifty per cent of the vein matter. On the Bonanza claims, six miles south of LaBine Point, some of the surface ore is almost pure silver metal.

That report silenced the doubters and scoffers. Everyone who has been in the field has returned to declare that the importance of the Great Bear Lake discoveries can scarcely be overestimated.

J. J. Byrne, manager of the Great Bear Lake Syndicate, came back to Haileybury at the end of August and his enthusiasm was unrestrained.

“The public,” he said, “seems unable to grasp the richness of this field in the far North.”

Mr. Byrne paid tribute to the amazing amount of work done by LaBine and his crew this summer, and stressed the remarkable extent of the discoveries that have been made within a short time.

“That No. 2 vein on LaBine Point,” he continued, “is undoubtedly the most important discovery yet made in the Northwest, ;.nd probably one of the most important in Canada today. The Bonanza group of Eldorado consists of twenty-seven claims, on which very important silver showings may be seen, and this discovery, to my mind, will develop into one of Canada’s most important silver mines.”

Substantial evidence of the importance of the find lies in the fact that the Eldorado people shipped out twenty tons of pitchblende this summer, separated by handcobbing, much of it running to more than $5,000 the ton.

These are solid proofs. One may let the imagination run riot in conjecture as to the future of this great new camp, but the facts alone have a most satisfying and spectacular quality. That the Great Bear Lake find has flung open the door to a tremendous and well-nigh neglected area of the Dominion so great that its extent exceeds that of the four Western provinces, is a fact to intrigue the imagination of any Canadian. That trans-

portation problems of the Mackenzie are receiving more study now than they have ever been accorded, that boats are now being constructed to augment the limited waterway facilities, and that aviation companies are preparing to double and triple present air services into the far Northwest— these are facts of unlimited importance. In the week of October 26 the Western Canada Airways assembled at Montreal the biggest airplane in the Dominion, a four-ton Junkers machine destined for freight and passenger service on the Great Bear Lake run. Extension of the railway into that vast wilderness will doubtless be an eventuality of the decade. The oil wells of Fort Norman, the lead zinc deposits at Great Slave Lake, all the found and yet-to-be-found natural resources of the Northwest Territories will attain development.

This is but a summary. Details of the activities and a discussion of the problems peculiar to this remote mining field will follow in another article. Mining in a land where daylight is of twenty-four hour duration in the brief summer months, where winter temperatures of from seventy-five to eighty degrees below zero have been recorded, where the airplane is the greatest single factor because 1,400 miles of waterway lies between that inland sea and the fringe of civilization—such a task offers a challenge to the pioneer. That the problems will be solved and the obstacles overcome goes without saying. Canadians discovered this Eldorado of the Northwest and Canadians will develop it.

The national importance of the new field, therefore, is great. Internationally, the discovery of a vast new source of radium is of tremendous consequence. It seems certain that the Belgian monopoly, held by virtue of the Congo deposits, will be broken and that the price of radium will come down, with greater quantities of the precious substance available for scientific research.

Radium! Copper! Silver! Gold! Truly, when Gilbert LaBine christened his young mining company the Eldorado when it was originally formed to develop a Manitoba gold prospect and before he had ever heard the name of Echo Bay, the significance was apt and greater than he ever hoped to realize.

“And we have only scratched the surface,” he will tell you. “There are thousands of acres of grand prospecting country to be explored yet. I do not believe—it is impossible for me to believe—that when E. C. St. Paul and I went in there on May 16, 1930, we went directly to the one big find. Our own discovery is immense, but there will be greater finds as the field is opened up.”

And when summer comes to the Circle next year the eyes of the world will be upon the mining rush of ’32.

Editor’s Note: A second article by Mr. McFarlane on the Great Bear Lake field will appear in the January 1 Maclean’s.