GENERAL ARTICLES

BIG IRON

ROYD E. BEAMISH December 1 1945
GENERAL ARTICLES

BIG IRON

ROYD E. BEAMISH December 1 1945

BIG IRON

They sopped up lakes and redrew the map to get at Steep Rock’s iron . . . Now a rich red stream of ore is pouring out to the furnaces

ROYD E. BEAMISH

THREE MILES out of Atikokan the wilderness road turns rust red. Another three miles and you suddenly emerge from virgin bushland to skirt the edge of an immense, barren, man-made saucer. A few scattered buildings at its edge look like toy houses. In a great hole at the bottom of the saucer machines and men scurry like busy ants.

This is Steep Rock, the chasm that was once a lake but now holds an iron mine. From the onetime lake bottom have come 500,000 tons of the best ore found anywhere in the Lake Superior region. Next year the men of Steep Rock hope to treble that figure. They’re looking forward to production of three million tons of ore a year, more ore than Canada’s previous top iron producer, the Helen Mine at Michipicoten, turned out in its entire existence.

Steep Rock ore was a prize worth going after, but before its mines could be put into full-scale operation this past summer, its creators had to:

Divert an entire river system embracing 1,500 square miles of country;

Pump enough water out of Steep Rock Lake (over 80 billion gallons) to float 10,000 of the largest battleships in existence today;

Remove nearly 3,000,000 cubic yards of gravel, earth and rock to provide a new water course;

Bring in 10,000 h.p. of electrical energy (as much as the average Canadian city of 20,000 population requires) by construction of a power line from Port Arthur, 142 miles away; and

Raise and spend nearly $15 millions before they were able to mine a ton of ore.

But let’s get back to the edge of that crater for a moment.

Your first reaction, coming suddenly upon this ugly and ungainly setting, is not one of wonder at a tremendous engineering achievement—that comes later—it is rather one of regret that man has so scarred the country by snatching away one of Nature’s diamonds.

The original margin of the lake—three miles long, half a mile wide—stands clearly delineated by the trees which grew to the water’s edge. Below it, to a depth of 148 feet, barren and desolate, stretch hundreds of feet of eroded rock, silt and muck which only a year ago were lake bottom. Deeper still— another 40 feet—the iron-eating machines have gouged a hole the size of several city blocks. Beyond that lies a muddy pool of water, growing imperceptibly smaller each day as the big pumps churn and spew out their hourly gallonage.

An open-pit iron mine looks like a gigantic excavation job. To the layman there is nothing to suggest that anything more valuable than sludge is being dug up by the big steel scoop shovels. Iron ore looks less like a commercial commodity when it comes from the ground than almost anything you can imagine.

When I visited Steep Rock they were mining ore from a pit at one end of the vast workings and “stripping,” or shovelling, off the overburden from another. Steam shovels worked stolidly on both locations and emptied their red-stained maws into unending streams of 15-ton Diesel trucks. One set of trucks roared off down the highway to the crusher, where ore is crushed, screened and loaded into special railway cars; the other set carried its loads up to the top of a hill and dumped them into a lake on the other side.

Except for their ultimate destinations the two operations looked identical, and neither looked like “mining” as the north country has known it. Hardrock miners, who have spent most of their working lives in gold mines, have found it hard to accustom themselves to open-pit mining, and many have already made their way back to their old loves, disillusioned and a little perplexed.

“It isn’t mining at all” is the gist of their argument. “In a gold mine conditions are always the same. You go to the face you’re working on, muck out the ore the last shift left for you, put in your drill holes, pack in the powder; and by the time you’re ready to blow it, it’s the end of your shift. Here you work in the open and have to dress for it when you leave home. You slither around in mud all the time, no matter what the weather’s like. And when it rains—! There’s no fun in it!”

To a country accustomed to thinking in terms of gold, a mine means a headframe to house the hoist machinery and a mill where minerals are extracted from the ore on the premises, the resulting metal being melted, poured, and shipped in “brick” packages. There is none of that at Steep Rock. But for the telltale rust on every roadway, you would never know the mine existed. There is no headframe or traditional mill. The ore is crushed and screened and shipped out in 48-ton carloads—a whole train at a time.

The mine already employs 350 men, working in three shifts around the clock. When a larger section of its ore body has Continued on page 40

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been stripped of its overlying clay and rock, that number will increase to something like 500, and when underground operations open up—possibly in five years, but perhaps closer to 10—they should require the labor of 1,000 men.

Its future, with heavy development costs and fixed carrying charges, remains to be seen. There are outsiders who believe that operating costs are out of proportion to immediate returns, and foresee the necessity of reorganization before the mine will pay its way. But there is certainly no pessimism on the property. To everyone, from the general superintendent down, Steep Rock has already lived up to its founders’ most enthusiastic expectations. Steep Rock, they say, is definitely “big iron.”

. Whatever its future, Steep Rock’s past and immediate present are packed with romance. Two unknown geologists on a Dominion Government survey discovered the existence of the iron ore body in the 1890’s. They and a score of others even staked claims, and in 1902 someone set up two diamond drills on a point overlooking what is now the “B” ore body. But it was impossible to reach the iron because of the uncontrollable water flow from above.

Steep Rock Rediscovered

Julian G. Cross, Port Arthur geologist and prospector, rediscovered the property after 35 years. Cross set up diamond drills on the ice in winter to do his exploratory drilling. He interested Joseph Errington in the property, the Steerola Exploration Company was formed, and the work of development began in 1938. Existence of high-grade ore in large quantities was proven in five years of diamond and churn drilling.

Two years ago a Maclean’s article, by J. H. Gray, told the story of the development up to the late summer of 1943. tt told of how the mine’s founders raised $5 millions from the U. S. A.’s RFC, and the commitment of the Dominion and Ontario Governments to expenditures totalling as much again.

When that story was written Steep Rock was far from being a mine. The rich iron ore was still buried under billions of tons of water. Although M. S. “Pop” Fotheringham, the company’s boyish general superintendent, had his operational plans as thoroughly completed as any general’s, there were countless sceptics—sound orthodox mining men-—who viewed his enterprise as a madman’s dream, and felt genuinely sorry for the 33-year-old engineer whose youthful enthusiasm had led him to tackle such a hopeless task.

The job called for young men with plenty of stamina and imagination, as well as technical qualifications. Morson Fotheringham has been in charge of the Steep Rock project since he was 29. Born in Port Arthur, he graduated in Mining from the University of Toronto in 1935. He worked three years at Teck-Hughes Gold Mines before embarking on the Steerola enterprise. Fotheringham brought in other young men to help him. None of them—perhaps fortunately—had done open-pit mining before. Unfettered by precedent they forged ahead with a confidence that left older mining men shaking their heads dubiously.

Melton Bartley, sent as a geologist to report on the operations for the Department of Mines, “clicked at once,” Fotheringham says. Intrigued

with the boldness of the project he accepted with alacrity when offered a staff job as geologist. Bartley stems from Fort Frances, and also graduated from the University of Toronto. He is chief geologist and production engineer.

Sidney Hancock, Fort William, became an Ontario Land Surveyor in northwestern Ontario, and first visited Steep Rock in charge of a survey party. He fitted in perfectly with Bartley and Fotheringham, “I stole him too,” the latter reports now. Hancock joined the staff as mine engineer in 1941. All three are in “home territory,” and are 36 years old this year.

The dewatering of Steep Rock was an extraordinary engineering feat. The lake has four arms joined together to make a big letter M. To get at the ore three of the arms had to be drained. Trouble was that a large nearby lake drained into the area to be emptied. This Lake Number Two was lower than the only alternative outlet, nearby Lake Number Three.

So the engineers pulled a double play. They dammed off the fourth (and outlet) arm of Steep Rock. Then they drained Lake Number Three into this outlet until it was lower than Lake Number Two. Finally they drained Lake Number Two into Lake Number Three and the trick was done. All that remained was to pump out the 80 billion gallons of water from the dammed-off arms of Steep Rock.

The pumping began in December, 1943, 14 500-h.p. pumps, mounted on barges, draining out 300,000 cubic feet a minute.

While they were engaged on this job Fotheringham and his staff ran into what they consider their first piece of really good luck. After a few weeks of pumping it became apparent that there

was a ridge of land running under water in the vicinity of “B” ore body, largest of three discovered to date. When the lake level had fallen sufficiently, the ridge cut off from the rest of the lake that portion in which they desired to work. This made it possible for the engineers to forget the remaining arms and empty out the isolated part, containing most of the iron.

This fortunate circumstance brought “Pop” Fotheringham down to his ore body months earlier than he expected. By July, 1944, he was able to put dredges to work, clearing off the muck and silt. By September they were “in ore” and the first shipment—12,213 tons—went out by rail to Superior, Wis., in October.

Full-scale production did not begin until May, 1945, and since that date the mine has produced from 2,000 to 5,000 tons of ore a day—ore carrying 62% iron and being particularly low in silica, phosphorus and sulphur, three ingredients which normally give smelters their biggest headaches.

Ore reserves were quoted at between 15 and 50 million tons when Steep Rock Iron Mines first went out after finances in 1943. Today the men in the field see 50 millions as an absolute minimum, and speculation as to maximum reserve ranges from 200 million to as much as 500 million tons. With an eventual capacity of five million tons of ore a year, such a reserve would mean continued operation for a century. Financing arrangements call for liquidation of all debt long before that.

Even with the necessity of removing from 40 to 300 feet of overburden— lake silt, clay, gravel and rock—which lies on top of the ore body, the mine had produced nearly 400,000 tons of ore up to Sept. 30 this year. Good weather will mean a further 250,000 tons by the

time winter calls a halt to operations. With a whole winter ahead of them to carry out “stripping” operations, the management expects to have no difficulty in producing a million to a million and a half tons next year. Eventually production of three million tons annually is expected to result, from present open-pit operations, and when a shaft is finally sunk and underground mining begun, a capacity of five million tons is considered reasonably certain.

Ore Is High Grade

But it is not only in quantity of ore that Steep Rock excels. Ore from the ; new mine assays higher in iron content j than most produced around Lake ! Ontario. In spots it runs over 62% j and it averages 56.25% of “natural” iron (percentage of iron in the undried ore as shipped) as compared with 52% for ore shipped from the Mesaba Range ; in Minnesota and Wisconsin. In addition its silica content is low—less than 3 j^2%—which makes it particularly valuable for furnace smelting. Furnaces require a silica content of less than 8%. Most Lake Superior ore runs around 10% and operators are finding it increasingly difficult to ship a product that meets furnace requirements. Now, it is planned, two tons of ore with 10% silica content can be mixed with one ton of Steep Rock ore to produce three tons of furnace feed.

In addition the Ontario Department of Mines reports that Steep Rock ore is particularly suited to steel making. Ordinarily steel is made in open-hearth furnaces, using 50% pig iron and 50% scrap metal. But Steep Rock ore can make steel in a proportion of 72% pig iron to 28% scrap.

From its inception Steep Rock has been a big proposition—just how big not even its discoverers realized until they began sinking drill holes through the ice at the beginning of 1938. At first it looked as though, rich in iron as the ore bodies were, the task of getting down to it would be too costly to he practical. But as continued drilling revealed increasingly large reserves of iron ore, methods that had been dismissed as impossible slowly were drawn into the realm of feasibility. A preliminary cost of millions can become altogether reasonable if it can eventually be spread over tens of millions of tons of ore. That is what Steep Rock finally gambled on.

“It’s accepted open-pit mining arithmetic,” Fotheringham explains, “to consider a mine operable if you can get a ton of ore for every cubic yard of waste that must be removed. Modern engineering methods make it economically possible on a lower ratio than J that. Here we have calculated that we have less than a yard of waste to remove per ton of ore uncovered. We took out 502,000 yards of rock and gravel to uncover our first 500,000 tons of ore. By removing an additional

1.300.000 yards we expect to make available two million more tons of ore.”

But another variable enters into Steep Rock’s mining arithmetic. In ! addition to the earth and rock that must be “stripped” from the ore body, further millions of cubic yards of clay must also be removed. The clay originally formed the lake bed. An example of the proportions may be seen in the fact that nearly five million yards of clay were removed, along with

500.000 yards of earth and rock, to expose the first iron formation.

The clay is disposed of chiefly by hydraulic mining. One set of powerful pumps carries fresh water into the pit, where it is diverted into big hose nczzles, or monitors, and released from them under terrific pressure. Whole

cliffside« of hard-packed clay disintegrates under the force of these water jets and are carried away in muddy streams to lie pumped out of the pit by another series of 500-h.p. pumps.

What effect the removing of so much clay will have on economical operation of the mine only time will reveal. Steep Rock officials, while admitting the liability, minimize it with the assertion that hydraulic operations will take care of it easily and cheaply.

With rail freight to the Head of the Lakes and ore carriers to the steel mills in the East, mining authorities have estimated that ore can be shipped from Steep Rock to the mill for something like $3.12 a ton. At present highgrade ore is worth about $6 a ton, leaving almost $3 a ton to cover the mining operation, carry capital charges and pay for power, etc. If Steep Rock can produce continuously in sufficient volume, simple mathematics will make it a profitable operation.

Nearest town to the mine site is Atikokan, a divisional point on the Port Arthur-Winnipeg branch of the Canadian National Railways. Already Atikokan has grown perceptibly, and the subdivision of a new townsite adjoining its northern limits portends an even more rapid growth in the near future. The townsite was bought from Crown lands, subdivided by MajorGeneral D. M. Hogarth, president of Steep Rock Iro« Mines, and turned over to the mine’s Employees’ Association as a direct gift. The association will sell lots to members and use the revenue for community and employee welfare projects of its own choosing.

Today most of the miners excepting the senior staff membersare single and live in bunkhouses on the mine property; but when proper living accommodation and suitable sanitary facilities can be made available in Atikokan, the mine hopes to attract men with families who are willing to pioneer when they know that current inconveniences will be more than offset by their sharing in the growth of a new community. A number of prefabricated steel houses are on order from Montreal and will be set up on the new townsite as soon as they can be obtained. They have already been spoken for by miners who want to move their families in with them.

The company shows current movies I in its recreation hall twice a week and ; runs a billiard parlor. The mine j hospital is modern and well-staffed.

\ A bus service runs from town to mine, the mining company paying half the fare for every employee. Taxi service is enthusiastic but erratic. The miners tolerantly hope it will improve when the operator can replace his present 1930 model.

There are girls working in the mine office who came to Steep Rock fresh from the city, and claim they wouldn’t go back to their old lives at twice the money. There is an increasing number of children both at the minesite and in Atikokan itself.

The men who dreamed of Steep Rock as an iron producer are now planning to make it a long-term project with a lively, solidly established community of 5,000 to 10,000 alongside it. No visitor who has seen what those men did to make their first dream come true can fail to concede that the second I seems more than likely of attainment.

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