HOW THE BOOM HIT SEVEN ISLANDS
Cartier found it, but it took mining magnate Jules Timmins and his iron vision to lift Seven Islands, Que., out of the past and into a bustling future. Now millionaires are burgeoning where four years ago a team of huskies represented wealth
FEW PLACES have been plucked from Canada’s yesterday and thrust into Canada’s tomorrow as suddenly as Seven Islands, Que. In four years this backward village on the north shore of the St. Lawrence, five hundred miles east of Montreal, has become a hustling boom town.
In 1949 Seven Islandsor Sept lies had a population of six hundred whites who fished for a living and six hundred Indians who depended on their traplines. Today these inhabitants are indistinguishable from five thousand strangers who have poured in to open up the iron-ore deposits of Ungava, on the Quebec Labrador border.
In summer the salt water of the sandy hay which enfolds Seven Islands still sparkles blue and green and tosses its spume into the cool air. The spruce and balsam saplings cling to the crags as the breeze cuffs them on its upward sweep. In winter the bay heaves with impatience under the grinding ice. The bitter wind rattles the saplings like hones.
Man has not changed the climate of Seven Islands, but he has changed everything else even the sounds. Until 1949 the sounds of Seven Islands were the cry of gulls, the splash of paddles, the bark of sled dogs, the ring of church bells. Now they are the roar of aircraft engines and the din of steam shovels, power saws, concrete mixers, motor horns, juke boxes. The narrow lane which once linked the scattered homes of the whites with the Indian reservation has been obliterated by wide rutted streets crowded with trucks, jeeps and taxis and lined with bungalows, groceterias, restaurants, hotels. Oil lamps have given way to hydro, outdoor ovens to electric stoves.
Seven Islands was discovered in 1535 by Jacques Cartier who named the place after seven atolls which raise their backs from the bay like swimming beavers. For more than three hundred years after that it stood on the great waterway of Canadian history, passed and repassed by ships, unknown and ignored.
A NEW COMPANY OF HAS ANSWERED THE CALL OF THE NEWEST BOOM TOWN
Then it was rediscovered by Jules Timmins, the Montreal mining tycoon, who made it the terminal of the railroad which will tap Ungava’s iron. Landing barges and aircraft descended on placid Seven Islands, bringing invaders from all over North America and Europe. The insurgents unloaded cranes, bulldozers, graders and locomotives; ties, railroad track, tunneling bores and bridging steel; prefabricated warehouses, home-building supplies and tents; medical chests, blankets, stoves and coffee pots. They brought with them a slogan: “Iron ore by nineteen fifty-four!”
The bosses were offering ten dollars a day. To the people of Seven Islands, who had rarely earned more than two-fifty a day, it seemed like wealth. The whites cast away their nets, the Indians dropped their traplines, and they were soon helping to erect a huge dock on the beach and to press a railroad north into the wilds.
Today wired-in camps, compounds and dumps clutter the scene, all guarded by gatekeepers and marked by the initials of the Iron Ore Company of Canada (IOC) and those of its subsidiaries, the Quebec North Shore and Labrador Railway (QNSLR), and Hollinger Ungava Transport (HUT), which runs fifteen freight planes between Seven Islands and Ungava. Other companies have caught the craze for initials, among them CMMK, which stands for Cartier, McNamara, Mannix, Morrison and Knudsen, the railway contractors.
A few of the new residents are doctors, lawyers and professors, DPs from central Europe who agreed to do twelve months’ manual labor in Canada before trying to settle down in their old
vocations, Canadian and American workers who follow construction jobs, Newfoundlanders hopeful of accumulating enough capital to make improvements to their farms at home, and businessmen with an eye for a fast buck.
The companies on the project pay from ninety cents an hour for laborers to one dollar and eightyfive cents for craftsmen. Nobody works less than a sixty-hour week and most work longer. This means fat' pay envelopes, even though the wage for overtime is the same as the regular scale. Up the line, the men live in heated tents. Their employers charge them a dollar-fifty a day for their meals but say this doesn’t cover the cost.
Already the men have laid the railway across a six-mile fringe of sparsely wooded marine terrace and fifty miles over mountains which rise to more than three thousand feet, then down gently for another hundred miles to a swampy plateau. Before them still lie two hundred miles of barren heavily ribbed uplands which lead to the main Ungava iron-ore camp at Burnt Creek.
New track is being laid at the rate of one and a half miles a day. Possibly late this year, certainly by 1954, ore will move over this road. Thereafter, from May to November there will be eight trains on the track simultaneously, passing each other at sidings every seven miles.
Although the big dock at Seven Islands is still only half finished, five-thousand-ton steamships unloaded supplies at it last fall before the freeze-up. The tandem dumpers of the wharf are designed to empty two ninety-ton ore trucks every fifty seconds on conveyor belts which will pour eight thousand tons of ore an hour into ships or onto dockside stockpiles. According to present plans, each year until the St. Lawrence Seaway is built ten million tons of ore will be shipped from Seven Islands via the Great Lakes to smelters of the Pittsburgh steel basin. When the seaway is finished the output is scheduled to be stepped up to twenty million tons annually.
Hollinger Consolidated Gold Mines Ltd., of Timmins, Ont., has staked claims at Ungava equal in area to a band a mile wide around the earth at the equator. A group of American steel companies, headed by the Hanna Corporation, of Cleveland, Ohio, is helping Hollinger finance the open-cast mines and construct the railroad and dock. They formed a joint concern, Iron Ore Company of Canada, and nowadays six thousand people in Seven Islands depend directly or indirectly j on IOC for a living.
In 1651, one hundred and sixteen I years after Jacques Cartier christened Seven Islands, Jean de Quen, a priest, settled there to convert the Indians, i Soon afterward came Basque fishermen. Later, Le Corrossol, a French warship, was wrecked there. After Wolfe’s victory at Quebec in 1759 Scottish soldiers settled at Seven Islands as fishermen.
Then, for nearly two hundred years,
! nothing much happened. In summer, while the Montagnais Indians relaxed and feasted, Basques and Scots caught salmon, cod, halibut and mackerel for export to Montreal, London and New York. In winter, while the whites holed up, the Montagnais trapped mink, martin, beaver and fox around the Menihek Lakes, four hundred miles to the north.
Redskin and paleface lived peacefully but kept apart. A few of the Scots clung to their native culture. Others retained their Caledonian names but lost their command of English or Gaelic and adopted the language of their French neighbors. The life of the community revolved around the Hudson’s Bay Company post and the Roman Catholic churches. The Indians worshipped in one wooden church, the whites in a second church five hundred yards away. The whites built little grey clapboard houses, the Indians built log shacks, no higher than a man’s chest, as permanent quarters, but some tepees remained.
Links with the outside were few. There is still no paved highway or railroad on the north shore nearer to Seven Islands than Tadoussac, two hundred miles southwest. A glimpse of urban life involved five days mushing around the needle rocks, over the avalanching bluffs and across the crusted swamps to Baie Comeau, a pulp-and-paper town one hundred and fifty miles upstream.
Nothing upset the concentration on fishing and furs; nothing swelled the population above a peak of twelve hundred; and nothing increased the community’s total savings in its single bank to more than thirty thousand dollars a year, or twenty-five dollars a head.
Then, in 19.36, a group of prospectors headed by Dr. J. A. Retty, one of Canada’s outstanding geologists, arrived in the coaster Jean Brillant from Rimouski, on the opposite shore, and headed north. They returned every year after that and Seven Island’s residents speculated about the future.
Early in the war a landing strip was constructed at Seven Islands for RCAF planes doing submarine patrol work on the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Some civilian planes used this and in 1942 one of them brought Jules Timmins. His visit, coupled with the visits of the prospectors, and with all the wartime talk of mineral developments, excited the residents.
Rumors flew thick and fast but it was 1946 before the people heard definitely that Timmins had bought iron claims in Quebec and Labrador, four hundred miles deep in a trackless
hinterland and more than a thousand miles away from the nearest smelter. In 1949, Timmins aimed an airlift at Seven Islands. If five tons of cement were needed fast, if a grader was urgently required, he had them flown in. The old fighter strip received thousands of tons of machinery from the air, and beaches were cluttered with equipment like those of Normandy on D-Day—equipment delivered by ships and lightered ashore in barges.
To most of the old-timers of Seven Islands the wharf and railway construction has meant affluence. Any former fisherman can now rent a room for forty to sixty dollars a month. Some have built new homes and rent their old ones at a hundred dollars a month. A native who bought five houses at low prices now gets an income of four hundred dollars a month from them. One man is reputed to have received twenty-eight thousand dollars and another man twenty-three thousand dollars for lots which cost them a few hundred. Sales of business sites for twelve to fourteen thousand dollars have been common.
Maurice Duplessis’ Union Nationale Government, trying to curb land speculation, has split crown land surrounding Seven Islands into residential lots, which it sells for two hundred dollars.
Scores of construction workers are building their own homes and moving in their families. The IOC has put up forty of four hundred homes it will eventually rent to permanent employees at fifty dollars monthly and up.
The new Hotel Sept lies has twentyfour rooms, each with bath, which are booked weeks ahead by commercial travelers, provincial and federal politicians and men looking for business opportunities. Just off the hotel lobby there is a cocktail lounge, and upstairs there is the Yacht Club, an elegant preserve of higher executives and their wives, lavishly furnished to a nautical motif.
The Hotel Sept lies was begun in October 1951 and finished in April 1952. It cost half a million dollars. Its owner is Roger Marcoux, a vigorous, balding man in his mid-thirties who drives a Cadillac and recently lost in a crash a private aircraft he bought from exvice-president Alben Barkley of the United States. Marcoux was formerly a Montreal tobacco salesman. In 1952 he got together enough money to make the down payment on the Commercial Hotel in Mont Joli, on the south bank of the St. Lawrence, where Hollinger prospectors preparing to fly to Ungava stopped overnight.
He listened to their stories of Seven Islands’ possibilities, borrowed more money and built the Hotel Sept lies. Today he is building offices and stores next door and is well on his way to his first million.
The boom has changed the outlook and aspirations of old residents. Until the iron men arrived, H. B. (Frank) Frankland, the factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company post, sold flour, sugar, beans and salt by the sack; pickled pork and beef by the keg; lamp oil by the gallon; and necessities like dog harness, axes, snowshoes, rifles and ammunition. Last summer he shipped back to Montreal the last of his Coleman oil lamps and imported a consignment of electric-light shades. The post has been turned into a modern department store with meat in refrigerated glass cases, patent medicines, linoleum, cosmetics and the latest magazines.
The change in the fortunes of Seven Islands has freed sled dogs from slavery and filled the town with a pack of monstrous mongrels. One hulking beast called Rex is now a local character. He seems to owe allegiance to no master but bums around the construction camps eating like a lion at kitchen doorways. Taxi drivers give him lifts from camp to camp and many times aircraft pilots have taken him up to Ungava just for the ride.
Some uncommon men have moved in. Jean L. Goguen, for instance, a little affable bilingual grandfather, arrived recently after years as an electrician in such northwest outposts as Fairbanks, Juneau and Anchorage, in Alaska, and Whitehorse and Dawson City in the Yukon. Although he came to ply his trade he noticed that nobody belonged to a union. So he quit his job and set about organizing for the United Steelworkers of America. He says he has twenty-five percent of the men signed up and when he has fifty percent he hopes to get bargaining rights. Then he’ll demand time-and-ahalf rates for overtime and other concessions.
Goguen’s son Bernard, an intelligent good-looking young man, also came to Seven Islands to work as an electrician, but he found bartending at the Yacht Club more lucrative; he makes more than a hundred dollars a week.
Jean Marini, a painter from Montmartre with long grey-gold hair and a whimsical sensitive face, is one of the odd characters who have found their way to Seven Islands. In 1940 he was an officer in the French Army in Morocco. When France fell he escaped j and joined De Gaulle. After the war ! he took a whirl at portrait painting in Montreal but. failed to make ends meet. Heading for St. Pierre and Miquelon, i the French islands off Newfoundland, where he hoped to do seascapes, he ; stopped off at Seven Islands. Singing i at the top of his voice while he works, he has filled Seven Islands with gay signs.
Jack Layden, the mayor, is a tall, bespectacled soft-spoken young man in his mid-thirties, born at St. Catharines, Ont. He came to Seven Islands during the war as a radio operator in the RCAF and married Joan Ferguson, a French-speaking Seven Islands Scot. He stayed after the war as a radio operator for Canadian Pacific Airlines,
! which now runs a daily Dakota from Montreal.
Then the Ungava bug bit him. He joined the Iron Ore Company of Canada and was soon promoted to personnel manager. Now, in addition to his job, he owns property on the main street, a half share in the local cinema and a big car which he drives over the thirty-nine miles of rough highways in the Seven Islands district.
“I expect,” he says “the town will have a permanent population of around I six thousand after the construction work is finished. We are going ahead with zoning schemes for residential and industrial sites on that assump! tion.”
Layden has no difficulty recruiting stenographers for IOC from Montreal and Toronto, even though they have to live in army huts and eat staff messes. “They all figure they’ll stand a better chance of finding a husband here,” he says. He admits there are \ no cultural pursuits as yet. There aren’t even any dances except in the town’s one commercial dance hall. “The local clergy,” he says, “frowns on dancing.” He adds in a deprecatory tone: “But there’s plenty of drinking.”
The cocktail bars in the Hotel Sept Iles, and in its smaller but equally comfortable rival, the Hotel Santerre, are full from noon to midnight with transients and workers playing hookey. In the evening the dining room in the Hotel Sept lies is thrown open to accommodate more drinkers.
Women customers are heavily outnumbered by men. Some of them are
wives of construction workers who’ve found homes in town, but most of them are pretty waitresses from Quebec City and the Gaspé Peninsula who’ve arrived in search of high wages and husbands. The husband market looks promising. Most girls have at least three escorts.
The beer taverns beneath the cocktail bars are open from eight in the morning till eleven at night. Says Paul Remillard, the head barman of the Hotel Sept lies, “There’s generally a line-up at opening time of guys needing a reviver after the night before.”
Among the hundred-odd taxi drivers who shipped their vehicles in from all over Quebec are some rapscallions. Early last year a number of taxi drivers were suspected of operating vehicles as mobile brothels and running booze into the construction camps, where it is forbidden.
Much of this has been cleaned up by two RCMP officers, two provincial policemen and five construction company policemen.
Prostitution is no longer flagrant; gambling is on a very small scale; and while drinking is still two-fisted the helpless or belligerent drunk is a rarity. At the dance hall, where only soft drinks are served, there is a surprising air of decorum. Compared with most frontier towns, Seven Islands is almost sedate. Men coming down from the bush at week ends complain that it is too quiet.
An explanation for this is offered by Ed Thorning, IOC superintendent, a native of Kirkland Lake, Ont., and a veteran of construction camps from the Mexican border to Alaska. Thorning, who lives with his Scottish wife in one of the new company houses, says, “ft’s not wild because the nature of the job keeps the men interested. Nearly every day, as the track goes down, the scene of their work changes. They keep looking back and seeing what they’ve done and it gives them a sense of accomplishment. On construction, it is fairly easy to keep men happy. It’s when you get to the production stage that trouble starts. Construction is varied, production is monotonous.”
Thorning adds that there are other reasons for Seven Islands’ good behavior. “There are so many opportunities here,” he says, “for a guy with a bit of capital that men look after their money.”
Along the curving yellow strand of gently sloping beach at Seven Islands many people envisage a promenade and an elegant west - end neighborhood J which would turn its picture windows j discreetly away from the grimy ore j dock to all the scenic glory elsewhere.
But there is a snag to this. The most j suitable land available for such develop! ment is the old Montagnais Indian ! Reserve.
About twelve months ago fifty of the sixty Montagnais families left for j a new reserve six miles inland, a reserve I laid out for them by the Department of Indian Affairs to raise their standards in proportion to the new white levels. Here they have cosy homes with electric lights and running water and send j their children to a new school.
About ten families, to the astonish! ment of the whites, steadfastly refuse to budge from the old reserve. They live on, in shacks and tattered tents j where their ancestors bivouacked for I centuries before Cartier found safe j anchorage in the bay. They wander I among rusting iron bedsteads, crumpled tricycles, broken ovens.
Their leader is a shabby patriarch, Sylveste Mackenzie. If ever he spoke English, Sylveste pretends to have I forgotten it. Once he could get along in French but today he usually ex| presses himself briefly in the Monta! gnais dialect. Every August until the Ungava project got going he led the Montagnais as they paddled out of the j bay and drove their canoes into the mouth of the Moisie River, a little to the east, on the way to the hunting grounds. The men would fire their rifles exultantly into the air, some so excited they would waste fifty rounds. The squaws would sit in the centre of the bobbing canoes, holding on tight, and nodding and smiling at the shore. It was a spectacular farewell.
Four hundred miles they would go, up the Moisie and through the Opocopa Lakes to the Ashuanipi River and on into the bleak Menihek Lakes. Some would portage over the height of land, whence all rivers start flowing northward to the Arctic, and shoot the rapids down to Lakes Cramolet, Chakonipau, Cambrian and Chateauguay.
Sylveste himself took time out from the trapping to press forward another three hundred miles and pick up the mail from the Hudson’s Bay Company j post at Fort Chimo by the frozen waters i of Ungava Bay. It was a lonely j dangerous mission, calling for great ! courage and fortitude, but Mackenzie : got a hundred and fifty dollars for it
and earned the reputation of trusty courier.
In spring he would canoe back to Seven Islands with the rest of the tribe, j their craft laden with pelts. The : annual harvest of pelts during the war
¡ years fetched a hundred thousand I dollars, or nearly two thousand dollars ! per family.
Last year, only a dozen Montagnais I families left for the trapping grounds, j The rest were on construction work.
If the traditionalists fired any shots j as they rounded the headland, the sound was drowned in the raucous rattle of pneumatic riveters on the dockside.
Sylveste wasn’t with the hunting party. He sat at home in the squalid old Montagnais Reserve watching the scenery change every day and scowling glumly. Most people at Seven Islands are happy to be catching up with Canada’s industrial development, but not Sylveste. He listens to the din of construction and yearns for the bark of sled dogs and the splash of paddles. ★