Before Uranium City, there was Goldfields.
Nestled in a bay on Lake Athabasca, Goldfields was the white man’s first toehold on the north shore of Lake Athabasca. The town sprang up to serve the gold mine across the bay, the Box mine and mill. the Box Mine had been discovered by two prospectors, Tom Box and Gus Neiman, then developed by Consolidated Mining and Smelter, which became the mining giant Cominco. For a few years in the ’30s, it was thought that Goldfields would become the hub of the North, like Yellowknife would become after the war. Yellowknife was little more than a tent camp then, and Goldfields rapidly grew into a real town, with a two-room school, a movie theatre, a hotel and beer parlour. Money poured in, as did people: by 1939, Goldfields’ population had risen to 1200.
But behind the boom was artifice. Deliberately or not, someone had put the zeros in the wrong place on the Box Mine production sheet, making the ore body size and concentration ten times what it actually was. The truth leaked out, then by ’41 so many men left the area to join the military there was none left to work in the mine. The Box mine shut down. After the war, the costs of operating the mine was too high to justify re-opening. Wages and prices had risen sharply, but the price of gold remained the same.
Goldfields lived on as a government outpost, the silent mine and mill peering down from their bluff across the bay. In 1948, Goldfields saw new life, serving as a base for the exploration of the new gold: uranium. By 1951, the Beaverlodge Mine, Eldorado’s giant mine on the other side of Beaverlodge Lake, were under construction. Goldfields surged once more as entrepeneurs and prospectors poured in, looking to capitalize on the money now flooding the area, or discover their own finds. A thousand souls, almost entirely male, lived in the Eldorado camp across the water and Eldorado, hoping to keep the camp peaceable, had limited their employees to one bottle of liquor or one case of beer per month. A battle between governments – provincial and federally owned Eldorado was set. Goldfields, with its own (government run) liquor store, was perfectly situated for a new type of boom. Into the Eldorado alcohol vacuum came a fleet of ‘ski-taxis’ – skidoos – ferrying cases of government hooch to the Eldorado bunkhouses. Eldorado attempted to crack down, threatening any employee caught with Goldfields bootleg with instand dismissal. When the Saskatchewan government complained on behalf of their ‘taxpayers’ – the bootleggers – who were just trying to make a living, Eldorado pointed out that its mine fell within the realm of the defence and security of the nation, which took precedence over ‘local interests’, and threatened to cut off access to the road leading to the airport, which led through Eldorado land.
Within a year, the dispute was largely irrelevant, as the new town of Uranium City had been established. Among Uranium City’s first citizens were ex-residents of Goldfields. Even the Goldfields buildings were moved over in the year of 52-53, put on barges in the warmer months, or dredged over the ice during the winter, to Bushell Bay, where they were shifted onto flatbed trucks and hauled the seven kilometers to Uranium City. All that remained of Goldfields were the foundations, the street signs, the lonely minehead staring forolornly across the lake.
The only accounts of town life I’ve ever found were by Ben McIntyre and Father Will Bern, who both went on to have long relationships with Uranium City, Ben McIntyre as the town’s first schoolteacher, then a long-time businessman, Father Bern as the dogsled-riding priest who built St. Barbara’s Church, which remains in town to this day. Ben arrived first, in the fall of 1952, flying into the just-opened Eldorado Airport behind the still-in-construction Beaverlodge Mine, catching a ride in the back of a pick-up to the seaplane base a kilometer outside just-founded Uranium City that would become MacMurray Air Services Limited, where he caught a DeHavilland Beaver to Goldfields. In his memoir ‘The Last Boom Town’, he describes descending into ‘a collection of buildings in no discernible order’. Several were already boarded up, but the main provincial government buildings were still operating, as was the hotel with the attached beer parlour, and the Hudson’s Bay. Unfortunately for Ben, ever family but one had already left for Uranium City. He writes:
“I had arrived only a few moments earlier, and already I learned I didn’t have any students to teach.”
His new job was to dismantle anything in the Goldfields school that could be of use in the new school in Uranium City – doors, windows, blackboards, shelves. He wasn’t alone in arriving to find the job he’d been hired for no longer existed: another young man had recently arrived with instructions to re-open the theatre, run it all winter, then barge it over to Uranium City in the spring. “His problem was the same as mine: no people.”
A few old-time northerners remained. Steve Yannick, owner of the hotel “a noted prospector who had once, in order to get a job as a miner, paddled a canoe all the way from Fort Rae on Great Slave Lake to Gilbert Labine’s Eldorado camp on Great Bear Lake”. Fort Rae to what would become Port Radium, Canada’s first uranium mine, is a distance of 376km between two inland sea sized glacial lakes, portaging between lakes and treacherous rivers. There was Bart Berry, owner-pilot of MacMurray Air Services Limited, the company that would soon take over the seaplane base on the edge of Martin Lake, who had made his own journey from Waterways (now Fort MacMurray) to the Aklavik, NorthWest Territories, up near the Arctic Ocean. And here too was Jim Price, the young pilot who, just a few months later, would walk across Lake Athabasca in the middle of a blinding snowstorm to save his passengers after going down in a white-out, losing both his feet in the process. Jim would remain in Uranium City until the early 00s, living and flying out of the old MASL seaplane base, long after the company had left.
Ben makes no mention of any liquor trade, illicit or otherwise, but shortly before he leaves Goldfields, he describes climbing Beaverlodge Mountain, the largest peak in the area, which makes a slow crest to a steep cliff looking out on Beaverlodge Lake.
“The view when we reached the 1377 foot summit . . . was worth the climb. Recent night time frosts had changed the leaves of the birch, alder, and wild berry bushes (raspberry, pincherry, red and black currants) from green to shades of gold and crimson. Spread before us was a beautiful panorama of color. The deep blue of the pristine lake contrasting with the dark, almost black green of the jackpine and the autumn colors of the deciduous trees and bushes
“From our vantage point . . . a half-dozen lakes were visible. To the North, across Beaverlodge Lake, the buildings which made up the Eldorado Mine were visible. To the south stretched the expanse of Lake Athabasca. If one looked hard and long, the sand dunes which lined the southern shore formed a thin golden line. To the east, west, undulating hills and ridges stretched to the horizon . . . “
And presumably, a few streets of Uranium City itself, half-hidden by those undulating hills across the lake. A brand new world, at least to the white men who’d just arrived. Within a couple of years, more than a dozen mines would be operating in the region north and west of Beaverlodge and many thousands of newcomers would swell the population. For now, this was still a verdant land. The caribou herds would still appear for a year or two more before their migration patterns shifted North.
Ben left for Uranium City in October, the shell of his school building dredged over the ice that winter.
Father Will Bern must have arrived the following spring. The government, and presumably most of the residents from the fall had left. Father Bern described how the few remaining inhabitants went on week-long drunks, careening down Main street past empty foundations and boarded up buildings to the beer parlour, then staggering back up when the beer parlour closed, the spectral sunlight settling over the lake behind them. This went on until even the beer parlor was hauled away on the first barge after break-up, and Goldfields was effectively no more.
By the time I made it out in the late ‘70s, the foundations were overgrown and the headframe and mill had been reduced to skeletons. The year before, some kids had dropped matches into the tar pools in the mill and both structures had gone up in minutes. The fire had been so intense that the machinery inside the mill had melted into black slag, and we could see the thick plumes from the fire all the way in town, some 15 km away. Luckily, the kids escaped, and the fire didn’t spread beyond the immediate area of the mine. Maybe only the lack of vegetation on the bald rock face around the mine kept the fire from spreading to the forest all around it.
I came out with my father, following the road which winds past Lorado then around Beaverlodge Lake, over the land bridge between Athabasca and Beaverlodge lakes. The minehead, high up on a bluff, was still striking. Somewhere beside the mine, we found a set of railroad tracks leading over the bluff to a nest of saplings in the hollow next to the bay. An old rail car sat half-on, half-off the tracks, hemmed in by the tall grasses and saplings that had grown in after the fire.
Across the bay, so little remained of the townsite, it was difficult to tell where the town left off and the bush began. The streets had been taken over by grasses and small trees. Concrete foundations were still visible in the grasses, and the odd street sign, lettering faded into illegibility, leaned out of a patch of bush or stood marooned in an open stretch of mud.
I went out again a year later on a school camping trip. I was 13 or 14. It was a few weeks into the school year, perhaps in September. The air was cold, the leaves mostly fallen, creating a carpet of yellow in the hollows. Our entire grade, maybe a few dozen kids, had come out, accompanied by a few teachers. I don’t remember the reason for the trip. Maybe the teachers just wanted to get us out of town and see something of the area’s history. While most kids in school, particularly those born and raised in town, were at ease in the bush, a significant number, especially kids from the south or from other countries, didn’t get out of town much.
Whatever the reason, I remember everyone being excited, not just to see Goldfields, but to be out of town, out in the woods with our friends and (mostly) away from the world of adults. We didn’t camp at Goldfields itself, but at a spot near the base of Beaverlodge Mountain. We arrived in time to set up our tents, then went off to explore the mine, dozens of kids crashing through woods to the burnt-out mine on the hill, then down the other side to an old pumphouse and eventually the town. The pumphouse was surprisingly intact, even if one kid crashed through some wooden slats on an exploratory tour inside, with a giant wheel at the bottom like something out of an old Western, and across the bay, the townsite still had an allure, with its last surviving buildings almost eclipsed by vegetation, the street signs leaning at odd angles out of the bushes or random patches of mud. For an hour or so, Goldfields was almost full again, possibly as populated as it had been in Father Will Bern’s day, with dozens of slightly delirious teenagers wandering its overgrown streets, jumping into the foundations, digging in the weeds to see what had been left behind.
At dusk, we gathered back at the campsite for dinner, then one of the teachers took us up Beaverlodge Mountain a ways, lit a campfire, and told ghost stories. Years later, I was to hear many ghost had been spotted around the Goldfields area. One story I heard, from a couple of sources, told of a figure who appeared at a distance, walking beside one of the caribou trails which ran near the townsite. Back turned, wearing dark clothing, walking methodically along the trail. If the viewer called out or approached the figure, the figure vanished before the viewer could make out the figure’s features.
I can’t remember any of the stories the teacher told now, but they must have been pretty good because I remember being scared out of my wits until we went back down the hill to the safety of the larger camp.
The next morning, we had bacon and eggs cooked over the campfire. The air was cold, perhaps there’d even been a frost, and the scent of the forest, the lakes, the smell of woodsmoke and frying bacon hung in the air. A sense of expectation as well, with the girls taking in the boys and the boys taking in the girls, both anxious to find out what would happen now that we’d gotten used to being alone out in the woods. After breakfast, we hiked up Beaverlodge, following the steady slope from the Athabasca side to the great cliff that gives Beaverlodge Mountain its distinctive shape, the cliff face visible from parts of town. From the Athabasca side, it was a relatively gentle slope, the trees becoming more and more sparse the closer we came to the cliff. At the cliff, we could look right across Beaverlodge Lake, to Eldorado on the other side. Down below were enormous boulders, left behind after some natural cataclysm, covered now in moss and spindly evergreens – the cataclysm had taken place many years before.
Frost brought out the same colors Ben Macintyre had seen 27 years before, and if we looked to the south we too could just make out the sliver of yellow on the other side of Lake Athabasca, the edge of the great dunes that cover the lake’s south shore, the largest sand dunes north of Arizona. But to the North, the mine hummed with activity, with steam billowing from the mill, the towering Faye minehead, one of three mine heads in operation at that point, visible across the lake. Through the hills we could see the southern suburbs of Uranium City; float planes, freighters, even jetliners might have crossed the sky. Uranium City at that point was nearly at the height of its second big boom, with new houses being built, and new people moving in every day.
That night, a snowstorm set in, and the teachers aborted our trip before it even got dark, fearing we wouldn’t be able to navigate the winding road back to the main highway in the storm. We were disappointed, and I think many of us argued for staying, snowstorm or not. Those looks across the campfire that morning and the night before had been pretty encouraging. But years later, I still remember the closeness, even intimacy, of that trip, a foreshadowing of what would be my last and best year in Uranium City.
It wasn’t until my third trip back, in the fall of 2000, that I finally made it to Goldfields. Staying out at the Lodge on Beaverlodge Lake, I rented a quad and spent a week touring the back roads around Uranium City. Eventually, I made it south, along the road past the empty Lorado minesite and town, curving around the south shore of Beaverlodge Lake to the portage and Goldfields. The woods on this side of Uranium City were more dense those to the North, and the road was pitted with rocks and potholes and, after Lorado, surged uphill then downhill through stands of yellow poplar. Riding on the quad, it was like being surrounded by yellow – yellow trees on either side of the road, yellow leaves flying through the air, yellow leaves on the ground. The road curved, then curved again, then ran along an open stretch of Beaverlodge Lake. Roads and trails led off the cabins along Milliken and Beaverlodge, cabins that are still in use even now.
Beaverlodge Mountain came into view, its prow-shaped peak in almost perfect profile. Beaverlodge is the area’s tallest peak, very likely a real mountain before the glaciers sheered off its peak, as cleanly as if with a butter knife. Even up close, the mountain retained its curious aura. It had a kind of timelessness, even serenity, its edges worn smooth by the glaciers that had covered the area two miles thick just ten thousand years before.
The Box Mine remained, its steel skeleton rising from the rocky knoll jutting into Lake Athbasca, as much a part of the land now as it was of man. Across the bay, the townsite was a dense green field: not even streets or foundations remained visible. A pretty spot, as Ben McIntyre had written, sheltered from the Big Lake by the bay. I wondered what it had been like to live in town in the ‘30s, the Great Depression years when just having a job was a miracle. Uranium City not even thought of yet, the only residents a few trappers and prospectors. Uranium itself considered a mere byproduct of radium. In the ‘30s, radium was still the valuable ore, the miracle cure for cancer; uranium just a waste rock, dumped like any other waste rock in the nearest available body of water. This little community on the wrong side of Lake Athabasca most have seemed a strange place, protected from the empty lands to the north by the great bulk of Beaverlodge Mountain. Did any townspeople climb that mountain and gaze northward, did they cross Beaverlodge Lake, walk the shore of what would become the Eldorado townsite?
A familiar silver sound filled the horizon, and after a moment I realized it was a jet, crusing high overhead. I listened as the metallic echo of its engines filled the sky, realized that I hadn’t heard a jet, any of the background noise of modern urban life that we take for granted in the city, since I’d arrived the week before. It felt odd to be standing next to this gutted, long-abandoned mine, a place that had ceased to exist many decades past, with this reminder of my contemporary, urban life filling the sky all around me.
Many in the area hope that Goldfields will open again. Even back on my first trip in ’96, Bill Holland, the motel owner and resident of the area since the ‘50s, had told me Goldfields would become feasible when gold broke US$400/ounce. It was hovering around $300 then, but by the early ‘00s, gold was starting to climb until it broke US$1000. By the time I went back to UC for the last time in 2003, Goldfields was being talked about again. Gold prices were surging, and what had been talk for a decade or more, looked like it might become reality. An exploration crew had been living in a couple of trailers hauled out along that winding road from town. Goldfields would never become a town again – in the decades since Eldorado closed, mining towns had been eschewed for camps, with miners flown in and out – but a mine would at least bring money, resources, activity. Hope that one day the area could be revived again.
I followed Goldfield’s progress from afar, though periodic reports from people who lived in town, to even more periodic headlines in online mining journals. A GLR Resources received provincial government approval for an open pit mine, announced that it would begin operations in a couple of years then, in 2009, was bought out by Linear Gold. A year later Linear Gold merged with Apollo Gold which, a year or two later, was acquired by . . . and so on. At each stage, the size of the Goldfields reserve seemd to increase (with another holding discovered nearby at ….), as did the richness of the ore.
I’ve been away from the mining industry for too long to tell what all this activity, or non-activity, really means for Goldfield’s future. A schoolfriend who goes back regularly to Uranium City says the value of the gold is still too low to make the mine viable, but that one day it will open again, and perhaps run for a decade or more.
What will a gold mine mean for Uranium City and the area? Long gone are the days when a mine meant a mining town: now miners fly in and out, stay in camps that can be easily rolled up when the mine is finished. But a new mine would certainly mean businesses and jobs in town, a steady stream of traffic from the old Eldorado airport, the hope that the region north of the Big Lake will one day boom again.
How ironic then that the region’s first mine, long since cannibalized by the rising stars across Beaverlodge Lake, should represent hope long after the mighty Eldorad mine had vanished, its towering mineheads and sprawling mill long since ploughed back into the earth.
I followed from afar, mostly through periodic headlines in mining journals on the web. A company called GLR Resources received provincial government approval for an open pit mine, announced that it would begin operations in a couple of years, then, in 2009, was bought out by another company called Linear Gold which, a year later, merged with Apollo Gold . . . which, a year or two later was acquired by . . . and so on. At each stage, the size of the Goldfields reserve seemed to increase (and another holding, at __ was found nearby), as did the richness of the ore.
I’ve been away from the mining industry since I’ve been a kid, so I can’t really tell what all this activity, or non-activity, really means for Goldfield’s future. An old UC school friend who goes back regularly, says the value of gold is still too low to make the mine viable, but that one day it will open again, perhaps for a decade or more.
What will a mine at Goldfields mean for Uranium City, for the area? Long gone are the days when a mine meant a town built alongside the mine: miners now stay in bunkhouses, and are flown in and out. But likely it would mean jobs in town, a steady stream of traffic from the old Eldorado airport, either across the lake or along that winding road I followed on the quad. If there will be no new movie theatre, no Rex Hotel, no schoolhouse, there will at least be activity, jobs, the hope that the area north of the Big Lake will one day boom again.
And how ironic it would be that the area’s first mine, cannibalized for by nascent star across the water, should live on after the great Beaverlodge Mine was long gone, even its towering mineheads and sprawling mill reduced to flat concrete pads.