Though I was born two years after the Gunnar Mine shut down, Gunnar has always been personal for me. My father’s first boss, Foster Irwin, was Gunnar’s last mine manager, and that connection, along with hearing stories about the town and meeting people who lived there, made it a familiar place when I was a child, almost like I’d lived there myself.
Maybe too because I’d lived in Port Radium, way up on Great Bear Lake, when I was three or four years old. The two mines had much in common. Both had been founded by Canada’s ‘Father of Uranium’ Gilbert Labine, who also founded Eldorado Nuclear, the company that would go on to run the Beaverlodge Mine in Uranium City. In the ‘30s, Gilbert and his brother Charlie came to Great Bear looking not for uranium, then considered a waste rock, but radium, an incredibly precious mineral, at the time considered the only cure for cancer. This push North had been part of a mini-rush, foreshadowing the great rush for uranium north of Lake Athabasca two decades later. As vividly described in Ted White’s wonderful ‘Great Bear’, men slept on the edge of the frozen lake in canvas tents in 40 below cold, spending their limited daylight hours prospecting the fjords around the lake for traces of the precious radium.
But only the Port Radium mine ever materialized, and by the early ‘40s, even Port Radium was faltering. By then, a new use for uranium had been found: the atomic bomb. The Canadian government took possession of both Eldorado and the mine and Port Radium uranium would be used first in the Manhattan Project, then in the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Thought Gilbert Labine remained on the Eldorado board, Eldorado was no longer his company, and by the ‘50s, he was in Uranium City, looking to cash in on the boom. He founded one mine, Nesbitt-Labine, not far from Beaverlodge, then moved south and founded what for a time was the richest uranium mine in the world, Gunnar Mines. By the time we arrived in Port Radium, the uranium was tapped out. A new company, Echo Bay Mines, was using the old uranium mill to mine silver from the tailings, leasing the townsite from Eldorado. Irwin Engineering, Foster Irwin’s company, was involved somehow, though I don’t remember Foster being around much. My mother worked as a nurse in the nursing station, and we lived in one of the bunkhouses in town. We stayed a year or so and though my memories of the town are diffuse, Port Radium made an impression nonetheless, so much so that when I went to Gunnar Mines a couple of years later, it seemed so familiar I felt like I was back on Great Bear Lake. Looking back, it isn’t hard to see how I confused the two. Gunnar Mines had the same basic look: mine buildings with white (asbestos-lined) paneling and red-tiled roofs, 20 story mineheads towering over the shoreline. Even the topography around the towns was similar: though the fjords at Port Radium were a great deal taller – staircase with a hundred steps wound from the shoreline up to the town – the hills around Gunnar had a very similar barenness, smoothened by the glaciers, and stripped of soil and even lichen by the relentless advance and retreat of water and ice off the lake. They gave the same impression of having reached the end of the world, the point where life devolved into Primeval simplicity.
Gunnar was undoubtedly the wealthier of the two. With ore mostly near the surface, it ran for most of its life as an open pit mine, the ore trucks winding through hundreds of meters of bedrock, 3 shifts a day, 7 days a week. With no road connection to Uranium City, 40 km north, Gunnar management had to develop their own facilities – not just their own mill and electrical plant, but their own town. Unemployment in Canada was low in the ‘50s, and Gunnar management wanted a stable, family-orientated workforce, psychologically as well as physically removed from Uranium City, which in the early ‘50s was still a raw boomtown of mud roads, and rudimentary housing. Gunnar had its own shopping mall, North America’s first covered shopping mall, a curling rink, schoolhouse and dozens of fine ranch houses for the families, along with the bunkhouses for single miners and other staff. Management built their own airstrip behind the townsite, and bought their own DC-3, offering free flights to Edmonton for miners and their families. They even barged in sand from the sand dunes on the south shore, and carved out a small beach in front of the townsite.
Gunnar was also a dry town. Some years ago, I interviewed Chuck O’Reilly, who’d been a taxi driver in Uranium City in the ‘50s. One of this regular routes in winter had been out over the ice road to the Gunnar townsite, taking miners back from Uranium City saloons. He said he’d always be stopped at the Gunnar town limits by company men, who escorted the drunken miners back into town. Evidently, Gunnar management was taking no chances. Despite this (or perhaps because of it), Gunnar was, by the accounts I’ve heard of it, a good place to be if you could tolerate the cold and the isolation. A company town, where everyone knew everyone else, where you kept your keys in your boat and never locked your doors, where people were united by isolation and a common purpose – and where everyone from management on down was making a good living.
Then, in 1964, the mine abruptly closed. A profile in the long-defunct Canadian Mining Journal just the year before gives the impression that Gunnar had a good many years left, so the closure must have been a shock to the people who lived there. The minehead had begun operation in 1959 – then, just four years later, it was empty. A channel was cut through the narrow band of rock separating the open pit from Lake Athabasca and both the pit and the underground mine were flooded. The town was quickly abandoned and for years only a caretaker remained until the caretaker too was gone.
My father worked for Irwin Engineering for almost a decade, going out for summers before I was born when he and my mother lived in Montreal. When I was eight months old, we relocated out West, first to Edmonton then to the MASL seaplane base just outside Uranium City. I was too young to have concise memories of that period, but what I remember most is travelling. Flying in particular – by seaplane, helicopter, freighter, even jetliner, flying to Edmonton and back to the disparate towns and bush camps of the North. Even now, when I hear the sound of a helicopter’s rotors beating overhead, or the distant drone of seaplane taking off, I think instinctively of my childhood and traveling through the North country.
Foster had done well out of Gunnar. He bought a ranch house on the Edmonton outskirts with tall rooms with big wooden beams running across the ceilings, and a swimming pool with floor to ceiling windows on one side, and drove a white Chrysler Imperial with white-walled tires. My mother said he collected art, some of it surprisingly good. He’d come a long way, the penultimate self-made Western man. Years later, when I was staying at a lodge on the edge of what had been the Eldorado townsite, one of my neighbors was a retired farmer who’d grown up with Foster in rural Alberta. The farmer said they’d grown up poor, riding to their one-room schoolhouse on horseback (in winter, the first kid to make it to school had to get the fire going in the stove). In those days, Foster had been a brawler, showing up at town dances with his brother looking for a fight then gone overseas during World War II ( the man wasn’t sure if he’d seen combat) come back and gone to engineering school on his VA ticket, then headed North, to Uranium City.
To me, Foster was a sort of distant uncle, one of number of people from Uranium City and beyond who flowed in and out of our lives, both in Edmonton and the North – the two intertwining so forcefully in my mind that even years later I was never sure where the one ended and the other began. Sam Christie, prospector, blacksmith, miner, who’d worked at Nesbitt –Labine, Gunnar and Port Radium. Tony Aria, the bush pilot. Even after we’d settled in Edmonton and I’d started going to school, I went North
in the summers, and these figures from the North appeared at our house in Edmonton. Foster’s office in downtown Edmonton opened up onto the Muni airport where we caught a jet to Uranium City, or where my father appeared from the same. Even in the mid-‘90s, going back to what little remained of our old neighborhood in Edmonton, the first thing I thought of was the North, and in particular the headframe at Gunnar Mines, as if all I had to do was open my arms like John Carter in ‘Princess of Mars’ to be transported back to the seaplane base, the bush camps, the Gunnar minehead, looming dramatically over the sweep of Lake Athabasca.
I remember one trip in particular. Foster, my father and mother, and perhaps some other people as well. I remember the colossal mine buildings gleaming white in the sun, the lake surface shining beyond the islands like a limitless sea, the empty town where the houses, street signs and even the roads were more or less intact, as if they’d been abandoned just a few months before. The emptiness inside the lodge and the sound of our footsteps as we walked from one floor to the next, throwing up a fine layer of dust. And the debris – machine parts, entire engines, even a couple of ore trucks, as a small office building, abandoned by the flooded open pit, as if the owners had expected to come back and put it all to use again. And maybe they really had thought they’d be back. The town was never totally uninhabited in the decades after the mine closed. A caretaker lived there part of the year, and a fish plant continued operations down the shore, right until the Beaverlodge Mine closed, and the loss of regular barge traffic made to too expensive to ship the fish south.
A year or two after that trip, Foster lost his company. My father lost his job, then Foster passed away. I was seven or eight when it all happened. I wasn’t to see Gunnar or the North until we moved back nearly five years later.
By the time we moved back, Gunnar had been abandoned 15 years. Yet its presence was still felt, its memory still alive. Of the dozen or so mines that had surrounded Uranium City in the ‘50s, Gunnar had been the richest, the closest to a town in its own right, a rival to Uranium City. Many Gunnar people had moved to Uranium City, and its houses were brought one by one into town, dredged by tractor-trailer over the ice road. Gunnar houses were prized for their solid construction, their appealing design, with the red roofs and the little panes of glass in the windows.
One afternoon, in the middle of winter, I watched one such house being brought into town. It was an incredible sight, like watching an ocean liner being towed into harbour. The house sat on the back of a flatbed trailer, moving up the long slope of Uranium Road at such a crawl, it hardly seemed to be moving at all. The house was so wide it filled the whole street, and in the twilight of a late afternoon snowfall, its bright red roof and white walls contrasting sharply with the hazy grey background, it seemed to almost levitate there at the bottom of the road. I think it took well over an hour for the truck to reach the top of the hill, a distance of only a few blocks.
We went back to Gunnar my first summer in town, my father taking us out on a Zodiac from the portage near Goldfields. As we rounded the corner into the bay, minehead and mill seemed to jump out of the surrounding bush, the sulfur piles next to the mill glowing yellow in the sun and the silver water tower overhead blaring ‘Gunnar Mines Limited’ over the lake – a sight both startling and instantly familiar. We tied up at the dock where the barges once pulled in. The dock’s furthest reaches had begun to collapse and as we floated in I could look down and see the beams and posts descending into the water, the dock’s furthest reaches disappearing into the lake’s green depths.
The minehead loomed over the dock like the body of a cathedral, pale white in the sun, and behind it the other mine buildings were spread out around the elevated gravel plain. Beyond a few weeds and grasses growing up around the edges of the minehead, it appeared to be fully intact, and but for the lack of movement, you could imagine it was an active mine. We went into town, where a crew of geologists were staying in a couple of the houses.
The decay was a little more obvious in town. Weeds and small saplings pushed up along the sides of the road, and the street signs were starting to rust and tilt into the intersections. But the streets themselves were clear, the houses mostly intact, with only the odd smashed windowpane or swinging door. In the shopping centre, beams of light played through the skylight onto the dusty floors and cinder block walls of what had been the pedestrian mall. A row of counter stools with metal siding around the sides were lined up in front of the center of the cafeteria, the score of one last volleyball game still visible on the blackboard of the big gymnasium. In the bowling alley, we found a set of pins, still in place at the end of the lane. Yet back on the street, there was the stillness, the emptiness, that comes when the infrastructure of a town has been removed – the water mains run dry, electricity turned off – from a town that has been built around it. A street sign rattled in the breeze, waving the undergrowth back and forth; the windows of the houses gleamed in the sun like dormant eyes.
Inside, the houses were bright and spacious, with wood floors and whitewashed walls, and the windows were divided on the lower levels into little panes, maybe a foot wide. A lot of care had gone into the designing and building these houses, as a lot of care would go into designing and building the Eldorado houses that went up in the late ‘70s in Uranium City. All were empty. Even the geologists’ houses were empty except for piles of gear, sleeping bags and clothes, spaced out on the floors or pushed into the corners. The geologists had been there a month, and would be staying another couple of weeks. They were in their early 20s and seemed to like staying out in this empty town, having it more or less to themselves. They’d set up cooking stoves and a firepit in the back; they might have even had a generator going. I remember thinking it was the kind of place I’d like to spend my summers, roaming the empty houses and the mine, walking along the man-made beach – a serene and beautiful place that was not quite real, that existed somewhere between man and nature.
My father and I went back next winter. It must have been in February. It was very cold – you had to constantly squeeze your fingers to keep the circulation going. My father borrowed a couple of skidoos from work and we rode out to the mine, crossing the southern arm of Martin Lake through the valleys to Beaverlodge then Milliken, the trees becoming smaller and smaller as we neared the wastes of Lake Athabasca. Finally, we hit a long open strip like a section of highway cut through the middle of the bush. After a moment, I realized we were riding down the runway of the old airport. Small trees pushed up on either side of the runway, but the space down the middle was clear. As we roared down the runway, the minehead appeared over the treetops. I still remember the exhilaration of cruising down the airstrip, motor on full throttle, powdered snow flying past as the minehead’s peak came into view, rising over the treetops like a skyscraper from some distant city.
We didn’t stay long. The wind off the lake was unrelenting and fierce. The mine still seemed eerily complete, like it had been abandoned just weeks before, but the extreme weather made it seem a little alien, like it had become part of the cold howling in off the lake, even as the minehead stood against the lake’s wastes like a fortress. We peered inside the mill. The great vats and drums soared 20 stories into the gloom like the pillars of some great cathedral, and the wind from the lake howled through gaps in the refinery roof, creating a steady whistling sound. Back in town, one of the shopping mall doors had been left open, and tendrils of snow reached into the gloom. We went in through the back hallway. In the bowling alley were the same half-dozen pins, knocked over now, whether by the elements or human hands we couldn’t tell. In town, snowdrifts covered the roads, the porches, reached inside the houses where the doors had been blown open. You couldn’t imagine anyone staying there now, generator or not. Exposed to the lake, the wind was intense, blinding us if we stayed too long in the open. The town with its still intact buildings felt not just ghostly, but almost forbidden, like some terrible plague had wiped out its inhabitants and no one but us had dared to return since.
We turned around and left so we could make it back to town before dark. Though it would haunt me in my dreams and memory for many years hence, I wouldn’t see Gunnar again until I returned as an adult in 1996.
Are you from Gunnar? Visited the town? Have a look at the facebook page: Gunnar Mines Rediscovered. You can also now purchase ex-Gunnar resident Patricia Sandberg’s book about Gunnar and its history at: Sun Dogs and Yellowcake