A few weeks ago, I received an email from Jeffrey Street, a writer based in Ottawa, offering to send me a chapter from his book ‘The Parachute Ward‘.
Doctor Colin Scott Dafoe is best known for working with Josip Tito’s Partisan’s during the Second World War. His three man medical mission parachuted into Eastern Bosnia on May 12th, 1944 and stayed in the country for the next six months.
Doctor Dafoe arrived in Goldfields in 1937, as part of the initial rush, when Goldfields was expected to become a capital of the North, roughly what Yellowknife would become later. He would go on to become famous for his work with Tito’s Partisans during WWII, after being parachuted into Bosnia as part of a three man medical team, as a surgeon on assignment with Britain’s Special Operations Executive. His mission: provide medical aid to the Partisans. His team would create a makeshift hospital constructed from parachutes which, when a Nazi offensive forced the Partisans further into the mountains of eastern Bosnia, Dafoe and his portable ‘parachute ward’ followed, continuing to operate in the field of combat.
From the author’s foreword to an earlier edition of ‘The Parachute Ward’:
Here was a man who had volunteered for “a dangerous mission to the Balkans” while in Tunisia in 1943, and had subsequently parachuted into a remote mountain village in occupied eastern Bosnia to join a ragtag army of Communist guerrillas led by Josip Broz Tito. As the only skilled surgeon in a wide area of conflict, Dafoe — a major in the Royal Army Medical Corps on special assignment with a clandestine arm of British Intelligence — treated thousands of wounded who, until his timely arrival, had suffered terribly without adequate medical care.
Word of his achievements spread throughout the countryside, and soon his hospital in the mountains was famous. The Partisans called him “Sir Major Dafoe,” in the customary form of address, pronouncing his name phonetically to achieve “Da-fo-ay” (incidentally, the family prefers “Day-fo”, accenting the first syllable). More affectionately they called him “tata,” meaning “father” or “daddy.” He was a hero and a legend.
He would return to Canada after the war, and would pass away under mysterious circumstances in 1969, aged 59.
The account included here is of Dafoe’s time at Goldfields when he was a ‘dogsled doctor’ (Father Will Bern, the ‘dogsled priest’ would follow after the war), during the years 1937 and ’38, when the hospital was built under his direction. Also included is a page from a backgrounder Jeffrey wrote for a client a couple of years ago, along with two photographs from Jeffrey’s collection.
On the photographs, Jeffrey adds:
The one in the backgrounder I sent earlier, with Dafoe standing by the doorway, appears to be a smaller building — perhaps where he lived or a separate office — compared with the larger building directly behind him in the photo of him walking along the road, which I think was the hospital. I’ve attached a larger standalone picture of that building. It does seem to have a sloping path in front, which is also in one of the photographs included with your article; however, it doesn’t look much like the hospital building you showed. Not sure how to reconcile them. Anyway, the smaller building is behind and to the left of the hospital in the picture of Dafoe making house calls.
All photos courtesy of Del Trobak. @copyright Del Trobak, except “a miner’s dream” @copyright Rio Tinto. ‘Rix Athabasca From the air courtesy of Edgar Oliver.
I was born in East- Central Saskatchewan, and raised on a farm. After graduating high school in 1956, I worked as a labourer in Edmonton briefly. In February of 1957, it was clear that a lay-off was coming. A friend and I started to wonder what we would do next. In those days, there was no central place to search for work. Today, the Employment Insurance commission is somewhere that lists jobs, plus the many sites on the Internet. In 1956 / ‘57, there was nothing except daily papers – and the most prolific source of information of all – the rumour mill. By the time the inevitable lay-off notice came, we had a tentative plan. There was (we heard) supposed to be a construction project at Fort Smith, in the N.W.T. in the spring. We tentatively agreed to meet in Fort Smith. I went back home to the farm, to wait for spring.
April came, and spring was on the horizon. I had refined my plan, and decided that instead of travelling directly to Fort Smith, I would first fly to Uranium City to try my luck, and then if nothing was available there, I would travel on to Fort Smith. In retrospect, this was a rather harebrained plan. I had very little money, beyond the airfare, and no job. Nor even word of a job. But I thought that Uranium City was the larger of the two towns, and I knew that there was at least some uranium mining there. Beyond that, I knew nothing.
So, early in April of 1957, I booked a flight on Saskatchewan Government Airlines out of Prince Albert, Sask. for Uranium City, and took the bus to P.A. On arrival in Prince Albert, I discovered that my flight had been cancelled, as the aircraft had mechanical issues, and I would be stuck for three days. As I said already, I had no money, beyond the airfare. I was forced to ask Dad to telegraph $50 to me. At that time, the telegraph was the only way to move money, and there were no credit cards. Even so, I did not eat much for three days. However belatedly, three days later my aircraft, a DC3, unpressurised and unheated took off for Uranium City. The aircraft was 3/4 loaded with freight, but there were a few seats at the back of the plane. I sat just behind a huge rubber tire destined for some heavy equipment. There were only a few passengers, and it was very cold in the aircraft.
On arrival in Uranium City, the few passengers quickly left, obviously having destinations planned already. One other man and myself remained, standing around looking like lost sheep. So we sort of teamed up, and we asked around the small airport if anyone knew of someone hiring. A guy said that he heard that a small uranium mine called Rix Athabasca was hiring. On the strength of that, the two of us shared a cab to Rix, maybe ten or fifteen miles away. Sure enough, when we arrived, we got a positive answer; they had two jobs, one on the surface, which included maintenance and some carpentry, and one underground. My travelling companion, who was maybe fifteen years older than me did not want to go underground, and I did not want to work in maintenance and as a carpenter. So the choices were easy, he chose the surface, and I chose the job underground.
There are points in one’s life when seemingly minor decisions made will turn out to be of major importance, a turning point. I didn’t know it then, but this was one of them.
So, a few days before my eighteenth birthday, I began my underground “career”.
The Rix mine employed about 100 to 120 people, producing ore from two small shafts. There was a camp, with several bunkhouses, an office building, a cook shack, powerhouse, head frame, and a “dry”, where miner’s clothes, wet and dirty, would be hung up to dry, and where we would shower and wash up. There were a few houses where senior staff, the manager, the engineer and geologist lived with their families. I was assigned to bunkhouse three, which had four rooms plus a common wash room, along with seven other men. The bunkhouses were home to the single men, or at least, men with no wives in Uranium City. Miners, who did have wives, lived in town, either renting or sometimes owning homes.
The miners were a diverse crew; many were European. In Uranium City, and at Rix, there was a large proportion of Germans. There were Italians, Romanians, Yugoslavs. There was a Dane and a Finn. There were some French Canadians, who had worked in Quebec and in the nickel belt of Ontario. Many had worked in the Yukon and British Columbia. Our Foreman was an Australian, another a South African. Many of these Europeans were in Canada, in the mines, only to make money, then they would return home. To be fair, we must remember that Europe, especially Germany and Eastern Europe had been very badly damaged by the Second World War, which had ended only 12 years previously. This (sending money home) did not always work out as intended; one of my friends, an Italian, saved every penny, sending it to Italy to his father, for a vinyard. He never went to town, never spent a penny. After two years, he returned to Italy, only to find that other family members had vinyards, but he personally had nothing. He returned to Rix for another year, and this time, he kept his money himself – trusting nobody.
My room-mate, Conrad, was a German. He was a bit older than me, and been in the “Hitler Jugend”, or Hitler Youth. These kids had been brainwashed until they were unrequited Nazis. I thought that Conrad was such a one, a Nazi at heart and in his manner. On the other hand, my new friend Peter was an Austrian, who was my age, and thus he was too young to be in the Jugend. He was a nice kid, and offered to take me with him when he went home for a visit. I did not go, a missed opportunity which I still regret. I have still never been to Austria. There was of course, no television, we were too far from any transmitter. Even radio was difficult to receive. At night, we could often receive the big American 50KW “clear channel” stations like WWV in Wheeling, West Virginia or Salt Lake City, and sometimes we got “Wolfman Jack” out of Detroit, but in the daytime – nothing. We listened to music, on Vinyl 33 RPM records. I eventually bought a reel-to-reel tape recorder. I recorded the records of friends, and it also served as an amplifier later for our guitar. We had a lot of fun with it!
For five days a week, it was work-eat-sleep-work, but on the sixth, the booze would appear. Taxis would begin to deliver bootleg bottles, and to shuttle people to the boom town of Uranium City.
Before I tell you about my life underground, I should explain just how the Rix mine worked. To begin with, Rix was an underground mine, not an open pit like we see at Fort MacMurray. To get to the ore body, one had to descend partway down a 1000-foot vertical shaft, in an elevator, or “cage”. Every 150 feet, a horizontal tunnel, or “drift”, perhaps a mile or more in length headed toward the ore body. Upward from the drift, a tunnel or “raise” would be drilled through the ore body and from the raise, “stopes”, or big hollow areas would be formed as the ore was blasted loose into the raise, where it would rumble down to the drift below. This was the money making part of the mine. At the foot of the raise, the ore would be loaded into small railroad cars, each holding about one ton. Short trains of cars would be pulled to the station at the shaft, where the “cage tender” would load them one at a time into the cage. The cage would lift the car to the “deck level”, which was perhaps seventy-five feet above ground level, part of the “head frame”. There, the “deck man” would tip the car into a bin, where it could later be dumped into a truck and taken to the mill.
My first job was on deck. There, I had to pull the one-ton ore cars out of the cage and dump them. Sometimes, there were big rocks in the car, which would not go down into the bin below, so they had to be broken up with a large hammer. This was hard physical work. I soon graduated to become cage tender. There, my main job was to push these same cars into the cage and send them upwards to the new deck man. In an eight-hour shift, a good cage tender and deck man could load and unload perhaps 100 or 110 cars. This is not a high level of production, so this mine produced only rich “high-grade” uranium ore, anything low grade was not shipped. The cage tender had lots of other duties as well. He would operate the cage to take the miners underground, and back up again. He would move goods, such as the dynamite, drill steel, and fuses. The work of loading ore cars was constantly interrupted. The second shaft at Rix was called “Leonard”, and there a “skip” was used used to take ore to the surface. The skip was a large bucket, so no ore cars were used, a labour saving method. The cage tender worked closely with the “hoist operator”, the person who actually moved the cage up and down the shaft. He sat in the hoist room, near the head frame, on the surface, where he controlled large winches that pulled the cages up and down. (There were two cages operating in a funicular fashion, one going up and the other down). The cage tender and hoist man communicated by a buzzer. The cage tender operated his buzzer by pulling on a cord, one situated at every level. There was a simple set of commands that the cage tender would send to the hoist operator, who would respond. For example, the cage tender would ring three bells, or buzzes. This said, “listen up, I have a command for you”. His response of three bells meant, “I hear you and am ready”. Then for example, the cage tender would ring “I want to go up to the third level”, and again the hoist man would respond. More codes would verify the command, and off the cage would go. Cage tenders were very proud of their speed and proficiency with the signals, and often the codes would be a blur to an untrained listener.
A few months after my arrival in Uranium City, I decided to take a few weeks off, to go home and help Dad with haying. Before I left home, there had been some problems at the farm with big rocks, so I thought that, in order to be helpful, I would take a few sticks of dynamite along with me. Accordingly, when I boarded the plane to Edmonton, I carried a little satchel filled with sticks of blasting powder. (I thoughtfully packed the blasting caps and fuses in another bag.) From Edmonton, I bussed to Saskatoon, then began hitch-hiking toward my home village. I was riding in a big truck when we hit an RCMP roadblock. The cop asked the driver if he had seen any hitch-hikers. “Only this kid”, the driver says. “Out of the truck, kid!” So here I am, sitting in the cop car, with my little bag of dynamite on my lap, undergoing the third degree. Finally, after several minutes, I asked the cop for whom he was looking. It turns out that a convict had escaped from Regina, and was known to be on this highway. The escapee was much older than I was, so on the strength of that, the cop let me out of his car. However, he told every car that came along to not pick up hitch-hikers. After a fruitless hour or so trying to get a ride, I walked back to the cop, and when he went to the driver’s side of an approaching car, I went to the passenger door, and asked for a ride with the cop looking on. And so, I got home, with my little bag of dynamite intact!
Back at the mine, I eventually became the tram operator, where I would take a train of empty cars down the drift to the loading point at the foot of the raise, and load the cars with ore, and then take them out to the station for the cage tender to send up. So these three positions, tram, cage and deck formed a team that depended upon each other. A delay at any position meant a stoppage of production. All three positions were paid wages only, no production bonus. As I remember, we were paid about $2.00 per hour, which was more than twice as much as I had made in Edmonton. However, to make any real money, one had to work in a stope, drift or raise, where production bonuses were paid.
Finally, I got a chance to work in a stope. This was a “cut and fill” stope. That is, the ore seam was more or less vertical, so we stood on yesterday’s broken ore and would drill to knock down more of the ceiling, or “back”. Our first job daily was to look for “loose”, or rock that was overhead ready to fall on us. We would pry this down until we had a solid, safe back. Then we would have to ensure that the height was right for drilling. We drilled with jack legs. These machines used compressed air to operate the drill, and the “leg”, which supported the drill and put pressure on it. If the height to the ceiling was too high, we would build up with timbers, which we wedged into the sides of the stope. If too low, we would have “muck” (ore) pulled out the bottom by the tramsman, to lower our working level, or we would shovel until the height was right. My first day was pretty much a disaster; I was set up at the wrong height, and could not get the leg angle correct. It was a difficult day. My partner was at the other end of the stope, and not much help. In all jobs, there was no training, just “OJT” and “monkey-see-monkey-do”.
Hard rock mining is a fairly safe occupation, safer than farming or fishing. I did however, have a very close call while working in a stope. This stope was almost horizontal, a huge open area. It was so high that I could not see the “back”, or ceiling. I was alone, scraping ore into the draw hole with a pneumatic winch. I had an equipment problem, and was standing near the draw hole in the centre of the stope. I felt, and heard a “ping” on my hard hat, caused by a pebble falling. I looked up, but could see nothing due to the smoke and haze, which is always present underground. But I thought to myself, that this was not a good sign. I turned to leave, and had taken only three steps when a huge portion of the back (roof) came down, right where I had been standing – tons of rock. I would have been a grease spot, nothing more. That aside, I was hurt three times while underground. Once I was hit by a large piece of rock and was hospitalized for a while, but nothing serious.
My income went up considerably while in the stope. Since it was a bonus driven system, everything was “high-ball”, work as hard as you could, drill until an hour before quitting time, then load the holes with dynamite, and at the proper time, light the fuses and leave quickly. Everyone in the mine lit his fuses at the same time. Then we would take the cage to the surface, shower, and repeat again on the following day.
I never did work in a raise, except as a helper, but at the very end of my three-year stint, I spent two months in a drift. Both the raise, and the drift are really “highball”. There you are paid by footage of advance. So if you do not complete your drilling on time, you cannot blast, and so make no footage advance that day, a major financial penalty. But this is where the money is; a good raise or drift miner could make three or four times that of a stope miner. I found the drift very difficult. First thing at the beginning of the shift, we would scale the loose, then muck out the previous round, hauling the broken rock away. Then we would have to lay railroad track as the drift progressed, and extend air and water pipes. The two of us would then drill 8-foot holes; load with dynamite, and at the appropriate time, blast. The noise of two jacklegs roaring in such a confined space meant that I often went home stone deaf. Like anything, it is a learned skill, and becomes easier over time. I left the drift before I ever got good at it.
I have said that hard rock mining is a relatively safe occupation, however the highball mentality can have consequences, and a drift miner of my acquaintance paid the penalty. Blasting, in a stope, is fairly straight forward, as there is always space for the broken rock to go. In a raise or drift, it is not so easy, a miners experience and knowledge of rock is important. Because you are trying to advance straight ahead, the rock, the first holes blasted, must be made to fly, not down in to an open hole, but straight out. Thus the first holes to be blasted must be drilled with precision, and loaded with just the right amount of dynamite, or the rock will not fly straight out but may “freeze”, into a congealed powder, and stay in place. In that case, the mess must be carefully picked out, by hand, as there sometimes remains some dynamite, and a blasting cap, which you do not want to accidentally detonate. It is much faster to use the drill to clean this “frozen” bootleg out, but it also is a lot more dangerous. This particular drift miner was a “highballer”, and used his jackleg. He drilled into a blasting cap and the resulting explosion took his eyes, and his career.
Uranium City, when I arrived in 1957, was a boomtown, unlike anything I had ever seen, or would see again. On the north shore of Lake Athabasca, the only way in was by air, from Prince Albert, or Edmonton. There were several mines in the area. The biggest mine was Eldorado. Then there was Lorado, Lake Cinch, and Gunnar, as well as Rix Athabasca, and other small mines. In the area, there were also some “hi-grade” operations. In these places, one or two men, sometimes more, would prospect the area until they found an small ore body of very rich uranium ore. Then they would mine it, and get it to market however they could, by canoe, boat, dog sled or sometimes by air. This would have to be very rich ore, but they could make a lot of money!
The town itself had most of the amenities. There were two hotels, the Uranium Hotel had a large men’s only tavern. In 1957, the tavern was unlike anything I had seen in my home town, or in Edmonton. A huge bar, it was literally standing room only. One would jockey to the front of the crowd, buy a bottle of beer at the stand-up bar, then holding the long neck bottle he would circle to the back of the crowd and work his way forward until, by the time he got back to the bar, his beer would need replenishing. To take a drink, you had to hold your other arm in front of you, protecting the beer, so that it would not get accidentally jammed down your throat by the jostling crowd. By 1958, the tavern had calmed down a little, and most patrons sat at a table.
Beer cost $1.00 each, an outrageous price I thought, when it still cost only 40 cents down south. Beer (and everything else) was shipped in by barge from Fort MacMurray, or Waterways, as it was then called, during the short summer season. Once freeze up arrived, no more fresh beer, and by spring, the existing beer supply was getting pretty “skunky”. When the word got out that fresh beer had arrived, there was a stampede to the tavern! Sadly, the hotel was burned to the ground, probably in 1959. At least one truckload of beer was “rescued”, from the still-smoking basement by an enthusiastic beer drinker – he and a buddy disappeared into the bush, not to re-appear for many weeks!!!
There was a Hudson’s Bay store selling groceries and other things. The Bay sold bison meat; it was cheaper than beef, which had to be flown in. Milk was reconstituted from powder, didn’t taste the best, but that is what was available. There were several restaurants, (I remember Bartlett’s café), a butcher shop which carried excellent European-style meats, a drugstore, a modern school, an RCMP detachment and at least two churches if I remember correctly, a Catholic and a United Church. And a liquor store. Gus Hawker, a prospector who had made a lot of money in the early days of the boom was still around. There was a small but well appointed hospital, which I made use of a few times, under the able care of Doctor Grey. I remember attending at least one public dance. There were a few places in town where one could rent a room, other than the hotels. One popular spot was “The Cabin Courts”, not far up the hill from the Uranium Hotel. There, several small, very basic bungalows could be rented by the day. It was known to be a lively spot on a Saturday night !!!**!!! I do not remember any sign of prostitution, however one of my acquaintances brought his new “girlfriend” back from Edmonton after his leave. She caused a minor explosion of sexual diseases among his friends.
It was a town with a stratified society. The town’s people, businessmen, police, teachers, doctors and nurses, entrepreneurs etc. were the top of the pile. The miners, whose work and money drove the whole society, were seen as inferior, and did not travel in the same circles. Metis, and to some extent, Aboriginals, made up the service level, waitresses, cleaners, luggers and toters. There were many Aboriginals and Metis who lived their own lives outside of town, in an area called “SGA”, for Saskatchewan Government Airlines, because the float plane base was nearby. They were ignored for the most part by everyone else, but because my friend (and future brother-in-law) Willie Mercredi’s parents lived there, I spent some time in those modest homes.
There were several hundred miners, mostly single, and with a pocketful of money, on the loose on a Saturday night in Uranium City. There were few available women in the area, mostly Metis and Aboriginal girls, and I am afraid that many girls were treated unfairly, to say the least. The alcohol flowed; luckily there were no drugs. But girls were plied with liquor, to be certain, and then men would often take advantage of them. Every one was guilty to an extent, but some men were worse than others. Uranium City had been an active mining area since the 1930s, when gold was mined at Goldfields, a few miles away. Thus there was quite a population of Metis in the area, and many others came from other northern towns, like Fort Chipewyan and Stoney Rapids, looking for work. I made friends with a Metis family. The father was white, married to an Aboriginal, and they had several children, male and female about my age. I often visited with them on weekends. One of my fondest memories is the scent of birch wood smoke on the crisp winter air as I walked down to their pretty log house.
At Rix, I worked closely with Harry Adams, and we became friends. We often went to town together, and we eventually went partners in a car, a beat up 53 Chevy. We began spending a lot of our spare time at a small café, the “Acme Café”. A log building, it sold simple food and was popular with many miners. There were a few rooms to rent in the back, and bootleg rum could sometimes be found there. The crusty proprietor, John O., kept a 30 inch starter (drill) steel under the counter – his peacemaker.
There were two waitresses, Alice, from Fort Chip, and Louise, from Stoney Rapids. I guess it was inevitable, but the four of us teamed up. I remained friends with Harry and Alice Adams for the next 50 years, until their deaths. To everyone’s surprise, they eventually married, and had a large successful family.
Eventually Louise and I moved in together, first to a small apartment above the taxi stand, later we moved to a small log cabin on Lake Cinch, about a mile out of town. Rix owned, or at least had access to this area. It contained a soft-ball diamond, so we visited the area regularly as soft-ball was very popular. There was an inter-mine league and competition was fierce. Mines would hire college students for the summer on the basis of their ability to play ball. When I saw the few empty log cabins nearby, I fell in love with the area.
It was a beautiful setting, right on the lake. In any other location, these sites would have been worth a lot of money. We rented from Rix, very cheaply. There were three houses in our little lakeside community. Electricity was provided part time by a generator, and we drank lake water. There was no indoor plumbing, but both of us were used to that. We heated the tiny log cabin with a pot burner, an oil stove that had to be filled with a pail from the 45 gallon drum outside. I learned that stove oil that is really cold will not burn, so I had to bring a pail of oil inside to warm up, 24 hours ahead of when it was needed. In cold weather, I would have to rotate the oil drum, and pour the oil out of the 3 inch bung, as it would not run out the small hole, it was lumpy, like Vaseline. (An interesting aside – many modern houses in town would lose their heat during the coldest weather because their oil furnaces would stop running, due to cold oil.) I drove a ’49 Pontiac, which would reliably start in mornings as cold as -40 degrees F, but colder than that, I walked. I first saw a temperature of -65 degrees F that winter. By the time I had been in Uranium City for a couple years, in 1959, Louise and I married. A small wedding in the United Church, officiated by Rev. Douglas Shanks was followed by a house party at the LaFleurs, attended by friends only, many of them miners from Rix. The wedding photographer, a friend who volunteered, failed in her task, and photographs of the wedding are few and far between. I didn’t spend a lot of money on the wedding; I went to work the next day. Sadly, Rev. Shanks suffered a terrible blow later. When returning from Eldorado, his car slid into a lake due to icy roads. His wife, and I think one other person died.
The first of July was a holiday in UC, and there was always a parade. In 1959, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinborough also visited UC, but these pictures are of the July 1st parade.
Louise and I continued to live in the cabin until we left the North. Louise had family who lived in Uranium City, sisters, Blanche, Florence and Rosa and a couple brothers passed through periodically. Willy M was married to Blanche, and we became friends. Willy and I fished (with a net) in nearby Martin Lake. I was not allowed to fish in that manner legally, but he was, being a local. We sometimes bought a quarter of a caribou from an Aboriginal; I hunted ptarmigan, and caught fish. We bought a large portion of our annual food by “grubstake”. Through Rix, during the summer we had filled out a long list of our expected grocery bill for the coming winter. Perhaps 4 cases of condensed milk, 1 case of beans, 2 cases of canned tomatoes etc, and it had been shipped in by barge and the money deducted from our pay check. Dry goods only, fresh food we bought at the Bay. Willy, along with Louise’s brother George and I went on a couple of hunting trips, but always came home empty handed. Once we took our freighter canoe to Lake Athabasca on an overnight fishing trip. It was a good life.
We discovered that a baby was on the way, and when Cathy arrived, I was working at the Leonard shaft, owned by Rix, in a stope with two others. I took Louise to the hospital, and went to work, as was normal for the period. Fathers did not go to the delivery room. When she was in labour, several times during the shift, I climbed the 150 feet of ladder to the surface so that I could phone the hospital. When Cathy was on the way, I had realised that I needed to do more than work underground, if the family was to prosper. I enrolled in an electronics school in Toronto, Radio College of Canada. It was an intensive course, one year long, divided into three semesters. I could not afford to live in Toronto for a year, without pay, so I opted to take the first semester by correspondence. It was a tough grind, working underground five days a week, but I struggled through and finally finished the semester. I had to pass an entrance exam, so when spring was coming, three years after I arrived, we “sold” our grubstake and brand new fridge, (we never did get paid), and headed south, with baby Cathy in arms. We went back to my parents home for a couple months where I would write my (supervised) entrance exam.
My time in Uranium City broadened my horizons considerably. This was my first real job, my first time “out in the world”, so to speak. I was exposed to many Europeans, to their cultures, and food. I learned about Italian salamis, copocollo and mortadela, German meats, bratwurst and cheeses, none of which I had seen before. I learned to appreciate different music. Many miners are surprisingly sophisticated in their musical tastes. Peggy Lee, Louis Armstrong, Louis Prima and Keely Smith as well as Ella Fitzgerald were just some of the jazz artists that I learned to love. Louise and I went on to have three more children, and today, more than six decades after leaving Rix Athabasca, I have often wondered where would I be, who would I be, had I not taken a gamble on Uranium City? Today, we have grandchildren and great-grand children in Yellowknife, and working elsewhere in the area. Although I never did return to Uranium City, in a way, I have never left the North.
About Del Trobak
I was born in Saskatchewan in 1939, and raised on a small farm. After graduating High School in 1956, I worked briefly in Edmonton, but in the spring of 1957, I went to Uranium City, where I worked underground for three years at Rix Athabasca. In 1960, I went back to school in Toronto, graduating in 1961 with a diploma as an Electronics Technologist. This led to a three year job with Burroughs Business Machines in the Defence field, working for NORAD ( North American Air Defence.) This was followed by 8 years with DeHavilland Aircraft (again a Defence contractor), with contracts to the American Army and Canadian Navy.
Following this, I spent a few years in the Atlantic provinces, taking part in surveys at sea, for customers who were involved in Fisheries research, oil companies baseline studies etc. These jobs took me from Greenland to Peru. In 1978, I returned to the North, to Tuktoyaktuk, where I became involved in Oil exploration. This field took me from the Canadian Beaufort Sea, to the Alaskan Beaufort and the Chukchi Seas, eventually to the Grand Banks of Newfoundland and the waters off Nova Scotia. I retired after more than 45 years working.
The only road out of Gunnar led to the airport. If you did not fly out, the only other options were to traverse the lake in a boat after breakup or drive the winter road. Driving the winter road simply meant you drove down the boat ramp out onto the ice, turned right to go through St. Mary’s Channel, turned right again once you passed Crackingstone Point, and followed the shoreline until you reached Bushell Bay, where you could get back onto land. All travel on the lake had its risks, and much of the excitement and many of the stories from Gunnar relate to these watery exploits.
My father Jack built three boats while he lived in Gunnar. The first was a small open boat with a kicker. The second, a bit larger, had a canopy and an inboard motor that was forever breaking down and which only one man (not Jack) knew how to repair. Jack and his friend Willis Robbins decided to test this new boat by travelling to Waterways—in September. This month always brought the first winter storms, and as the pair motored into open water, they ran into one. They passed a tug that had sought shelter, continuing until, as they rounded an island, a maelstrom of wind and bucking waves hit them. Realizing they were in trouble, they retreated to the island and threw down an anchor. They tossed the gas tanks towards shore and then rowed to the rocky beach in the small dinghy they had been towing behind. Swirling sand turned the air dense and brown. Through the night, the wind screamed, and waves boiled at the anchor until it gave way. Jack watched as his beloved boat was pounded to pieces on the rocky shore.
Planes and tugs searched for days for the missing men without success. When the storm finally died down, Jack and Willis, realizing they would not be rescued, climbed back into the small boat and rowed their long way through the islands back to Gunnar, arriving a week after their departure.
My mother Barb and Willis’s wife Vera were at a friend’s house when the men arrived back in camp. A fellow from the local radio station rushed over to interview the women. Vera told him, “Barb was a brick, kept us all calm.” Then he asked Barb, “So when did you start to worry?” And Barb replied, “I began to worry last April when he started to build the boat.”
The next boat that Jack built had a cabin and two outboard motors—no inboard engine. This at least was one lesson he had learned. The second lesson he was about to repeat.
Gordon Braund: I did a trip across the lake to Waterways with Jack in his nineteen-foot cabin cruiser, his last boat. It had been stormy earlier in the day but let up a bit, so we headed out into the big lake from Gunnar at around four in the afternoon. That was pretty late in the day to be setting out, and we really shouldn’t have gone out at all. We passed Beartooth Island, which is right in the middle of the lake, near to where the Clearwater tug had gone down with a loss of all hands some years earlier. The weather kept getting worse. It was by now night, and the wind was howling and rain driving into our faces, so we turned around and pulled into a little cove on the island. We hauled the boat up on the shore. It was crashing against the rocks, so we cut some brush to cushion the hull and started to wait out the storm.
When we heard the horn of a tug around three in the morning, we took off to try to catch up to it. We thought if we didn’t, we might be stranded for who knows how long. Conditions were still ugly, and we had to keep pumping the gas tanks to keep the gas flowing as there was a leak in the system. We came up on the leeward side of the tug, and they signalled to us to go back of the barge, where there was a calm trough we could ride in. We pulled in behind the barge, and Jack announced he was going to jump up onto it. The back end was about twenty feet above us and I said, “How the hell are you going to do that?!”
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.
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. In fact, since we would camp out in one of the houses in town from time to time, perhaps I can say I DID live there, if only for a few days and nights.
Maybe it was because I’d lived in Port Radium, way up on Great Bear Lake, when I was four or five 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 -50 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, which would last over a decade, before officially closing in early 1964.
By the time we arrived in Port Radium a few years later, the uranium was long since 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. Both places 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 developed 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. First he went out for summers in years before I was born when he and my mother lived in Montreal. Then, 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 traveling. Flying in particular – by seaplane, helicopter, freighter, even jetliner, to Edmonton and back to the disparate towns and bush camps of the North. Even now, when I hear helicopter 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.
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, still I went North
in the summers, and in turn these figures 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. Foster even had an office building in downtown Uranium City, behind the Legion, called, appropriately ‘the Foster Iriwin building’. In the message thread below, one of this sons reminded me how I’d once got my head stuck in the railings on the stairway to the front door. A dim memory, but a memory all the same. But 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 head frame 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. Perhaps it was on one of those occasions we stayed in one of the empty houses, camping out in the nearly empty townsite. 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.
In the day or two we stayed there, it was like having the whole place to ourselves, almost like we owned it, but I was to find out later, many people stayed in the town, just as we had, that the town was never totally uninhabited. A caretaker lived in town 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. Years later, in the mid to late ’90s, when I was to go back to Gunnar with one or the other of the Augiers, I found out it had been their patriarch, Alex Augier, who had been a longtime caretaker.
A year or two after those trips, in the early ’70s, 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 levitate 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, mine head 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, where a fish camp had operated for many years, side by side with the mine. The docks’ 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 docks’ 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, just as we’d stayed in town a half-decade before.
In town, the decay was a little more obvious. 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 squeeze your fingers regularly 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 mine head’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 mine head 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.