Lorado: A Point On The Map

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            The tailings field appeared around a corner, rust-red and undulating in gentle hills and dips, as incongruous amidst the forest and bedrock hills around it as a section of Mars dropped whole into the middle of the wilderness. Of the mill that had produced the tailings during the few years of its working existence, all that remained was a concrete pad decorated with an odd hexagonal concrete structure at one end, covering the small hillock on the other side of the road from the tailings field.

            I turned off the motor of the quad I’d rented back in Uranium City and walked into the tailings. It was the fall of 2000 and this was my first back to Lorado in 20 years. I was amazed at how exactly it fit the image I’d carried in my mind over the intervening 20 years. The tailings sand was as fine as flour, so my boots sank up to a half-inch with each step. A few meters in was the chute which fed the tailings from mill to lake, propped up in places by wooden struts then collapsing into the sand so it resembled the spine of some strange beast, a wood and metal Stegosaurus. The chute stopped where the tailings field met Nero Lake, but the red sand of the tailings field extended 20 or 30 meters below the water. The water was perfectly clear, but around the shore was white effluent, like dirty foam churned up by a storm, and the trees on the shore were dead, brittle and bone-white, except for a single wizened tree on the edge of the tailings field, perhaps thee feet tall. Danny Murphy, who lived in a compound some ten kilometers down the road later told me the tree had been the same height the whole 30 years he’d been living there.

            “The Tree of Youth”, I said and we laughed. He told me how, when the wind blew off mammoth Beaverlodge Lake directly behind Nero, sheets of green dust blew off the tailings field and up over the hillside where the mill had been, down into the valley below and we laughed about that too. You learn to laugh at these things growing up in a mining town, especially a uranium mining town. Like almost everyone I talked to in the area, Danny didn’t think the government, whatever their promises, would ever get around to cleaning up the tailings field.

            “They’ve been talking about it a good ten years and nothing’s happened. They’ve forgotten all about us here.”

            Danny had been one of many who’d utilized what was left of Lorado for his own ends. Arriving in the area in the mid ‘70s from Windsor, Ontario, he’d spent his first winter in a canvas tent, just like Uranium City’s original in inhabitants in the 1950s, then built the first of what would become the four houses on his lot. He told me he scavenged a lot of his original material from Lorado, from both the buildings in town, and the mill, using the solid wood beams, the plywood, even the windows, to build not just his houses, but a sun room for his main house, and a greenhouse to grow the vegetables which were scarce in the north, even when the Eldorado mine was still going.

            At the bottom of the tailings field, I looked back, trying to place where the mill had been the last time I’d been there. By that point, the mill, like the town, and the mine on the hill behind it, had been abandoned for twenty years, shuttered, along with every other mine in the area but for Eldorado’s massive Beaverlodge mine, and the Gunnar mine out on the shore of Lake Athabasca a dozen kilometres south. From the tailings field, the mill had eclipsed almost all the landscape behind it, stretching the length of a couple of city blocks in a series of oblong sections connected by a network of chutes, pipes and wires. In front of the mill, was a scattering of machinery: rusting barrels leaking a yellow liquid, a rusty fuel tank. Though the mill complex covered an area equivalent to a couple of city blocks, had never seemed as impressive as the mill at Gunnar. Smaller in size, it had also suffered from the ravages of time and the elements. The wind off Beaverlodge Lake had torn at the white tarpaper covering, creating gaping holes in the exterior, revealing the machinery inside in a way that reminded me of the veins and organs revealed in dioramas of the human body. The covering had yellowed around the edges, discolored by the flour-like sand from the tailings. Unlike the Gunnar Mine, which had been preserved so completely it seemed it could come to life again with the pull of a lever, the Lorado mill looked derelict, a forlorn and shabby relic of the boom years abandoned by the side of the road.

            And now it was gone. All that remained was a concrete pad and an hexagonal structure, also concrete, poised at one end like a strange modernist sculpture. The point on the map was close to not existing at all.

Lorado Float Canada Day, circa 1959. Photo @copyright Del Trobak
Lorado Float, Canada Day, Uranium City

            In the ‘50s, Lorado was one of more than a dozen mines that sprung up around Uranium City, part of the fevered rush for ‘yellow gold’, fuelling the British and US nuclear weapons programs. From ‘Lorado’:

The Lorado deposit was discovered in 1950 and explored and developed over the following six years, through which the mine was established. The mill was constructed next, and both mine and mill were fully operational by May 1957. A unique feature at Lorado was their mill, which was designed from the beginning to be able to receive and process ores from smaller, neighbouring mines. In addition to being necessary for Lorado’s mill to be economic, having a custom mill in the region enabled the development of smaller mines that would otherwise not have succeeded, including Cayzor Athabaska, Black Bay, St. Michael, National Explorations, Lake Cinch, and Rix-Athabasca. The processing of its own ore plus that of other local mines made the Lorado mill the third largest producer of uranium (yellowcake) concentrate in Saskatchewan, and one of the top five producers in Canada during the Cold War era

            The town was built in a valley a couple of kilometres down the road from the mill, nestled below the Lorado mine, its peaked mine head perched on the hill above the town. By the fall of 1955, the company already had an mine-site work force of 110, and was preparing to expand the town site for the additional staff it needed to build, then operate the mill. At its peak, the town contained perhaps 500 residents, almost all of them men, with bunkhouses for the single men, ranch houses pushed up against the forest edge for management and their families, and a commissary. The had its own hockey team, the Senators, and in 1958 played in the Divisional Cup, traveling all the way to Yellowknife. In the early ’00s, in Toronto, I met Chuck O’Reilly, who’d driven a cab in the area in the ‘50s, and he remembered ferrying Lorado miners to and from Uranium City bars, delivering bottles to the bunkhouses, making the thirty kilometer journey as many as a dozen times a day. Lorado was even important enough to warrant its own point on the map, where it would remain for decades after it ceased to exist as either mine or town.

            Construction of the mine began in 1954, with the construction of a mine shaft initially to a depth of 73 meters (240 feet) then, one year later, to a depth of 86 meters (640 feet). ‘A 23 meter (75 foot) headframe, with collar house, hoistroom and bins for 136 tonne (150 ton) bins for ore and waste were built at the surface’. The mill had a staff of approximately 96 people working nominally 44 hour work weeks on three shifts a day, operating 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Unusually, the mill was located several kilometres from the mine it primarily serviced, to allow other operators to haul in their ore more easily and economically for processing.

            Then came the ’59 crash, when the British and US governments cancelled their contracts, and every mine but Beaverlodge and Gunnar closed their doors. Lorado management released effluent from the mill into neighboring Nero Lake, effectively poisoning it for decades, exponentially longer than the mine’s actual operation. Apparently, they’d initially hoped to re-open their mine at some point, since it still contained reserves, but this hope didn’t last very long, since they tore down the mine head and capped their mine shaft with concrete within a year or two. Lorado, the company itself did live on after their mine. From Lorado:

            Following the closure of the Lorado mine and mill, the company turned to other business opportunities, including participating in prospecting operations in the Northwest Territories, Quebec, and Ireland, and a British Columbia mining operation. In 1961, Lorado Uranium Mines also incorporated a wholly-owned subsidiary named Lorado of Bahamas Ltd. which acquired an interest in The Grand Bahama Development Co. (Devco). According to some media reports, Lorado’s aim was to participate in the developing of a major gambling resort in the Bahamas. In subsequent years the exploration efforts extended to other countries, however Lorado’s principal business activities, through its Lorado of Bahamas subsidiary, focused on real estate developments in still other countries. Lorado Uranium Mines Ltd., along with several other companies, was amalgamated into International Mogul Mines Ltd. in 1968. Several mergers and acquisitions later, the Lorado mine and mill came to be owned by EnCana Corp

Lorad Mill, Winter 1957

            Looking back at the vacant space where the mill had been, I thought of the colossal energy, manpower and money that had gone into the creation and maintenance of the Lorado mill and mine, the townsite that both sustained. The cost of freight by air, more than double of freight by water, meant the company had to order a year’s worth of supplies before the beginning of the boat/barge season. EVERYTHING, from lumber to machinery, all the food and equipment necessary for a mid-20th century North American town, however small – had to be shipped from the south. In general, it cost approximately twice as much to run a mine, mill and town in the Athabasca region as it did down south.

            One consequence of the high cost of transportation was Lorado’s decision to process its own sulphuric acid. Next to the Lorado uranium deposit was also a large pyrite deposit containing 25 to 40 percent pyrite and the cost of bringing in elemental sulphur by barge was exorbitant. This too would have an effect on the tailings they produced, and contribute to the subsequent death of Nero Lake, since within the first year, the tailings being produced was so great they overflowed the small lake the company had initially targeted and spilled over into Nero. Lorado’s tailings were a mixture of stripped effluents from the ion exchange columns, tailings from the flotation cells, calcines from the sulphur-concentrate roaster, and tailings from the precipitation circuit – all leading to those rust-red tailings, the crystal-clear waters of the dead lake which would remain for another half-century. Even during the mill’s operation, Lorado had problems with the polluted waters of Nero Lake. From a provincial government report dated November 7th, 1957:

            “… The tailing lake is about 600 feet from Nero Lake, this 600 feet being muskeg lying almost at lake level. It is only about 200 feet from Nero Lake into Beaverlodge [Lake] and this also is low muskeg. Recently the small tailings lake became so full that the tailings have now begun to run across the strip of land and into Nero Lake directly …  The mill tailings … waste has a pH of 2.5-2.8. Lorado have kept a constant check on the acid content of Nero Lake as they are drawing water from this source and have found that Nero [Lake] is running from pH 5.7-6.3. This lower figure is apparently quite close to the limit at which the water will be unfit for their machinery or for human use … I am quite sure that they will have to use a different water source no later than next spring …”

            The contaminated water almost immediately caused problems – equipment corrosion, reduced uranium recoveries, reduced concentrate quality – but rather than change its tailing deposit method, the company just built a new supply line to draw water directly from Beaverlodge. And perhaps they had no choice. Even the province agreed that Nero Lake was the only resource available. From the above report:
            “I cannot see any alternative tailing site in this location and … I believe that we should insist that Lorado be responsible for constructing some kind of impervious dyke across the low strip between Nero and Beaverlodge Lakes to assure that Beaverlodge [Lake] is not contaminated.”

Ariel view of Lorado Mill, Lorado, Saskatchewan. @copyright Chris Robinson

            The ‘impervious dyke’ becoming a land bridge between Nero and Beaverlodge lakes, which at least kept the worst contamination from leaching into Beaverlodge. And contaminated it was: over three years, the mill dumped an estimated 304 thousand tons (350,000 tonnes) of tailings into the lake, and by 1960, when the mill ceased operation, the Ph of Nero Lake had dropped to 2.5 near the tailings entry point, and to an average of 3.5 overall [p1484]

            It is difficult to appreciate now how people of the period perceived both the hazards of low-level radiation, and pollution hazards generally. Since low-level radiation was not generally even considered a hazard, uranium mining was still considered relatively ‘safe’. A constant flow of air, provided by air pressure, fans, and enormous ventilation pipes had to be maintained underground, not just so the miners could breathe, but to dilute the exhaust fumes of the diesel-powered mining equipment, blasting gases and dust created by the mining process itself. In the ‘50s, dumping tailings in the nearest body of water was not only NOT illegal – it wasn’t even considered dangerous. In Patricia Sandberg’s ‘Sun Dogs and Yellowcake’, Barry Irwin, son of Foster Irwin, Gunnar’s mine manager, recounted how kids would swim in a lake just behind the Gunnar townsite, with the tailings pouring into the lake from the other end, then added:

Blair Lake, which served as the main tailings pond, was right up the hill from where we lived. It was damned by a big cliff of that same tailings material, and it was great sport to run as hard as you could and launch yourself off the top of it into thin air, landing in the reddish-brown sand metres below. One Sunday, Dad’s schedule included a reconnaissance of the area and I remember tagging along. The two of us walked out into a moonscape (or, more aptly, a manscape) – lots of dead trees, few signs of wildlife. Dad wasn’t saying much and finally commenting something to the effect of ‘things couldn’t get much deader’ and I remember thinking this was probably not a good thing. Shortly thereafter a new rule was instituted, with Dad declaring ‘I don’t want you playing up there anymore.

Barry Irwin

            The pilot Jim Price, who’d lived and prospected in the Uranium City area since the ‘50s, once explained it to me this way:

The thinking was, since it came from the earth, it was safe to put it back in the earth. It’s wasn’t just uranium mining that did this, but all mining. I worked in Smither’s (check this) for a couple of years and it was just as bad there. You’d think they’d notice something was wrong when everything around these waste sites died, but that’s how just how it was.”

            After the closure, the Lorado town site and mill took on a second life as one of the landmarks around Uranium City, the largest abandoned mine site in the area behind Gunnar, and the only mine and town accessible by road. From the ‘60s into the ‘70s, townspeople from Uranium City came out to play golf in the tailings field, where the smoothly rolling hills and pools of water in the dips emulated a real golf course like no other area around town – the golfers presumably tracking the acidic, toxic, mildly radioactive sand into their vehicles, into their homes. Searching FLICKR a few years ago for images of Lorado, I found photographs of a guy on a dirt bike, roaring up and down the hills some time in the middle ‘70s. I wrote him and asked him about the experience. “Well,” he wrote back, “probably shouldn’t have done that. But hey, it was fun!” Townspeople took boats and canoes out onto Nero Lake, peering through the crystal clear waters down to the rusty-red sand on the lake bottom. Townspeople made off with building materials for their own cabins and houses, from the townsite, the few buildings that remained around the sealed-off mine, and even the mill. Right until the Beaverlodge Mine closed in the early ‘80s and Uranium City itself emptied out, teenagers came out to Lorado to have pit parties, lighting bonfires in the shadow of the sprawling mill.

            My family came out as well, driving the 7 or 8 kilometers from Uranium City. In winter, we went cross-country skiing, skirting the snow-covered tailings out to Beaverlodge Lake. Winter made the area even more beautiful. Sunlight sparkled off the jagged bedrock hills, the gnarled jackpine poking out of the bedrock and the snow pack. We also came out to explore the mill, what was left of the townsite. In winter, with the snowpack covering the tailings field, much of the refuse strewn around the mill, the area looked almost pristine. I remember it being unusually frigid, even for the area, a byproduct of the site’s proximity to not just Beaverlodge, but Milliken and Big Daddy Athabasca a few kilometers down the road. Only the mill, withy those rust-coloured streaks, those slightly disturbing holes in the fabric, created a discordant note in an otherwise pristine area. What little was left of the townsite was reduced to a few lumpen shapes rising beneath the snow, hardly recognizable as a town site at all.

            In summer, both the mill and what was left of the town were in full view. The rust-red tailings, the foundations, the concrete pads of what had been the skating and curling rinks. We’d follow the skeletal structure of the chute from the mill out into the tailings field, peer out over Nero Lake. We explored the mill, entering by the loading bay where the doors had been left open, ascending the stairs into the decks rising level by level to the roof. Wind whistled through the holes in the fabric, dispelling the industrial odours (and hopefully some of the toxicity) of the mill. Curiously, owls hooted from the rafters just below the roof. CC Phillips, describing the experience of visiting the mill nearly a decade later in his novel ‘Somewhere Safe’, described it thus:

Close to, the mill seemed eerie and, once Kane and LeSabre passed through a set of double doors that,  strangely, still hung square in their casings, the interior  appeared dim, dusty and hollow. There were no echoes  from a bygone era. 

Only the undeniable evidence of total cessation. 

Framing – beams, joists and timbers, were built to  last. The steps and catwalks seemed solid enough, too,  but Archie kept a firm grip on the railing as they  moved up a level . . . Ron and Archie went up another level. Windows had  been smashed out and the elements had gained access.  The interior displayed a more weathered attitude here.  The dust and grime of ancient industry had been sifted  and shifted by the winds. 

And this chamber was occupied. 

“Who … whoo, whoo,” was the greeting that  stopped Archie two steps down from being on the next  floor. A big pair of eye— no, make that two big pairs  of eyes were staring from a white-washed crossbeam  where a couple of juvenile horned owls perched. 

Ron LeSabre laughed. “Good to see someone taking up residence here.”

CC Phillips, Somewhere Safe – Uranium City: The Lure and the Lore
Lorado Mill, Winter 1958. Courtesy of Andy Schultz
Lorado Mill, Winter 1958

            If the Lorado mill had never seemed as impressive or imposing as the mill at Gunnar, it was familiar, even curiously reassuring. I’d been touring the ruins of abandoned mines and mills across northern Canada since we’d lived at Port Radium when I was 4 or 5 – to the point that some of my earliest memories are of looking at, exploring, these abandoned mine sites.

            Soon, I had another reason to be fascinated by Lorado, all the abandoned mines in the area: I’d begun reading science fiction in earnest, shifting from seeing Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind to the geekier and more science-heavy sci-fi of Rorbert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke with their visions of bases on the Moon and Mars, alien cities on faraway star systems – and alien visits to Earth. In the wake of the Apollo landings, and the first images of the Martian surface from the twin Viking Landers, space and space travel was still vivid in the public’s imagination and if the barren, rubble-strewn plains from the Viking Landers proved somewhat anti-climatic, then we still liked to believe we’d have settlements on Mars by the new millennium – and that it was entirely possible that aliens had visited us. The rust-red tailings were so evocative of the landscape captured by the Viking Landers, the mill so incomprehensible in its bulk and complexity, that it required no great trick of imagination to re-purpose it as some relic of an alien civilization, perhaps a spaceport of some kind, with the tailings the simulation of the alien’s own planet, recreated on Earth. Perhaps the mill and all buildings like it could even transport us into space if we could only figure out its inner workings, or find a way to make contact with the aliens that first created then abandoned these mysterious structures they’d left scattered all through the northern landscape. And perhaps I wasn’t so far-flung in imagining the tailings as a section of Mars left behind on Earth. given what we know about conditions on the Martian surface, where the fine rust-red sand has been left exposed to radiation from the sun by the absence of a magnetic field, possibly even toxic due to the presence, in greater or lesser degrees, of perchlorate, which are known to weaken the human thyroid gland.

            But even when I got older and moved beyond juvenile sci-fi fantasizing, Lorado, and all the mines continued to fascinate me. I’d take out maps of Uranium City region, and locate Lorado, along with Gunnar and Eldorado as points on the map surrounding Uranium City and feel curiously reassured. I’d think of the mill, the cluster of foundations and collapsing buildings that made up the townsite and wondered what Lorado could have become if the ’59 crash hadn’t prematurely ended its functional existence, if it might not have evolved into some sort of sister community to Uranium City. Perhaps it might have lived on another half-dozen or a dozen years, fueled by the growth of a few small mines in the area, a mini-hub for fisherman and hunters who wanted to stay in the area. Apparently the Lorado management had explored that option for a time after the mine and mill closed. Who can say.

            By 2000, all that remained of Lorado was the tailings field. Ten years before, the provincial government had demolished both the mine head and the mill and what was left of the townsite, part of a general remediation of mines in the area. All that remained of the mill was a smooth concrete pad, an octagonal concrete structure that looked like some sort of public sculpture. And the rust-red tailings, still poisoning Nero Lake. The government had plans to clean up the tailings field, as they did to clean up the mine site at Gunnar, and the dozen or more mine sites in the area, but like Danny Murphy said, no one knew when, or even if, this would happen. Part of the problem was that no one knew exactly how to clean up a tailings field left by a uranium mill: the technology for remediation was as novel and and unknown as uranium mining had been in the ‘50s.

            I came back in 2003, this time as part of a small film crew. We received some limited funding in December 2002, so decided to go up north for 10 days in order to shoot enough footage to raise more money to come back for a proper shoot in the late summer. We arrived in February, during a cold snap – temperatures plunged to -50C at night, and -35C in daytime, an intense cold I hadn’t experienced since we’d left the north in the early ’80s. In town, I heard that the government was finally taking some action at Lorado, though it was confined to preliminary actions for now – securing the tailings so they didn’t blow all over the place, and taking samples for further testing. A couple of days after we arrived, we drove out to see Murphy. Tall poplars now leaned in from either side of the road, so it was like driving through a snowy cathedral – the first indication how profoundly the forest would change when I came back 19 years later. At the tailings field, big signs with atomic signals had been posted every few meters in front of the tailings field (though some enterprising townspeople had made off with a couple of the signs, leaving behind empty poles). The tailings field itself had been covered with a kind of mesh, visible beneath the snowpack where the snow had blown away, holding all that toxic dust in place.

Clarice beneath warning sign at Lorado tailings field. Photo taken by Allen Augier
Clarice at warning sign, Lorado tailings field early ’00s.

            As we shall see in part two, this was the beginning of the end for what was left of the point on the map, and I felt somewhat melancholy looking out on the snow and mesh covered tailings field, realizing that it would one day disappear. Even if the tailings were toxic, even if they were slowly poisoning the surrounding landscape, I still found them curiously beautiful, evoking as they did the rust-red Martian landscape sent back by the Viking Landers, my youthful imagining of the tailings and the mill as relics of some mysterious alien outpost. The tailings field was all that remained of that point on the map, and when it was gone, so too would all traces of Lorado and this sector of the ‘50s boom. The aliens would never come back to re-inhabit their lost space-port. All that energy that went into this corner of the white man’s great push North would be erased completely and the point on the map would be no more.

Part II: Reclamation

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