The vehicles began streaming in on Friday morning and by late afternoon almost 600 people had arrived at the Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park for the 2001 Uranium City Reunion.
Almost 20 years had passed since Eldorado Nuclear announced the closure of its Beaverlodge Mine, which led to Uranium City losing over 80 percent of it’s population in just six months. But this last summer, ex-residents drove or flew in from the Northwest Territories, British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and, in my own case, Montreal, Quebec.
The town they came to remember sits on the opposite end of the province, just 40 km south of the NWT border and divided from the rest of Saskatchewan by Lake Athabasca. Just 200 people now call Uranium City home. And, beyond the barely occupied downtown core, empty houses, schools, and public buildings stretch over three or four kilometers of some of the most exquisite country in the Canadian Shield.
In the 1950’s, Uranium City was a boomtown, fuelling the British and American nuclear weapons programs. Later, it fuelled the Candu reactor, which was supposed to put Canada at the forefront of the nuclear industry. By the late 1970’s, it was to be a model northern town. Candu High, built in 1978, was the best-equipped high school in the North, and Eldorado Nuclear spent $100 million on new roads, cedar-panelled houses, bunkhouses, offices and improvements to the mine. Declining ore prices and an inexplicable change of policy put an end to that.
And yet, both town and reunion area testament to a community that survived – aided, curiously enough, by the internet – two decades after being deserted by the very industry which gave it life.
“The veteran prospector came – heavy-bearded, with face burned brown by a thousand suns, roughened by sand and wind. The novice came – protégé of God alone. The drifter came – forsaken of both God and man, searching for a new beginning. All of them were lured by the golden promise of an awakening North.”
– Des Fogg, Uranium City journalist, 1959.
Uranium was discovered near Beaverlodge Lake in the late 1940’s, and Eldorado Nuclear, which supplied ore from Port Radium, NWT to the Manhattan Project, sank three mineheads which in turn set off a staking rush. Thirty-three mines – some no more than a hole in the ground, some large enough to require bunkhouses, stores and even townsites of their own – set up in the area.
Uranium City grew apace. The first store was a tent set up by Gus ‘the Famous’ Hawker, an English immigrant who made headlines back home when he chartered a plane and flew to London with his six daughters to see Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. Tents and shacks sprung up around downtown, then a hotel, bars, cafes and a movie theatre. Main street was as busy at night as it was in the day; the flood of men and money outdid the Klondike rush of the century before.
In 1959, Prince Phillip paid a visit. Then, that same year, both the British and American governments cancelled their contracts for Canadian uranium. Every mine but Eldorado shut its doors.
Soon, the town’s fortunes rose again when the Canadian government began stockpiling uranium for the Candu. Uranium City’s population grew. Locals were encouraged to invest in businesses and miners and their families were imported from as far away as the Phillipines and Germany to fill the new housing complexes around town.
Then, on Dec. 3rd, 1981, came the announcement that Beaverlodge Mine was closing. Protests were made, petitions circulated, meetings held, all to no avail. When the winter road opened across Lake Athabasca in February, moving vans rolled in from southern Saskatoon and Edmonton and for a few weeks the ice road as busy as the Trans-Canada highway.
My family lived twice in Uranium City, first in the 60’s, then the late 70’s before we moved to Vancouver in 1980. When we left for the last time, I was 15 and yet I neve forgot Uranium City or the North.
In the 60’s, there remained an echo of the frontier, and bush pilots, prospectors, and trappers were as much a part of town life as the miners and retailers who made up the bulk of the population. By the mid-70’s, Uranium City was coming into its own as a stable community, and yet, accessible only by air and the winter road, it was still very much the frontier. Summers and winters were spent outdoors, and stepping into the country, one felt hundreds of miles of uninhabited territory out beyond the town; at night the Northern Lights crackled overhead.
In 1996, I went back after an absence of 16 years. The first days were difficult: much of the town looked as if it had been ransacked by an invading army, then abandoned; roofs and walls had been removed, doors swung loosely on their hinges, and every window was smashed. Our old house had been stripped to bare wood and graffiti covered the walls. Candu High was little more than a concrete shell, dark and cold at its core, with refuse strewn across the floors.
I returned in 1987 and 2000, partly to research a novel I wanted to write about the town, partly out of curiosity. The population is mostly native, a change from the old days when the population was mostly white. The people who stayed did so for the same reasons that people have always stayed in the North – a love of the land or a disinclination, for whatever reason, to live in the south.
James and Luffy Augier were born in Camsell Portage – a Metis community 100km to the west – some 60 years ago and lived in Goldfields and Gunnar Mines townsite (where James began work in the mine at age 14) before moving to Uranium City in the 60’s. James started his own construction business: by the time the mine closed, he was a millionaire. Now, James guides in the summer and hunts in winter, remains active in Metis politics, and lobbies the government to clean up the town. Though five of his six children have moved south, James and Luffy plan to stay as long as they can.
Danny Murphy moved here in the 1970’s with his wife Pat. They took a lot outside of town and lived in a canvas tent while they built their first cabin from logs and timber from the abandoned mines. Four cabins decorate their wooded lot, ornamented with license plates, moose and caribou antlers, cast-iron stoves and other memorabilia. Danny doesn’t miss the south:
“The government wants us all to clear out but we ain’t going. We like the country up here.”
Andy and Clarice Schultz plan to move here in a couple of years when Andy, at age 43, retires from his job in Alberta. Andy was born and raised in Uranium City but left upon graduation in the 70’s. He came back 20 years later and decided that Uranium City was where he wanted to be. A few years later, he met Clarice and they took over his old family home and a cabin on a nearby lake.
Last year they crossed Lake Athabasca five times by skidoo, bringing up supplies and getting ready for the permanent move.
In 1952, Jim Price went down in a white-out over Lake Athabasca and walked for 24 hours across the lake to get help for his three passengers. He got help, but lost both his feet. Now, at 71, he lives near the seaplane base and flies for his own pleasure.
Although Uranium City has experienced far more than its share of pain and darkness, these people and others provide an echo of the old frontier spirit. This is a town, after all, where the post office is run out of the local jail, where people think nothing of traveling hundreds of miles by boat or skidoo, where a Canada Day Parade is still held on Main Street, where kids play hockey in the deserted Legion.
Len Kilbreath began the ‘Friends of Uranium City’ website in 1996, for the purpose of promoting the 1997 reunion, which was the first to be held in Cypress Hills. There’d been other reunions, which drew a couple of hundred people, as well as an annual New Year’s Dance in Saskatoon which always had a good crowd – but Len and his wife Joyce put on the first large scale reunion near their home in Vernon, BC in 1992, drawing 400 people.
“It was like stepping back in time, seeing people who’d shared their whole life together and really built the town.”
Encouraged by this success, they held the first Cypress Hills reunion in 1998, which brought in 700, most of whom hadn’t seen each other since the mid-80’s. Len spruced up his website, adding photos, articles, and an address list which quickly grew to over 1000 names. For the first time since the mine closed, people began to find their way back to each other. The years after the closure left much anger, shame, and bitterness in their wake, and in a way the Internet provided the perfect medium for people to make contact with the town – and each other – because of its relatively casual nature.
It was through this website that I discovered a dozen old friends, some I see regularly, some I just keep up with through the odd email or phone call.
The 2001 reunion lasted three days. Most of the 600 people were in their 50’s or 60’s, their faces etched by the cold or long hours in the mines, slightly out of place in the resort setting. There were plenty of children as well as 50 or so of my ex-classmates from Candu High, now in their mid-30’s, married with kids of their own.
To many, Uranium City had been the only place they’d known when the mine shut down. The subsequent years when their friends and neighbors left and the houses were abandoned had left a wound that will never totally heal. And yet they retained their easy closeness, and the habit of finding absurdity and humor in any given situation: traits that had made living in Uranium City so memorable.
Now, Uranium City struggles year by year. The hospital is set to move in the spring of 2003 and most resident feel that when the hospital goes, the government will cut basic services. But deadlines for the move have come and gone before and there are hopes that the hospital might stay a little longer, just as there are hopes that the price of gold might rise and the gold mine at Goldfields might open again, or that a ‘rare earth’ showing 30 km out of town might clean up the tailings ponds left by the Gunnar and Lorado mines, or that the town site itself will be cleaned up, or that the fishing lodges and spectacular countryside will bring in enough tourism to keep the town going.
As long as there are people in Uranium City, there is hope that one day the town might blossom once more.
11 thoughts on “Going Back Home to Uranium City”
Great article, I believe that once you have lived in UC you will never forget it, I don’t know many of the families mention, some of the names are very familiar and some of the oldtimer probably remember my parent Ken & Margaret Cochrane. We moved to UC in the early 50″s and left in the late 50″s but I can never forget UC it was a great place to live even at an very young age. Some of kids I remember even to this day is, Sonny-boy, Ronnie Jepperson( not sure if the spelling is right ) his parents owned the hotel at that time and of course the Hawker family. My Mother worked for Gus, when we 1st moved there. In fact I learned to skate on a small pond that was beside their store. I came back to UC for a couple of visits, stayed with my Uncle, who had the lumber yard. I also came back for a quick visit when coaching the Ft. McMurray hockey teams for exhibition games.
In short UC will always be remember as a great place to live.
Thanks for the kind words. You’re the first commenter and the site isn’t even live yet!!
And thanks for the memories. I didn’t arrive in UC until 1966, when I was one year old (we lived down at MASL), my mother remembers Gus Hawker in his store. I’m trying to locate a booklet that had some pictures and a bio of Gus, and a BBC news feature that was done in the late ’50s when they interviewed Gus in his store, as well as miners at the mine and various people around town. Hopefully I can dig them up.
Will probably launch (or soft launch) next week, under ‘uraniumcity-history.com’ and will be adding a lot more content over the next couple of months so keep checking in.
Great job on this site ,Tim. I lived in Eldorado,(1956-65) but went to school in U.C. after grade 4 or 5. I have an Eldorado site and also have a facebook page with many members. The tech age gives us a great oppurtunity to collect and display a lot of memories from the short lived era of Uranium City and surrounding mines. Many people have old pictures etc hidden away in an album or shoebox, and my hope is that they will let us share them . Keep up the good work…Ken
I see you have a photo edited I took in 1965 ! I am glad to do donate it . I have more from 65 and 66 if you would like them . One of my favourites is of Eddie Ottos tied inn cabin on the low point of the road to Elorado . I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Thanks! Which photo is it? Chris Robinson gave me a bunch off his facebook feed – or rather he gave me permission and I went through and grabbed them. You were on my list of people I wanted to contact, but now I have your email so I’ll contact you after Xmas. Would love to have your photos – I’m putting this together bit by bit, hopefully have it more together soon.
Btw – if by chance you start getting more spam, I’ll take your email off the comment, it happens sometimes.
I was fortunate enough to have spent a few years in U.C (1957-58), time in the bush with a fine fellow named Sam Christi and then as surveyor at Rix Athabasca Mine…I have photos of that time and will look for them to share on this site. I have also learned of a reunion in Sask. this August and would appreciate any info/comments. thank you, daryl
Thanks for your message. I remember Sam Christi (Christie?) very well, as he was a friend of my family’s. There’s a picture of me as a very young boy with him in a bush camp somewhere, probably around Uranium City. He was a sweet man, as I remember. We knew him in MASL, the seaplane base near UC, and I think when we lived in Port Radium in the late ’60s. He used to visit us later when we lived in Edmonton. I guess he worked for the same guy as my father at the time, Foster Irwin of Irwin Engineering (who was the last mine manager at Gunnar Mines).
Any photos you have would be more than welcome. I’m still developing and organizing this site, hopefully I can get to it soon.
I’ll write you via email, but here’s some basic info on the reunion. It will be on August 8 this summer, I think at Cypress Hills, SK as it has been for the last half-dozen or so. The main place to check in as the longstanding ‘Friends of Uranium City’ site: Friends of Uranium City. All the signup info can be found there – the site’s proprietor, Len Kilbreath, has been organizing these reunions since I believe the ’80s.
If you’re on facebook, there are a couple of pages worth looking at:
Uranium City Friends
Uranium City Reunion
I’m just getting over the flu but I’ll write in a couple of days.
My brother Raymond Braconnier was a mining engineer with Eldorado in the 60’s. I bought and published the Northland News – the weekly in 1968 but after only one year the town went into a depression with the loss of Uranium Sales – when the United States and Great Britain cancelled their uranium contracts. I actually left after abandoning my car and the small bungalow I purchased and drove back to Edmonton on the one and only dirt road through the bush in a broken down pick-up truck with the rest of my worldy goods. I’m writing a small article on my experience as a woman alone with a small child going into a boom abd bust townand at that time it was like the gold rush days one reads about – very exciting and I did fall in love with the north.
Thanks for your message. Did you mean 1968 or ’58 as the year you bought the Northland News? The first big crash happened in ’59, the same year that Prince Phillip came to visit. It must have been a fascinating time, especially for a young woman with a child. That sounds like quite a journey out – a lot of people had the same experience after the second crash in 1982 – cars, houses, even belongings just abandoned while people drove south across the ice road (over Lake Athabasca) and down south.
I would love to read your article when it’s finished. I’m going to post a historical film from that period sometime over the next couple of weeks. I believe it was shot in 1958. It was by a British production company, possibly ITN, very entertaining. Perhaps it’ll bring back some memories. If you’re publishing the article somewhere, send me the link and I’ll put it up – and if you want to post the article here, that would be great, I’m sure people would love to read it.
Great website Tim! I look forward to future developments. I could probably send you some photos from my visit to U.C. with Ray Jones back in 2004(?) if you’re interested. I’m glad that you’re going to the reunion. Please write something about that. Note my email address change. Still teaching in T.O.. Send me a note or something. Cheers.
Nice to hear from you. I’ll send you an email shortly but could definitely use those images somewhere. I’m in the process of redesigning this site and trying to give it some form. Doubt I’ll make the reunion as it turns out – too far, too much money. Another summer NY-bound.