Prospecting and Developing

Ontario has become one of the most fortunate and richest regions of the world primarily for two reasons. It has vast natural resources including mineral deposits of untold potential. The increasingly complex skills and knowledge necessary for the discovery and development of these deposits have been acquired, refined and applied vigorously by residents of Ontario with growing sophistication during the last 200 years.

Click Here For Further InformationAlthough native peoples knew of some of its mineral deposits and drew on them to meet their own needs, the extent of Ontario’s mineral potential did not begin to become clear until major discoveries of silver and gold were made early in the 20th century on the province’s section of the Precambrian Shield, Canada’s primary geological formation. Massive deposits of copper-nickel ores had been uncovered near Sudbury in the 1880s. But knowledge of their presence did little to change the prevailing view that the Precambrian region of northern Ontario was a barrier to progress. Something of the character of that region, and of what had to occur before its rocks would yield up their riches, may be found in the poetry of Robert W. Service:

I am the land that listens, I am the land that broods;
Steeped in eternal beauty, crystalline waters and woods.
Long have I waited lonely, shunned as a thing accurst,
Monstrous, moody, pathetic, the last of the lands and the first;
Wild and wide are my borders, stern as death is my sway,
And I wait for the men who will win me — and I will not be won in a day.

Men and women, with the qualities that Robert Service identified, settled in Ontario as the 19th century ended and the 20th century began. The record of how they and successive generations transformed its mineral potential into the reality of wealth, with few of them becoming rich in the process, is a central though often neglected feature of the history of Ontario and Canada. Indeed, the emergence of Ontario as the most populous and wealthiest Canadian province, and of Canada as an industrialized and respected nation, cannot be fully understood without some appreciation of the key roles that prospecting and mining have played in that development.

The Loyalist Pioneering Era

When the Loyalists came to Upper Canada they found it was a magnificent, heavily forested, almost entirely aboriginal territory. Its population consisted of perhaps 100,000 native peoples, small groups of French farmers at the western end of Lake Erie and soldiers stationed at British military posts. Transportation over distances was primarily by rivers, lakes and essential portages.

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In Upper Canada the Loyalists found good farmland along the Ottawa and St. Lawrence rivers and in Prince Edward County. They encountered stony ground between the present cities of Brockville and Kingston. In due course they learned that the stoney ground stretched north to the Canadian Shield — the vast, rock-bound region covering more than half of the land mass of Canada. Subsequently, the large tract of land now known as Southwestern Ontario (north and west of Lake Ontario and between Lake Erie and Lake Huron and its eastern arm, Georgian Bay) was found to be — and became —one of Canada’s most fertile regions.

The Early Search for Minerals

Among the immediate material needs of the Loyalists and later pioneers were nonmetallic materials such as building stone, shale, slate, gypsum and clay for the making of brick, roofing, tile, drainpipe, cement and plaster. Fortunately all of these were available in Upper Canada. Various types of stone — limestone, sandstone, granite and marble — were soon quarried in several areas. A considerable number of brickyards were established. Gypsum was first mined in 1822 in Upper Canada at a place later named Paris, about 30 miles west of Hamilton. The quality of these natural building materials and the skill of the artisans who used them may still be noted in the lasting beauty of some of the early homes and public buildings in Brockville, Perth, Kingston, Cobourg, Toronto, Niagara-on-the-Lake and other Ontario towns established nearly 200 years ago.

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Another major need in Upper Canada’s early years was iron for the local manufacture of stoves, kettles, pots, pans and other iron goods. In 1801 the province’s first successful blast furnace for the smelting of iron was built at a place called Furnace Falls (now Lyndhurst), a few miles north of Gananoque in Leeds County. This plant operated until 1811 when it caught fire; efforts to continue iron-making there ceased. Limited success was enjoyed at an iron works set up in 1813 on the north shore of Lake Erie, south of the village of Simcoe, until Joseph Van Norman took it over in 1822 and ran it successfully for a quarter of a century.

The primary problem for ironmongers in that early period was securing an adequate continuing supply of iron ore. The basic material then used — bog iron — was of a generally inferior quality found in bogs where it had been laid down over a long period through the dehydration of iron-bearing mud. Although Van Norman produced pig iron of good quality and had markets for his products in the United States as well as in Upper Canada, the ore supply problems made his Normandale operation unprofitable. In the late 1840s he revitalized an iron-making operation at Marmora, east of Peterborough, where a “Big Ore” bed, later called the Blairton Mine, had been discovered in 1824.

There was, however, a greater need: there were few geologists who understood the origin and environment for the occurrence of metal deposits. Fortunately, in the late 18th and early 19th century major advances were being made in the development of geology as a theoretical and applied science. William Logan, a Canadian of Scottish descent, was one of the scientists who made key contributions to that development.

William Logan and the Establishment of Mining as an Industry

After completing his early education in Montreal, where he had been born in 1798, William Logan entered the University of Edinburgh in 1816 and studied geology. An applied apprenticeship followed when, in 1831, he went to Swansea, Wales to manage copper/tin production. While there Logan devoted much time to the study of the origin, composition, distribution and succession of strata or layers of rock and related minerals. He also became an active member of the highly respected Geological Society of London.

While in England, Logan developed the original theory that coal deposits were of sedimentary origin. This theory gained wide acceptance among leading geologists including Charles Lyell (1797-1875), author of the three-volume study, The Principles of Geology. Lyell’s high regard for his work was a key factor in Logan’s appointment in 1842 as the Canadian government’s first geologist. During his 27 years as the founder and first director of what came to be known as the Geological Survey of Canada, he served with great distinction. As the boundaries of Ontario and Canada were gradually extended, so also was the work of the Survey across the entire country.

Click Here For Further InformationSpecial reports and, in many cases, topographical and geological maps were prepared in conjunction with many discoveries and explorations: copper mining on the north shore of Lake Huron at Bruce Mines following discoveries there in 1847-48; oil and natural gas southeast of Sarnia in southwestern Ontario in the 1850s and 1860s; salt and gypsum in the Goderich region from 1866 onwards; gold near Madoc and Marmora in 1866 and slightly later the first gold discoveries in the Canadian Shield; silver at Silver Islet in Lake Superior in 1868; the discovery of copper near Sudbury in 1883 by Tom Flanagan, a blacksmith working on the construction of the right-of-way for the Canadian Pacific Railway. Not all of these discoveries led to major metal production mining, but some did.

In his thorough and highly disciplined manner, Logan personally completed extensive field and laboratory work to acquire the information set out in his masterly 938-page volume Geology of Canada, the summation of knowledge in its field to that time. It was published in 1863. Two years later an atlas was published and then a larger geological map in 1869. With the appearance of these maps Canada entered a new and more informed era in the search for minerals. The Geological Survey of Canada, under a succession of capable directors and field officers, continued in the traditions Logan had established and thereby contributed to the development and maintenance in Canada of a mining industry of world stature.

The New Era in the Search for Minerals, 1842–1890

The availability of information and advice, reports and maps from the Geological Survey from 1842 onwards enabled early prospectors, as individuals or small partnerships, to strike out more successfully on their own. They soon realized that the best place to search for any mineral was in areas where evidence of it had already been found earlier by native people, trappers or explorers. In addition they knew that mineral deposits, like bananas and grapes, come in bunches. Some reflective prospectors also realized that in all likelihood the best deposits would not be found first and so any evidence of mineralization demanded serious study and probably wider search. Adding drama to the search for precious minerals in the 19th century were the celebrated gold rushes in California in 1848 and the Cariboo Mountains in British Columbia from 1860 to 1863.

Prospectors have long known that mineral discoveries are often made by chance or serendipity. They know, more importantly, that every time the soil cover of the earth is disturbed, by nature or by human action, another window is opened for the inquisitive prospector. A select few sensed that, if they were to be rewarded, they had to see not merely what everyone else could see but to understand what they saw. Thus emphasis on formal education increased.

Studies in geology and mining engineering were initiated in several colleges and universities in Ontario in the 19th century. Geological studies were offered at University College, Toronto early in the 1850s and William Logan endowed a professorship in Geology and Palaeontology at McGill in 1855. By the end of the 19th century, six Canadian universities had geology departments. Attention was also given to the education of mining engineers at McGill, Queen’s, Royal Military College and Toronto.

The need, however, was not merely for knowledgeable prospectors or well-trained geologists and mineralogists. Metallurgists, individuals who knew how to extract and separate minerals from their ores, refine and alloy them, were also required. Often the contributions of gifted research metallurgists determined whether a new mineral discovery would succeed or fail. A notable example of such a problem was the separation and purification of the complex nickel-copper ores found in the Sudbury region in the 1880s.