Mining History

The First Miners

First Nations people were the first to use the natural resources of the arctic regions of Canada, adopting early methods to use geological resources of the land to their advantage. They learned that certain stones could be fashioned into pointed tips and sharp edges. Ancient quarries flowing into the Mackenzie River were mined to shape and fashion rocks called argillite, chert, welded tuff, and quartzite into weapons and hunting tools. Red orcre, an iron-rich clay, was collected for sacred traditional skin pigments. Salt was collected from the vast plains along the Slave River by Chipeywan and Metis traders. In the high arctic, Inuit and Dene discovered rich copper deposits and made malleable knives for hunting and trading. Arts, crafts, and fashion were also important elements to the lives of First Nations, and soapstone, talc and limestone were just some of the stones used as a media for artistic expression. Traditional knowledge of where to find and how to use rocks was advantageous to the aboriginal tribes. It was inevitable that others would arrive to unravel the secrets of northern rocks.

Klondikers Move North

The dramatic expansion of the fur trade during the 19th century brought an increased awareness of the geography of the Northwest Territories. Areas previously known only to the aboriginal people were now being explored and mapped. Before 1898, the Northwest Territories was a mysterious area of Canada. Only a handful of white European explorers (Martin Frobisher, Samuel Hearne, Alexander Mackenzie, John Franklin) and government geologists (Joseph Tyrell and R.G. McConnell, Geological Survey of Canada explorers) had entered the isolated arctic. The Klondike Gold Rush changed all of this. Most exploration and prospecting activity was centered on the Yukon side of the boundary. But some Klondike-bound men traveled through the NWT waterways, and by taking the river routes through Great Slave Lake they would make observations on the geology.  A prospector named E.A. Blakeney was one of these adventurers, staking claims along the way. Not much is known about him, but as he traveled he sent a sample from a claim at Yellowknife Bay to Ottawa, a sample that was assayed at two ounces of gold per ton. Prospectors also discovered lead and zinc on the south shore of Great Slave Lake at Pine Point. These were high-grade and interesting deposits, but like many other small mineral discoveries they were practically forgotten in the rush to claim Klondike riches.

Oil is Discovered

In the 1920’s oil was discovered at Norman Wells on the Mackenzie River. In response to new activity and economic development, the Canadian government created its first northern bureaucracy to oversee administrative functions, with offices based in Fort Smith. Exploration companies were using modified WWI fighter planes to chart and service distant northern areas. The introduction of aircraft technology in the NWT opened up the entire territory for mineral exploration. Mineral deposits were suddenly not so isolated, and prospectors realized an untapped potential using aircraft to gain access and explore.

The Great Radium Rush

Gilbert LaBine was one of these visionaries. In 1930, he discovered rich silver, cobalt, copper, and uranium ores at Great Bear Lake. The find sparked a staking rush in 1932-1933 and the NWT’s first mining settlement at Cameron Bay was founded. While silver was a target of interest, it was actually the radium in the uranium ores that caught everybody’s attention. Radium, a valuable tool for cancer treatment, was very rare and LaBine’s discovery was the first in North America. In 1933, the first mine in the Northwest Territories, Eldorado Mine, began operations producing radium, copper, and silver.

Yellowknife Gold

From Great Bear Lake, prospectors fanned out in search of minerals in the Canadian Shield, and gold was first discovered at Yellowknife Bay on Great Slave Lake by Johnny Baker and Herb Dixon in 1933. More rich gold veins were found and staked in 1934 and 1935, resulting in a staking rush and wild exploration and development which led to the founding of the town of Yellowknife by 1937. Johnny Baker’s most interesting gold find was the Burwash located on the east side of Yellowknife Bay.

At that time the only permanent inhabitants of the Yellowknife Bay area were small bands of Dene hunters who were not used to seeing foreign visitors on their traditional territory, but they adapted to new economic opportunities by supplying meat, labour and services to the miners and some even became bonified prospectors themselves. The Burwash Mine did not attain commercial success, but it fueled prospecting activity in the region. In the fall of 1935, a Geological Survey of Canada mapping party under the direction of Dr. Alfred Jolliffe noted visible gold on the west side of Yellowknife Bay, triggering a frantic rush to get claims staked before freeze-up. This led to the discovery and development of the Con Mine, which entered gold production in 1938, the first gold mine in the NWT. Many other mines followed, including Negus Mine in 1939, Ptarmigan Mine in 1941, Thompson-Lundmark Mine in 1941, Giant Mine in 1948, and Discovery Mine in 1950.

A Mineral Industry is Born

The town of Yellowknife grew in response to all the mining developments and continued to expand after World War II. Prospectors continued to stake claims, and while some were successful, and several smaller mines were built, others turned back or found employment at the mines. Gold was not the only mineral of interest in the NWT. Uranium became a strategic metal during WWII and the Cold War. Lead and zinc ores were staked and developed at the Pine Point, Nanisivik, and Polaris Mines. Nickel and copper were produced on the coast of Hudson’s Bay at Rankin Inlet, while tungsten ores were mined at Cantung high in the Nahanni mountains near the Yukon border. Massive gold projects were pushed to production all over the territory including the Colomac, Tundra, Salmita, Cullaton Lake, and Lupin Mines.

Diamonds in the Rough

As the old mines approached the end of their lives, modern-day prospectors continued their search for future mines to replace them. In 1989, Chuck Fipke reached Lac de Gras deep in the sub-arctic after a decade long search for diamonds. Since 1982, Fipke had been sampling the till and overburden from the Mackenzie Mountains east to the heart of the Canadian Shield, in order to isolate the kimberlite source of indicator minerals, a bread crumb trail that he believed would lead him to a fortune in diamonds. The previous generation of prospectors and geologists had passed over this ground and deemed it literally ‘barren’. But Fipke was resolute, and the work continued. Finally they hit ‘paydirt’, washing down high quality diamonds from the sands at Lac de Gras. The find sparked the largest staking rush in Canadian history in 1992. In 1998, Fipke’s original diamond claims began production as BHP Billiton’s Ekati Mine; Rio Tinto and Harry Winston owned Diavik Mine followed in 2003, Tahera’s Jericho Mine in 2006, and De Beers’ Snap Lake in 2007. Another diamond mine, Gahcho Kue is on the horizon. Several other precious metal, base metal, and diamond projects are also under development in both the NWT and Nunavut in the new millennium.

The Future of Mining

For over 70 years, mining has been the economic base of the NWT and its legacy continues today as the industry provides over 50% of the territorial Gross Domestic Product and employs over 2,000 people, including a significant pool of aboriginal people. The NWT Mining Heritage Society pays homage and respect to the old mines - their discoverers and dedicated workers - while we look ahead to a great future of vast mineral potential, a strong northern economy for its residents, and responsible development in support of society and the precious northern environment.

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