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Cobalt: Ontario's Most Historic Town?

Cobalt: Ontario's Most Historic Town?

A BIG silver rush that built a community

In 2001, TVO’s popular Studio Two TV show ran a series of panels on Ontario’s towns. One such panel was tasked to determine which was Ontario’s “most historic.” Amid more recognizable entries such as Kingston and Niagara on the Lake, the choice was a largely forgotten Northeastern Ontario mining boomtown, Cobalt.

A silver rush town

There was a time however, when the name “Cobalt” resonated around the world. In 1903, two timber scouts for the Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Railway came upon some unusual rocks with a strange lustre to them. The provincial assayer in North Bay determined that they were an incredibly rich deposit of silver. And so, as in the Klondike only a few years earlier, the rush was on. Those timber scouts, J.H.McKinley and Ernest Darragh, not surprisingly turned their attention to prospecting and claimed what became one the silver fields’ richest mines. As exploration progressed, prospectors unearthed silver pieces said to be as large as stove lids.

Silver mining in Cobalt, around 1918. Photograph on a lantern slide.

Silver seekers tumbled off the trains, stakes were pounded into the ground, headframes sprouted from the forests and an improbable town grew on the rocky ridges. By 1910, Cobalt had boomed to 10,000 people. A new brick station, the finest in the northeast, welcomed arrivals while more than 50 mines clattered away, some in the middle of the town itself. Silver Street and Lang Street boasted a row of hastily built wooden boomtown buildings more than 3 km. Long, but simple wooden houses stood helter skelter on the rock ridges.

Lang Street, Cobalt (1911).

From Boom to Bust

Sadly, every boom has a bust and by 1930, depleted deposits and plunging silver prices closed most of the mines, turning Cobalt into a near ghost town. But in its prime, the town was pivotal in making Ontario a mining super-power. Over its boom years, the mines of Cobalt yielded more than 420 million ounces of silver. 

In 2001, Cobalt earned the crown as Ontario’s “Most Historic Town” thanks to its impressive silver yield and remarkable boomtown landscape. Regrettably, much of its heritage townscape was lost over the years to devastating, some say, “legendary” fires. In 1909 half of the 3-km main street succumbed to a raging fire, while in 1977 more than 140 homes were destroyed. But flames were not the town’s only nemesis.

In 1987, what appeared at first to be a small pothole appeared in the highway leading into town. The pothole quickly and mysteriously grew to consume the entire road and proved to be a collapsing mine shaft, for the town is underlain by abandoned shafts. Questions arose as to whether the entire town should be abandoned. Fortunately, after a multi-million-dollar repair job to the roadway, that proved unnecessary.

As New Liskeard grew, Cobalt languished as a backwater with little physical capacity for new growth. Boomtown buildings still line the streets, while a forest of ghostly headframes yet rise above the tree tops in the silver fields around town. 

Celebrating the Past

Today the town celebrates that historic past. The mining museum has created self-guided tours to the town’s streets and the many mine sites in the area. Fittingly, the two entrances to the town are guarded by rusting headframes, along with the legendary log blacksmith shop where blacksmith Fred Larose threw his hammer at a pesky fox, exposing one of the field’s richest silver deposits. The walking tour passes the fireproof former Exchange Hotel, the Coniagas Headframe which an enterprising grocery store owner used to cool his produce, the theatre, a tribute to the mining men and women, and the elegant brick former railway station.

Amid the hills are the Nipissing 69 mine, the “silver sidewalk,” and 19 different mining locations, most sporting interpretive trails. Although fires and demolitions have claimed many early boomtown buildings, Cobalt’s streets and hills yet yield a heritage treasure trove of buildings and scenes that are unlike anything else you're likely to see in Ontario.    

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