The discovery of nickel in this area quickly gained international recognition for the village of Sudbury. The following account from New York published in the last century glowingly sketches the activities of what was viewed as a “second El Dorado”.
Only recently the eyes, not only of the mining, but also of the commercial world have been fixed upon one little town in Canada. This town is Sudbury, a junction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, which the westward traveler but a short time ago would have passed with nothing but a sigh of boredom. It has now been discovered to be the centre of nickel and copper mines larger than the world has hitherto seen.
With the uses of copper we are already familiar, but it is only within the last few years that science has revealed the possibilities that lie before the other metal. The Chinese, indeed, claim to have known the value of nickel centuries ago, but Europeans only know of its existence in the eighteenth century. Up to as recent a date as 1889, nickel was considered useful, and no more – it is not found to be indispensable.
The history of the small hamlet of Sudbury – now a second El Dorado – reads like a romance. It started as a lumber town, although its prospects in that direction always seemed limited, as well through a scarcity of timber as through difficulty of transport. Indeed, it was only by the discovery of copper in the neighborhood that its inhabitants were rescued from distress caused by the large forest fires.
Mines were opened and large quantities of ore exported in utter ignorance of the fact that the copper ore contained a considerable percentage of nickel. It must always remain a mystery as to who first made this discovery. It is said that it was due to the action of some conscientious manager in a New York smelting company, who remitted the money for the nickel as well as the copper to the mine owners.
At any rate, the metal was now known to exist, but it was uncertain in what quantity. Important experiments having revealed the value of nickel to the American government, they sent surveyors to the spot. These more than confirmed the reports of the local mineral commission: there was visible above ground 650 millions of tons of ore. The whole area of land rich with metal covered 15,000 square miles: enough nickel was already discovered to supply the world for fifty years!
Boom Town Loomed
For a short time it seemed as if there would be a “boom” at Sudbury rivaling, if not surpassing that of the days of the gold fever in California or silver in Nevada. Rich and poor flocked to the spot: The speculator, with his thousands, was there, side by side with the penniless man of fashion. There, too, collected the band of n’er do-wells with whom all mining districts abound, who hoped that the scanty knowledge of mines and minerals picked up in British Columbia or north Michigan would at last bring them good fortune. Land lots were bought and sold with intense rapidity. A man who buys a lot one day for 50 pounds is offered 5,000 pounds for it the next, when it is found that he has chanced upon one of the richest veins of ore. He refuses the offer, and in two months gets 20,000 pounds instead.
Like the soldiers in Napoleon’s army – each one of whom carried the field marshall’s baton in his knapsack – each man you meet at Sudbury sees before him the vision of untold wealth. Those who have read Mark Twin’s account of “Flush Times in Virginia City” can easily portray the hubbub in this once stagnant village.
Meanwhile, the army of prospectors, whose trade it is to find and value the veins of ore, wander doggedly over the country. Never an inviting district, it now looks particularly cheerless tot eh passer by within its coating of snow and charred stumps of pine as far as the eye can reach. Nature, in revenge for the discovery of her wealth, seems to have haughtily veiled the beauty of her face.
The prospector is generally a man of strong constitution. For weeks he wanders alone, feeding on food coarser than that of a laborer, yet seeking vast treasurers. Every step he plants he fancies may be on a mine; a bush, a branch, may be the only thing between him and the realization of his wildest dreams. Socially, he is most entertaining: he knows a little of everything, and is veritably “not one, but all mankind’s epitome”. He talks freely, and no one need be afraid of trying to extract information from him, for he will say what suits him, and no more.
But apart from the prospector, who knows his business more or less, every man you meet at Sudbury has a lump of rock in his pocket. All have wonderful reliance on their own luck, and the most inexperienced will tell you, in a hushed whisper, how the Great Comstock silver lode was walked over a thousand times unseen by the cleverest experts in the land.
Gary Peck is a retired Sudbury school teacher with a passion for history.