The Unknown Giant of Canadian Mining – Thayer Lindsley – by Fred Bodsworth (Part 2 of 2)

Maclean’s Magazine – August 15, 1951

Lindsley is a rare combination of the four “musts” of mine-making success.

The first “must,” and Lindsley’s greatest asset, is his phenomenal insight into problems of geology and vein structure.

Second, he has an uncanny sense of economics and financing.

Third, Lindsley, though self-effacing in his personal life, is a striking contrast as a businessmen. He is willing to gamble hard and boldly with million-dollar stakes and long odds.

And fourth, he can work hard, physically and mentally, with a power of concentration so keen that he is amusingly absent-minded at times regarding matters outside his business affairs in which he has no interest.

Knack for Rock Jigsaws

Lindsley’s ability to work out complex problems of geological structure and decide whether a property is a potential mine or just another “teaser” has become a legend in Canadian mining circles. But he has made mistakes. For example, he pulled out of Red Lake, Ontario, in its early days because he was convinced the area had no promise, then had to watch with embarrassment as it developed into one of Canada’s richest gold camps.

But his errors have been few, his batting average incredibly high. Bob Gamble, who himself has a couple of mines to his credit, has said; “I’d sooner have Thayer Lindsley’s opinion than that of any other ten geologists I know.”

Only another geologist who understands the mysterious way in which a rock stratum can be cut off at one spot and then turn up five miles away as a result of a prehistoric vocanic upheaval can fully appreciate Lindsley’s knack for seeing through these riddles of rock structure. It is rather like trying to visualize the full picture of a jigsaw puzzle in which half the pieces are missing.

As mining engineer C. C. Huston explains it: “You’ve fitted together a few pieces and you have a man’s head at one spot and his foot somewhere else. On the strength of those two clues you figure out where his left hand should be. That’s how mining exploration works. Some men have to waste a couple of million dollars putting drill holes in the wrong spots before they see the picture. Lindsley can usually figure a thing out at the beginning. His judgment is not limited to just what he can see. He can visualize the underground structure with uncanny accuracy.”

Frequently prospectors have come to Lindsley to try to interest him in claims they have. Lindsley has studied their reports and maps, turned them down; then, scanning a map, he has added: “But if you can get these claims over here on the other side you might have something and we’ll talk business then.” With a few glances at a geological map Lindsley can see good potential ground that a dozen men on the spot have missed. La Luz and Giant Yellowknife were both viewed unfavourably by other mining engineers before Lindsley went after them.

Around 1924 Dick Ennis, general manger of the then-struggling McIntyre mine near Timmins, Ontario, Wanted some advice on whether the rich Hollinger ore next door could be expected to dip across into his property at lower levels. He tried to engage on of the world’s top mining experts. This geologist was too busy to do the job but suggested Lindsley. Ennnis had never heard of Lindsley and called him in with misgivings. Lindsley saw through the Hollinger and McIntyre gold structure immediately and it was his recommendations which started McIntyre on the path to two hundred million dollars worth of gold production.

About a year later Lindsley came back to Ennis. Lindsley was very enthusiastic about a money-losing property in Kirkland Lake, Ontario. It was deep in the red and several geologists had pooh-poohed it as a venture that was sure to fail. But Lindsley was just a s sure that the rich ore of Harry Oakes’ Lakeshore mine extended at depth into this adjoining property. He tried to interest the McIntyre outfit in putting up new funds for the Kirkland Lake project, but Ennis was still in doubt about Lindsley’s reliability and refused to gamble. Lindsley tossed in his own limited funds of that time and profited handsomely, for the ridiculed property developed in a few years into the fabulous Teck-Hughes a forty-five-million-dollar dividend-payer.

In the early days of the Rouyn rush in Quebec, Lindsley and Bob Gamble were sitting in a restaurant with several prominent geologists. The “big boys” were excitedly discussing a new copper discovery nearby. It looked like a big thing. Lindsley told Gamble they had better have a look and see if they could still get in on it. They went up by canoe next day. Lindsley, saying hardly a word, spent two hours looking it over, then gave his opinion: “ It looks wonderful on the surface, but it won’t go down.” He refused to have anything to do with it. All the geological big-names laughed at him. Several hundred thousand dollars were spent on exploratory drilling. Then the property was abandoned: there was an excellent showing of copper on the surface, but underneath the rock was as barren as Rouyn’s newly laid concrete sidewalks. Lindsley had been right.

Lindsley’s geological judgment is matched by a profound economic shrewdness.

Several times his talent for foreseeing new global trends in metal prices and foreign exchange rates has put thousands of dollars on to the profit sheet of Ventures Ltd.

In 1949, his Frobisher Ltd. owed a final payment of twenty thousand pounds on its Connemara gold property in Southern Rhodesia. The payment was due August 15. But Lindsley, anticipating a sterling devaluation, secured a year’s extension on the debt. In a few months the Rhodesian  pound had dropped in value. In October Frobisher paid up with cheap pounds. Lindsley’s delaying action saved the company about twenty thousand dollars.

In 1930, with the depression under way, Lindsley astonished the mining world by buying fifty percent of the idle Beattie mine near Noranda, Quebec. The Beattie claims were big-tonnage low-grade property which could be made to pay only by a combination of peak efficiency and favorable market conditions. Gold was then at a low of twenty dollars an ounce, which meant Beattie’s ore couldn’t be profitably mined. But Lindsley decided the gold price had to rise. He hoisted his interest to seventy-three percent and started pouring money into Beattie.

Shareholders in Ventures, which was putting up the money, squawked; the industry laughed. Lindsley concentrated on working out a mining and milling efficiency which, with an improved gold market, could be expected to make Beattie’s proven low-grade tonnage pay. It was the first deliberate attempt in the history of Canadian gold-mining to tackle a low-grade proposition as such from the outset.

The Beattie gamble was a dangerous drain on Venture’s funds for two precarious years. But by 1933 Lindsley’s hunch had materialized. Gold was up to more than thirty dollars and ounce. Beattie’s operating costs were squeezed to a minimum; a method of high gold recovery had been developed especially for Beattie ore. The mine started writing up profits immediately and, next to Falconbridge, it became Ventures’ second biggest money-earner. By 1948 Ventures had a number of bigger fish on its hook and Beattie control was allowed to pas to other interests, but its fifteen years of production had paid back the Ventures investment many times.

Lindsley’s capacity for hard work abets his mastery of geology and finance. He is a great man for writing memos at home. He wakes up at night with an idea, jots it down on a sheet of notepaper and arrives at the offices sometimes with a pocketful of memos, signed with his scrawling “T.L.”

His mind usually outruns his hand and his writing is an angular scribble frequently almost impossible to read. The memos are passed around and everyone in the office takes a crack at deciphering them, for Kindsley’s courteous and gracious manner occasionally disappears and he becomes provoked if a memo is returned to him for an explanation of its meaning. One employee has suggested this might be because he has difficulty reading his memos himself.

“Operator, Get Me Venezuela!”

He is a steady worker and often has lunch brought to his desk. In the past he traveled so hard few men could keep up with him. And he had difficulty keeping a partner.

“He’d run the legs off everyone,” one prospector recalled. “In the early days at Rouyn, around 1925, I’ve seen him leave camp at four or five a.m. with a few apples and dry pieces of bread in his pocket, and not come back until after dark. He never grew tired of looking. Was always enthusiastic. After five or six days of tough going the rest of us would take things easy for a day or so, but Lindsley would keep right on going like hell.”

Today Thayer Lindsley is still going at the same speed. He still visits properties for personal examination, though less frequently. He closely watches enterprises which are in trouble or just getting started, leaving the smoother running operations to subordinates. In an average week he may spend a couple of days in Toronto, a couple in New York, possibly a day consulting government officials in Washington or Ottawa, and talk by long-distance telephone several times with the Guayana offices in Venezuela, with La Luz in Nicaragua and with representatives in London, England, where the African developments are directed.

When he gets a geological map in front of him he is oblivious to everything else. A bush pilot has described a trip into northern Manitoba with Lindsley and two other passengers. Their small plane was caught in a violent thunderstorm. The wind reached near-hurricane proportions and the plane was taking a dangerous pounding in the rough air. The pilot became uneasy and decided to make an emergency landing on a lake. E

Eventually he found a protected arm of water and brought the aircraft down safely. Then the waves started pitching it, dipping first one wing in the water and then the other. Three of them jumped out and waded ashore. Lindsley was not with them. Fearful for Lindsley’s safety the pilot waded back only to find his passenger nonchalantly sitting at the rear of the plane’s cabin, wedged between packing cases against the aircraft’s pitching, his head buried in a geological map. He had not exactly been oblivious to all that had gone on, but he was concentrating so intently on the map that he had been only dimly aware of the storm and landing.

Among prospectors living in the isolation of the bush the exchange of confidences is common. But Lindsley has never talked about himself, and even men who slept and traveled with him for weeks at a time know little of his early life.

His parents were members of an old New England family and his father was a CPR representative in Japan, where Lindsley was born in Yokohoma in 1882. He was fifteen before his parents returned permanently to the U.S. to live at Milton, a suburb of Boston.

Lindsley received his BA at Harvard University in 1903, graduating near the top of his class with no scholarships but two honorable mentions. Franklin D. Roosevelt graduated in the same class with a standing considerably lower than Lindsley’s. The two met occasionally and corresponded sporadically until F.D.R.’s death. In 1904 Lindsley graduated as a civil engineer.

He worked for a year or two in the engineering department of the New York Rapid Transit Commission. But his brother, Halstead, three years older, had chosen mining engineering and Thayer, as a result, became fascinated with the subject. He took some post-graduate work in geology and mining engineering at Columbia University, but most of his mining know-how he picked up from experience as a prospector in the western U.S. and northern Ontario, choking on black flies, lugging his own canoe across portages.

He Runs His Own Show

After serving in World War I as an artillery officer Lindsley acquired a run-down iron mine in Oregon, made it pay, sold it, and with a stake of thirty thousand dollars returned to northern Canada. In the mid-Twenties he clicked in rapid succession with Sherritt Gordon and Falconbridge Nickel. No one would buy Falconbridge because the big International Nickel next door controlled all North American nickel-processing patents. Lindsley bought control, was ridiculed then dumbfounded his critics by buying out a nickel refinery in Norway which is still the site of Falconbridge’s ore processing.

In 1928 Lindsley, associated with his brother Halstead, Joseph Errington, Col. C.D.H. MacAlpine and Gen. D.M. Hogarth (all of whom are now dead), organized Ventures Ltd. Critics denounced it as just another stock-selling scheme. But Lindsley had no intention of pocketing public money and letting Ventures fold, for, as his whole career had demonstrated, he is interested in making mines, not money.

The fact is, Ventures in its twenty-three years has made only two small offerings of stock to the public; Lindsley insists on running his own show and too many public stockholders frequently mean outside interference.

In spite of the depression, which in three years knocked the value of Ventures stock from a high of $14.85 down to 16 cents (present value: around $11), Ventures carried out an aggressive search for new mining properties which soon produced promising holdings throughout the world. Many like Opemiska Copper in Quebec and Island Lake Gold in Manitoba were failures which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, but among the failures mine after mine came through as producers, and in 1950 Ventures, even after plowing back most of its earnings, showed the biggest profit of its history, $906,313.

One of Lindsley’s most bitter failures was his discovery in 1940 at lake Dufault Mines, Quebec, of a fifty-million-dollar copper-gold ore body twelve hundred feet underground which, on more careful surveying, turned out to be almost entirely within the boundaries of the neighbouring Waite-Amulet mine. Waite-Amulet claimed ninety percent of the stock in the company organized to mine the ore Lindsley had discovered.

The Records Are Sealed

Another earlier failure was a property in Northwestern Ontario. During this operation, Lindsley met Ida Ann Machin, of Kenora, a daughter of the owner. They were married on May 28, 1929. But Lindsley, according to friends, “is a man with only one real love mining.”  The marriage ended in a Reno divorce on grounds of incompatibility in 1935. There were no children. The following year the divorce was made valid for Canada by a Supreme Court sitting in Port Arthur.

Most divorce records are open to the public, but the Lindsley records are sealed up at Osgoode Hall, Toronto, to be opened only with a judge’s written permission. Judges have the authority to order this in divorce cases, but it is a practice which, according to officials, is resorted to “Not once in fifty thousand cases.”

Lindsley is a charitable man who is said to “send out turkeys by the score at Christmas” and who once handed a destitute prospector Twenty thousand dollars for a property which he knew was valueless. He continued to support his former mother-in-law until her death several years after his divorced wife had married a second time.

Ironically, Lindsley’s lack of interest in making money for himself is the only trait which has made him bad friends. As fast as one Lindsley mine starts paying off its profits are plowed back into another. Recently he told a shareholders’ meeting: “Paper currencies will continue to depreciate in valve and your only protection is to have good ore in the ground.”

But most stockholders are more interested in seeing their profits turned into dividends instead, and the battle of dividends-or-another-mine flares up frequently at the annual meetings of Lindsley companies. Usually the astute Lindsley smoothes everything over but not always. Several years ago the minority shareholders of Sherritt Gordon banded together and their complaints of milking Sherritt Gordon profits for other mining developments forced Lindsley to give in.

Sherritt Gordon, the big Manitoba producer of copper, zinc, silver and gold, was the first big mine Lindsley created: “the eldest son” in his mining family. But he appraised the situation coldly and without sentiment, and sold out practically all his extensive Sherritt Gordon holdings. At last report he owned less than three percent of this, one of the biggest mines he guided into production.

He explained the reason simply to a friend: “What’s the use of owning a horse you can’t ride?”


For more historic print articles about Canadian mining, click here:

Comments are closed.