1st April 2011

Life in Kirkland Lake during World War II – by Michael Barnes

posted in Kirkland Lake, Michael Barnes History Columns, Northern Ontario History |

The following is an excerpt from Michael Barnes’ new book: Gold in Kirkland Lake, published by General Store Publishing House, and available for $29.95. Contact the author at www.barnes4books.com.

After the war in Europe commenced, the bright spot in Ontario’s Kirkland Lake gold camp area was the Kerr Addison mine in Virginiatown, which by 1941 was able to ramp up milling to 1,200 tons per day.

Over at Larder Lake, the Omega mine payroll had not raised much over the past few years, with muckers and labourers earning $4.64 a day and track and lamp men $5.20, while the main official in charge underground, the mine captain, took top dollar at $8.70.

On the surface, Kirkland Lake was busy and in good economic health. The town’s population had now dropped to 21,500 and seen 1,600 men go to serve their country in the armed forces, and some miners had left to work in war-related industries.

In the patriotic fervour that gained strength after the declaration of war, there was a move by some southern-based citizens to change the name of Swastika to what they thought would be a more politically acceptable “Winston,” honouring the wartime British leader. In September 1940, there was a large public meeting held in Swastika at which residents loudly proclaimed their loyalty to Canada and the old country and the determination to keep their name, which had been in common use since 1904 and long predated Hitler and his movement. The Department of Highways made the mistake of erecting signs for Winston, but these were quickly torn down, and in the end, the ill-advised move to change the village name was quietly dropped.

The Teck Hughes mine had difficulty in pursing profitable veins and its output in the second year of the war dropped to an annual return of $3.6 million. The small Morris Kirkland mine on the east edge of town had closed, and the number of miners employed in all area mines decreased; this was directly attributed to loss of personnel to more essential war industries. Then the first sign of labour problems surfaced when 47 workers at the Teck Hughes mine were fired for what was termed “union activities.” For some reason, the union movement targeted Kirkland Lake, even though it was well known that the mines were starting a slow decline and there was plenty of work in other northern centres for any who might be discontented with their working lot.

The determination of the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers Union Local 240 to force a settlement was shown by the fact that attempts to engage the mining companies in negotiation dragged on for more than a year. For their part, the mines would not agree to a collective bargaining session but instead adopted their customary stance in settling only for individual mine talks. Supervisors at the Lake Shore mine found a union card underground, and several miners working that shift were summarily fired. Finally, in November, when there was no progress at all — even after a provincial government conciliator had tried unsuccessfully to reconcile the parties — the miners went on strike. A vote was secured with 63% of union membership in favour of strike action. Those at eight mines voted for strike, and those at the Upper Canada and Golden Gate mines stayed out of the dispute.

The strike bitterly split the community. There were isolated nuisance incidents. One Roman Catholic priest, against the wishes of his superior, came out in support of the labour action. The chief of police was concerned at the possibility of violence and requested that 30 to 36 officers be sent by the provincial government to assist in maintaining order. The province was alarmed by such a wartime labour dispute and overreacted by sending 182 members of the OPP. Meanwhile, the union head office was mindful of the adverse public relations the strike might cause and sent its own mediators to the community.

The union leaders felt it was a dispute between communist and socialist elements of the local membership but their efforts to bring the factions together did not succeed. For several weeks, the police paraded daily en masse down Government Road in an evident show of force before deploying to each mine gate. Picketing was reduced to six persons per mine entrance and was thus ineffective, with those wishing to go through the line and keep working were easily able to do so.

The strike was constantly featured in the national news and was represented to be against the war effort; the job action dragged on for four months with some decreased output at the mines and increasing hardship for union members and their families.

There was some light relief. Hockey stayed popular and there were impromptu games between police and strikers in off-duty hours. The strike was lost by February; by then, many families had drifted away to other centres to find work, especially in Sudbury, Ont., where the nickel mines were booming, producing essential war materials.

In the end, 500 workers were taken back by the employers; it appeared that at least 700 had left town. For a while, there were 600 unemployed men in the community before these unfortunates realized they would not be rehired and left the area. Everything changed in 1945 when federal law mandated that majority union representation was to be a legal bargaining agent.

That same year, the mines accepted their former enemy, the once-militant Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers Union, as the certified bargaining agent.

In 1942, Kirkland Lake’s fortunes were further cast down when the federal government declared that gold mining was not an industry essential to the war effort. This meant that mines across the country producing gold could no longer get supplies or compete for men and materials with mines producing base metals.

Many small mines closed for the duration and larger mines kept open by producing equipment in their machine shops for the war effort. There were now only 2,337 men working in the Kirkland Lake mines, half the peak total, and the great Lake Shore mine was never able to mill more than 1,000 tons per day, with the mine operated mainly by older workers. Local people did their part with bond drives, and schoolchildren collected scrap for recycling. Church women knitted comforts for the troops overseas. Prominent among the patriotic fervour was Roza Brown, who attended all functions and made a point of publicly kicking Hitler’s picture at every opportunity.

The efforts of D’Alton McCarthy Gilpin at the Sylvanite mine did not go unrecognized. Records of the event are skimpy, but the Canadian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy awarded the miner its medal for bravery for rescuing another miner underground on Feb. 26, 1942, a notable honour, since this is considered the “Victoria Cross” of the industry.

Kirkland Lake raised so much money for the war effort that the town was honoured with a warship named for the community. The town proudly sponsored HMCS Kirkland Lake, a 1,445-ton river class frigate that served in the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean. One officer was John Black Aird, later to become lieutenant governor of the province. A similar vessel, the Battleford, sailed with Kirkland Lake seaman Joe Mavrinac, who was to become a prominent local businessman and long-serving mayor. One local wartime story nearer to home reported that police constable Carl Beswetherick had noticed a couple of men on Government Road who had new suitcases, and he recalled news of an escape just up the line at a prisoner-of-war camp at Wavell. The strangers surrendered without incident and went back to the camp for a few more months.

By 1943, the population of Kirkland Lake had dropped to 15,888, and there was news that eight local men had been killed fighting overseas. Swastika RCAF ace Ted Evans shot down a German plane in Italy. After the war, it was found that former Kirkland Lake miner Wally Floody was the principal tunneller in the mass prisoner-of-war escape filmed years later as The Great Escape.

Two deaths made the headlines. One was far removed from the North Country. Sir Harry Oakes was murdered in his palatial home in Nassau in the Bahamas. The news and subsequent story of the arrest of his son-in-law for the murder actually succeeded in driving the war events from the front pages of the newspapers for a few days. Up to the time of the murder, the Lake Shore mine had produced $200 million in gold, equivalent to about $2 billion at present values. The same year, another pioneer passed away: Sandy McIntyre, having been sustained by a small pension from the Timmins mine he discovered and by his many friends, died in his small cabin by the Blanche River in Swastika. He was mourned by many.

Kirkland Lake had one more heroic association with the war overseas. Fred Topham worked underground at the Wright Hargreaves mine for two years before joining the parachute regiment as a medical orderly. On March 24, 1945, he parachuted with his battalion into a heavily defended area east of the Rhine. Two medics were killed while treating a wounded man on the battlefield. Topham went out under intense fire, secured his comrade, and brought him back. Despite being wounded, he kept working and, after finally receiving medical treatment, went out again and removed three other men from a burning carrier with exploding ammunition all around him and under direct enemy fire. Corporal Topham received the Victoria Cross for his selfless courage.

The war faded, but as victory in Europe was won, there were only 2,063 mine employees in the community, of which the Lake Shore provided jobs for 584 and the Wright Hargreaves had work for 415. The town followed suit with other municipalities and built some wartime houses, neat but small Spartan bungalows in the federal area. Returned soldiers took these places to live and the population returned to the 20,000 mark. Local men banded together to build a swimming pool for children.

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