Be Not Afraid of Greatness or Sudbury: A Cosmic Accident – by Kenneth Hayes (Part 1 of 2)

Sudbury-born Kenneth Hayes currently teaches  architectural history at the University of Toronto.

This essay was commissioned by the Musagetes Foundation on the occasion of the Musagetes Sudbury Cafe. It appears in the book Sudbury: Life in a Northern Town / Sudbury: au nord de notre vie.

Musagetes is a private foundation based in Guelph, Ontario which seeks to transform contemporary life by working with artists, cultural mediators, public intellectuals and other partners to develop new approaches to building community and culture.

Kenneth Hayes – Be Not Afraid of Greatness or Sudbury: A Cosmic Accident (Part 1 of 2)

Sudbury is not ugly, as the old “moonscape” slur has it, nor is it beautiful, as its boosters claim, pointing to the city’s many lakes. At once awesome and terrible, harsh and majestic, Sudbury lies beyond the register of ugly and beautiful. The place can only be described as sublime, for Sudbury is a phenomenon as much as it is a city.

This status is revealed by the fundamental confusion about its name, which never makes clear what is nominated: the city itself, the larger region, the Sudbury Basin on which the city is perched, the fact of the mines, or even the reputation of the place. Without proper limits, one signifier encompasses all of these identities.

Sudbury is, in the final analysis, the slow unfolding of a cosmic accident. The nickel ore that fuelled the city’s development was deposited in a vast cataclysm, the impact of a meteorite that would have destroyed all life on earth — had there been any. But this occurred so long ago that life did not yet exist on earth. (1)   The shock was so great that seismologists can still detect its faint reverberation — planet Earth literally quivers with the pangs of Sudbury’s birth.

The impact also resonates metaphorically in uncanny returns that recall the traumatic genesis of the place. The most obvious example is the way the mining of Sudbury’s extraterrestrial gift denuded a vast area of land. The ring of blasted and blackened rock seems to reiterate the original collision’s destructive effects. Likewise, the open-pit mines, once used where the ore breached the surface but now long obsolete, seem to parody the original crater. And for decades, people stopped their cars along the highway for the nightly spectacle of molten slag pouring down a growing heap, as if watching a son et lumière show explaining how we got here. The city and its fortunes, fair and foul, can be properly understood only by the measure of the awesome, the terrible and the undeniably grand.

Sudbury, however, did not achieve greatness; it had greatness thrust upon it immemorially, and now struggles with the fear of it. When the city formally changed its name in 2001 to the awkward (and widely unpopular) City of Greater Sudbury/La Ville du Grand Sudbury, it was to officially acknowledge the amalgamation of the regional municipality, but symbolically, it declares something known to all who live here and immediately apparent to those who visit: Sudbury is no ordinary town.

An account of Sudbury is almost obliged to begin with its ancient origins, and some remarkable facts and figures. Geologists now generally agree that the Sudbury Basin was formed 1.85 billion years ago by the impact of a meteorite ten to sixteen kilometres in diameter. The original crater was circular and about 240 kilometres wide. Material ejected by the collision spread in what must have been a global firestorm; in 2007, a large patch of Sudbury detritus 7.6 metres thick was discovered in Minnesota, at a distance of some 1,100 kilometres. (2)

The force of the collision is incalculable. It left circular fractures called shatter cones that can still be seen in the rock and caused changes even at the molecular level, forming microdiamonds and trapping rare elements in the rock. The Precambrian Shield was punctured so deeply — to a depth of at least fifteen kilometres — that no one yet knows whether the nickel found in Sudbury was present in the meteorite or whether it was splashed up from the molten bowels of the earth. (3)   In either case, the impact formed bodies of ore in a ring that resembles the milk-drop coronet photographed by Harold Edgerton, but at a vast scale and embedded in solid rock. This geological structure is called the Nickel Irruptive, and is the world’s largest deposit of nickel sulphide ore. 
The time frame of this event is so immense as to be incomprehensible. When it occurred, the single earthly continent had not yet divided; the planet did not have an atmosphere as such; plants did not yet exist; Minnesota was not Minnesota. The infinitesimal movement of tectonic plates over eons squished the original circle into an ellipse, and erosion reduced the crater to a shallow basin sixty kilometres long and twenty-seven kilometres wide.

The last glaciers scoured the crater and then filled it with a shallow lake that eventually disappeared. The clayish area inside the basin, known locally as The Valley, is now mostly farmland, and around the irruptive, which is sometimes called The Rim, the mines are strung in a loop. The valley renders plainly visible the disturbance that lies far below the ground, and, as a small patch of agricultural land within the stony uniformity of the Canadian Shield, it has the almost mythic quality of those lost valleys in science-fiction tales where time stands still and a fragment of a prior world is preserved. To crest the rim of the irruptive and descend to the flat plain of the valley can produce a strange thrill, as if one were riding the infinitely slow roller coaster of prehistory.

The catastrophic destruction of the natural environment is the other inescapable fact of this place, and it is the part for which we are responsible. Until the beginning of a remarkably successful program of landscape remediation in the early 1970s, the city of Sudbury was surrounded by a zone at least twenty kilometres in diameter that was denuded of vegetation, badly eroded and stained black by the sulphuric acid released by the smelting of nickel ore. (4) 

Biological processes broke down so completely that there were no insects or fungi to help rot the few remaining tree stumps. At the centre of this forbidding zone, there was, and still is, an extensive and growing heap of slag and large ponds of fine tailings. This eerie landscape had the aspect of a biblical tel olam — a desert or damned place. In the early seventies, the trip into the city entailed passing through a weird landscape of black rock interspersed with alluvial plains of tailings stained bright red with nickel waste and traversed by brilliant cupric-blue streams lined with banks of yellow sulphur crystals. It was like commuting on some other planet. 

Much of the environmental damage was done by open-bed roasting, a practice that seems almost unbelievable now that it is obsolete. (5) The pentlandite or iron-nickel sulphide ores found in Sudbury contain as much as 25 percent sulphur, and this level must be reduced as the first step in smelting. From the beginning of smelting in 1888 until new practices were adopted in 1929, at least eleven roast yards with a total of up to sixty-five beds were used in the initial processing of the ore. The primitive procedure consisted essentially of building a wood pyre the size of a city block and up to a couple of metres tall. Pulverized ore was piled on top and the whole mass ignited. The roasting lasted from thirty-five to forty days for an 800–1,000-ton heap, and could run well beyond a hundred days for a heap of 2,500 tons.

The wood was simply tinder to ignite the ore itself. The success of the procedure relied on the fact that the ore found in Sudbury is chemically “hot” and can ignite at a relatively low temperature. This process, however, had the effect of releasing sulphur dioxide directly into the air, where it combined with atmospheric water to make sulphuric acid. The four decades from 1890 to 1930 saw an estimated 11.2 million tons of sulphur released into the immediate environment at ground level. Although the enclosed smelting process that was later implemented was less dramatic, it released even more sulphur into the air until the fumes began to be regulated in the early 1960s.

Exactly how much heavy-metal particulate was released is still debated, and it could yet prove to be a significant long-term health threat. The Superstack, completed in 1972, was the last major effort to ameliorate emissions by the traditional expedient of dispersing them. Today, almost all of the sulphur removed from the ore is sequestered, rendered into a solid form and used to backfill the underground excavations.

Huge areas of the damaged landscape have been dramatically restored through the relatively simple method of spreading limestone on the soil to neutralize the acid and planting wild grasses and trees. Sudburians are justifiably proud of their efforts to reverse the environmental damage, but the city remains the site of one of the most extensive and extreme episodes of environmental pollution in the modern era. (6)  This legacy is literally etched into the rock in Sudbury, which is not naturally black but, rather, mostly a pale blue-grey colour.

Mining could be said in general to encourage the tendency to view all of nature as a standing reserve, and despite the Herculean effort required to extract minerals, they trigger the fantasy of unearned wealth. This greed has a brutalizing effect on society, and generates a culture quite distinct from the dignity of (traditional) agriculture or the inherent civility of manufacturing. For much of its past, and particularly in the 1970s, Sudbury was dominated by a haywire sensibility that comprised audacious improvisation, utter disregard for appearances, sheer expedience and untrammelled force. (7)  Profoundly anti-urban, this callous attitude was a unique local development of the pioneer/survivalist impulse that runs throughout the North, and it both fed off of and perpetuated a debilitating sense of impermanence.

Work in the mines was hard but lucrative, and Sudbury was regarded by strong and uneducated young men as a place to make a quick start in life. It was understood to be a way station, not a terminus, sometimes even by those who spent their whole lives here. Until the 1960s, pack-sack miners, so named for their mobility and minimal possessions, still lived in bunkhouses and ate at Crawley McCracken’s industrial canteen. New immigrants could labour without speaking English if they were big men who worked hard. The material rewards of mining made Sudbury’s working class the most affluent in Canada, but the life also required a good measure of fatalism, given the staggering rate of industrial accidents.

The story of the discovery of nickel in Sudbury need not be recounted here, but it is worth noting that the city actually originated not as a mine site but as the junction point of two railroads, and it began as a logging camp. The early extraction of nickel in Sudbury occurred alongside developments in metallurgy that rendered nickel useful and valuable. When German miners in the early eighteenth century found copper ore mixed with an unknown whitish metal, they called it kupfernickel, or Old Nick’s copper, because it was devilishly difficult to smelt. Nickel was identified as an element in 1751 by the Swedish chemist Axel Fredrik Cronstedt, but the metal’s capacity to render steel resistant to corrosion was only developed late in the nineteenth century and not perfected until World War I.

Along with chrome, the addition of nickel transforms steel from a material that practically bleeds with oxidization into stainless steel, a cool, impervious substance that is emblematic of the modern era. Stainless steel is steel’s alter ego: tough, aloof, glamorous and faintly menacing. Because stainless steel is not a coating, it is not perceived as superficial, and thus stands as the antithesis of chrome plating. (8)  In this improved amalgam, steel takes a high polish and has a glint that suggests an almost theoretical material, one comparable only to gold in its resistance to tarnishing but infinitely more useful. Stainless steel responds to the human interest in eternity and immutability, and it advances the aim of resisting environmental conditions and the inevitability of entropy. Hard, masculine and futuristic, almost fascistic in its appeal, it is the stuff of machines and weapons and robots. It is the Clint Eastwood of materials, unfuckwithable.

Sudburians might object to this admittedly extreme description of nickel’s aura, but they naturally have some awareness of nickel’s strategic role in the modern world. Most know that nickel is used to harden steel for armour and munitions, not least because Sudbury has tended to flourish conspicuously in times of war. This prosperity is not without its psychic consequences. In the paranoid context of the Cold War, Sudbury was commonly assumed to be a priority target for Soviet nuclear weapons, an assumption that was widely reinforced by the discovery of significant uranium deposits in nearby Elliot Lake.

The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had an uneasy resonance in Sudbury, where the landscape already appeared to have suffered a mega-catastrophe. When the North American populace began to express its postwar anxieties, in popular culture and films, about nuclear annihilation, the nuclear threat fused with the idea of Earth’s collision with an asteroid and Sudbury somehow condensed all of these dystopian imaginings into one barren and inhospitable place. (9)  

The legacy of Sudbury’s harsh beginnings is indelibly stamped into the city, its communities and the landscape. Many profound changes have occurred in Sudbury’s culture in the last two or three decades and its economy has been transformed, but the effects of its past remain. Many industrial towns have been gentrified by simply transforming the local mill into a tourist site or, increasingly, loft condominiums, but Sudbury cannot change its face so easily. For better or worse, cultural amnesia is not an option here. Mining linked Sudbury’s fate to resource extraction, and thus to capitalism in its most direct form.

In his role as an industrial safety inspector for the Habsburg Empire, the writer Franz Kafka identified mining and metallurgy as the “primary large-scale enterprises of the pre-mechanical era.” (10) Sinking shafts into the earth to access bodies of ore requires so much capital that mining led the emergence of capitalism from the guilds and restricted economies of the Middle Ages; many an early Renaissance fortune was built on the joint foundations of mining and banking, and resource extraction was often the motive for exploration of the New World.

Click here for part two of: Be Not Afraid of Greatness or Sudbury: A Cosmic Accident


1) This proposition was first advanced by Robert S. Dietz, in “Sudbury Structure as an Astrobleme,” The Journal of Geology 72 (1964): 412–34.

2) This structure is called the Rove Formation. There is another major patch of Sudbury detritus in upstate Michigan.

3) Wooil M. Moon and L.X. Jiao, “Sudbury Meteorite-Impact Structure Modeling with LITHOPROBE High-Resolution Seismic Refraction Results,” Geosciences Journal 2, no. 1 (1998): 26–36. 

4) Estimates of this area vary, and it is by no means exactly circular. Keith Winterhalder gives the figure of 10,000 hectares of barren land and 36,000 more of stunted woodland in “Environmental Degradation and Rehabilitation of the Landscape around Sudbury, a Major Mining and Smelting Area,” Environmental Review 4 (1996): 185–224.

5) See the chapter, “Metallurgical Practices in Sudbury before 1930,” in the Ontario Ministry of the Environment article at

6) For a community-based account of this history, see Healing the Landscape: Celebrating Sudbury’s Reclamation Story (Sudbury: City of Sudbury, 2001).

7) This culture is described at greater length and in other terms by Charles Angus in the book of Louie Palu’s photographs, Cage Call (Portland OR: Photolucida, 2007).

8 It should be noted, however, that chromium is also an important element in making stainless steel. It is the conception of the material, not its precise metallurgical properties, that is being discussed here.

9) One of the best accounts of this history is by Frances Ferguson, “The Nuclear Sublime,” Diacritics 14, No. 2 (Summer 1984): 4–10.

10) Stanley Comgold, Jack Greenberg and Benno Wagner, eds. Franz Kafka: The Office Writings (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 250.

Click here for part two of: Be Not Afraid of Greatness or Sudbury: A Cosmic Accident

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