[Gilbert Labine, Eldorado Mine] Treasure Under the Arctic’s Rim – by Leslie Roberts (MACLEAN’S Magazine – July 15, 1936)


Men said Great Bear Lake mineral wealth was too far north to be developed — Now men fly that wealth to market

THEY CALLED it a madman’s pipedream. possibility They said that anyone who believed in the possibility of producing minerals 1,500 miles north of the most northerly transcontinental steel, ought to consult an alienist.

That was when the boys started prospecting the rim of the Arctic. Even when Gilbert Labine, hard-headed visionary, and E. C. St. Paul, his partner, discovered pitchblende on the shores of Great Bear Lake, May 16, 1930, the Jeremiahs continued to wail.

What was the use? You couldn’t get your machinery in and you couldn’t get your ore out. Fly it out? Faugh, the man is mad. That was in 1930.

Visualize now the shores of Great Bear Lake in 1936. Where Labine discovered radium-bearing rock in 1930, a modern mining plant is in constant operation. Shafts have been thrust down to depth. A concentrating plant capable of handling 100 tons of rock a day has been installed and is running full blast. A hundred men are permanently employed.

Their bunkhouses are sanitary, comfortable, modern dwellings. Billiard tables, a library and a tobacco shop are included in the equipment of the recreation hall.

A company-owned flying box-car travels with time-table precision between the camp and the end of steel, hauling radium concentrates on southbound journeys and supplies on its northward trips. Three thousand miles away, at Port Hope, Ontario, a radium refinery has been established, where, concentrates are reduced again to the marketable form. Gilbert Labine’s wildcat of 1930 has not merely become a producing mine, but one which supports blue-ink entries on the ledgers in the company office.

But this is not all. Not far from the Eldorado workings you will come upon a town site at Cameron Bay where all the amenities of everyday life may be found. Scattered about the vast outline of the lake, prospecting and development parties are at work. As in other camps in these amazing Northwest Territories, telegrams sent in the morning from the Dominion Government’s wireless station often bring answers before the day’s business is done.

If the weather is propitious, it is no trick at all to breakfast at Cameron Bay, lunch at Fort Smith and dine in Edmonton, much more than a thousand miles to the south. Schools, churches, trading posts, doctors, daily market reports, bridge parties, cooking to compare with the cuisine of the effete East, air mail, telegraph service—all these and many more comforts and services may be found beyond the Arctic’s rim in Great Bear Lake. Yet six years ago this was the country of Can’t-be-done.

The Handicap of Distance

BUT IT hasn’t been easy. Back in 1930 the country was not efficiently organized aerially; existing traffic did not warrant scheduled flights. So, as a first step, developers found it necessary to attend to their communications—a problem which occupied the greater part of the first year and one which was seriously complicated by the fact that a great many people seemed to be desirous of establishing themselves in the new Arctic camp.

The first major movement of materials took place in 1931. From distant McMurray bottoms began to move north on the heels of the ice, down the Athabaska River, across the Delta country, past the mouth of the Peace River and down the Slave River to Fort Fitzgerald. There the tedium of a fifteen-mile portage had to be undertaken— a portage around which hundreds of tons of machinery, and rations sufficient to support Great Bear miners for a full year had to be moved, in addition to the season’s normal requirements for the established fur trade.

From the northern end of the portage at Fort Smith equipment was reloaded into northward-going bottoms, thence to snake its way down the tortuous Slave, westward along Great Slave Lake and down the Mackenzie River past Forts Simpson and Wrigley to Norman, whence it travelled the treacherous Bear River across 300 miles of barren bush into the lake itself.

The first cargoes reached the entry into Great Bear Lake, at old Fort Franklin, early in July, after following the ice down the rivers, with tedious waits on the heels of the movement. From Franklin, crews steered their craft across the body of the lake in the teeth of gales which whipped down with all the force of the Arctic wind, until beach landings were made on the shore of the father of Northwestern waters. Thereafter those on the scene made ready for winter and a year of complete isolation—for that was before the days of radio stations—and all the other trimmings of civilization.

Outside, in Southern Canada, the Jeremiahs were still moaning at their loudest. The attitude of Labine, of the Consolidated Smelters’ people, who are not the most loquacious operators in the north at any time, of the Byrne interests and all the other principal participants in the camp, was that the Jeremiahs might howl if they liked. Only time and work could give an answer to their anguished cries.

During 1932 Labine contrived to ship out fifty tons of pitchblende to Port Hope and sufficient silver ore to the smelter at Tadanac, B.C., to thoroughly sample his property. The silver averaged more than 3,500 ounces to the ton of rock, which is important ore in any man’s camp. Coupled to radium values in the pitchblende, it gave to Eldorado the aspect of importance, even among the knockers. Meanwhile, Labine brought in Diesel engines, a compressor, hoisting equipment and all the paraphernalia of mine-making, landing his final shipload on Labine Point early in September.

Thenceforth the business of serious delving began to move. Three years after its moving spirit had struck it rich on the margin of Great Bear, Eldorado definitely joined the ranks of producing mines, and Bear Lake had become our most northerly mining area in fact as well as in hope.

Airplanes to the Rescue

TRANSPORT facilities remained the sore thumb on the hand of success, however. Excellent in quality though the water route is, the fact remains that from two and one half to three months is not long when the shipping in of a year’s supplies and the export of a year’s mineral production is the problem to be solved. To fly supplies in and ores out in chartered planes, was out of the question over such an extended route. Ultimately, therefore, Labine called Leigh Brintnell into consultation, with the result that Eldorado acquired its own freighting plane, capable of lifting more than a ton of concentrated ore, and sent it into service over the 1,000-mile hop to the end of steel.

Now the great bulk of the year’s silver production is permitted to pile up beside the mill in concentrate form, while the good ship CF-AWR, with that ace of Northern pilots, Stan McMillan, at the controls, wings its way, day in and day out, over its long-distance journey, carrying precious cargoes of concentrated pitchblende to the tracks for transcontinental shipment to the refinery in distant Ontario. In the first ten weeks of 1936 McMillan flew 263 hours, carrying eighty passengers and full payloads of concentrates or supplies—a total distance of 35,000 miles.

Such items as this, not the spectacular demonstrations of which you have read in a thousand fantastic tales, are the true essence of our North’s romantic story. Not a man lives on the entire length of the Bear Lake-to-Railroad course, whether he be at Fort Smith, Chipewyan, Rae, Resolution or Hottah Lake, who does not sense the thrill of achievement as the huge Bellanca wings overhead at 10,000 feet, southbound with its valuable payload of radium, destined to reach the hospitals and philanthropic and commercial institutions of our modern civilization. Labine’s solution of the Arctic transportation problem has been big scale achievement in itself; make no mistake about that.

Not that life at Great Bear Lake has been a bed of roses for the mine maker. Many hardy operators, well financed, have delved into their claims year in and out, seemingly achieving nothing but new problems for their pains. Others have thrown up the sponge, broke or discouraged or both. Others—the carrion crows-—made much of the business of going through the mining motions, when their only desire was to go through the pockets of the public. Like most new camps, Great Bear has been no lily in that regard.

Others again, meeting discouragement on these Arctic coasts, have journeyed afield into new terrain in the Territories, in which class may be counted such men as Jack Byrne who, after slogging determinedly in Great Bear for four years, found better mining luck in Athabaska. It hasn’t been any place for a cry-baby at any time since its birth, this camp.

The importance of Great Bear Lake has not been confined to the discoveries made on its marge, however. Possibly these have been the least important of its phenomena. It was Labine’s strike and his methods of solving problems which first called attention to the fact that large-scale mining is possible on the fringe of civilization in the Territories.

That is the biggest job which Great Bear Lake has done. Important in its own right, it has focused the attention of the mining world as a whole on the great pre-Cambrian field which lies north of the Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta provincial lines, sending droves of prospectors and developers, armed with mine-making cash, into country which until 1930 was regarded as useless in the mineral sense because of the problems of distance and communication.

Great Bear Lake was responsible for the opening of Lake Athabaska, the Yellowknife and Great Slave. It has been responsible for sending men and money into the far-flung corners of an empire more than two million miles in expanse. Because that country is now regarded by many of the outstanding men of the mining world as the great Golconda of the future, the rise of Great Bear Lake, as its keystone, has been one of the most important mining events thus far on the North Country’s spectacular calendar.

Six years ago this was barren wilderness, fur country and nothing more. No communications of any sort existed, except during the short freighting season, when a few ships plied the Mackenzie watercourse, carrying trade goods to scattered outposts. Now airplanes move on fast, regular schedules. Internal and external wireless communication is almost letter perfect. Mails arrive and depart with promptness and on time. Life is as comfortable and orderly as it is in many a small town on the main line between Toronto and Montreal.

The credit for all of which belongs to Great Bear Lake, the camp which set Northwestern activity in motion and spotlighted the Northwest in the eyes of the mining world. Like most of the Northern jobs that couldn’t be done, it has been a winner, far more important in its widespread effects on the mining industry and, per se, on the business of enlarging Canadian prosperity, than it has been on its own account. Such are the northern jobs that “can’t-be-done!”


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