The future of some of the oldest industrial structures connected to Northern Ontario’s rich mining heritage is in jeopardy. This is an FYI timeline story with understandable and predictive reasons now in the present.
There are now two Heritage Silver Trail sites in Cobalt that are barricaded to prevent public use. At the south end of Cobalt is the Glory Hole – a small open pit connected to underground workings. The pit drops down 250 feet (76.2 meters) and side tunnels trail out through the surrounding area. The bottom is now filled with cold, black water.
At one time there was a spiderweb of cables that supported a tin roof to protect the miners below. Along the walls of the Glory Hole, you get a rare glimpse of a cross-section of mine workings.
Adjoining the Glory Hole is the Townsite Mine property originally owned by the Temiskaming & Northern Ontario Railway (now Ontario Northland). In 1906 it was leased to the Cobalt Townsite Mining Company. Their chief engineer, W.S. Mitchell, designed this building as a 'rock house,' a shaft house that included crushing and sorting facilities.
This type of structure was common to the tin mining area of Cornwall, England, and the copper mines of northern Michigan. Several structures of this type were once landmarks in the Cobalt area.
By 1922 it had produced 13 million ounces of silver, including the famous 2,614-pound nugget. At the front of this headframe facing the road the ground has subsided to form a large slumping hole; it's well fenced off.
The second site is the Right of Way Mine Site, at the northeast end of town. This property was originally owned by the railway; their mandate reserved the mineral rights over a distance of 50 feet on both sides of the railway track.
On Sept. 12, 1906, an Ottawa consortium leased this strip of ground from Mileage 101 to 105 for the sum of $50,000 and an annual royalty of 25 per cent. Silver was even mined from beneath the railroad tracks at this location.
Eventually, more than 3 million ounces of silver were produced from this narrow strip of land. The Right of Way Mine Site includes a display of old mining machinery used in the past.
Both are part of the long-standing tourism attraction, the Heritage Silver Trail, which opened in 1987 after Cobalt received a Silver City (now Silver Capital) designation.
Through the years there has been a series of episodes when trail sites dodged the closure bullet through community and government capital mitigation efforts. A pinnacle event occurred at the Townsite.
In the summer of 1987, there appeared, at first, to be a small pothole on Highway 11-B leading into town. The pothole quickly enlarged and the slumping consumed the entire road. It proved to be a collapsing mine shaft, for the town is underlain by abandoned shafts.
Locally it was referred to as the world’s biggest pothole, but it was evidence of the historic sins of the past and abandoned mine subsidence. There was conjecture as to whether the entire town should be abandoned.
It resulted in a multi-million-dollar repair job to the roadway. Mining is a provincial matter, and Ontario spent several millions of dollars during this time period testing to identify areas of risk, and then doing the costly remedial work. This may have been a bellwether story leading to today.
The Cobalt Historical Society (CHS) is a non-profit corporation. The office is housed in the reconstructed Pan Silver headframe and shaft house (site #14 on the Heritage Silver Trail.
Maggie Wilson is the chair of the society (see the map).
“Incorporated in 1999, the Cobalt Historical Society was to act as an umbrella organization working at arm’s length from the Town of Cobalt and Coleman Township. Our mandate is preservation and promotion of the remaining mine properties, equipment and artifacts that illustrate the important role that the Cobalt Mining Camp has played in the development of the mining industry in Ontario,” she said.
Ontario Northland informed the society of the closures through a March 18 letter.
“As the guardians of the sites, we are frustrated that only token barriers have been erected," Wilson said.
"Most people will continue to use the property as before, especially those with vandalism in mind. We are prohibited from entering the site to clean up and repair damage," she added.
"We would like permission to enter to inspect and repair as required. It would be helpful if the assessment work was done soon and we knew where we stood. We welcome continued communication so that we can understand the triggers for the assessments, the nature and the timeline of the studies.
“It took two years for us to get a response to our proposal that we lease the property. We understand that government bodies work at a different pace, but we are concerned that the 'temporary' barricade will turn out to be permanent," Wilson said.
"It would be a terrible blow to the Cobalt Historical Society and to the community if we lost either of these two iconic buildings. The Townsite mine will die a natural death of neglect. But the Right of Way is in much better shape. We appreciate that ON has acknowledged the heritage value in the sites. Allow us, or the Town of Cobalt, to be their agents so that we might apply to Parks Canada for funding to repair the roof.”
Renée Baker, communications manager for Ontario Northland, says, “Ontario Northland’s top priority is the safety of the public. To ensure everyone’s safety, we have made the difficult but necessary decision to restrict access to the Townsite headframe and Right-of-Way headframe and parts of the Heritage Silver Trail in Cobalt while an environmental and structural assessment is complete. We value the importance and significance of mining to the development of the North and will keep the Cobalt Historical Society and members of the public informed on results of the assessment.
At this time, the environmental and safety risks are unknown; work has begun to fully understand the hazards at the site. Ontario Northland has been working with the Ministry of Transportation, Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks, and the Ministry of Energy, Northern Development and Mines regarding the risks associated with the Townsite headframe and Right-of-Way headframe.”
George Othmer is the mayor of Cobalt.
“If the Ministry of Energy, Northern Development of Mines (MENDM) encounters delays in their studies then we will have a problem. The longer the buildings remain damaged or trash accumulates, the worse the condition of the sites. There will be a big negative impact on tourism," Othmer said.
"If the buildings are damaged beyond repair, then a real threat exists. Potentially we will lose the two remaining headframes from the Cobalt era. This would be a devastating and unacceptable loss.
"It is our hope Ontario Northland and MENDM can complete their assessments as quickly as possible and that they continue to keep us informed of the status of the project. We would like to see some way of monitoring the sites to inspect for and repair any damages that may occur," he said. "We would like them to demonstrate in more than words that it is necessary to conserve the properties as quickly as possible. “
The MENDM is involved with assessments.
Within an email, Erin Mullens, legal project specialist for Ontario Northland, responded to Maggie Wilson’s question of 'Who or what triggered the closure?'
Ms. Mullens said, "After consultation with MENDM’s Mineral and Mining Division and MECP (Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks) in 2020 the risks have been better understood and it was decided that environmental and mining assessments were needed at this time."
Maggie Wilson said, “Just who ordered the barriers, I cannot say. Ontario Northland contractors placed them, but whether Ontario Northland was compelled to do so by MENDM is not known.”
The Cobalt Mining Camp was designated as a National Historic Site in 2002.
Ironically, it was because of the railroad that silver was discovered and the story began. The railway built the town and the railway profited enormously. They leased their properties to mine owners, one at the north, the Right of Way, and one at the south, the Townsite. That was then.
Industrial archaeology originated in the United Kingdom – birthplace of the Industrial Revolution – in the late 1950s as a response to the alarming rate at which the nation's industrial and engineering heritage was being destroyed, and as a celebration of the early industrial period.
Northern Ontario has many historic sites but we have not embraced this phenomenon as such. Why is this “the perfect storm?” Land tenure changes and at the best of times is complicated. Weather and Mother Nature have profound effects on historic sites. The Mining Act and mine closure plans and financial assurance did not occur until 1990.
Subsidence is a particular concern in Cobalt because the original mining veins are very close to the surface. There is not the same density of population or a vigorous, well-funded tourism industry to conserve heritage. Cobalt is not part of Temiskaming Shores. With the pandemic, we are tending to look forward, not back. We have become a litigious society when it comes to risk. Heritage matters to some. This story will continue.