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Opinion: Charlie Angus digs deep into Cobalt’s history with latest book

“Page-turner,” “gripping,” “hard-hitting,” are words used often to describe good books, and they all apply to this one.

The footnotes, bibliography and acknowledgments total 54 pages.

When you see that, you know this is a serious book.

I just finished reading Cobalt—Cradle of the Demon Metals, Birth of a Mining Superpower, by Charlie Angus, and felt compelled to devote my immigration column to it.

Charlie Angus, author of eight books, has outdone himself with this one. “Page-turner,” “gripping,” “hard-hitting,” are words used often to describe good books, and they all apply to this one.

Bay Today readers, this one is for you. If you thought you knew the history of the area from North Bay to Timmins and branching off to Sudbury, this will give you a perspective no one has provided, until now.

My wife, Mary, is from Kirkland Lake, and her father, the late Jim Mackler, was an underground gold miner at Lakeshore Mine in Kirkland Lake for decades. I have heard mining stories from him, his son Bill, who mined underground in Elliot Lake, and my nephew Moe, who was underground when it was Inco, in Sudbury.

They were all good storytellers, and through them, I thought I had a pretty good picture of what mining was like. I have stared in awe at massive open pit mines in Temagami, Kirkland Lake, and Butte, Montana, but I have never been underground.

Charlie Angus brings mining, below ground and above it, in the union halls and Cobalt hangouts, to the power centres in Toronto and New York, to life as I have never read before. With his exhaustive research, he talks about millionaire’s row, the large and beautiful homes the mine managers had on the shore of Lake Temiskaming in Haileybury, compared to the hovels the miners and their families had.

At any time, mine management could decide to blast underneath their homes, or dump tailings on their property. Disease was rampant, as the lakes were poisoned by effluent from the mines and sanitation consisted of dumping your waste in rock crevices.

The book starts with the same observation I had when I first saw Cobalt in 1971. “Something dramatic happened here. You get that sense as soon as you arrive in the town of Cobalt (population 1,500), with its winding streets and hodgepodge of little houses perched atop rocky ridges.”

Some of the houses now are newer, as they were rebuilt after the disastrous fire of 1977 that wiped out 20 per cent of the town on May 23. I was there, covering it for the Temiskaming Speaker and The Globe and Mail, and I wrote a book about that day and the aftermath.

My little effort joined a long list of books written about Cobalt, but Charlie Angus’s book rises to the head of the class for the sheer force of his writing and the extensive research that went into it.

He thanks a number of people for helping with that, including the folks at the Cobalt Mining Museum, Karen Bachmann at the Timmins Museum and Kendra Lacarte at the Cobalt Public Library.

The Cobalt silver mining boom lasted from 1903 to 1921, and lessons learned there were applied in subsequent mining camps in Kirkland Lake, Larder Lake, Gowganda, Elk Lake, McDougall Chutes (now Matheson), Driftwood (now Monteith), Sudbury and Porcupine (now known more as Timmins, named after the brothers who got their mining start in Cobalt.) Matheson and Monteith were renamed after Conservative provincial cabinet ministers.

In case you thought you heard the name Charlie Angus before, yes, he is the same person who lives in Cobalt and has been the NDP Member of Parliament for Timmins-James Bay since 2004. If you’re more into music and think that’s where you heard of him, he is the lead singer of the Juno-nominated alt-country band, The Grievous Angels.

His introduction adds this: “We can begin with the obvious question—what happened to the money? There are no visible signs of wealth in Cobalt anymore.”

He pokes holes in the myths about Cobalt, beginning with the discovery of silver when railway worker Frederick Larose threw a hammer at a fox and missed, but the hammer broke off a piece of pure silver. I had heard that story so many times I believed it actually to be true.

As the story of Cobalt, and the Canadian mining industry in general, unfolds in the book, myths are debunked and the author continues to follow the money. He talks about indigenous cultural appropriation in Temagami, where rich kids from the south came (and still do) to learn how to paddle a canoe and “play Indian.” Hollywood stars like Cary Grant, Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart vacationed on Lake Temagami islands.

I mentioned 54 pages. The story itself is 260 pages, and every page is riveting. Those of us who know the main area he is writing about--Cobalt, Haileybury and New Liskeard--will find it especially interesting because we know the streets, the buildings, and the geography. But even if you have never been there, you must read this book.

North Bay residents are familiar with The Nugget, a once respectable newspaper (it had more than a dozen reporters when I moved here in 1978) and most know it actually started in Cobalt. The book takes issue with the mine owner cheerleading sometimes led by The Nugget, at the expense of unbelievable hardships faced by the miners and their families.

Poor wages, long hours underground, and the back-breaking work of the miners are described, as the mine owners and their shareholders got rich. There is little wonder that the labour movement in the mining industry got its start in Cobalt.

There are lots of interesting characters in the book, and here is how I fit this into my column that is supposed to be about immigration--Cobalt was very multicultural during its heyday. Everyone got along well for a time, but the book also delves into racism against Blacks and Chinese, and mistrust of foreigners from eastern Europe, especially when the First World War broke out.

Near the end of the book, he talks about mining today, and how it is much different than mining then. Miners are well paid and safety rules, non-existent then, are followed. But Canadian mining companies don’t get off easy, as disturbing stories are told about their far-flung international operations.

The author ties a bow on the story by bringing it back to the present, with the re-emergence of cobalt as a critical component of batteries for electric vehicles. The town’s First Cobalt is now the only cobalt processing operation in North America. Cobalt mining companies always knew it was there, but silver was a more precious metal.

If this book is not available at your local library, ask them to get it. It will be in demand. Better yet, buy the book. It’s only $24.99 and is available at bookstores and online through Chapters Indigo and Amazon, and there is a Kindle edition.

Editor’s Note:  Don Curry is a Regulated Canadian Immigration Consultant living in North Bay, and a member of Bay Today’s community advisory committee.