Steep Rock Iron Mine (Memories from 1969)
In 1969, I was fourteen years old. I was a very keen mineral collector and my brother Brian and I were members of the “Rockids”, the junior arm of the Scarborough Gem and Mineral Club, Scarborough, Ontario, Canada. At that time, there was a dedicated group of adults who organized a meeting for us kids one Saturday afternoon, every month, plus great field trips. The meetings had all kinds of activities, including mineral identification, monthly guest speakers, mineral properties demonstrations, borax bead tests, blowpipe tests, microscopes, LOTS of free mineral samples, displays and activities to take home to work on. I thought the meetings were heaven! I looked forward to them every month.
One of the key features of the club was that, whether they knew it or not, each kid was competing to amass points. Whenever you excelled at an exercise, did well in the What’s’it, the mineral identification contest held every meeting, or even just attended, you received points. The two kids that amassed the most points at the end of each year got to go on a trip to visit a mining operation somewhere in Canada’s north. In 1969, I was one of the two young people selected to visit Steep Rock Iron Mines, at Atikokan, Ontario, all expenses paid by the company.
This was a serious trip! We flew from Toronto to Port Arthur (it has since been re-named Thunder Bay), and then flew in a bush plane, a De Havilland “Beaver”, to Atikokan. You could drive to Atikokan but I think the company figured it would be more of an adventure if we were flown into Atikokan in the small plane. It was! I’d been in a big airplane before but nothing like the Beaver! I was a southern Ontario city boy and I couldn’t believe the extent of the forest, the rivers and the lakes that we flew over between Port Arthur and Atikokan. Of course the pilot buzzed the giant open pit mines and the town before we landed, for the most dramatic impact.
Steep Rock Iron Mines gave us rooms in the Directors Lodge, a big, well appointed, home in Atikokan. I was struck by the red colour of the cars, roads, our shoes and my hands every time I touched something. Fine-grained hematite was EVERYWHERE! A real iron town.
One of the geologists, at the time, was a fellow by the name of Dave Mulder. He was one of our key contacts during the visit. Another was a foreman, Stan ……. something. I’m afraid that I cannot remember Stan’s last name. Dave and Stan took us through the operation from offices, to underground mine, to open pit mines and the mineral processing facilities. They were both great to a couple of 14 year olds.
We looked at all kinds of things. However, all that I really wanted to do, though, was collect minerals! We had a couple of good chances. I recall that Dave Mulder was incredulous that we would want to stop all the time and bash rocks and wrap specimens. “What are you going to do with them?!” And specimens there were! When we visited the ore body at the bottom of what I think was the Hogarth Pit, there was botryoidal hematite everywhere. I picked up some nice pieces. I could have had a lot more but I was shy. Wish I was could re-live that moment! As well, we were turned loose on the waste dumps which seemed, at that time, to be littered with chunks of breccia that were loaded with quartz crystals, calcite and iron carbonate. I bashed, pried and took as much as I could.
We were treated like princes –well fed and watered. I recall sitting with the mine managers one evening, listening to them talk, as they sipped some sort of adult beverages and smoked cigars. I didn’t understand much! At one point I heard one of the men talking about American investing in Canada. Now, I was just a 14 year old, naïve and impressionable. Some may recall that, at that time, Pierre Trudeau had instilled a nationalistic streak in many Canadians and foreign ownership was viewed with suspicion. The Canadian government had even nationalized a number of large “strategic” companies. I chirped in, to the mine managers’ conversation, that “American investment in Canada and control of our companies was a real problem”. Well, did I get an earful! I got a fast lecture on how it was American investors that had put up the money to develop Steep Rock Iron Mines and how American investors were our friends not enemies. I’ve, since, learned a lot about how the capital markets and corporations work but that early lesson still rings in my ears!
We drove back to Port Arthur from Atikokan, a several hour drive. Another learning experience. Along the way we arrived at an accident scene just minutes after a car of native men went off the road and bashed into a road cut. Most of them were dead amongst the rocks and it was the first time I’d seen people dead from such a violent end. The one fellow that was still alive, the driver, was bleeding profusely from his head so we put him in our car and I sat next to him as we sped towards the Arthur hospital. We wrapped his head in spare shirts to stem the blood flow. Along the way we picked up a police escort and sped through all of the lights, dropped him off and then headed for the airport. I don’t recall anything else but I expect our chaperone had to make some kind of statement to the police, since alcohol was involved.
I had loaded up my suitcase with my belongings and LOTS of mineral and ore specimens. For some reason, I was allowed to carry it onto the plane although it was a rather large and heavy suitcase. The stewardesses made me put it at the back of the plane and were amazed at the weight of it. They asked me WHAT was in it and I just replied “Rocks”. They didn’t seem to believe me.
Back home, I was the envy of all of the other kids - SO many nice mineral specimens that I collected. Not many of the specimens have survived. After going to college, moving across Canada, back and forth, probably 15 or sixteen moves, since then, many of the specimens got damaged. As well, when I returned to Ontario, from that trip, I went to the Bancroft Gemboree and traded many of the specimens away. Wish I’d kept them!
We had a ball and I think it was that trip that ultimately led me to a career in mining. Mind you, I decided to go the mining explosives/ engineering/management route rather than the geology route that I had originally envisaged.
Some information about Steep Rock Iron Mines
The mine at Steep Rock Lake was spawned from the dire need for iron ore by the United States during the later stages of World War II. Apparently, German U-boats were sinking a huge percentage of ore carriers from Latin America and the USA wanted to secure more supplies, besides its own mines.
The ores occur in a series of metamorphosed volcanic and sediments that has been tilted almost vertically. There was significant faulting in the area. This deposit is similar and related to the great iron deposits of Minnesota and Wisconsin.
It had been theorized, since the late 1800’s that there was a lot of iron mineralization under Steep Rock Lake.Trouble was, it was only a theory, since only chunks of hematite had been found around the large Steep Rock Lake. Finally, in 1938, many diamond drill holes were drilled to delineate a very large body of iron mineralization. Direct shipping iron ore. It was decided in the succeeding years to drain the lake, divert the river that fed it, dredge the silts and gravels in and around the lake and then mine the iron ore. Steep Rock Iron Mines was formed in 1938 and was listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange later that year. Plans were made to commence the design and building of a mine and ore handling facilities. The war effort and the shortage of iron ore accelerated the entire effort, greatly.
In 1942, Cyrus S. Eaton, an American financier, became involved and steered the efforts to bring the funding to Steep Rock Iron Mines, enabling it to go to production. Two years later, the first ore was shipped to Superior, Wisconsin by rail. In 1945, ore handling and ship-loading facilities were completed at Port Arthur for more flexible shipping to ports on the St. Lawrence Seaway.
The engineering and construction efforts to uncover the deposits and bring them to production were formidable. Lakes had to be drained, rivers diverted and huge amounts of silt and gravel moved. A few facts:
- billions in wages and taxes resulted from the operation
- double the amount of earth and rock was excavated to build Steep Rock compared to the Panama Canal
- 215 million cubic metres of overburden and lake bottom were removed.
- 570 billion litres of water were pumped.
- the amount of ore taken from the mines was enough to supply ALL of the cars and parts ever used in Canada up until 1978.
- enabled 48,000 person-years of employment during its time.
I’m sure that a tremendous amount of environmental damage was done during the rapid development of this operation. I expect that it was partially due to the times and the haste in which it was built. I suspect that it would be have to be done very differently, these days.
Interestingly, another deposit, the Bending Lake Deposit, was supposed to be the next deposit mined by Steep Rock Iron Mines. It turned out to not be feasible, at the time. Still there and others are looking at it.
In 1949, Caland Ore Company was formed by Inland Steel to mine the Caland Property, close by, under lease from Steep Rock Iron Mines. That is where most of the nice manganite crystal specimens came from! It took until 1960 for mining to commence. There was much financing, engineering, permitting and construction to accomplish first!
I wish Steep Rock Iron Mines was still going. Not only was it a cornerstone of the economy of NW Ontario, it was a source of great mineral specimens. Because of its remoteness, relatively few mineral specimens were recovered. It had the potential to become a “Cave-in-Rock”, “Arkansas” or “Jeffrey Mine” for beautifully crystallized minerals.
Besides my own first-hand knowledge of Steep Rock the following references were helpful.
http://twosox.htmlplanet.com/steeprock/steeprockpage.html lots of good history, photos, etc.
Sona, V.A., Steep Rock Iron Mines, Dredging and Draining of Steep Rock Lake and some of the effects after 45 years. Proceedings of Tailings and Mine Waste ’02, Swets abnd Zeitlinger, ISBN 90 5809 353 0
http://econgeol.geoscienceworld.org/cgi/content/abstract/50/4/373 this has a nice summary of the geology.
If you “Google” Steep Rock Iron Mines, you’ll find lots more information.
Some Additional Images
All specimens are from D.K. Joyce collection, unless noted.