Articles

Ungava Strikes It Rich

STUART KEATE December 1 1948
Articles

Ungava Strikes It Rich

STUART KEATE December 1 1948

Ungava Strikes It Rich

Articles

STUART KEATE

The air-borne drillers of Burnt Creek have proved enough iron to keep Canada going for 150 years, and that’s just a start

YOU WON’T find Burnt Creek on any map of Canada. It looks like a place the prop men will dismantle tomorrow, their Grade-B western movie completed. Its log cabins, tucked into the red, sub-Arctic ground; its Nissen-hut cookhouse with the iron triangle outside the door; its mongrel Husky dogs and its bearded miners make it the prototype of all fictional camps. All that’s missing is a Last Gulp saloon and John Wayne charging down the main street, his shootin’ iron a-smokin’.

But Burnt Creek will be on the maps soon. For it is the centre of one of the richest iron ore areas in North America and hub of Quebec’s “new frontier,” in Ungava. A lot of very big men envisage it as a townsite of 10,000 persons, heart of a mining development that may easily last another century.

Today the population of Burnt Creek and outlying camps is 215. At the end of October the men racked up their diamond and churn drills after a highly successful summer in which the Hollinger companies working the Quebec-Labrador concessions achieved their first objective: proof of the

300 million tons of high-grade ore necessary to make the whole development project feasible. They amassed that total in the incredibly short span of two summers by intensive drilling of “only what they could kick”— the grey-black outcroppings on the sides of hills and stuff turned up when a bulldozer scratched the soil overlying the ore.

Now Jules R. Timmins of Hollinger and his associates (the powerful M. A. Hanna Co. of Cleveland, O.) are ready to go ahead. They gambled about $5 millions to prove their property. Next step is the raising of the $200 millions esti-

mated necessary to create a 360-mile railway, acquire rolling stock, construct a dock site at Seven Islands on the St. Lawrence, harness hydro-electric power, build a townsite and install equipment for open-pit mining. By 1953 they hope to start highballing it down their own railroad at an initial rate of 10 million tons a year; by 1956, they may be able to step this up to 20 million tons. The advent of war would undoubtedly speed up schedules.

Burnt Creek, 716 air miles northeast of Montreal, is probably one of the most exclusive communities in North America. Unless you are handy with a canoe (in which case you can paddle up assorted rivers and lakes to the ore bodies in 31 days), the only way in which you can get there is by invitation. You take a Canadian National train from Montreal to Mont Joli, a distance of 359 miles, and when you mention the name “Hollinger” at the station, they route you across the street to Hotel Commercial. This is a jut-jawed, brick-faced bistro which has at least some of the aspects of the old Klondike and Cariboo gold-rush hitching posts. Its lobby is crowded with rugged citizens in violently checked shirts, buckling at the knees with duffel and the impedimenta of the hair-shirt life. The hotel also boasts a bartender named Ciro who advertises himself as “Direct from the WaldorfAstoria in New York City.” Ciro at least gets New York prices: one dollar for a Tom Collins and $10 for a bottle of Johnny Dewar’s. Local option.

Mont Joli is also the headquarters of Charlie Hoyt, beefy, grey-haired airman who formerly flew for the RCAF. Charlie is now in charge of Hollinger’s personal air lift (Ungava Transport). Before 1946 there wasn’t a machine in Burnt Creek. In the past two summers pilots have flown in almost 1,500 tons of equipment,

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including 10 bulldozers and tractors, three trucks, two jeeps, 12 drills and some enormous newspapermen.

When Hollinger first started flying into Ungava, they paid a commercial airline 73 cents a pound for air freight. In April of this year they acquired two war-surplus DC-3’s and had them converted by Canadair. Today they are laying supplies down at the ore head at an average cost of less than 10 cents a pound.

Charlie Hoyt runs his backwoods transport company—which also has a Norseman and a Stinson—like a bigleague airline. His pilots (one of whom is Johnny Timmins, nephew of the boss) are all qualified instrument fliers, and are assisted by a network of ground radio stations. At Seven Islands, the projected tidewater outlet, they have three runways of 6,000 feet each. At Knob Lake, which is 317 miles north (and 10 miles from the Burnt Creek camp) they have a strip 4,300 feet long —big enough to handle a Flying Fortress. There are no landing strips between Seven Islands and Knob Lake; flying over the first 100 miles of wild, 3,000-foot mountains, is a bit like going over a pocket-edition “Hump.”

After three and a half hours of bucking a head wind, the landing strip at Knob Lake looks like the choicest piece of property in Ungava. Pilot Jack Scott, a veteran of the RCAF, let his lumbering DC-3 down easily; as we drifted down on the runway, the stunted black spruce and tamarack looked like twigs in a kindergarten sandbox. At one end of the field a scraper was tidying up the edges. The entire field had the burnt-orange color common to highly oxidized ground.

“Scotty” taxied up to a log-cabin shack where two men were warming themselves by an oil-drum fire. One of them stuck his hand out: “My

name’s Jack Little. Field manager. Glad to see you.” After our baggage had been entered on a manifest, we piled into Little’s jeep and were whisked off to the base camp. The road was in surprisingly good shape.

Ungava, despite its seeming remoteness, is a popular place with miners. Hollinger has a long list of applicants for jobs. Men know that they can save a buck up there, far from the temptations of liquor and darling Clementine. It’s also a great place for conditioning. Kenny Reardon of Les Canadiens gave up a soft “contactman” job with a liquor company to sign on with the Hollinger railway survey this summer and reported for fall training a few weeks ago with guttural growls and chest-beating.

Confederation a Big Issue

Forty per cent of the workers are Newfoundlanders. They were hired under the terms of the 20,000-squaremile Labrador concession, which is part of Newfoundland and which decrees that Newfoundlanders should be employed wherever feasible. Another 40% are French Canadians.

Except when discussing confederation (which is practically always) these men get along well. If the Newfoundlanders at Burnt Creek get extremely exasperated with the Canadians, they can get back in their own country by simply walking 400 feet and crossing over into Labrador. The boundary is a highly fluid affair, determined by the height of land. By some fortunate happenstance, Eclipse, Goodwood, Burnt Creek and Knob Lake managed to get themselves discovered on the Canadian side, which so far has produced two thirds of the proven total of ore.

Unlike loggers, the iron men talk at the meal table. The absence of profanity is notable. The food Cookee Lance Widnall serves them is excellent —plenty of pork chops, roasts, hams,

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California oranges and nicely turned pie crusts. The men pay $1.25 a day for hoard that costs the company about $4.50.

Because they are anxious to make a stake, the men work 12 hours a day, in two shifts. The exception is Sunday, when no day shift is worked. Pay ranges from 70 cents an hour to $1.30 (for drillers), with a 10-cent-an-hour bonus if they work out their six months’ contract. Most of them do.

A company official observes: “It’s

a good thing these men aren’t unionized. The unions would let them work only eight hours a day and they want to work longer. They seem to be just as keen as we are to put ore in sight.”

At Burnt Creek the men must make their own fun. They do this with fishing and hunting, the odd game of penny ante, and impromptu entertainments in the recreation hut, where the Newfoundlanders raise their salty baritones in the wonderful saga of the “Squid Jiggin’ Ground.” A handlettered notice on the cookhouse door advertised the following program for a recent Saturday night:

Singing by that famous Newfie, TOBI.

Step-dancing by Jones—He Just Glides Thru The Air.

Dangerous Dan McGrew, by Harrigan.

Into The Valley of Death, by Kerrigan.

Magic by ‘Houdini’ Malkowicz.

Music by Nothrey and His Yodelling Cowboys.

The Best Ore Is Blue

In the log-cabin machine shop, foreman Norman Deimage runs off his own color films for the boys; most of them deal with prize fishing catches and the hazards of towing aircraft through the snow with small tractors. Deimage will probably be the last man out of camp this winter. He and a dozen helpers must overhaul the 65 internal-combustion engines on the property to ensure that they’re in good working order for next spring’s opening. Yvette Deimage, his bride of six months, is the only woman in the camp. She doubles as secretary in the mine office and has only one complaint about Ungava life; no feminine gossip.

At a company store, the men can buy evil-looking plug tobacco, chocolate bars, toilet goods, tabac canadien, yellow-and-black checked lumberjacks, windbreakers and tin pants. Standard gear for the bracing climate is long woolen underwear, fleece-lined boots, heavy socks, sturdy duck pants, a couple of sweaters, a ski jacket and a cap with ear flaps.

Across the way is a company laboratory, where quick assays can be made for iron, silica and manganese content. At the corrugated aluminum “drill shacks” on the slopes, sludge from the drill holes is drawn off in wooden tubs and shoveled into containers like bread tins. The ore iself is fine and multicolored. The best is a rich, dark blue; others are mustard-yellow, brown or red. At the base laboratory samples are assayed and put up in small bottles. Then they are transferred to envelopes and shipped to the Iron River (Mich.) laboratories of M. A. Hanna Co. for detailed analysis.

General manager of the five Hollinger companies incorporated to develop the iron-ore project (two exploration, railway, airline and air power) is W. H. “Bill” Durrell, 45, a brisk, good-looking engineer out of Haileybury, Ont. Durrell first became interested in the Timmins’ venture in 1943 when he was busy building Goose Bay airport.

Field manager at Burnt Creek is J. A. “Jack” Little, 44, a Queen’s graduate engineer who joined the company in 1947 after 10 years as a base-metal mine superintendent at Normetal, Que. Under his direction, the company has built a large radio station at Knob Lake, a local telephone network and about 80 miles of roads, most of them in surprisingly good condition.

The “king of Labrador”

Chief company geologist is Dr. J. A. “Joe” Retty, unofficially recognized as “Mr. Ungava” and once crowned, by an irreverent group of Toronto prospectors, as “King of Labrador.” A stylish-stout, genial man of 44, Joe Retty was in charge of field work in the area 12 years ago when A. H. McKay of Montreal acquired a 20,000-squaremile concession in Labrador. In 1942, when McKay’s interests passed to Jules Timmins, Dr. Retty went along with the deal as chief geologist. The year before he had made the original discovery of ilmenite at Lake Allard, north of Anticosti, which was the genesis of Quebec’s new titanium industry.

In the mid-thirties, there was little interest in iron ore; Retty was looking for gold. But in 1937 a Montagna is Indian trapper named Mathieu André came out of Ungava with what he called “pretty rocks.” To Dr. Retty’s trained geologist’s eye, they looked very pretty, indeed: they were, in fact, the first samples of high-grade iron ore. He took Mathieu André in by airplane and was led to what is now known as the Sawyer Lake deposit in I librador. Subsequently Joe Retty made the first discovery of iron ore in New Quebec, close to Rurnt Creek, which he named. He recommended that an area northwest of the Labrador concession be licensed from the Quebec Government and in 1942 Hollinger acquired approximately 3,900 square miles on the Canadian side of the much-debated boundary.

Burnt Creek last year turned up an amazing discovery. A new, light churn drill (a type that drills by an up and down action), was flown in and it was decided to test it behind the machine shop, at the base camp. At two feet the drill hit iron ore. The hole was continued to 367 feet and was still in highgrade ore when it was stopped. It was later found that the entire camp was sitting on one of the richest deposits in the area. Consequently, it will have to be moved; a new townsite has alreadybeen selected, close to water and good drainage.

“Only the Beginning”

Assisting Dr. Retty in field work is Dr. A. E. (Ab) Moss, 34, who learner! his geology at the University of Saskatchewan and McGill. His job is to supervise drilling. He estimates the potential of the Quebec-Labrador concessions—most of which have not been scratched—is “at least a billion tons.” The current rate for ore is $8 a ton f.o.b. Pittsburgh. The problem is to get the ore to Pittsburgh. However, despite the many economic imponderables the companies appear to be operating a strictly blue-chip enterprise.

This has resulted in almost inevitable criticisms. When the company’s railway charter was passing through the House of Commons, William Irvine of the CCF protested that “in years to come there will be ample reason for objecting to what is being done in this House . . . the Federal Government should have set aside these resources

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for the good of Canada and seen to it [hat this ore was brought to Canadian industry for the service of the people bf Canada.”

Closer to home, the influential Montreal French-language daily Le Veroir has persistently cried that the Quebec Government has “given away this immense territory for a song.” 7n a recent front-page attack on the project, associate editor André Laurendeau wrote: “For the atomic war of

¡tomorrow, there must be a new Mesabi —Ungava. And our government has given it away !”

Premier Maurice Duplessis of Quebec deplores this notion. “It is incontestable.” he says, “that these developments are the largest that the province has ever known and represent only the beginning . . . It is well to note that the ground rented - not sold—to the company represents only a small part of New Quebec. The government could not reasonably have undertaken the enormous expenses entailed in this preliminary work. This is a country too rich to be left closed.”

Actually, the company must pare its Quebec concessions from 3,900 square miles to 300 by 1962. Thereafter it will pay the province an annual rental of $100,000, plus a share of the profits ‘-.caled from four to seven per cent. On the Labrador side the company must trim its 20,000 square miles to 1,000, for final operations. It must also pay the Newfoundland Government five per cent on net profits of ore sold and pay taxes for the run of the 90-year concession.

The discovery has already attracted keen interest at political, economic and military levels.

Pro-Seaway Argument

Premier Duplessis has been making anguished noises about the 1927 Privy Council decision, ceding great slashes of Labrador to Newfoundland, and warned that “Quebec will take the necessary steps to protect and safeguard the rights of the province.” In a recent flight over the territory, which was hailed by IS Action Catholique as an act of audacity comparable to the Montgolfier balloon ascension of 1783, the Prime Minister evinced keenest interest in the properties on the Quebec side of the border. When flown over Eaton Canyon, a remarkable Z-shaped waterfall which will churn up 500,000 horsepower for the project, he asked his pilot: “Are these waters in Quebec?”

Assured that they were, he smiled broadly and sat up in his seat to pay proper respect to the turbulent gorge.

There are hints, too, that the prospect of dollars and jobs for Quebecers has given the Premier a change of heart about the proposed St. Lawrence Seaway, heretofore anathema to the ports of Quebec and Montreal. Also looking with new favor on the St Lawrence project is the M. A. Hanna Co., formerly regarded as archfoes of the proposal. It’s argued that if Ungava can produce 20 million tons a year, the most economic way to get it out will be via 10,000-ton ships which could provide cheap transport, via seaway, to inland industrial areas. A somewhat lacklustre view of these plans is taken by the major railroads and the great cities of New York and Ros ton.

Few could deny, however, the dollar value of a Canadian iron-ore export business. Ores thus far proved in Ungava are averaging 58.5% natural iron and have gone as high as 69%, which is approaching the “theoretical,” or pure, ore. Mesabi, the great ore range in Minnesota, is currently marketing its ore at about 51.5%.

Canada will have first call on the Ungava ore, which should provide a shot in the arm for Nova Scotia’s steel industry, less than 500 sea miles away. But Canada could not be expected to take more than 10 to 20% of the 10 million tons Hollinger must produce annually to ensure an economic operation. Another million tons may go to Great Britain and Europe. The important market, obviously, will be | the United States.

The current threat of war has ! brought the whole Ungava picture info ¡ sharp focus While it may not be true, as some experts say, that “Mesabi has fought its last war,” it is a fact that, the iron in its veins is beginning to clank. Henry II. Wade’s “Mining Directory of Minnesota for 1948,” the only official publication extant on Mesabi, lists its known reserves at. 989 million tons. Since this figure is used for taxation purposes, it is probably conservative But at Mesabi’s present rate of production, it is only enough for 10 years’ supply.

And general manager Durrell of : Hollinger points out: “In the steel

industry, you don’t look ahead for 10 years; you’ve got to look ahead 100 years . . . From the standpoint of national and hemispheric economy and defense, it would seem that t he development of our ore is essential.” if