The Town that the Mine Built

Fort Frances Times and Rainy Lake Herald

And the economic influence its development had not only on Northwestern Ontario, but in hastening Highway Eleven.

It required but a single day to complete the entire task. It was back in 1935, just 30 years ago. The Fort Frances Times required more subscribers and one of the ways to acquire them was to visit people’s homes and ask them to subscribe to our newspaper. This I did one day in Atikokan in 1935-visited every home there at the time in a single day. It was then but a Canadian National Railways roundhouse terminal in the steam engine era.

But that was before the discovery that iron ore lay under the waters of Steep Rock Lake rather than around it, as prospectors had assumed. The late Dr. Mackenzie of Fort Frances had spent a lot of money, and many prospectors spent many hundreds of hours, and money too, unsuccessfully seeking the huge iron ore deposits which they were sure lay buried in the vicinity of Atikokan.

Neil Edmonstone, vice-president of Steep Rock Iron Mines Limited often comments that the reason these earlier prospectors failed to discover the main ore body is they were afraid to get their feet wet.

At any rate the late Julian Cross, wet feet or dry, concluded that if the iron ore was not to be found on the shores of Steep Rock Lake, the showings were so strong that it obviously had to be under the deep waters of the lake.

Ore, under 80 to 300 feet of water and as much as a 200-foot depth of underwater silt, is of little or no economic value unless it can be mined. Shaft mining at the outset proved unsuccessful because of water pressure and fractured structure of the rock which resulted in flooding the mine.

What to do now? M.S. “Pop” Fotheringham, who was on the scene living in a tent when operations first started, and now is president of the company, concluded the ore would have to be extracted by the open pit method, for some years at least.

This meant obviously that the lake had to be drained and all of the underwater silt and boulder overburden removed so as to get at the valuable and high grade hermatite ore. To accomplish this colossal feat required the construction of dams to isolate the portion of the lake in which the ore bodies lay, the diversion of the Seine River around the lake through the man made Esker Cut, a series of rock and gravel cuts, the elimination of a hydro-electric power house, and finally the pumping out of Steep Rock Lake to reach the ore.

The silt overburden had to be pumped out by electric dredges that is, providing you continued mixing enough water with the silt and rock so that the dredge pumps would suck it up, boost it through the huge flexible pipe lines to the shore pump, which in turn boosted it high up over the rocky shore and over into a dewatered bay. Dredging was not only by far the cheapest method, but also the most feasible one.

At one time, the combined requirements of all the barge and shore pumps equalled the total output of a hydro-electric power station on Nipigon River.

This extremely costly development program in order to get at the usable iron ore, required fabulous sums of money. Through the efforts of Steep Rock’s former presidents, Joe Errington and Donald M. Hogarth, Cyrus Eaton, Cleveland financier, was brought into the development of Steep Rock and raised most or much of the development capital required, which accounts for his interest in this venture.

It has been a good venture for a lot of people in the District of Rainy River, as well as for those of the Canadian Lakehead cities, and in fact for much of Northwestern Ontario in generally.

Following the original exploration, drilling and major engineering studies form 1929 to 1942, and the river diversion project from 1943, the Steep Rock range was brought into production in 1945. Ultimately a town of about 5,000; now 7,000 was brought into being. These people required access by road to the outside world. Thus, Steep Rock Iron Mines Limited was in effect responsible for the building of a road which would connect Atikokan to Shebandowan, which in turn was connected to the Trans-Canada highway by a winding bush road, now completely rebuilt, and thence on to Fort William and Port Arthur.

The economy of Atikokan, and indeed of the Rainy River district and the Lakehead, in particular, was bolstered further when Caland Ore Company, a subsidiary of inland Steel of Chicago, came into the picture in 1953 as the result of a royalty agreement consummated between Caland and Steep Rock.

It was interesting to note that, over the years many thousands of people benefited directly and indirectly as a result of the Steep Rock range development, which incidentally produces more tonnage of iron ore than any other part of Ontario.

Many new businesses came into being; a few went broke for various reasons. Aside from actual mining and mine development work, hundreds of new jobs came into being, and hundreds of persons who had jobs, received larger pay cheques, partially as a result of the development of the Steep Rock iron range.

The money Steep Rock Iron Mines received for the sale of its iron ore was widely distributed as it passed on through the hand of employees and suppliers (not to mention taxes) and service industries, then on to other service industries, and their employees, and so on ad infinitum. Not only did Northwestern Ontario benefit in the exchange, but to a lesser degree other provinces as well.

Management personnel of the Steep Rock Mine worked constantly and in closest harmony with people of the west end of the Rainy River district to urge earliest possible completion of the “missing 90 mile link” in Highway Number Eleven which would, among other important advantages, unite the district in a single unit and thus ensure and encourage vital closer contact.

Some companies specialize in being good corporate citizens. My experiences and observations involving Steep Rock Iron Mines Limited lead me to place this particular company in that classification.
Not only is Atikokan a town that the mine built; the benefits overflowed beyond a single town and in some degree stimulated the economy of a large and important sector of Ontario.