From nomad’s camp ground to thriving community

One hundred years ago, Dry Caribou Bones was a stop-off for nomadic Ojibwa, and for the odd trapper or prospector. A picturesque river wended its way along a valley floor.
On this site was to spring up Atikokan–Ojibwa for Dry Caribou Bones.
Atikokan is a special northern town. It has successfully gone through many transitions. Next year it will celebrate its 100th birthday. The theme is “100 Years of Achievement.”
The first transition was from a fur trade outpost to a railroad town. Trains running from Winnipeg to the Lakehead were maintained here. The only access was on the ribbons of steel between Fort Frances and the Lakehead.
Atikokan had a small school, a hotel, a Red Cross outpost hospital, and a general store. Old-timers say community spirit helped them successfully live in such isolation.
While railroading dominated the next 30 years, logging was important. In the winter, logs were cut and stacked on the lakes and floated to Fort Frances in summer. About that same time, a sawmilling village was established at Sapawe about 25 km east of Atikokan.
Meanwhile, prospectors roamed the bush looking for the elusive mother lode. One prospector was especially intrigued by reddish rocks on the shores of Steep Rock Lake. He believed these indicated a large iron deposit under the lake.
WWII was looming and the famous Mesabi deposits in Minnesota were nearing their end. Exploration on Steep Rock Lake outlined a huge iron ore deposit so imaginative and entrepreneurial people developed a mine.
At first, the miners went underground from the shore. It didn’t work. The rock was too fissured, and lake water flooded the mine.
Back to the drawing board.
WWII and the iron ore shortage gave the project a hefty push but it also set harsh production deadlines. The miners did a bit of a Moses routine. They got rid of the water in the lake.
Emptying the water was relatively easy but Steep Rock Lake was part of a huge watershed. The miners had to stop water from flowing into the lake. As well, the ore was under millions of tons of mixture of clay and boulders.
They used dams and channels to re-route the watershed around the lake. They used huge dredges to get rid of the muck and rocks covering the ore. This was no simple task!
Pipelines carried the clay and rocks from the lake bottom to settling basins. The work had to continue through the harsh winters. If the dredges and pipelines froze, work would have to wait until spring.
Getting at the iron ore required engineering genius, financial wizardry, creative operations, and a doggedness that defied climate, geography, and the skepticism of traditional miners. Theirs was an achievement on the scale of building the Panama Canal!
The little railroad village was becoming a booming mining town. People came from all over the world. New subdivisions, schools, hospital, retail outlets, and a newspaper were needed.
The railroaders welcomed the newcomers. The transition from railroad town to mining town went smoothly. Everyone was involved in carving a modern community out of the bush.
Among the many heroes, two men stand out–M.S. (Pop) Fotheringham and Neil Edmonstone. They were the unsung heroes behind opening the ore body and creating the new town.
Fotheringham was an engineering genius and Edmonstone a financial wizard. They had a vision. They didn’t want Atikokan to be a company town. They believed the community should develop its own leadership infrastructure. If anything happened to mining, the community would have the people to carry on.
How prophetic they were!
By the early 1970s, steel making technology changed. Atikokan’s ore was less attractive. The end of iron mining was just over the horizon.
Most outsiders thought Atikokan would fade back into the bush. But not the people who lived there. They set their sights on another transition; just to what, they didn’t know.
The township council, mines, chamber of commerce, and Quetico Centre set up an informal study group to map out the strategy for turning the mining town into a service centre. Many others became involved. Here are two examples of what they accomplished.
Ontario Hydro needed a new thermal generating facility. The locals asked, Why not Atikokan? Traditionally, Hydro built its plants on the Great Lakes. Other places Hydro went, they were greeted by hostile environmentalists.
But Atikokan invited Hydro officials and when they came, it was a love-in. Hydro built in Atikokan.
Secondly, the pulp and paper industry saw Atikokan’s abundant poplar and birch stands as weed woods. An American particleboard maker was convinced that the weed wood provided an ideal resource worth building a plant.
What is now Proboard was born.
And on it went. Atikokanites used all their political and public relations skills to position their town as a place of opportunity.
This became evident in the community, too. Those who decided to stay wanted the amenities needed for healthy living. Community spirit soared. A new golf course, hospital, airport, museum, dual-purpose school gym, arena, swimming pool, sewer and water treatment systems and more were added.
Atikokan had successfully navigated another transition.
The achievements of the past 15 years are more subtle. Pride of community, activities for healthful living, and support of local entrepreneurship are being emphasized. Volunteer spirit is growing at a time when that is again very important.
On its 100th year birthday, Atikokan has much to celebrate. And the community is poised to enter the new millennium on a record of rising to challenges.

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