It all started in 1903 when the Timiskaming and Northern Ontario railway (TN&O) was constructed to open up the north and provide northern farmers a means of getting produce to southern markets. Two men, J.H. McKinley and E. F. Darragh, subcontractors that supplied ties for the railroad, discovered silver at the south end of Long Lake – now known as Cobalt Lake. Legend however, gives the discovery credit to the TN&O’s blacksmith Fred LaRose, who threw his hammer at a pesky fox. The hammer missed the fox but struck the rock with enough force to expose native silver.
A better-documented account has McKinley and Darragh finding silver bearing float at the south end of Cobalt Lake. They sent the ore to McGill University where high silver concentrations were confirmed. In the interim, Mr. LaRose had taken his specimens of vein material to the manager of the Matabanick hotel at Haileybury who in turn showed them to the Director of the Ontario Bureau of Mines, Mr. T. W. Gibson. Gibson subsequently dispatched the material to Dr. G. Miller, Ontario’s first Provincial geologist and urged him to pay a personal visit to the area to see what all the excitement was about.
Miller arrived in November of that year and found that four veins had already been identified, three of which were very rich in silver. Also in 1903, Tom Hebert had been busy staking land that would later become the Nipissing mine. In due course, Dr. Miller returned to Toronto with an impressive assortment of samples, which he then reported in an article published in the Mining Journal of New York and in an Ontario Bureau of Mines publication.
In May 1904 Dr. Miller began an in-depth study of Cobalt, which was at the time known as the Long Lake Construction Camp. In the spring of 1904, news of the silver discovery was not initially greeted with a huge influx of prospectors. Once the first shipment of silver slabs reached the south, news quickly spread and an invasion of prospectors occurred almost overnight. In short order, the town of Cobalt emerged on bare rock in the middle of the mining area. The camp grew rapidly and by the January of 1906 there were 16 mines established all in various stages of operations.
Exploration continued to fan out from Cobalt leading to the discovery of silver in Casey and Harris Townships in 1906, then in South Lorrain Township in 1907, and in the Miller Lake, Gowganda Lake, Elk Lake, and Maple Mountain areas in 1908. This exploration also led to discoveries of other mining camps, including Larder Lake, 1906, Porcupine in 1909, Kirkland Lake in 1911, and Matachewan later on in 1916.
Intensive mining activity continued in the Cobalt area until 1911. It was that year silver production reached its peak when over 31 million ounces were shipped out. Mining activity did continue but at a less frenzied pace in the years that followed. By 1922 however, silver production had declined to just over 10 million ounces. As silver prices sagged during the 1920’s, the ore bodies became depleted from the intense two-decade mining period and mines began closing down. By 1929 most mines had ceased operations.
In the subsequent decades, a handful of mines continued to operate intermittently in the Cobalt and Gowganda areas. Subdued operations continued in this manner until the middle of the 20th century when a surge in global demand for cobalt once again sparked a renewed focus on the region.
By the mid 1950’s, extensive diamond drilling had resulted from the renewed interest. The drilling was largely focused in the underground workings left from the old mines. This drilling quickly led to discoveries of new veins and systems previous miners had missed. Brand new mining companies emerged to mine the ore primarily in the Cobalt region, Casey Township and Gowganda areas. When the demand for cobalt ebbed in the late 1950’s, intensive mining activity decreased in lock step.
By 1960, interest in the region was on the increase yet again as the price of silver began to increase. Renewed exploration work in the existing underground workings led once again to more discoveries, this time, silver ore bodies. On Cobalt’s 60th anniversary in 1963 there were eight mines operating in the Cobalt and Gowganda areas.