Cobalt

Cobalt, OntarioIn my travels along Highway 11 I’ve noticed that some towns are:

And then there are some that are just plain cool.

Enter Cobalt.

Cobalt is just really neat.  Part of it is the history.  Part of it is the town’s independent streak.  But mostly, it’s just so old and, well, old, that it’s really interesting.

From “Yikes” to “Cool”

My first impression of Cobalt was “oh god.”  And not in a good way.  But boy was I wrong. Cobalt is the kind of town that would have five taverns but no grocery store. And that’s what makes it so interesting.Abandoned storefront in Cobalt, a reminder of its heydey

Cobalt headframe, hgihway 11 Ontario

Preserved mine headframe in Cobalt – really cool

It was when I stopped to take a break from driving that I really saw my surroundings.  I realized that what looked old and run down was simply historic.  That was looked grotty and old really had a tonne of character. That instead of tearing down older buildings and erecting cheap, shoddy new ones in their place, Cobalt had preserved its history. A history they were proud of. This place wasn’t run down, it was preserved.  Cobalt was named Ontario’s most historic town for a reason.

Sure, there aren’t a tonne of stores or boutiques.  But at least there aren’t a tonne of places selling crap either.  There is no grocery store left in town (it closed in 1992 when the store owner cleared out the remaining products and held dance parties in the store to commemorate its closing), but what else is there is because it needs to be there – like museums, mine shafts, and bars.  More than a few of them.

Cobalt Train Station, Highway 11

Cobalt ONTC station

Highway 11 Book Shop, now closed. Cobalt, OntarioThe Highway Book Shop was a classic tourist destination that never feels like a tourist destination.  It was a family-run used bookshop on Highway 11 just outside of Cobalt and it is not only worth a visit, it is worth some time.  Maps, books, magazines, teaching materials, kid’s lit, old books, new books, big books, rare books – you wouldn’t have believed all the crap they have in there.  I think I spent an hour on two separate occasions perusing the cramped store. It might smell like your grandmother’s basement, but it’s really neat, and no visit to Temiskaming is complete without a stop, in my opinion. Sadly, the icon has closed.  Ready to retire for years, the owners couldn’t find anyone to take the store on and had to shut one of Highway 11′s best attractions down.

Cobalt Classic Theatre is the only remaining theatre from Cobalt’s heyday in 1920s.  While other towns were using economic development funds to build golf courses, Cobalt restored the old Classic Theatre in 1993 and now hosts students, playwrights, and actors from across Ontario. The theatre is restored to what it looked like in the 1920s and is a focal point for the community.

Cobalt, mining equipment, Highway 11

Antique mining equipment on display at the lakefront.  Other towns would have just thrown this stuff out.  Cobalt, refreshingly, doesn’t run from its roots.

Mine headframe now a bar, Cobalt, Ontario

This headframe is now the world’s only bar in a mine headframe! That’s revitalization, northern Ontario style.

The Cobalt Mining Museum has the world’s largest display of silver and offers the only underground mine tour that I’ve seen outside of Timmins.  The Bunker Military Museum has a good collection of memorabilia, the Great Canadian Mine show displays mining technology, and there is also a firefighter museum in town.

Cobalt also has two separate self-guided walks.  The Cobalt Walking Tour brings you through town past historic buildings and historical places, while the Heritage Silver Trail is a self guided tour of many of the abandoned mine headframes in the area.

There’s more.  There is Fred’s Northern Picnic, an annual music festival that the local Member of Parliament usually plays at (he’s a musician by trade) and where you get three days of music and free camping for like $60.  The Silver Street Cafe has good food and decent prices, and they also cater local events with real food (forget hamburgers and hot dogs, think steak on a bun and pulled pork with onions.)  The Silverland Inn and Motel is a restored hotel from Cobalt’s mining heyday and also serves food.  There is a stained glass shop, a gem shop, and Iddy Biddy Petting Farm.  Cobalt also has more murals than Nipigon.

Fred's Northern Picnic, featuring MP Charlie Angus, Cobalt, ON

Not sure if they’re still running Fred’s Northern Picnic, but that’s where I saw Serena Ryder before she was big, and the local MP get up and do a set too

History of Cobalt Mural, Cobalt Highway 11Hockey, Streetcars, and Casa Loma

I read in the James Bay tourist brochure that there is a legend that Cobalt blacksmith Fred Larose threw his hammer at a fox, uncovering a rich vein of silver in the process.  Further silver and mineral deposits were found in 1903, triggering a mining rush like no other in northern Ontario.  The significance of the Cobalt finds supposedly led to riots over mining stocks in New York City.  Others say that Cobalt built Bay Street (Toronto’s Wall Street.)  A testament to the town’s wealth, the Cobalt Silver Kings played the 1909 season in the NHA, the NHL’s precursor. Another first in Cobalt include the Temiskaming Streetcar Line, which was installed between Cobalt and Haileybury, and was the first streetcar system north of Toronto.

Mining ruins, Cobalt, Highway 11 Ontario

Mining ruins east of town

Cobalt Lake, Ontario

Cobalt Lake, once drained, then filled, now restored

In addition, the mines of Cobalt built Casa Loma, the famous “castle” built upon Spadina Heights in Toronto. Sir Henry Mill Pellatt was a wealthy Canadian mine owner (some say Canada’s richest man at the time.) It was his mining operations in Cobalt that allowed him to gather the immense wealth to build Casa Loma. Construction began in 1911 and took more than three years, 3.5$ million, and more than 300 full-time workers. With 98 rooms, it was the largest residence in Canada at the time. Pellat eventually lost his residence, as the Depression and the decline of mining in Cobalt led to his financial ruin. Casa Loma was essentially built with the revenues Sir Henry Mill Pellatt gained by draining Cobalt Lake for silver mining.

The Cobalt rush eventually produced more than $260 million worth of silver, countless myths and stories about how and where silver was found, who struck it rich, and who lost their pants in speculation. The Cobalt silver rush resulted in a whole little Cobalt culture developing – embodied by the Cobalt Song (click here to download the sheet music.) Cobalt led to the founding towns like North Cobalt (a bedroom town for miners) and Haileybury (a bedroom town for wealthy mine owners.) The mining boom in Cobalt also paved the way for exploration further north, which led to massive gold finds in Timmins and Kirkland Lake, both of which far exceeded the value of the mines of Cobalt in the long-run.

Cobalt, Ontario, downtown, highway11.ca Ontario Highway 11

I could move this photo of downtown Cobalt closer to the text that talks about downtown Cobalt but in wordpress moving photos around is a pain in the rear. (Credit: User P199 at Wiki Commons.)

Although Cobalt survived the usual northern Ontario disasters, including a typhoid outbreak in 1909, and Great Fire of 1922, it couldn’t survive the decline of mining.  Well, it survived, but it’s much smaller today and mining no longer exists.  There is some exploration for diamonds, but I don’t think they’ve been found.  I’ve heard that many of the old mines still have minerals in them, but that it’s just not economical to mine such old shafts for minerals at today’s prices. But, in the end, the history of Cobalt is one of a town that conbtinually gets kicked, but then manages to find its way back up.

Cobalt is considered the third part of the Tri Towns along with New Liskeard and Haileybury.  But for some reason it didn’t amalgamate into Temiskaming Shores in the late 1990s when the province forced municipalities to squish together.  Maybe it’s too far away.  Maybe old hostilities with North Cobalt scuppered a move.  Maybe the town is too independent.  Maybe there is still an old hockey rivalry between Cobalt and Haileybury from the one season both towns had a team in the NHA.  I’m sure someone in the town of 1200 put up a fight.  I don’t know.

I haven’t spent as much time as I would like in Cobalt, and, I must admit, haven’t visited any of the touristy things here other than the Highway Book Shop.  But I’m sure I’ll be back again.

Old mining carts, Cobalt, Ontario

My grandfather worked in coal mines in Europe for a time.  Seeing these things, all I could think of was my disbelief that people actually went underground with these things…that’s ballsy

The Cobalt Song Mural, Cobalt, Highway 11 Ontario

Haileybury

Which northern Ontario town had its own street cars, was home to the guy who wrote the Hardy Boys, had the most millionaires in Canada, was the first home of the team that would become the Montréal Canadiens, and then promptly had its prosperity wiped out by a massive fire?

Streetcar Norhtern Ontario, Haileybury, Highway 11

Back off St. Clair Avenue West…Haileybury has had streetcars too!

The thing that makes Haileybury really northern is its history.  The rise and fall and apparent rebuilding is really interesting and, in my opinion, totally characteristic of northern Ontario.

Lumber boat in Haileybury, ontario

After Longlac and Opasatika, let me guess this is a lumber boat?

Once known as Humphrey’s Depot, Haileybury was founded in the early 1900s by a former fur trader on the shores of Lake Temiskaming.  He named the town after the school he attended in England.  He tried to attract settlers with the usual propaganda leaflets, but as northern Ontarians know, there’s no better way to get the country settled than a gold rush.  And that’s what it took to get Haileybury off the ground.

Haileybury, downtown, Highway 11 Ontario Lake

Haileybury road leading into Lake Temiskaming. (Credit; User P199 at Wiki Commons.)

Despite being named after a place in England where wealthy parents got rid of their kids, Haileybury is the start of francophone north-eastern/central Ontario.  (Or it is the end, depending on which way you’re traveling on Highway 11.)  Approximately 80 percent of Haileyburians are French-first, which is interesting given that their neighbours are primarily anglophone, particularly in New Liskeard (70 percent) and Cobalt (almost completely unilingual.)  As you go north after Haileybury, the towns almost alternate – anglo, franco, etc.

The discovery of silver in Cobalt in 1903 started a population explosion in Haileybury, as the town became a bedroom community for prospectors and mine owners.  So successful were some that a street in Haileybury was dubbed Millionaire’s Row for the wealthy people it housed.

Haileybury, Ontario on Highway 11But of course, this all had to come to a tragic end with the fires of 1922, which killed 11, displaced 3500, and razed the town completely alongside New Liskeard, Dymond, and possibly Cobalt. In order to survive, many families had to hide in wells, lakes, and even down mine shafts. Many of those who escaped to the mines died when the fires, passing over the mines, sucked out the shaft’s oxygen, asphyxiating those who sought refuge underground. The town commorates the fire with a sculpture at its waterfront park, pictured below on the left.

Haileybury Today

With 4500 people, Haileybury (pronounced locally as Hailey-berry) is the second largest part of the Tri-Towns and Haileybury is the seat of the Temiskaming Shores municipality, which includes New Liskeard and Dymond.  It is a quiet lakeshore community that is worth a stop if you’re not in a hurry.

Pioneer Monument, Great Fire, Haileybury, Highway 11

Monument to pioneers that survived the Great Fire by hiding in swamps, lakes, and wells

I really like the waterfront.  There is a nice little pavilion with the Pioneer’s Monument (pictured) honouring the fire of 1922.  There is a little beach and a modern marina as well.  The view is nice across the lake to Quebec and in the summer you’ll see a number of boats on the water as Lake Temiskaming is the end of the scenic Ottawa River route, which is popular with boaters.  The waterfront is worth a drive, if not a full stop.

Haileybury on the shores of Lake Temiskaming

Haileybury on the shores of Lake Temiskaming

In terms of tourism, there is a fair amount to do.  The Haileybury Heritage Museum was built to chronicle the history of the town and tell the story of the fire.  The museum features a restored 1920s streetcar, as well as an old firepumper and a preserved tugboat that used to ply the waters of Lake Temiskaming.  You can also visit the “world famous” Haileybury School of Mines.  Haileybury is also home to the Temiskaming Art Gallery.  You can see different types of ores at the Rock Park Walk, while there is camping and golf in town as well.

I don’t remember a lot of places to eat, and I think the only Tri-Town Tim Horton’s are in New Liskeard and Dymond.  Accommodations include the Leisure Inn, Edgewater Motel and Cabins, the Haileybury Beach Motel, and the Les Suites des Presidents Suites, an upscale bed and breakfast.  New Liskeard has more places to stay and eat.  Personally I find that Haileybury, despite being very pretty and having stuff to do, is still something of a bedroom community.  It doesn’t have the same downtown nor the same ‘feel’ that New Liskeard does.  And it’s nothing like Cobalt.  At all.

Downtown Haileybury

Back to History

Haileybury was also home to the team that would become the Montreal Canadiens.  The club played the 1909 NHA season and left for Montreal.  It would become the Canadiens only two years later.  I think that’s pretty neat.

Haileybury’s streetcars were part of the Nipissing Central Railway that connected the Tri Towns, which would definitely make it unique in the north.  Heck I’m sure it ran faster then than Timmins transit does today.  Toronto also donated 87 streetcars after the great fire to help shelter the homeless.  Today there is one restored streetcar left at the Haileybury Heritage Museum.

And, to finish, Haileybury was also home to Les Macfarlane, who wrote many of the Hardy Boys novels under the pen name Franklin Dixon.

Thanks to Johnny O for the info on the Tri Towns.

The Hardy Boys's Sleuth, in Haileybury on Highway 11

I never liked the Hardy Boys. Too All-American. Too serious. Too predictable. Sure, you knew that Encyclopedia Brown was always going to figure it out too but at least he had a sense of humour. But, anyway, this is a replica of the Hardy Boys’s boat, in Haileybury.

Matheson

“650 000 acres of paradise” read the signs coming into Black River-Matheson.  The towns in Black River-Matheson (Monteith, Val Gagne, Ramore, Holtyre, and Matheson) are quaint, clean, and definitely rural – marking the transition between Ontario’s true north and the farms of the Temiskaming claybelt.  Matheson serves as a crossroads between road 101 (which runs from Québec to Timmins) and Highway 11.

Matheson, Ontario on Highway 11

Still not sure who Thelma Miles is…

When first founded the town was named MacDougall’s Chute – ‘MacDougall’ being the name of a local First Nations trapper and ‘Chute’ pointing to its mining origins.  The government renamed it Matheson in 1906 as they built the railway through the region to transport timber, ore, and wheat back to southern Ontario.  Today, a hunk of gold ore sits at Queen’s Park in Toronto as a testament to the riches formerly found in the Matheson area.  High upon a hill overlooking Highway 11, the Thelma Miles Museum brings visitors back through Matheson’s history from 1900 onwards.

Matheson was the site of the famous Croesus mine discovery of 1914. The largest concentration of pure gold ever to be found was discovered – a pure gold nugget measuring 2” x 1.25” was removed (a model of it is at the museum in Matheson). Gold was so rich that it was mined at an unbelievable 5,945 ounces per ton. The vein was lost about 2 years later – the time of the Great Fire.

Matheson, Ontario, Highway 11, highway11.ca

Matheson, Ontario on Highway 11 (Credit: User P199 at Wiki Commons.)

Matheson used to be the agricultural centre of the northern half of notheastern Ontario. Up until 1995, it even had a Ministry of Agriculture office. One had to go back a few decades to understand why agriculture flourished here. Besides Government incentives in the earlier part of the 1900’s for ‘pioneers’ to settle, and fairly fertile land that far north, was another reason – forestry.

Black River in Matheson, Ontario

Black River boat launch

Dwight emailed to tell me that, up until the early 60’s, before mechanization came to the forestry industry in full force, trees were harvested using hundreds of horses – and these horses had to be fed. To this day forestry plays a large part in the area. The big plant in Iroquois Falls was in the area, but so were plants in Kenogami Lake, and even several small saw mills in the area. One existed for years (and may to this day) in Ramore. Therefore, there was a bit more to the agricultural industry then meets the eye in the area.

Saying that, once the 1960s ended and mechanization of forestry took hold, agriculture began a 25 year decline to near extinction in the area. Two big ‘hits occurred – the 1980-82 recession (that even wiped out nearly all farm manufacturers as they were known then, and only left one intact – John Deere). The final ‘hit’ was the recession of the early 90’s. Before the recession of the early 80’s, there were several larger beef cattle herds, that totaled approx 1000 animals or more, from as far north as Iroquois Falls, south to Ramore. Matheson even had a feedlot and abattoir, with Holtyre having an abattoir. Monteith had a veterinarian for large and small animals up until the mid-80’s. By the mid 90’s there were probably no more than 200 animals, with even fewer today.

The Matheson Fire

Matheson is the epicentre of the Matheson Fire.  Also known as the Great Fire of 1916, the fire was the largest forest fire at the time and still stands today as Ontario’s most deadly, killing more than 220 people and burning more than 500 000 acres.  The fire formed a whopping 64-kilometre front from Porquis Junction through to Ramore – completely destroying all the communities in its path.  (The fire is the main reason that ‘Driftwood City’ was rebuilt as Monteith.)  It’s been told that those who didn’t escape by train found safety hovering in lakes and rivers.  The Matheson Fire led to creation of Ontario’s fire protections branch of the Ministry of Natural Resources.

The town’s Rotary Park displays a replica of an old mining cart (pictured) as well as a hunk of ore and a large wooden carving in honour of Aboriginal traders that once made their home in the area.  Upon further inspection, the old mining cart has been used as a wastebin for the old election signs of a handily-defeated Liberal politician.  There’s also a boat launch and pavilion on the Black River.

Mining memorial in Matheson, Ontario on Highway 11

Ore comes up…

Liberal fortunes in northern Ontario go down the chute, literally

…and junk goes down!

What I didn’t know is that there was a mine near Matheson that used to be a large producer of asbestos. Apparently, the area has a number of asbestos mines that operated until the 1960s. Johns Mansville had a huge operation on the back highway to Quebec, about 15 km east of town. It closed in the 60’s when the demand for asbestos dropped once health issues became known. There are still large deposites of asbestos in the area (along with gold of course). The Hedman asbestos mine was still operating until recently as far as I know, making safer products they have patented: “Hedmanite” and “Lizardite”. There are still asbestos tailings sites in the area, one site being as high as the mountain at the old Ramore Air Base.

I used to be sort of related to someone from Matheson (long story!), so I’ve been ‘regaled’ with tales of the region’s former agricultural prowess, the size of the markets, the vibrancy of the community, and the bars.  Today, with most of the farms are abandoned, the town is a shell of its old self – note the old Stanley Hotel with its Da-Lor Lounge, both of which now sit empty and for sale – a relic of better days.

Statue in Matheson, Ontario

Yeah the sun wasn’t helping my photographic skills on this one

Today Matheson has a population of about a thousand, with the township’s total population just breaking the 2500 mark.  Downtown Matheson now has the Cozy Corner, a variety store, Northern Treasures Gifts, a Freshmart, a hardware store, a caisse, an LCBO, and oddly enough, a garden centre.  The Northern Delight Restaurant and the Bel Air Motel both provide other options on Highway 11 for food and lodging, respectively.  There are numerous gas stations off the highway for snacks, petrol, and pee stations.  Despite being in this part of Ontario, there is no Northern Ontario Chinese Food – a testament to Matheson’s Anglophone bent (as compared to its largely francophone neighbours.)

Matheson is the last stop on road 101 to Quebec, about an hour away, and is also about an hour and fifteen minutes from Timmins.
Thanks to Dwight for the info on Matheson.

For an archive of the 40 comments that were posted to Highway11.ca’s profile of Matheson between 2008 and 2012, please click here.