“Swings On Her Own Gate”

November 19, 2013

The history of Kate Rice, Canada’s first woman prospector, who in 2014, will get inducted into the Canada Mining Hall of Fame.
By Carly Peters

6 - Kate winter gear_small 1914

Before the word feminist was ever spoken (or even existed considering women in Canada weren’t “people” until 1929), there was a six-foot-tall attractive blond, who “bobbed her hair,” donned overalls, carried a 12-gauge, and set-out on a journey into the man-centric industry of mining.

Kate Rice can certainly assert ownership over the title of Canada’s first female prospector, exploring from Beaver Lake to Brochet and over to Burntwood/Thompson area, staking claims on a mineral-rich island in northern Manitoba starting as early as 1914. Not only did she pioneer the way for other women explorers, she in fact put towns like Snow Lake on the mining map, with her discovered property still producing profit for companies such as Inco and Vale to this day.

Yet, accounts of Rice and her accomplishments are slim, and subject to hearsay, and opinions of the times. Articles written in the late-1920s usually question her motives, while a biography by Helen Duncan, which seems to be the most comprehensive collection of information on the “Lady of the Lake,” can have its accuracy and tone questioned.

What is for certain is Kathleen (Kate) Creighton Starr Rice was born in St. Marys, Ontario on December 22, 1882. She came from a family marked by money, and a heritage of pristine. Her father’s linage included The Reverend Dr. Samuel Dwight Rice, a minister responsible for the building of the Methodist Church in 1879 (the present United Church), has been claimed to have ties to Abraham Lincoln. Her mother’s father, George Carter, was one of the richest families in St. Marys, owning St. Marys Milling Company.

The father, Henry Lincoln Rice, was a Classics instructor at the famous Dr. Tassie’s School in Galt, Ontario, known as one of the best secondary schools in Canada. It was there he met Charlotte Carter, Rice’s mother. When the couple married, Henry took over the operations of his father-in-law’s milling company. The family lived in an upper-class home, where her mother enjoyed hosting teas for local socialites.

While her mother could be a moody character, hard to related to, Rice and her father were very close. While he believed in raising an educated woman, he also saw it prudent to teach his daughter life skills and an appreciation of nature. He helped Rice learn about the stars, hot to canoe, set-up a proper camp, and how to shoot a rifle (this particular skill would come in handy later in life). He also engaged her imagination by telling her stories of Daniel Boone, and the wild frontiers.

Those adventures were never far from her mind, and certainly influence her life goals, as can be interpreted in Helen Duncan’s book, Kate Rice, Prospector, “Kathleen understood she wanted something exciting for herself. She would know what to do when the time came. And it was the twentieth century when everything would be new and stimulation and she would embrace it all. She’d be another Kit Carson or Margaret Fuller. She’d scale the heights of the wilderness, or open new frontiers, something grand and heroic, bold and free. A new type of woman. No little piggling life for her.”

6 - Kate Rice3This “new type of woman” made her way to the University of Toronto, where she entered the facilities of of Math and Physics, areas of study not usually taken up by females. In 1902, as an entering student, she was awarded two scholarships, the Edward Blake Scholarship in classics and mathematics and the Edward Blake Scholarship in mathematics, and graduated in 1909.

There have been tales that while at university she met a man, fell in love, and was to be married. Tragically, as the romantic tale goes, this mystery man, named Ken in Duncan’s novel and known as a university professor in another version, suddenly passed away. University of Toronto archives have no record of this romance or his death. Since this event is not necessary rooted in fact, one might assume it was more rumour, or explanation as to why a good Victorian lady would leave the lap of luxury, and eventually fling herself into the bush.

After university she began a teaching career where she worked at Albert College, and Wingham High School in Ontario instructing mathematics. She then moved out west to a high school in Tees, Alberta, and finally another high-school in Yorkton, Saskatchewan.

During her time in Yorkton it seems her passion for adventure began to grow. She spent her vacations climbing the Rocky Mountains with her brother, which earned her a membership in the Canadian Alpine Club. It was on top of Cacade Mountain that Rice decided to through off all trappings of “schoolmarm” life and throw her life into prospecting based out of The Pas, which was the service centre of the new “gold rush.”
In 1911, she made her way to Manitoba to homestead a quarter section four miles north of The Pas. Since she was not considered a person by law, she had to do it under her little brother Lincoln’s, name, who was in fact in university at the time and was later sent to war with the first Canadian contingent.

During the next two years Kate cleared and built her homestead, along with feverishly studing geology, assessment reports, and the science of the earth, as well as learning Cree in order to reach out to aboriginal guides to learn the profession of prospecting.

In 1914 she secured a grubstake from a college friend and travelled north with the help of her Aboriginal guides. One in particular, “Old Isaac” taught her many survival skills, such as how to trap, hunt, mush dogs, and make a home in the wild. Mooniasquao1, her First Nations name, made lasting connections with the Cree, who knew the lands better than any white man, never mind a white woman.

6 - older kate whatThere were many things to learn in those first years. An article written by Fredrick Griffin of The Toronto Daily Star in 1928, might give some indication on her reasoning for eventually cutting her hair, and putting on pants: “On her first real prospecting trip in 1914, which was a some trip since it took her to Brochet and Reindeer Lake 500 miles north of The Pas into what was those days virgin territory, she wore her hair long and her skirts longer. Once, when getting out of a canoe, she almost broke her neck.”

Yet, within two years Rice quickly found her footing. During the aforementioned Brochet-Reindeer Lake trip she discovered zinc and vanadium, while in March 1915 she prospected and staked claims for gold and base metals in Beaver Lake, and built her own prospecting cabin at Sturgeon Weir.

In 1916, she took on a prospecting partner, which was the practice of all prospectors working in the remote boreal, retired army officer Richard (Dick) Woosey. Naturally there was gossip about their relationship, but consensus was it was purely business.

Not that she wasn’t pursued by men, given her good looks, and that fact that women were rarely seen in the northern bush. As one humorous story goes, she was sharing a one room cabin with a somewhat amorous, burly gentleman, who while laying in a bedroll a few feet away began to inch toward Rice’s bed. Without missing a beat, she whipped out her axe and rifle from her bedding, and placed the axe on the floor between them. “If you touch my axe, I’ll shoot you,” claimed the steely blue-eyed blond.

In the interview with Griffin of The Toronto Daily Star, he posed the question of whether she ever “thought of matrimony?” To which she replied, “I think of it all the time. But to tell you the honest truth, I have been thinking more about business.”

With her platonic partner, Rice set out for Herb Lake (now known as Wekusko Lake) where she made her gold Starr Claims along the east shore in 1917, and staked her nickel and copper claims on Assessment Island (renamed Rice Island) 1920 and 1922. Feeling there was much more to discover, Rice and Woosey built a home, cited as one of the finest in the area, in 1925 on Woosey Island near the community of Snow Lake.

In 1928, Rice formed the Rice Island Nickel Mining Company, and accepted a grubstake from C.E. Herman of St. Louis in order to allow diamond drilling to begin on her claims. That year Rice reported high grade ore in her Rice drill core, stating a value of $42.60 a ton of copper nickel.

Her findings caused quite a stir, even drawing international attention – “Woman Finds Copper in Northern Manitoba,” claimed the Schenectady Gazette, July 16, 1928. “The island, which has serves as a landing place for thousands of prospectors, was known to contain ore, but mining men had doubted its value.”

6 - older kateAlmost as intriguing as the drill results was the fact they were under the claim of a woman, and an self-sufficient, strong one at that. “Kathleen Rice is one of those ‘girls of the great open spaces who tote guns,’ seen often on the screen as being typical Canada, but very rare indeed in the Canada of real life,” stated The Pittsburgh Press, July 15, 1928.

When the drilling completed, Herman filed a lawsuit against Woosey and Rice, claiming they owed him half-interest, rather than the third the prospecting pair was offering of the valued $5 million dollar property. They battled in the courts for nearly two years, with Herman in the end winning his case, and receiving 50 per cent of fully-paid up shares. While Woosey and Rice both received 25 per cent, they felt a great injustice had been done to them, and that the property was theirs.

Rice continued to prospect, even working in Scoopin’ Rapids, Saskatchewan couple of times, until Woosey suddenly passed away in 1940. This certainly was a blow to her life on Rice Island, but she decided to stay in her cabin, alone, and live with the nature she loved so much.

She was a renowned gardener, dog-musher (it was said she developed a technique that didn’t require a lash), and a writer, authoring pieces for The Toronto Star Weekly, and scientific journals. Her paper entitled “Under The Cosmic Rays” for the Journal of Canadian Astronomical Science poetically describes her encounters with the Northern Lights, perhaps as a homage to the star lessons she once learned from her father.

Her 16 claims, which were converted to mining lease by Rice Island Nickel Company in 1932, were optioned by Inco Ltd. in 1948, and in 1950 exercised their option and made a final payment which Rice refused. Despite being financially drained, Rice managed to pay the taxes on the property for 1951. Yet, since Inco had purchased the option, the money was put back into her account, and it was ordered that Rice Island Nickel Mining Company be wound up. Rice received the balance of Woosey’s estate, and her own shares, amounting to a payout of $20,000. In May 1951, Rice Island Nickel Mining Company was liquidated.

With what appears to be very little need for money, lore has it that Rice buried her money near her cabin on Rice Island. She had become somewhat of a legend herself, being called “Lady of the Lake” since, despite having worn out clothing, and a run down cabin, would pull out a lace tablecloth, and her mother’s silver for the few guests she let in. But, she never did let go of her shotgun.

6 - kathleen riceFinally, in 1960 Rice came out of the bush and made her way to Brandon’s mental hospital, believing she was crazy. After careful consideration, the hospital released her, seeing no reason to hold her under insanity, she was “just a prospector.”

Yet, when Minnedosa’s Lady Minto Hospital was converted into a nursing home, Rice decided to become a resident, spending her last years intriguing nurses, and the other inhabitants alike. She walked into town everyday wearing stripped overalls, and spent her afternoons out on the hospital’s verandah rubbing the whiskers off her chin with sandpaper. Having lived the larger portion of of her life outside, she also chose to sleep there in the fresh air, rather than her bed in her room.

While she was in the home, it was believed she was still receiving payments and cheques in the mail from her mining claims, and legend has it, much like the rumoured cash stash on the island, she buried some of it on the Lady Minto grounds.

That secret died with Rice on January 3, 1963. Less than a dozen gathered at the local funeral chapter to celebrate her life, and she was laid to rest an unmarked grave near the entrance to the Minnedosa cemetery.

Yet, in August 2009, another small group of people gathered in the same spot to finally pay small tribute to this pioneer prospector. Marc Jackson, a Snow Lake history student, who felt a headstone was long overdue for the woman who in reality paved the way of the mining industry in his town. Jackson, who also wrote for the Underground Press put up $200 of his own money, and set out to raise $1,700 for headstones at both Rice’s plot, as well as Dick Woosey’s in Lakeview Cemetery in The Pas. Rice’s black granite marker proclaims, “Prospector and Pioneer of the North, Extraordinary Woman of the Wilds.”

And now, her position as a true prospector will be solidified as Kate Rice will be inducted into the Canada Mining Hall of Fame in January 2014.

“Exploration as a venture, then as now, is not for the faint of heart. At a time when men barely tolerated women in the industry, Kate Rice shattered the preconceptions about what a woman could achieve in the mineral industry,” states MaryAnn Mihychuk, president, Women in Mining. “Although there are those who would downplay the relevance of her gender with respect to her accomplishment, it can be clearly appreciated that she accomplished what no woman had done before in Canada. We can finally restore Kate Rice to her iconic status in our national’s proud mineral history.”

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