At the heart of northern Manitoba rests the town of Snow Lake, a quaint, unassuming community of 800 known for its friendly folk, breathtaking scenery, and pristine lakes. Its claim to fame, however, is as one of the region’s most prolific mining powerhouses, with 19 mines (small and very large), producing metals such as silver, gold, copper, and zinc.
From humble beginnings
The town of Snow Lake was established in 1947 for the development/mining of the Nor-Acme Gold Mine, with claims recorded as early as May 12th, 1925, by Christopher “Chris” Richard Parres, a WWI veteran. The region’s story, however, earnestly begins in 1914.
Geological Survey of Canada geologists J.B.Tyrell (1896) and Wm. McInnes (1913) explored the Wekusko Lake area, and their reports attracted prospectors. The first discovery of gold was made by Richard Woosey and M. J. Hackett, who staked the Kiski-Wekusko gold claims in 1914.
J.A. Campbell, Robert Hassett and Frank Moore, among others, staked a large part of what was to become the region’s first major gold-bearing vein, the Rex M.C. (later renamed the Laguna [Rex] Mine), on the shores of Wekusko Lake (known locally as Herb Lake). In 1916, the Makeever Brothers took over unregistered interest in the property, and the sinking of two shafts began. The gold rush had started, and many more prospects were discovered in the next three years.
The Rex/Laguna later became the region’s largest producer with the longest mine-life, despite the fact that production was not continuous. (The mill finally closed in December 1939 – for a mine-life of 20 years). Add to that, the Rex Mine was the first mine in Manitoba to have a mill installed and one of the first gold producers in the province to use the amalgamation process (uses mercury to capture the gold particles) as part of the gold recovery. The Rex Mine was the second gold producer in Manitoba; Ballast/Moosehorn was the first.
The Rex discovery brought attention to the region, and a rush of people flocked to the area in hopes of finding gold. Between 600 to 700 people lived along the Wekusko east shore line (1937), most of whom lived in Herb Lake settlement, and at the nearby Rex Mine.
The situation in the Snow Lake Region only got better. Claims were staked as early as fall 1921 on the north shore of Snow Lake proper, when J. P. Gordon (later of Sherritt Gordon Mines) recorded the Net, Mountain, and Mint claims. In 1924, aboriginal prospector/trapper Gaspard Richard recorded the Minnie claim on the north shore of Snow Lake. Despite these particular claims eventually lapsing, they were the beginning of interest in Snow Lake gold.
The story of the Town of Snow Lake, on the other hand, unofficially begins in 1927, with prospector C.R. Parres’ gold claims on the future site that would became the Nor-Acme Mine, developed by the Howe Sound Company.
One can rarely talk about the mines without remembering some of the great prospectors that affected history through their hard work. Here are just a few: Katherine (Kate) Rice, Dick Woosey, Mike J. Hackett, J.A. Campbell, Chris Parres, Lew Parres, Walter Johnson, the Kobars, and Gaspard Richard, among many others.
Here to stay
Invariably, the story of Snow Lake is anything but straightforward. The gold boom came with worry of a subsequent bust. Many feared that the town of Snow Lake would inevitably follow suit of its short-lived predecessor Herb Town, a once-thriving mining town on Wekusko Lake that was abandoned due to mine closure.
“The original community that supported the gold mines on Herb Lake was named Herb Town and it has vanished into the bush,” says Paul Hawman, chairman of the Snow Lake Mining Museum. “It spent a few decades as a ghost town, then was reclaimed by people looking for materials and finally by the bush itself.”
In 1949 Howe Sound Co. began producing gold at the Nor-Acme Gold Mine and poured their first bar of gold in April of that year. In 1958, the mine closed due to low gold prices, and that reignited fears that the town of Snow Lake would become a ghost town. That same year, however, brought Hudson Bay Mining & Smelting Co. (HBM&S) to Snow Lake, because of their recent base metal discoveries. HBM&S purchased a number of Howe Sound’s assets, thus solidifying the town’s future as here to stay.
Often when one mine closes, other discoveries are ready to produce. In the 1960s, HBM&S started production at the Chisel Lake Mine (1960), Stall Lake Mine (1964), Osborne Lake Mine (1968), Anderson Lake Mine (1970), Ghost/Lost (1972), for a continuing total of 12 mines. The Nor-Acme/Britannia Mine headframe was subsequently moved to Chisel Lake and was soon again producing ore. And thus, the town of Snow Lake was ready to enter a new base metal era.
Hudson Bay Mining and Smelting Co. operated several mines in the Snow Lake Region from 1960 to 1994, when the last of the HBM&S mines shut down, leaving no operating mines in Snow Lake area. As a result, crews were transferred to the Flin Flon mines.
In 1995, the Nor-Acme Gold Mine reopened by TVX Gold under the name New Britannia Mine, with various owners such as High River, Inco Gold, TVX Gold, and Kinross. The New Britannia Mine operated for 10 years (1995 to 2005). In 1995, HBM&S opened a new mine, the Photo Lake mine, and the crews returned from Flin Flon.
Currently, the Snow Lake Region boasts a flurry of mining activity. Hudson Bay Mining and Smelting Co., which was renamed HudBay Minerals (HBM), entered partnership with VMS Ventures Inc. (formerly Rare Earth Metals Corp.) to develop the Reed Mine, a site with an anticipated reserve of 2.16-million tonnes of high-grade copper ore.
Opened in 2011, HudBay’s Lalor Mine near Chisel Lake is the most recent discovery in the region and is believed to hold the second-largest metal deposit (zinc, copper and gold) and the largest pre-development deposit discovered in the Flin Flon-Snow Lake region.
The New Britannia Mine was purchased by QMX Resources, and renamed the Snow Lake Mine, which had previously closed in 2005. QMX is in sale negotiations with Northern Sun Mining, and they are currently evaluating the mine for possible reopening.
In total the Snow Lake Region has 19 past producers over the last 100 years. Today, there are two active producing mines in the Snow Lake Region, and several other companies are currently active in exploration in the area, including HudBay Minerals, Dunlop Explorations and QMX.
“Well, pure and simple, Snow Lake would not be here at all if it were not for mining,” says Hawman. “It is purely a mining town. As a typical mining town, we’ve had our roller coaster ups and downs caused by mine closures and openings, and we are presently in the midst of another ‘boom’ with the opening of the Lalor Mine.”
The times are a-changin’
For Peter Dunlop of Manitoba-based Dunlop Explorations, 2014 is a year to be celebrated. “2014 marks a significant milestone in the history of what later came to known as the Snow Lake Mineral Region,” he says. “It is the 100th anniversary of the first gold discovery in the area.”
And of course, over the years, industry practices have changed dramatically – just ask the folks at the Snow Lake Mining Museum. The Snow Lake Mining Museum serves as a testament to the importance of mining in the Snow Lake community. Founded in 1996, and gaining Star Attraction status in 2006, its mandate is to preserve and present the exploration, mining equipment, mineral displays, and the mining way of life that opened up the north. More generally, the 4,000-square-foot museum is a reflection of life in Snow Lake and northern resource communities, and boasts examples of 100 years’ worth of industrial evolution, pictures, and history.
“Mining has evolved from hard, back-breaking manual labour to highly automated, mechanized mining,” explains Hawman. “The first mines had very little regard for safety – other than ‘don’t fall down a hole, don’t blow yourself up and look out for loose rock.'”
Back then, working conditions were poor by today’s standards – poor lighting, small headings, and poor ventilation. Lighting, for example, went from carbide lamps (open flame) to Edison batteries, then wheat lamps, and finally to bright LED cap lamps.
A day’s production has also increased ten-fold. Where broken muck was moved with one- or four-tonne rail cars, it is now moved by up to 60-tonne articulated diesel trucks, and rather than loading by shovel, Eimco or chutes, broken muck is now loaded with 10-yard scooptrams, where one operator can muck as much in one hour as a man could move in an entire day. In addition, today’s mines are trackless (now rubber-wheeled) with drilling, loading, and mucking done with automated large-scale mobile equipment.
Technology affects every aspect of mining from the equipment used to the environment underground. Additionally, the size of mines have increased exponentially with improved ventilation, and mine safety plays a very important roll on every shift. Mine safety is now a culture where it is discussed at the start of every shift, and checked on throughout the shift. Every new worker undergoes orientation and training on every aspect of every job that he/she does.
Though the industry has evolved much in 100 years, one thing remains constant – the dedication of its people.
“We are a wonderful, small, remote community on the shores of a modest lake nestled into the bush – a real gem in the wilderness,” says Hawman. “Come visit Snow Lake, and our mining museum; you will not be disappointed – this is my invitation to everyone.”
Gold Deposits of Herb Lake Area, Northern Manitoba by C.H.Stockwell Canadian Geological Survey 1937.
Headframes, Happiness & Heartaches – Mines of Manitoba by James R.B. Parres & Marc Jackson 2009.
The Nor-Acme Gold Mine Story by James R.B. Parres & Marc Jackson 2005.
Snow Lake’s Centennial Salute to the Trail Blazers editor Alma Mardis 1967.
The Renaissance Mine – New Britannia by Canadian Mining & Innovations Magazine – Fall 1995, publisher/editor Nick Krakana.
Gold Deposits of Manitoba by D.J. Richardson and G. Ostry (revised by W. Weber and D. Fogwill) 1996.