A new book about the history of the Town of Cobalt takes an in-depth look at its role in shaping the Canadian mining industry and its underappreciated contributions to the country’s economy.
Cobalt: Canada’s Forgotten Silver Boom Town, written by Prof. Douglas Baldwin, is a 380-page illustrated account that’s been four decades in the making. Baldwin first visited Cobalt in 1975, while researching its history for the Ontario Ministry of Culture and Recreation.
His interest piqued, Baldwin wrote a half-dozen more articles and scholarly journals about Cobalt over the years until 2005, when, on the cusp of retirement from teaching, he responded to an ad seeking someone to research Cobalt’s history.
Baldwin’s research continued until he had enough for the book.
“It’s amazing how far afield everything is,” Baldwin said of Cobalt-related ephemera. “So many people knew about Cobalt back then.”
His research led him to the Boston Public Library, which keeps a diary and journal that once belonged to a mine manager at Kerr Lake. At McGill University in Montreal, he discovered notes, in French and English, that detail negotiations between the town and the Sisters of Providence on the construction of a hospital. In San Fransisco, and even as far away as New Zealand, he found newspaper articles that chronicle Cobalt’s rise to fame.
“It seems like every time I finished, I’d find another avenue to explore with more information,” Baldwin marvelled.
After the first rich vein of silver was discovered in 1903, Cobalt exploded in popularity and population, as prospectors flocked to the town to seek their fortune. The story of the small town with big silver veins became an international sensation.
At its peak, Cobalt’s population grew to 7,000, and in 1911, silver production exceeded 30,000,000 ounces. It was even home, at one time, to its own stock exchange.
The mines have long since dried up and the population has shrunk considerably, but Cobalt has been declared a national heritage site and is considered the birthplace of Canadian hard rock mining.
In recent years, Baldwin’s quest turned up some new information that surprised even the veteran researcher.
One example is a 1916 letter from the High Commissioner’s Office in London, England, to Prime Minister Robert Borden cautioning against a looming miners’ strike because the silver was needed to pay the allied soldiers of the First World War.
“So there was a board of conciliation that made sure there wasn’t a strike,” Baldwin said. “Something like that is incredible when you come across it.”
Since then, some of those artifacts have been lost – to time, flooding – but thankfully Baldwin’s notes still record those moments from history.
Though Baldwin did the research, the book was made financially possible by Nicole Guertin and Jocelyn Blais, owners of the Presidents’ Suites in Haileybury, who commissioned the book and raised more than $6,000 through an online crowdfunding campaign for its publication.
Guertin and Blais have led a tireless effort to promote Cobalt and other towns in the Temiskaming area, to remind people of the important role it played in the rise of resource development.
To help preserve that legacy, Baldwin is donating all proceeds from the sale of the book – his 41st – to the Historic Cobalt Legacy Fund, which was established in 2014 to help maintain the area’s heritage assets, such as the town’s museums, walking trail, library and theatre.
After spending a good chunk of his lifetime learning about the town, Baldwin said he wanted to give something back to help it flourish.
“I really like (Cobalt) and its history, and the people, and that’s how I got started,” said Baldwin. “So I owed it something, too.”
More information about the book is available at www.cobaltboomtown.com.