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As with so many places in Canada, precious resources would mark the beginning of Bruce Mines, a community in northern Ontario with a history made more interesting by the residents who made that history.
Copper would be the birth of Bruce Mines. The First Nations people were aware of the copper in the area and would trade with the Europeans who arrived knowing its importance to the new arrivals. Samuel de Champlain would record the existence of copper in the area in 1632 as well.
The community got its start in 1846 when settlers to the area began to mine the copper in the area. This was thanks to Indian Agent John Keating and land surveyor Arthur Rankin, who saw the potential for copper in the area when traveling through. Named for James Bruce, the Governor General of Canada at the time, Bruce Mines was only the second-ever copper mining town in North America, and the first in Canada. Bruce Mines also has the distinction of being the first town in northern Ontario.
The copper mine would bring many miners from Cornwall, England to begin working in the mine as Keating approached many of the new immigrants to come and work at the mine in the hopes of utilizing their skill in mining.
A company, the Huron and St. Mary’s Copper Company was established and in 1847, the first load of copper ore was shipped out to Wales.
By 1848, there were 250 people living in the community, which consisted of three wood frame buildings and 30 log houses. Many residents lived in tents due to the shortage of housing. In all, 63 people were employed in the mines.
The mines attracted a wide variety of people. John Cooper was one such person. He would come to Canada as part of the first group of Selkirk settlers en route to Upper Canada. With his father-in-law, he worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company for four years before joining a party of 140 people who came down the Great Lakes to open boats to Toronto. While in Prince Edward County, they would get into a skirmish with Governor Semple of the Hudson’s Bay Company, which resulted in the death of Semple. John was arrested and tried, with John Diefenbaker’s grandfather serving as his lawyer and helping the men get acquitted of the crime. John then came to Bruce Mines and began to work as a farmer in the area.
How true that account is, I don’t know but if it is the case, then John Cooper took part in the Battle of Seven Oaks during the Pemmican War, which is where Semple died. Cooper would have then been one of the 17 men tried for the murder.
The large influx of miners from Cornwall also created a unique dialect for the community during those years. Norma Watkinson related some of the phrases she remembered hearing from the old-timers including calling April, April Month, and using phrases such as ‘Up along with we’ and ‘I’ll soon fix he’.
The mining companies quickly took hold of the town to ensure they could keep the flow of money moving through their own hands. With the community on the shores of Lake Huron, the mining company built wharves and docks in the bay and two mine managers built their homes at the entrance of the main dock. This allowed the company to ensure only approved boats used the docks. In addition, the mining company did not allow any stores to open in their town and residents had to purchase everything from the company store.
In order to provide some sort of competition with this monopoly, the Marks brothers from Hilton Beach would load a barge on a nearby island and bring it towards Bruce Mines. Since they could not land on the dock, they would anchor in the middle of the bay and miners would row and paddle out to get merchandise from them. The company would eventually give in, allowing the brothers to open a store in the town.
The early community was related in the chronicles of Helen Coulter as she made her way across the country with her family of settlers.
This is a direct quote, so I have not changed the phrase to describe an Indigenous person.
“The mines were going. They rented a house to stay in. The first night my relatives were there, they stayed in a house that had merely open spaces for windows and doors. However, it was shelter and they had their possessions with them. Mrs. Pink, Mrs. Brown and Mrs. Lowen were afraid of Indians, so they piled their crates and trunks and things across the doorway. At first, they forgot about the windows but then Grandma thought of those and they hung blankets over them. During the evening, sure enough, an Indian came. He wanted to play his violin to them. The fact that he was an Indian terrified them. They tried to convince him that they did not want him around, but they were not sure if he had left. So they decided to keep watch. It was getting dark and they could see an object in the dusk. That Indian was watching them. They kept looking out from behind the curtains and sure enough, he would still be there. I do not think they slept a wink all night. The next morning, the Indian turned out to be a great, big, Scotch thistle.”
By 1858, the community had grown heavily to include 75 homes and 300 miners. This growth was not without problems. In 1849, a cholera epidemic came to the village, killing several people. It is believed that impure water was the cause.
During the mining years of Bruce Mines, various ships would ferry passengers throughout the area and beyond to other ports in Lake Superior and Lake Huron.
One ship was a cruiser called The Rescue, which launched in 1858. On its maiden voyage on July 12, with Captain Kennedy at the helm, the ship made its way to Bruce Mines and docked at the wharf. According to the Sault Daily Star, “At Bruce Mines passengers were allowed to inspect the process of extracting ore from the bowels of the Earth.”
At this point, The Rescue continued on its way towards Sault Ste. Marie.
Those ships provided an excellent way, if somewhat illegal, way to make money for the young people of town. In telling the story of John Tees, it was stated “I remember my father telling us about the young kids in town. They would gather a bunch of fool’s gold from the mine and when they would hear a boat coming into the dock, they would rush down with their pieces of rocks and sell them to the passengers on the boat for a penny.”
The mining years of Bruce Mines helped make the community one of the most important in the entire region. Arthur Chapman, relating the arrival of his father William to the community in 1855 said, “At that time the mines were booming, a large business section had sprung up, and Bruce Mines was the main settlement on the North Shore. Sault Ste. Marie was a mere trading post with a few white settlers.”
By 1868, according to one account from Joyce McMillan relating the life of her grandfather William Inch, the community had a population of about 1,100 with the mines operating at nearly peak capacity and output.
In July of 1863, a forest fire tore through the community, destroying many homes and leaving a good portion of the population homeless. The residents rebuilt though and continued on.
The good times were not to last. By 1865, production of copper was down heavily. While copper had been selling for 24 cents per pound in 1850, it was now selling for only 14 cents.
By 1876 due to cave-ins, flooding and poor profits, the mines closed.
An excellent look at the community after the closure of the mines comes from W. Fraser Rae, who travelled from Newfoundland to Manitoba in 1881 and described the community as such.
“A very different impression was produced by the sight of the Bruce mines. This was once a busy settlement, now it is in decay with many of the houses are empty and the church seems falling into ruin. The copper mines around which the settlement had gathered belong to an English company…A gentlemen who had managed one of the principal mines told me that, if copper were to fetch 16 cents a pound again, all these mines would return large dividends but at the present price of copper, they must be worked at a heavy loss. The works are stopped and the only machinery is not only idle but is deteriorating rapidly.”
Another account from around this time comes from the book My Canadian Journal, which chronicles the letters home of Governor General Lord Dufferin’s wife Hariot.
Writing in July and August 1874, she said.
“The evening was a little rough but we stopped at Bruce Mines for the night. Friday 31st. At six in the morning we went ashore to see the copper mines, which are not flourishing, though the ground appears to be covered with the mineral and we picked up a great many specimens.”
The mines would stay closed for the most part, except for occasional efforts to open the mines through the late part of the 19th century and early 20th century. Mining would resume from 1915 to 1921, before ending for good after that, with an official decommissioning happening in 1944. At this point, forestry and tourism took over as the main industry for the community.
Information for this article comes from Wikipedia, As Told To Me: Memories Of Helen Coulter, Newfoundland to Manitoba: A Guide Through Canada, My Canadian Journal, Soo Today, Bruce Mines Heritage,