In the early 1950s, uranium mining was a highly secretive operation and the warning sign in the above photo warns prospective visitors.
The Nesbitt-LaBine ore body, discovered in 1950, was a hope and a promise that did not last. Investor interest was high as Gilbert LaBine, who had made Canada’s first discovery of uranium on Great Bear Lake, was a major owner. His partner in the venture was Johnnie Nesbitt, a daring and accomplished bush pilot. The mine was nestled beside Eagle Lake near Uranium City, in the famed Beaverlodge District at Lake Athabasca.
As he had done at the Port Radium, Beresford Lake and Long Lake mines run by Gilbert and Charles LaBine, my grandfather was overseeing the construction and my father working as part of the crew. In December 1951, my mother took me, at the tender age of three months, from a warm house in southern Saskatchewan to join my father where we would all live in a tent house.
Forecasts for a home-run were high but neither the Eagle Lake deposit nor other small deposits found by Nesbitt-LaBine yielded much ore and the mine closed in 1956. The partnership between LaBine and Nesbitt would fizzle even earlier, over a controversy involving a new prospect on the Crackingstone Peninsula. A controversy? Of course – it was a mining deal. The new prospect? Gunnar Mines.
The Republic of Mining website includes Gilbert LaBine in a list of Canada’s ten most important mining men. LaBine was often referred to as Canada’s Father of Uranium. You can see the Republic of Mining article here.
In the 1930s photo above (copyright LaBine family), a young Gilbert Labine is on the right. LaBine is the adventurous and determined mine builder who features in Sun Dogs and Yellowcake. He discovered both Port Radium at Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories and my town, Gunnar Mines, on Lake Athabasca. Port Radium produced radium in the 1930s for medical purposes until it was discovered after the start of World War II that its waste product – uranium – had more value. Port Radium’s uranium contributed to the development of the atomic bomb during World War II. Gunnar Mines’ uranium was sold to the United States to support its arms race against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
In a recent interview, I discuss the history of uranium in northern Canada and life in the Athabasca uranium camp that sprang up during the 1950s uranium rush. Clickhere, then choose podcast, then Adam Stirling, and go to the December 1st audio file for Sun Dogs and Yellowcake.
Re-enter Gilbert LaBine, some twenty years after his radium score and now sixty-two years old. LaBine, in his nominal positions as president and director of Eldorado, was well informed about Eldorado’s moves in the Beaverlodge area. He was also not averse to conducting a little business of his own.
His first foray was with a highly competent, experienced pilot named John “Johnny” Nesbitt, who had spent his life flying in Canada’s north country, including for Eldorado and its Great Bear Lake operations. When Eldorado switched its focus to Lake Athabasca, Nesbitt added the Beaverlodge operation to his flight path.
He had flown the two prospectors St. Louis and Larum to what would later be Eldorado’s Ace mine, and knew the area well. He too had been bitten by the uranium bug and, when not flying, combed the bush looking for his own lucky strike. In 1950, he found and staked a pitchblende prospect on claims that Eldorado had let lapse near Eagle Lake. This prospect would become the Nesbitt-Labine uranium mine.
Johnny Nesbitt wanted to sell the claims to his employer Eldorado; however, he had an unidentified partner who was more interested in a transaction with Gilbert LaBine. Perhaps for LaBine, it was a bit of a poke at the federal government for confiscating Eldorado, and at Eldorado’s president, Bill Bennett, with whom he did not get along.
Whatever the motivation, LaBine promptly resigned from Eldorado’s board of directors to become president of the new Nesbitt-Labine Uranium Mines Limited. Nesbitt did not have much choice but to switch to flying for the new entity. Construction started in 1952 and the small community of Nesbitt-Labine started to grow around the mine.
Following upon the previous blog post about Gunnar Mines alumni, Donna Lee’s role as educator can’t be separated from her art. In 2012, she wrote and colourfully illustrated a children’s book Peter Fidler and the Métis. Fidler was an explorer and mapmaker for the Hudson’s Bay Company. He married a Cree woman and Donna Lee is a descendant of this union. The book relates Fidler’s story but is, at the same time, a portrait of the oft-troubled Métis history in Canada and Donna Lee’s personal journey into her Aboriginal heritage. Continue reading “The art of making art, Donna Lee Dumont”
“The most wonderful thing about being Métis is that we come in all colours. My grandmother used to tell me that ‘Métis is how you feel’. I am now part of the culture and have a strong sense of belonging.”
In 1957, one of Canada’s famed Group of Seven painters, A.Y. Jackson, made a surprise visit to the small uranium mining town of Gunnar Mines, on Lake Athabasca in Saskatchewan. He made a few appearances at the local Handicraft club where he gave painting exhibitions and suggestions to the members. Donna Lee was a member of this group and remembers him as being quite blunt, even caustic at times while reviewing paintings. One afternoon, when the club’s members were invited to accompany him on a painting excursion on the rocks, Jackson motioned to her to sit beside him. While they painted, he gave her little tips, such as “use a bigger brush” and “put these little strokes through the water.”
As a new year dawns, the past is overtaking me. 2015 has been dedicated to shaking loose the collective memories of former residents of a small uranium mining town on Lake Athabasca. To collecting a wealth of photographs of life in the 1950s and ’60s in the town. To extensive research on how the town, Gunnar Mines, Saskatchewan, came to be and how it ended.
Now, as 2016 comes to life, so too does Gunnar. 2016 will be the year that my book on Gunnar is published.
Writing the book has been a journey back in time to my youth, a simple and idyllic life in the North. It has been a way to ‘resurrect’ my home town that closed a short ten years after it started and to reconnect with people after more than fifty years. It has also been a sad reckoning as Gunnar’s Cold War legacy for future generations hits the headlines.
In the spirit of the season, I post a photo taken in our kitchen at Gunnar in 1959 where my mother Barb Sandberg is making the gravy while her good friend Marge Braund works at the other counter. Friendship.