Sat. Mar 2nd, 2024
The Amazing, Shocking, Surprising, Surprising Story of Silver Islet

Today’s post comes from Will Oades, Natural Heritage Educator at Sleeping Giant Provincial Park. Header photo: Jeff Robinson.

Have you ever applied for a job, showed up on your first day of work, and realized it was nothing like you thought it would be? That was the case for many of the men who came to work at the Silver Islet mine.

Known as the richest silver mine in the world, the Silver Islet mine shaft was beneath the icy waters of Lake Superior; a small but significant fact that some of the miners overlooked before arriving. Although most miners stayed to do the job they were hired to do, some decided that traveling deep into the earth, beneath billions of liters of water, was too dangerous for their liking.

The task at hand

Anyone who lives on the shore of Lake Superior, or has lived near the lake, knows that it is incredibly unpredictable and extremely dangerous. The lake can be completely calm and minutes later transform into a rough sea that makes even the most experienced sailors dizzy.

Lake Superior Coastal Trail, north of Sinclair Cove

These conditions made creating a 365m-deep hole in the ground beneath the lake an incredibly difficult task. Additionally, for the mine to be operational, they would have to protect the small island and have pumps always running to clean the water that constantly accumulates at the bottom of the mine shaft.

Tackling Lake Superior

The Montreal Mining Company, which originally owned the mine, deemed this undertaking not worthwhile and then sold it in 1870 to Alexander H. Sibley, president of the Silver Islet Mining Company. The Montreal company did not know that it had just lost the opportunity to exploit one of the most successful silver mines in the world.

The president’s mansion: summer headquarters for shareholders and families

When considering the best plan of attack to protect the mine from Lake Superior’s fierce storms, it was important to consider all options. An engineer suggested building a 9 m high wall around the 2,468 m2 island. This would have cost a considerable two million dollars in 1870, which would be worth almost thirty-seven million dollars today.

Someone else suggested building a system of smaller walls and pumps that would have cost only a million dollars. However, both options were incredibly expensive and neither could guarantee that the islet would remain safe.

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An absurd plan

Deciding on a plan to protect the islet was overwhelming for the Silver Islet Mining Company and it wasn’t until William. B. Frue became lead engineer because they had a clear direction. Frue’s plan was to build a retaining wall to protect the islet and use a pump to keep water out of the mine shaft.

Black and white photograph of a small island with a variety of mining operations buildingsMining buildings in Silver Islet

This plan alone would cost approximately fifty thousand dollars and only required 34 workers to install and get the mine up and running. For anyone in the mining industry, hearing that a mining company was trying to excavate the ground beneath a lake to collect silver with a budget of fifty thousand dollars and only 34 men seemed absurd.

Not for the weak willed

Black and white photograph of the coast with buildings alongBuildings on Silver Islet

Now imagine the Canadian track and field team running four 100m relays on a 400m track. Imagine that distance descending directly into the depths of Lake Superior. This is approximately the depth of the mine shaft (384 m deep) and approximately the depth that the miners had to go into the ground every day.

Even today, a mine of this size is considered quite important and requires a lot of planning and advanced technology to ensure the safety of the miners. The mine shaft became so deep that eventually the wooden supports used could not support the weight of the protruding rock mass.

Brown model of mining operations.Model of the Silver Islet Mine on display at the Sleeping Giant Visitor Center

Instead of loading the mine shafts with wooden supports, Frue left a thick vein of silver running throughout the mine shaft to support the roof load. This was a smart move because they would eventually be able to harvest this vein of silver. Instead of paying more for supports, supports ended up paying for them!

Crucial communications

Communication was another additional obstacle for the Silver Islet mining community. Nowadays, if you need to send a message to a friend or family member, it’s a matter of seconds and requires little thought or effort. For miners and their families at that time, mail was the only method of communication and, therefore, the only way to let distant relatives know that they were still alive.

Since there were no roads leading the community to the coast, the only way mail could reach them was by boat or dog sled (when the lake was frozen). As a result, mail delivery was inconsistent and inconvenient. Especially for Frue, who needed to keep in touch with Alexander H. Sibley to operate the mine successfully.

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Black and white image of a dark two-story structure with a flag flying in frontMining office with Union Jack flag

Silver Islet Mining Company was based in the United States. Mail crossing the border had to first travel to the Pigeon-River border crossing before finally crossing into the United States. When labor problems caused U.S. mail contractors to refuse to transport mail bound for Canada, this caused a critical lack of communication between Frue and Sibley.

Fortunately, an agreement was reached and mail transportation was regulated, at great cost to the mining company. Once the mail arrived, people knew it had arrived when the postmaster raised the Union Jack flag. Whereas today, people have instant notifications on their phones informing them of an email that was probably sent moments before.

The disappearance of the Silver Islet mine

Eventually, the mine’s remote location ended operations after thirteen years of mining silver beneath the icy waters of Lake Superior. A crucial shipment of coal was not delivered to Silver Islet in time to keep the water pumps running, and because of this, the mine was claimed by Lake Superior.

Black and white image of half-sunken island communityOld Silver Islet mine taken in 1890, some years after closure

Although the mine has been closed for over 100 years, the onshore community of Silver Islet still retains some of the original miners’ homes. Some of these historic buildings have been renovated and the coast is now lined with summer camps in the shadow of the sleeping giant that lies protecting the sunken mine shaft.

A historic destination

Today, the mine and the Silver Islet area continue to intrigue visitors who enjoy the recreational opportunities at Sleeping Giant Provincial Park. And in fact, without the Silver Islet mining operations, roads to the Sibley Peninsula would not have been built when they were built and Sleeping Giant Provincial Park may not be the same today.

Blue three-story building on the shoreSilver Islet General Store

The recreational trails and campsites dotted around the park are now filled with laughter, smiles and good times, perhaps reminiscent of the camaraderie and bonds established among miners in the days of the mine.

If you are interested in reading more about the Silver Islet Mine, Silver Under the Sea: The Story of the Silver Islet Mine near Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada by Helen Moore Strickland and Silver Islet: Getting rich on Lake Superior by Elinor Barr are very comprehensive and informative books that provide a unique perspective on all aspects of the mining community.