Large-scale and lucrative mining developments dominated Labrador West during the 1950s and 1960s. In the span of some 15 years, mining companies built two towns in the area, paved roads, installed loading docks, and, in an epic feat of engineering, installed a 573-kilometre railroad across western Labrador and northeastern Quebec. The remote mines boasted some of the highest wages in Canada and attracted thousands of workers from all over the province and the country.
Although wildly profitable, the developments altered landscapes and waterways previously used by Innu hunters, who received little in the way of compensation. Newfoundland and Labrador Premier J.R. Smallwood, meanwhile, hoped the region’s vast iron ore deposits would help bring financial independence to the province: “It is our chance,” he said of Labrador’s resources, “to stand on our own feet, to do something ourselves.”
Knob Lake and Schefferville
In 1936, the Weaver Coal Company of Montreal requested and received permission from the Commission of Government to search 50,000 square kilometres of undeveloped wilderness in western Labrador for precious metals. The company was hoping to find large iron ore deposits, which Canadian geologist Albert Peter Low had reported in the 1890s.
Under the leadership of Joseph Arlington Retty, an exploration party arrived in the area in 1936. However, it was the group’s Innu guide, Mathieu André, who in 1937 pointed out large mineral deposits in the Sawyer Lake area, about 80 kilometres northwest of Churchill Falls. It was a remarkable discovery – high quality iron ore suitable for making steel. For his troubles, André later received a $7,000 finder’s fee. Before the end of 1938, Retty discovered more deposits in the surrounding area, some of which straddled the Labrador-Québec boundary. Altogether, there were more than 350 million tons of mineable ore, which eventually formed the basis for the Knob Lake mining operation, based in Québec.
Other businesses soon became interested in the project, and by 1949, Weaver Coal had incorporated under the name Labrador Mining and Exploration, and partnered with seven other steel manufacturers and mining companies to form the Iron Ore Company of Canada (IOC). IOC eventually built and operated the Knob Lake mine.
Before it could begin mining, however, IOC first had to install a railroad to transport the ore from its remote location to the port of Sept-Îles in Québec. From there, ships could bring the ore south to American harbours or overseas.
It was a mammoth undertaking. For four years, workers tunnelled through mountains, bridged rivers, and excavated swamps. By the time the Québec North Shore and Labrador Railway opened in 1954, IOC had spent $350 million. The tracks, however, crossed the Moisie River, which the Innu of Labrador and Québec had used for generations as a portage route to their winter hunting grounds. No known evidence suggests that anyone affiliated with the project ever consulted with Innu leaders about how the railroad would impact local wildlife and Innu culture.
At the same time IOC was building the railroad, it was also building a mining complex at Knob Lake and an entirely new town – known as Schefferville – to accommodate the mine’s workers. Both were located on the Québec side of the border. Between 1950 and 1954, IOC had a payroll of some 6,900 employees, including more than 3,900 Newfoundland and Labrador workers.
IOC officially opened its Knob Lake operation on July 31, 1954 at a ceremony in Sept-Îles, with Premiers Joey Smallwood and Maurice Duplessis of Québec in attendance. When the mine entered production, approximately 400 men and women from Newfoundland and Labrador were working at Schefferville. In the coming years, Smallwood would begin planning a second mining operation with IOC – one that would operate entirely within Labrador’s borders.
Carol Lake and Labrador City
Advances in the steelmaking process between 1948 and 1954 made it possible for manufacturers to work with lower grades of iron ore than previous technology allowed. Knowing that extensive ranges of low-grade iron ore existed in Labrador, IOC decided in 1955 to investigate the Carol Lake area. After surveyors found more than two billion tons of ore grading 35 per cent iron or better, IOC decided in 1958 to begin production.
At that time, however, western Labrador was an undeveloped wilderness. Before it could begin mining, IOC first had to build a town to support the hundreds of men and women the mine would employ. In the fall of 1959, construction crews laid the framework for what soon became Labrador City. That same year, IOC also began building the mining complex at Carol Lake and a spur track to the Québec North Shore and Labrador Railway.
When the Smallwood Mine opened in 1962, IOC had spent upwards of $150 million. At the official opening ceremony in July, Smallwood himself set off the mine’s first blast, detonating 75 tons of dynamite at a hill near Carol Lake. “I have always wanted to move a mountain,” he quipped. By 1965, the mine was producing 27 million tons of ore each year.
Labrador City, meanwhile, had steadily grown in both size and population. Alongside houses, schools, a sewer system, and water source, IOC also built a golf course, ski hill, hockey rink, and communications tower. Of the town’s 8,500 residents, 1,850 worked at the mine. While many people moved to Labrador City from other parts of Canada, most arrived from the island portion of the province. Few travelled to the mine from other places in Labrador, in part because of a lack of roads and other modes of transportation linking eastern communities with the west.
A second iron ore mine also opened in Labrador during the 1960s, but it was not an IOC project. Under the terms of its 1936 lease with the Commission of Government, Weaver Coal agreed to return 10 per cent of its Labrador West property by 1939. The company’s head geologist, Retty, selected a parcel of land to the south of Wabush Lake, which contained deposits of poor-quality iron ore. By the early 1950s, however, technology existed to make the mining of such low-grade deposits a profitable endeavour.
In 1951, Deputy Minister of Mines Claude Howse noticed the deposits after studying an IOC map of the area. He immediately notified Smallwood, who began to search for someone to develop the find. In 1953, American businessman John Doyle bought the area’s mineral rights for $250,000. He created Wabush Mines Limited and spent the next four years trying to interest international steel producers in the project. During that time, Doyle spent more than $15 million to survey the area around Wabush Lake – which proved rich in iron ore. He also built a spur track from the deposits to the Québec North Shore and Labrador Railway.
In 1957, a consortium of American, German, and Italian steel producers agreed to buy Wabush Mines Limited from Doyle, who in return received a $2.5 million down-payment and annual royalties of $1.8 million, increasing to a maximum of $3.2 million after five years.
During the next few years, Wabush Mines spent approximately $235 million to develop a mining complex and build the town of Wabush, Labrador West’s second mining town. The Scully Mine officially opened in 1965, and began producing some 13.6 million tons of ore each year. By the late 1960s, Wabush’s population had grown to 3,000, with the mine employing some 900 workers.
The Smallwood and Scully Mines made Labrador West one of the world’s most significant iron-ore producing regions in the 1960s. Although a drop in world demand for steel during the 1980s caused layoffs at both sites, the two mines continue to produce iron ore today and employ hundreds of workers. As of 2007, Labrador City and Wabush had a combined population of approximately 10,000.