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Chapter VI: St. Lawrence Town: Its Triumph and Tragedy

On 1 February 1978, the St. Lawrence fluorspar operations, perhaps the most publicized of Newfoundland mines, closed down. The publicity began around 1960 with the discovery that St. Lawrence miners had for nearly 30 years been working in the presence of a radioactive gas and that many had died or were dying of radiation-induced cancer. Few features lure journalists as surely as dramatic death. The St. Lawrence mines and miners became a cause célèbre for provincial and national media, provoking coverage ranging from the objective to the objectionable about the plight of the town and its peculiar tragedy.

The story of St. Lawrence is undeniably tragic, the shutdown a shock. Nonetheless - and contrary to some predictions - the people of the community have survived both the tragedy and the shutdown. With their own labour and fortitude they are working to bring a new image to the name 'St. Lawrence.'

Shipwrecked English sailors from Sir Humphrey Gilbert's Delight bestowed the name 'St. Lawrence' upon Newfoundland. After running aground off Sable Island in 1583 they drifted eastward for a week before coming to the small cove that is now called Little St. Lawrence. The cove's idyllic setting and salmon-filled stream led them to call the place St. Lawrence because the stream was a "very goodly riuer like the riuer of St. Lawrence in Canada, ..."(1)

Although original inhabitants of the St. Lawrence area undoubtedly noticed the many purple, yellow, green and transparent fluorspar veins in the rocks surrounding their village, they would have had no more idea of the mineral's name than of its significance. More intriguing to people were the minor amounts of silver and lead ore embedded within the fluorspar vein. It was for these metals, rather than for fluorspar, that men first mined around St. Lawrence.

Tradition holds that in the seventeenth or eighteenth century Spanish or Portuguese sailors drove an adit into a fluorspar vein at Chambers Cove near St. Lawrence and extracted the associated lead ore.(2) A less romantic but equally plausible possibility is that men working for Charles Bennett mined at Chambers Cove around the time that they removed silver from Bennett's Mine Cove property seven miles away at Lawn. One curious early mining attempt in the area happened sometime before 1825 northeast of St. Lawrence. Here, unidentified individuals sank a shaft on a lead-bearing fluorspar vein and left behind metal artifacts that were uncovered in 1933 when the vein - the Black Duck vein - became the site of Newfoundland's first fluorspar mine.

The long interval between discovery and development of the St. Lawrence fluorspar occurred mainly because fluorspar's limited demand precluded serious investigation of such isolated veins. After World War II, however, innovations in military hardware, modes of travel and domestic conveniences greatly multiplied fluorspar's uses. As need for fluorspar expanded, interest in mineable fluorspar deposits, including those at St. Lawrence, grew accordingly.

Once 'fluorspar fever' infected St. Lawrence it spread like a plague. Between 1925 and 1935, prospectors discovered the Black Duck, Iron Springs, Church, Red Robin, Tarefare, Blue Beach, Lord and Lady Gulch, Hares Ears and other fluorspar veins, most of which were eventually worked. However, such was the number of veins and prospectors involved that the claim map of St. Lawrence soon became a maze of closely spaced, and sometimes overlapping, blocks of the most remarkable geometric variety.

Staking began simply enough. On 15 October 1925, Bernard McGrath and William Campbell* obtained a one-year license for Claim 62, thinking that it covered the Black Duck vein. Claim 62 was staked for the men by Daniel Colford, son of Andrew who discovered the Workington iron deposit. Before Daniel could restake the claim the next year it was jumped by Robert Mercer of St. John's. Then on 15 November 1929, John H. Taylor staked Claim 62 and other claims in his name. Events thereafter took an unexpected twist.

* Founder of the present-day Campbell's Meat Market in St. John's.