Cobalt Mining Legacy

Blind Pigs, Hockey Night in Cobalt, and other Diversions

The miner’s life was hard, and miners often played hard too. In the early days Cobalt had a frontier edge to it. The Ontario Government, fearing a wild west type of mentality, took steps to ensure that Cobalt did not enter into a state of lawlessness. Cobalt became the birthplace of the Ontario Provincial Police, when the province sent George Caldbick to Cobalt. Further, fearing drunken behaviour from miners, and in a spirit of temperance common at that time, the province outlawed the sale of alcohol within 5 miles of any of the mines.

Thus, miners and other Cobalt residents had to go to Haileybury to buy alcohol. That is, they had to go to Haileybury to buy alcohol legally. Soon after the sale of alcohol was banned, “blind pigs” began to pop up around town, selling “home brew” to the thirsty miners. By 1911, even though Haileybury was a short distance away on the trolley car, and despite efforts to shut them down, there were over 100 blind pigs in Cobalt. It was a lucrative business, and the fines imposed by the police were a cost of doing business.

In the meantime George Caldbick was kept busy ensuring law and order in other ways too. Fearing an outbreak of the sort of violence seen in some mining camps in the American west, Caldbick met every trainload of fortune seekers arriving in Cobalt and searched for weapons. It was not quite like modern airport security, but while there was some violence and crime in Cobalt, it was never as bad as in some of the American camps.

One miner more used to the ways of the west did try to cause problems in town, and soon came to Caldbick’s attention. Having decided to “shoot up the town” he lined up customers along the wall at the Cobalt Hotel, and was ready to carry out his plans when Caldbick showed up. Caldbick ordered the man out of town, but said to him “Let’s shake hands before I go”. Grasping the man’s hand more firmly than the usual hand shake, Caldbick forced him to his knees. The gun fell from his hand and the man was soon in handcuffs. He never got his chance to shoot up the town.

With so many shipments of silver passing through Cobalt station, it would seem obvious that someone would try to steal silver from the station, or from one of the mines. In fact, there seem to have been few attempts to steal silver bullion. One group of would be thieves forced open the door of the strongroom at the Nova Scotia Mine one night and managed to steal 26 heavy bars of silver. Caldbick was called in to investigate. After weeks of searching the silver was found in a dried up creek near town. It turned out that the silver was stolen by four miners on a bet – they never really intended to try and sell the silver and get rich from it.

Stolen by miners on a bet ….. a story that illustrates well the fact that miners in Cobalt would bet on almost anything. Miners are gamblers by nature. They gamble on finding riches in the rock, they gamble that the riches will not run out, that prices will not fall, and indeed, that they will not die on their next shift. The stakes are high in mining – it is the nature of the business. While mining is much safer than it used to be, and miners do not gamble their lives like they used to, those involved in exploration still throw the dice on many exploration projects, spending millions in the hopes of finding a mine.

The working conditions in the Cobalt mines were very primitive by modern standards, and most mine owners were not quick to invest in anything that would improve the safety of the miners. But the mine owners did recognize that the miners needed some entertainment to help keep them content. It would be even better if this entertainment could give them an outlet for their eagerness to gamble. And, for that matter, the eagerness of the mine owners and managers to gamble. Hockey was the perfect entertainment, and something that was worthy of the miners’ bets. There were other sports too. Baseball games at the stadium in West Cobalt helped to get the miners through the summer months until the hockey season resumed. But nothing inspired the same amount of passion as hockey. Hockey was religion in Cobalt long before Foster Hewitt or Hockey Night in Canada. Hockey and betting are enshrined in the Cobalt Song – “We’ve bet all our dough on hockey”. The song was written in 1910, when hockey in Cobalt was at its peak, and, indeed, when the town itself was in many ways at its peak.

Hockey teams were started in Cobalt, Haileybury and New Liskeard, and the Temiskaming Hockey League was formed, playing for the solid silver O’Brien trophy. Poor cousin New Liskeard though, could never match the deep pockets on the mine owners and managers that financed the Cobalt and Haileybury teams. The Sports Palace was built in Cobalt, an enclosed arena seating 3,500 people, complete with a heated seating area, electric lights and even an electric organ. Soon, there was a bitter rivalry between the Cobalt Silver Kings and the Haileybury Hockey Club.

In the closing days of the 1909 season, Cobalt enlisted the great Art Ross, paying him $1000 a game to help Cobalt beat Haileybury. That at a time when most players only made $1800 per season, and most of the miners were making less than $2.00 a day. Cobalt won, taking the O’Brien Trophy.

The next season, 1910, Cobalt and Haileybury joined the upstart National Hockey Association (NHA), along with 5 other teams, including the Ottawa Senators and the Montreal Canadiens. The NHA was formed by Ambrose O’Brien, son of the owner of the O’Brien Mine, M.J. O’Brien. O’Brien had made a bid to have his team, the Renfrew Millionaires, into the elite league of the time, the Eastern League. But this bid was rejected since the Eastern League thought Renfrew was too small. The NHA proved to be the downfall of the Eastern League and was the forerunner of the National Hockey League, NHL, which started in 1917. To start the NHA, O’Brien enlisted teams in Ottawa, Montreal, Cobalt and Haileybury, in addition to his own Renfrew team In addition, O’Brien started a new team in Montreal, consisting entirely of French Canadian player. The Club de Hockey Canadien – the Montreal Canadians - was born, and O’Brien even designed their famous CH crest.

Cobalt and Haileybury faced off again in the 1910 season. That year, it was Haileybury that carried the day. It is rumoured that Noah Timmins bet $40,000 on that game – many years salary for the men working in his mines. And many miners bet and lost more than they could afford. The NHA championship was taken that year by the Montreal Wanderers, giving them the Stanley Cup.

The days of Cobalt and Haileybury playing in the big leagues were at an end though, and these teams did not return for the 1911 NHA season. As money flowed north to the gold camps of Timmins and Kirkland Lake, big league teams could no longer be supported by the Silver City and its neighbour. Hockey was becoming a business, and the days of towns like Cobalt playing against the big cities of the south were over.

Another reason that the teams didn’t return for the 1911 NHA season was that the miners were not happy. The NHA teams played only 12 games a season, including only 6 home games. The miners complained that there were not enough games and the intervals between games were too long. The miners, it seemed, preferred quantity to quality.

The Cobalt and Haileybury teams were split to form a 4 team league known as the Mines League. Games were played twice a week, sometimes 3 times a week. And the deep pockets of the mine owners ensured that they were still able to pay some top flight players to lure them away from the “Big Leagues”.

The Mine Managers Association also formed a ladies’ hockey team, coached by coaches from the Mines League. This team played exhibition games against teams from southern Ontario, and helped increase the interest of local women in hockey, previously shunned as a man’s sport.

The dawn of World War I took its toll on hockey in Cobalt, as many players enlisted and joined Canadian units in the trenches of Flanders. And as Cobalt began its slow decline, the calibre of play was never the same again. But hockey continues to play an important role in Cobalt, inspiring dreams of the NHL for many Cobalt youngsters. Indeed, Mario Chitaroni of Cobalt achieved local fame playing for the Italian national team in the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan and again in the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy.

Today, many small towns across Canada can boast famous hockey players, but few can boast a team like the Silver Kings. It seems almost impossible to believe today, looking at tiny little Cobalt, that their team once played against the Ottawa Senators and the legendary Montreal Canadiens. But it is true. Such was Cobalt in its prime.

Hockey was great entertainment for the miners, but miners were on the sidelines, as spectators. But like most of us, miners like to show how good they are at their craft. Miners have long held contests in mining towns across the continent, showing off their skills, and hoping for a shot at the prize money. Even today in Cobalt, there are mining competitions every August as part of the miners festival. Miners compete using jack-leg drills, seeing who can drill fastest into the hard rocks of Cobalt. Miners also compete in a mucking contest. Mucking is miner’s lingo for digging out broken rock after a blast, and loading it into an ore cart. Mucking machines powered by compressed air are used.

Winning takes skill, knowledge of how best to work the machines, and strength. Chances to see miners practicing their craft are rare, so if you want to see how it’s done be sure to visit Cobalt on the long weekend in August, and join the crowd of spectators outside the town area.

In the early days of Cobalt however, these contests were a very different affair. Even after machines replaced muscle as the source of power underground, the early mining contests were truly tests of strength and endurance. In these contests, miners competed in hand drilling competitions, and hand mucking competitions.

Hand drilling contests started in the mining camps of the American west, and were once described as “the most gut-busting sport ever devised by man”. From small beginnings they became major events in the late 1800s, with miners competing for large amounts of price money put up by the mine owners and managers.

For these contests a block of stone about 4 feet square was quarried from an area mine and hauled to an area in the middle camp. A platform about 15 feet square was build around the block, something like a boxing ring.

In these contests, a team of 2 drilled for 15 minutes, 1 twisting the drill and 1 swinging the hammer, but switching jobs every 30 seconds. The depths drilled by some of these teams were incredible. In 1901 a team in Colorado drilled completely through a 46 inch think boulder in less than the 15 minutes.

One of the first hand-drilling contests in Cobalt was held in 1908. A large tournament was held in 1909, with an American team taking the $1750 in prize money for drilling a hole 43 1/8 inches deep. The prize money was awarded by a New York actress in town for a production at the Lyric Opera House.

Hand drilling contests in Cobalt in 1909 (left) and Silverton, British Columbia, in 1928 (right)

Another hand drilling competition was held in 1911, but it is not clear when the last competition was held in Cobalt. Competitions in other camps are known to have continued into the 1920s. Today, hand drilling contests are still held at some locations in the American west, though the rules are much different today. In these modern contests a single miner uses a small sledge hammer and holds the drill steel himself. Interesting to watch, but a pale cousin to the hand drilling competitions of the past.

Entertainment in Cobalt had a more refined aspect to it as well. Construction of Cobalt’s opera house began in 1905, and there were several theatres as well, including the Bijou, the Lyric, the Grand, the Orpheum and the Idle Hour Theatre. The Opera and the theatres hosted not just local talent, but big name entertainers from Canada and the United States as well as England. In later years, some of the theatres showed the latest Hollywood movies as well.

The last theatre to shut down in Cobalt was the Classic Theatre, which was opened in 1926 hosting vaudeville shows and live theatre, then movies. The Theatre remained opened until 1973, and then was left to deteriorate. The days of live theatre in Cobalt seemed long over when in 1993, the town started a project to restore the theatre to its former glory, and bring live theatre back to Cobalt. In 1994 the beautifully restored theatre reopened, bringing back some of the past glories, while giving theatre groups a modern venue in which to stage their productions. The theatre now hosts more than 70 events each year, and is home to four theatre companies. In addition, the theatre also hosts a fine arts gallery.