Cobalt Mining Legacy

Visiting Cobalt

Cobalt is Ontario’s Most Historic Town, and the area is designated as a National Historic Site. Clearly, there is plenty to see and experience for visitors to Cobalt. Those who take the detour along Highway 11B and stopover in Cobalt will find their visit well worth while.

Getting There

Cobalt is located off of Highway 11, the Trans Canada Highway, in northeastern Ontario. To get there from large centres to the south, such as Toronto or Ottawa, take the Trans Canada to North Bay. From North Bay take Highway 11 North. Along the drive you will pass through miles of beautiful northern Ontario scenery of forests and lakes, including those in the area around Temagami. You will also see at several places along the drive the tracks of the Ontario Northland Railway – the same route that took the early miners and their families to Cobalt. Cobalt is on Highway 11B, since the main Trans Canada Highway has long since bypassed the town. The turnoff for Highway 11B is located 130 km from North Bay, just past the Highway Book Shop and the Cobalt Truck Stop. The town of Cobalt is about 2 km east along Highway 11B.

»Link to Google Maps to get map and driving directions

Welcome to the Silver Capital of Canada

Driving along Highway 11B from the turn off at the Cobalt Truck Stop, the visitor has little indication of what is come. The scenery along the short drive to town is typical northern Ontario scenery. That is, until the visitor enters a gentle left turn into town, and, as they are greeted by the “Welcome to Cobalt” sign, the panorama of Cobalt Lake and the barren Nip Hill beyond it is laid out before them.

The first impression is that this is not a pretty little town. It isn’t. Decades of mining, particularly those first frantic years from 1903 to the 1920s, have scared the landscape in Cobalt. The scenery is in stark contrast to the natural beauty of Temagami, just a few kilometres to the south. But do not be deterred. Amidst the barrens hills and ruins of Cobalt, the spirits of the past are alive and well, and ready to tell their story.

Perhaps the next surprise for the visitor is the headframe right beside the road. In fact, the road veers around the headframe of the Cobalt Townsite Mine. In Cobalt, at least right in town, most of the mining claims were just 40 acres in size. Headframes came first, and the roads and houses were placed almost as an afterthought. In some places the roads still follow the boundaries of the old claims.

A few more sharp turns and the visitor will come across perhaps the longest straight stretch of road along the course of Highway 11B through town. Just past the Cobalt Mining Museum the road turns to the right again, the visitor by now realizing why Highway 11 has long since bypassed Cobalt – the twists and turns of Cobalt would be a great challenge for the many transport trucks using the highway.

The visitor then enters “The Square” which isn’t square at all. Just up the hill from the train station, “The Square” was the hub of Cobalt. From here the road straightens somewhat, taking the visitor through the newer part of town, and then out of town and on to the town of North Cobalt, a few kilometres to the north.

Cobalt Welcome Centre – A Great Place to Start Your Cobalt Adventure

The Cobalt Welcome Centre is located in the historic Cobalt train station, on the shores of Cobalt Lake. The Welcome Centre has information on area attractions and accommodations, and there is also a gift shop. The staff there will help you on your way to discovering the heritage of Cobalt.

The train station itself is an attraction. The station, completed in 1910, is the second Cobalt train station, the first one having burnt down. Built at the height of the silver boom in Cobalt, the present station, which is a heritage building, is an excellent example of train station architecture, designed by the same architect who designed Union Station in Toronto. This station marked the beginning of their new lives in Cobalt for those who came to Cobalt seeking their fortune, and is a fitting starting point for those visiting Cobalt today.

The Bunker Military Museum

The Bunker Military Museum is also located in the Cobalt Train Station. The museum, the largest of its kind in northern Ontario, contains artefacts from the Boer War to the present day. The museum also has a library with over 2000 books and articles. Not related to mining, but for those with an interest in military history, The Bunker is well worth the visit.

Outside the museum, there is a World War II vintage Universal Carrier, used for transporting troops and supplies, as well as an anti-aircraft gun. Behind the Bunker, murals depicting troops storming an enemy beach and a corvette, used to escort convoys, have been painted on the high concrete retaining wall.

The Cobalt Mining Museum

After leaving the train station, the next stop in discovering Cobalt is the Cobalt Mining Museum, just a short walk up the hill from the train station. The museum looks small from the outside, but its 7 galleries contain many artefacts and photos that tell the history of Cobalt, from mining, to fires, to the unique people and events that help make the town special.

The first gallery contains many spectacular samples of ore from the Cobalt silver mines, and the museum boasts the world’s largest display of silver – only appropriate for the Silver Capital of Canada! The museum staff will answer questions about the history of Cobalt, and are also very knowledgable about the other area attractions, particularly the Heritage Silver Trail.

Don’t forget the check out some of the souvenirs available in the museum, including silver jewellery, as well as Cobalt-themed shirts, and books about the area.

The museum is the starting point for the Heritage Silver Trail. It is also the starting point for those wanting to go on an underground tour at the Colonial Mine.

The Heritage Silver Trail

»Download printable map of the Heritage Silver Trail

To really appreciate the history of mining in Cobalt, a visitor has to explore some the mine sites in the area. The Heritage Silver Trail is a self-guided driving tour of several mine and mill sites in the area. The trail is well marked, guiding visitors around the backroads of Cobalt. At each site, signs are posted, identifying the site, and providing a brief description of the site.

With support from government grants in the last few years, the Heritage Silver Trail has been able to expand, and now includes 19 sites. Some of the highlights of the tour include the Right-of-Way Mine, near the railway tracks (Site #9) which also includes a display of mining equipment, and the lookout at the Nipissing Low Grade Mill (Site #7) which affords an excellent view in all directions.

Another highlight of the tour is the Nipissing ’96 Mine site (Site #6) which includes a well preserved headframe, as well as lookouts that allow visitors to look down into deep trenches that were dug to recover silver. These trenches, which often contain snow until late summer, give a unique glimpse of the conditions under which miners worked. This site also affords an excellent view of the mill tailings that fill most of Cart Lake. These tailings were deposited in the lake from the early 1960s until 1983, and were revegetated in the late 1990s. At the far end of the tailings is the headframe of the Provincial #2 mine. Sheathed in rusted corrugated steel, this is arguably one of the most photogenic headframes in the area, though it is now surrounded by a fence for safety reasons.

A word of caution. When walking, stick to the posted trails. Because the silver veins were often right at the surface, the landscape is dotted with pits and trenches, such as those at the Nipissing ’96 site. Step into one and you could break an ankle, or fall to your death. Many of these mine hazards are now fenced off. Others are not. If you want to walk in the woods around Cobalt, do so with care. And if you see a fence, know that it is there for good reason. STAY OUT!!!

Also, the foundations of some of the old mills, such as the Nipissing Low Grade Mill and the McKinley Darragh Mill, sites #7 and #3 on the trail, are known to contain arsenic and other metals. If you climb on the foundations, it is a good idea to wash your hands before eating.

Colonial Mine Tour

For a unique underground experience, take the time to go on the underground tour at the Colonial Mine. Tours start at the Mining Museum, and are guided by museum staff. The narrow damp tunnels of the mine give a real appreciation for the conditions under which miners worked, and tour guides sprinkle the tour with many stories to help bring the past to life. It is a very different experience from other underground tours, such as the Dynamic Earth tour in Sudbury, and is highly recommended.

As you walk along the tunnel, notice the many holes that have been drilled in the tunnel walls – holes drilled by students from the Haileybury School of Mines – Cobalt continues to be a training ground.

If you take the tour, wear sturdy shoes - it can be bit muddy in places. Long pants and a sweater are also a good idea, since even on the hottest summer days it remains quite cool underground, with the temperature at about 10°C.

Cobalt Walking Tour

Within the town of Cobalt are buildings with unique stories to tell, and even headframes mixed in with the business and residences – a very real reminder of how intertwined mining was with life in the community. Several murals have also been painted, depicting scenes from life in Cobalt, and, around the train station and The Bunker, scenes of military history.

Take the time to walk around town and appreciate the murals, ponder how “The Square” could possibly be called that, and consider the small headframe who’s shaft was later used as cold storage for a small grocer! The building is now a restaurant. Cobalt’s streets are relatively quiet now, but the train station was once a beehive of activity each time a train arrived. The Square was a centre of attention, where the stock exchange0 was located, and the opera. And just up the hill, you can still quench your thirst at the Fraser Hotel.

The Drummond Cairn

A little north of The Square, beside the town library, is the Drummond Cairn. This Cairn brings to life an interesting chapter in Cobalt’s history.

William Henry Drummond was born in Ireland in 1854 and emigrated to Canada as a boy, settling in Montreal. His early jobs provided him an opportunity to get to know the French Canadians of Quebec – les habitant. Drummond attended McGill University and Bishops University in Quebec, and became a medical doctor in 1884.

Drummond was also a poet, and wrote many poems about French Canadians, and life in Quebec. He became known as “The Habitant Poet”. He published his first collection of poems in 1898 and was one of the most recognized Canadian poets of the era.

In 1904, Dr. Drummond heard of the silver strike at Cobalt, and he claimed 80 acres at the north end of Kerr Lake. He built a home there, and oversaw the operations of his mine. While in Cobalt he continued his writing. In 1907, Dr. Drummond helped town doctors in dealing with a smallpox outbreak in Cobalt. He suffered a stroke and died in Cobalt on April 6, 1907.

His home was later torn down, but the fireplace was preserved. In 1933 it was dedicated as a memorial cairn by the Governor General. The Cairn was moved to its present location beside the library in 1988.

The library has a complete collection of Drummond's published works as well as pictures and other artefacts.

Cobalt Firefighters Museum

Fires have played an important but tragic part in Cobalt’s history. The Cobalt Firefighters Museum was created by former Fire Chief, Leo Arbour, as a historic tribute to the many brave and courageous firemen of the Cobalt and Coleman Volunteer Fire Brigades.

The museum has over 1000 artefacts, many dating back to the early 1900's, but also including modern fire fighting equipment. The collection includes a fire wagon and fire wagon reel.