The Helen Mine
Roadway to the Helen Mine©Copyright: Yvan Charbonneau
The Helen Mine got its start after Benjamin Boyer, of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, discovered minerals on lands he owned further north in Algoma. Francis Hector Clergue, owner of St.Mary's Paper, also in Sault Ste. Marie, was shown a 'supposed' piece of mineralized gold that came from this land. Clergue was intrigued, particularly since he owned a gold prospect not too far south known as the Grace Gold Mine, named after his sister Grace. However upon further investigation, it was soon apparent that this wasn't gold, but instead rich hematite iron. After investigating the site, Clergue bought the entire mountain and renamed it after another sister, Helen. He then set out to build Ontario's first large scale iron mine.
The mine began production around 1900, and ore was shipped mainly to the United States. During this time the Canadian Blast Furnace Co., of Midland Ontario, made history by processing the first Canadian iron ores in Canada. In 1902, Clergue built a large refinery and steel mill in Sault Saint Marie, Ontario, located 220 kilometres south of the mine. Two years later the blast furnace began production in Sault Saint Marie and most, if not all, ore was shipped to this location. And thus the Canadian Steel Industry was born.
Clergue also built a railway connection to link the Helen Mine to Michipicoten Harbour where ships would then transport the ore to the Sault. This link, started in 1899, was completed the following year and stretched nearly 13 miles, officially launching the Algoma Central Railway. By 1913, the Algoma Central Railway could boast a solid rail link from Sault Saint Marie to Hearst with a connection to Michipicoten Harbour and the Helen Mine via Hawk Junction.
The early mine was established on Boyer Lake, named after Benjamin Boyer, at the foot of the Helen Mountain. A town was situated above the mine on a large plateau 45 metres above. Work in the early years was hard and perilous and wages were paltry. In 1900 the total wage payroll for the year was only $107,535, and this was divided between the 430 or so employees. In the end the average employee was paid $245 per annum, a low wage. In Sudbury area nickel mines an underground worker would receive a comparable wage on a monthly basis.
Possibly to compensate for the crummy wages, Clergue laid out a proper town site containing all modern facilities such as water, sewers, and later on electricity. The site included five bunkhouses, a school, a slaughterhouse, the Cougar Lodge, a large company store and numerous dwellings. There was also a doctor on location. Following the gold bust of 1907, nearby Wawa effectively became a complete ghost town, but the Helen Mine carried on with its activities as usual maintaining high profitability. A few residents, relocated there from Wawa, where they were able to find stable employment. Along with the Magpie Mine it was the biggest money-maker of the whole Michipicoten area.
By 1918, the hematite ore deposit began to wane and the mine was no longer profitable. After it was shut down, the whole town site stood in silence only to burn indefinitely and completely in 1921. Nothing remained but rubble.
In 1937, Sir James Dunn (Algoma Ore) was hired to salvage a good part of the Canadian steel industry, which had been heavily distressed by the dragging depression. He managed to restructure the company and get things going once again. However he still needed a good body of ore near by. Suddenly the Helen Mine roared back to life. New methods of processing siderite ores made it possible for all large ore bodies to be mined with vastly improved profit margins.
In 1939 war surfaced in Europe and Canada joined in. This one act managed to both strengthen and secure the company's future. Now that the vast quantity of siderite ore deposits was commercially viable, the Wawa iron deposits became attractive once again. Since Canada was at war, it had to gear its economy to wartime effort. While the Canadian gold industry was hard-hit, killing the gold boom just south of Wawa, it gave rise to the Canadian iron industry because of the massive iron needs of the war effort. Wawa shed its near ghost town status and became the new town site for the miners working in the Helen. By 1941, the town rapidly expanded to accommodate the new influx in population. It had the further affect of rejuvenating the badly depressed Michipicoten District.
The Helen Mine was exploited as an open pit and within a few years a sizeable hole had torn through the hillside. The workings had become far too dangerous to exploit and it was decided, once again, to sink the shafts underground. In 1938 a small town site containing 23 houses was constructed at the mine for the mining superintendents. All these homes were relocated to Wawa around 1951-52 to enable expansion and modernizing of the mine.
The Helen Mine enjoyed an impressively long run finally coming to a halt in 1996. Within two years all the mine's buildings and machinery were torn down, salvaged or sold. Thus Helen Mine, named in honour of Clergue's sister would no longer lend its name to a warm community, but simply to a cold mountain of rock. Francis Hector Clergue named two other mines after his other sisters. He also owned two small nickel mines near Sudbury, known as the Gertrude and Elsie Mines until around 1904.