masthead image

Key Harbour


Town site photo

Inside the power house ca. 1936

When the Moose Mountain mine first opened in early 1900, there was no rail link or proper harbour. Mackenzie and Mann, owners of the Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR) anticipated a highly profitable operation in the ore refining business. In 1905, they secured exclusive shipping rights and began making plans for their harbour, which was to be situated at the mouth of the Key River. In the meantime, the Moose Mountain mine stockpiled all their ore until 1909, when the railway and harbour were finally finished.

The nearest site for a decent harbour was situated about 110 kilometres (80 miles) south of the mine. Other than the harbour, Mackenzie and Mann hoped to establish a Canadian version of Pittsburgh, with refineries, and smelters that would produce great quantities of steel. With this in mind, they applied for and received Grant #7, giving them no less than 111,217 acres or land. On May 8 1907, construction on the seven-mile spur line from the harbour to the junction was started. When it was finished on November 6 of the same year, it was effectively linked to the Canadian Northern Ontario Railway.

The harbour along with all of its facilities was built in 1908. Unfortunately for Mackenzie and Mann, their plans for a vast industrial centre died when they quickly learned the real facts on smelting iron. It took three tons of coal for every ton of iron processed. When they found out the closest coal field was in Pittsburgh they realized the missing link in their equation, and the plans for the smelter were scrapped.

Nonetheless the harbour commenced shipping ore pellets in 1909. Trains arrived from Sellwood and dumped the ore in a bin. The ore was then transferred to the docks, by way of a large conveyor called an incline, which was then used to fill the ships.

In 1912, a sabotage plot was spoiled, but the associated fire caused damage to the loading docks and trestle. They were promptly repaired and operations resumed the following spring. In almost no time, tragedy struck again. On Good Friday in the spring of 1913, a wind storm blew down the incline, that was situated above an ore storage building, and trimmed more than half the train shed off. Later that fall, a violent snow store gave early notice of winter. The vast amount of snow melted, but quickly froze again and the harbour was forced to close for the season.

In 1916, ore shipping was transferred to Depot Harbour, the latter being better equipped to service larger ships. The harbour closed for good in October 1920, although the mine continued producing throughout November of that same year, transhipping through Depot Harbour. All ore docks and ore facilities were gradually dismantled during the 1920's and 30's.

The harbour rebounded from 1929-1938, when coal was shipped in for the Canadian National Railway (CN formerly CNoR), from its mine in West Virginia. A coal dock constructed of simple wood pilings, measuring 1,200 feet long and the width of three tracks was added. For a short six weeks a year between June and July, employees would operate around the clock, with two 12-hour shift rotations. It took 43 to 48 hours to unload a 7,000-ton per coal ship, one ship at the time. There were no actual dwellings at Key Harbour. Most people lived in rail cars that were parked at a siding.

Every summer, during Key Harbour's short brief, anywhere from 125,000 to 150,000 tons of coal would be unloaded and shipped to the Suez coal yards in Hanmer, north of Sudbury. Some coal was sold to the Temiskaming & Northern Ontario Railway (now ONR). After 1938, the docks were abandoned and the tracks were mainly used by jitneys for bringing in cottagers and sending out frozen packed fish from Gauthier's fishery station, also located at Key Harbour.

Over the next 10 years business decreased to the point where it was no longer economically justifiable to maintain the line. CN officially abandoned Key Harbour in 1950. The rusting tracks were valued at $50 to $60 thousand. In 1960 the spur was torn up and sold for scrap. Other than the remains of the wharves and assorted debris, nothing remains of the original town site.