The O'Donnell town site©Copyright: Yvan Charbonneau
In 1913 the nickel mines of the Sudbury Basin were in full swing. In a little mining town named Copper Cliff, shafts, crushers, and roasts yards were dotting the landscape of the Canadian Copper Company (INCO) which was geared to produce a maximum output of nickel.
At the height of activities, local wood was harvested for the roast yards, which when burned, turned into poisonous sulphurous smoke, which killed all the remaining vegetation in the area. In Copper Cliff this was already a done deal. However the roasting process was beginning to affect not just the environment, but the health of the general population in the communities of Copper Cliff and Sudbury. Numerous residents began to complain about chronic health problems. Their plight became a major concern, especially in Sudbury, where the Mond Nickel Co. had just transferred all their smelting and roasting operations to Coniston just east of the town. A solution was needed to remedy the situation and quickly.
Along the Algoma Eastern Railway, specifically at mileage point 17.5, a large roast yard, named after an employee, John O'Donnell, was established in 1915. Spanning 2.25 kilometres (1 mile) in length, the yard was divided in two long strips and then subdivided into individual beds, each 60 ft wide by 100 ft long. Cordwood was first piled to a height of about four feet, while another 8 feet of 'green' ore was spread over the cordwood and then set ablaze for 6-8 months. While some beds were burning sulphur, other beds, that finished the initial roasting, were broken up and shipped back to Copper Cliff for further milling, and smelting. About 200 men were needed to operate the yards, manually spreading, or removing ore, with picks, shovels, and dynamite.
A town site was established to house the large work force and their families. The company surveyed four streets, Foley, Savage, Vermillion and Ellis, in an 'L' shaped pattern, where they built housing for 600 residents.
The main town site was constructed along Vermillion and Ellis streets. Amenities included W. Boyle's general store, G. Dunsmore's club house, a post office, school, town hall and jail. There were ten duplexes and ten single dwellings. The two-storey store also contained additional apartments. These were the only streets that were serviced with water and sewers.
Savage and Foley Street contained additional 'homes' for temporary employees. In actuality 17 boxcars were placed to house extra families on these streets. There was also a staff house, a dry house (showering facilities), and Lepki's Boarding House. All homes were serviced with electricity. The town site also had a baseball field/hockey rink, flag station and an ice house. Doctor Boyce, from Creighton Mine, visited the settlement about once a month.
An ore bridge, completed in 1918, drastically reduced the workforce to 40 men. However the community continued to exist with a markedly reduced population, hovering around 100 residents. About the same time all the spare boxcars were removed. In 1921-22 a massive curtailment in INCO's nickel production resulted in a temporary shut down both at the yards and at most of INCO's mines. All residents were removed until activities were resumed in 1922. In 1923 Boyle's general store was sold to Sam Fera of Creighton. Sam used a jitney to ship deliveries to O'Donnell and transport passengers to and from Creighton Mine.
By 1929 open air roasting was again under scrutiny. The government began to question the validity of the process particularly since newer milling techniques were already in use in Norway, a country that had just shut down their last roast yard in 1927. In September 1930 the new roasting plant in Copper Cliff was finally operational. Roasting was officially terminated at O'Donnell a month earlier. A small handful of workers remained until 1931 to clean up the site and remove equipment. The ore bridge and rails were removed during the remaining part of the decade. The yards were left to sit empty, devoid of any vegetation, a solemn testament to the harshness of nickel mining.