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Hot rock in a cold land

Port Radium produced world's purest uranium 

The following is the sixth in a series of 10 excerpts from "On the Rocks, John Larche and the relentless pursuit of the Dreamfields" written by formerDaily Pressreporter Richard Buell. The book is being sold to raise funds for Timmins and District Hospital Foundation. Copies of the book are available at Alfie's Cigar Store, Coles The Book People, TDH Foundation office and switchboard, Shania Twain Centre, Mike's Restaurant and they can also be ordered online at

While John Larche was still a relative neophyte in the challenging world of mining, he absorbed information like a sponge absorbs water. His diamond drilling experiences in the Timmins area all but convinced him that his future lay, as it were, on the rocks.

When he heard of work at Port Radium, he made his was to the eastern shore of Great Bear Lake at McTavish Arm, and learned in short order what uranium in its purest form is capable of doing.

The uranium, known chemically as U3O8, was absolutely captivating to young John who said over and over again that if he was to walk into a room with a sample of the pitchblende in his pocket, every film in every camera in the room would have been ruined.

"It probably graded as high as 60 percent," he said "It was unbelievably powerful. I had some pretty dark thoughts working down in the mine, wondering whether or not it was going to affect my ability to eventually have children."

The good news is that it had no effect in that regard, nor do any of his children glow in the dark.

"It was a really tough mining environment," he recalled. "The permafrost went down more than 700 feet, and I was working at the 400 foot level, so it doesn't take much imagination to figure out it was really cold where I was working. I was like working in a frozen meat locker. I had to have an operating water line for the drills and I didn't dare turn the water off, because it would have frozen solid in less than 15 minutes."

In all, John spent five years working underground, in the Porcupine and at Port Radium, absorbing and soaking up al the knowledge he could, while to his everlasting relief, absorbing none of the radioactivity from the hot rocks at Port Radium.

It was many years before he realized how truly fortunate he had been.

In a press release dated March 23, 1998, the Déline Dene Band Council of Great Bear Lake unlocked a secret of tragedy and ultimate terror that had been withheld from them for many years.

In part, the release read, "We the Sahtugot'ine (the Dene of Great Bear Lake) have been subjected to and continue to suffer from a grave injustice imposed upon us by the Canadian government. Without being told of the deadly hazards of radiation, our men carrier radioactive ore and our families and children have been exposed to radiation for over 60 years."

Continued After Advertisement Below


The tragedy of the Dene exposure to radiation was recounted in an article called A Village of Widows, written in 1998 by Cindy Kenny-Gilday.

The Port Radium mine operated as a radium mine between 1931 and 1939. It was closed, and re-opened as a uranium mine between 1943 and 1962, and operated as a silver mine between 1962 and 1982.

When John Larche was working underground at the 400-foot level in the late 1940's, his job, besides trying to stay warm and to keep his water line from freezing in the permafrost, was to break rock and to slash a hanging wall to create backfill.

Port Radium wasn't the only radioactive site that caused concerns in the late 1990's. In Elliot Lake, a book written by Robert Del Tredici called At Work in the Fields of the Bomb (Harper and Row, 1987) addressed concerns that mining companies were petitioning the federal government for permission to walk away from 130 million tons of radioactive waste stored in retaining piles and in tailings ponds at Elliot Lake.

"The Port Radium experience was really my last underground mining experience," he recalled. "I'm thankful I was able to leave the mine with no damage, but it's terrible that the residents of the Dene communities have suffered so much. There are a lot of things you learn through experience in mining and one of the things I learned is that U3O8 grading 60 per cent is dangerous stuff.

In 1946, J. B. McDougall released a Northern Ontario history of mining and exploration called Two Thousand Miles of Gold (McLelland and Stewart, Toronto). The book, of course, deals with far more than gold -- it covers the silver rushes of Cobalt and Gowganda, the farming districts of the Little Clay Belt and the Great Clay Belt of Northern Ontario, the nickel discoveries at Sudbury, the beginnings of the Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Railway, the Steep Rock iron ore deposits and even little Silver Islet silver mine's history off Port Arthur-Fort William.

But the last couple of pages in the book deal with a reality that had hit the world between the eyes on August 6 and 9, 1945, when atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, effectively ending the horrors of WWII.

It is appropriate to simply quote Mr. McDougall's final words, simply because they pertain so vividly to the Port Radium radium, uranium and ultimate silver mines.

"But what of the salutary functions of atomic power? It corrected false theories of the world from the make-up of the atom to the constitution of the sun.

That great "ball of fire" has been faithfully filling its ministry of light and heat and vital force to this world for untold years without abatement. We now know its radioactive forces will be for a billion years to come.

And what of the possible beneficent action of atomic power in the arts and crafts and industries in the practical field of life? Perhaps it will follow the path of its progenitor, fire, the gift of Prometheus to man. Ignorance of its nature and use led to disaster. Prometheus was impaled on the face of Mount Caucasus for eternal torture as punishment for his crime.

Prometheus was unchained and immortalized by gods and man. I have profound faith that the genius that solved the secret of atomic energy will be equally able to adopt it to good and constructive purposes.

But where does gold enter the picture?

It was the wide-ranging sweep of gold-seeking that finally landed geologists and prospectors on the far-away shores of Great Bear Lake. There they found pitchblende, the host ore of uranium, the source material of the production of atomic energy.

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