1941 Outpost Island Mine

On February 1 st, 1941 a mine and processing mill, located on a small isolated island in Great Slave Lake, began producing gold. Six years earlier traces of gold had been discovered on several of the Outpost Islands, a scattering of dozens of small islands at the extreme western end of the East Arm of Great Slave Lake 65 kilometres north-north-east of Fort Resolution (map).

From 1935 through to 1938 considerable exploratory work was done on these islands including the sinking of a shaft 137 metres (450 feet) below one of the islands. The result of this work was encouraging and the property was then sold to Slave Lake Gold Mines Limited and in late 1940 they had expanded the underground workings and had begun construction on a 50-ton mill and associated buildings, including accommodation for more than 50 miners and their families.

There was a particularly surprising find in the ore being processed. Along with the gold there was also tungsten and since this was during the Second World War and tungsten, essential to the production of armaments and as a steel hardener for tools, was in short supply the future of the mine looked very bright.

At that time the Outpost Mine was the only mine in North America producing tungsten. Yet in 1942, Slave Lake Gold Mines Limited went bankrupt. The mine’s isolation made the cost of processing and shipping ore, even if it contained valuable gold and tungsten, a borderline operation. In order to survive, the mine needed lots of investors, something very hard to find during the war.

The first hint of problems at the mine came in June of 1942 when expected shipments of supplies and equipment, orders that had been placed the previous winter, were not being shipped because suppliers weren’t being paid by the mine’s head office in Toronto. The miners working underground had no idea that the mine was in trouble until the beginning of August of 1942 when their pay cheques for the previous month bounced. The mine manager claimed the problem was temporary and kept people working underground but closed the mill.

On September 8th, 1942 the manager gathered everyone together and said there was no money to pay them, the mine was closing and, to add insult to injury, there was no money to hire a boat to get the men and their families off the island. For some men this was a desperate situation. They had no money to pay for their own transportation and with freeze up only a few weeks away there was the distinct possibility that they would be stuck on the island for months.

The stranded men came up with a plan to build a barge. They took apart some of the mine buildings for wood and between September 12th and 24th 1942 put together a barge dubbed the ‘Stinky D’! It was capable of carrying the twenty-five stranded men, women and children to the south shore of Great Slave Lake and up the Slave River as far as Fort Smith.

There, the plan was to drag the barge over the portage between Fort Smith and Fort Fitzgerald and sail it up the Athabasca River to Fort McMurray. From there the men and their families would ride the train to Edmonton. Everything changed when the barge arrived in Fort Smith. Most of the men found work either with Imperial Oil in Norman Wells or with the Los Angeles-based construction company Bechtel, Price, Callahan who were salvaging material left after construction of the CANOL pipeline.

International Tungsten Mines Ltd eventually acquired the Outpost Island Mine. Over several years they conducted further exploratory work on the islands but the mine never reopened.