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“A Succession of Surprises:” International Geology and the 1909 Porcupine Gold Rush

Sat, April 1, 10:30am to 12:00pm, The Drake Hotel, Walton So.


On at least three separate occasions, Ontario Bureau of Mines surveyors in search of precious metals unknowingly walked over one of the world’s richest gold deposits at Porcupine Lake, Ontario. The subsequent gold rush became one of “a succession of surprises” about the nature of Ontario’s mineral wealth deeply lamented by Bureau director Archibald Blue in official reports. Following the rush, Ontario mining companies, scientists, and provincial government officials attempted to reduce the unpredictability of the emerging gold industry through systematic scientific study. In their attempts to render Porcupine’s landscape intelligible, experts drew on a body of knowledge about gold built during the nineteenth century rushes in Australia, British Columbia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Alaska. Using microscopes, scientific surveys, and a host of newly minted mining engineers, experts produced hundreds of samples, maps, and professional reports suggesting a sophisticated geological understanding of the provincial north. “A Succession of Surprises” uses these sources to examine the way that international science came to applied at Porcupine. I argue that geological knowledge about Porcupine represents a negotiation between international science and local conditions. The Canadian Shield environment challenged established assumptions about the nature of gold in Ontario and forced geologists to re-imagine the way that gold existed in the ground. Furthermore, effective mining on the Shield required the development of new mining and transportation technology appropriate for local conditions. Despite exponential advances in geological science in the first few years of the rush, so-called experts remained highly dependent on physical observation, trial and error, and serendipity to locate deposits throughout the nineteenth century. The unpredictability of the mining industry remains a key challenge for mines seeking to draw investment and governments seeking to avoid destructive boom/bust cycles in Northern Canada.