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Catastrophic Connections: Mining Disasters and International Answers at the Porcupine Camp, 1909-1929

Thu, March 15, 1:30 to 3:00pm, Riverside Convention Center, MR 9


On 10 July 1911, a forest fire ripped through the mining town of Porcupine Lake, Ontario. It killed seventy-three people, burned nearly a thousand square miles, and destroyed millions of dollars worth of mining infrastructure. The international press called it the worst disaster in Ontario history, but it was just the first in a long series of natural disasters experienced in Porcupine during the development of the industrial mining economy between 1909 and 1929.

In the face of environmental catastrophe, Porcupine nature both shaped, and was shaped by, transnational forces.Natural disasters like forest fires are ostensibly products of local ecology, spurred by ground fuel, temperature, precipitation, and ignitors like lightning, railway sparks, or stray campfires. Yet a close examination of the Great Fire reveals major cross-border connections. The fire functioned to accelerate the dominance of a new style of low-grade mining by large foreign-owned companies. It burned away overburden, making it easy to see deposits previously hidden by brush. British and American financiers capitalised by buying up devastated small operations. These well-funding companies recovered fastest, and began importing low-grade mining equipment developed in Australia, South Africa, and the United States.

Other big disasters similarly shaped or were shaped by the international context. Companies imported Australian technology, South African doctors, and American labour in the face of harsh winters, geologic uncertainty, industrial disease, and flooding. By placing emphasis on the connectivity of an otherwise remote mining zone, my paper challenges the notion of disconnected rural hinterlands. The relationship between Porcupine and its international context is indicative of an industry that was more aware of its contemporaries and predecessors than the literature allows. The success of transnational human, technological, and ideological exchange in adapting and solving local environmental problems suggests a degree of universality of settler relationships with historic mining landscapes.