|An underground visit to DYNAMIC EARTH
85 million years ago a giant meteor collided with earth. It hit where the Canadian town of Sudbury now stands. The meteor was 10 kilometers across and at impact it was going 8 times the speed of sound. It drilled a 2 kilometer hole through the earth’s crust, bringing magma to the surface and creating one of the richest mineral deposits in North America. Some years later the residents of Sudbury found this deposit and started mining it. Today it is one of the richest sources of nickel in the world.
Sudbury is sometimes called Nickel City. Mining in Sudbury goes back more than a century. Early prospectors were after copper which is one of the metals found here. Investors bought up the land in hopes of making a killing, but the copper was alloyed with nickel and nobody knew how to separate the two. A few smart entrepreneurs held on to their investment, and soon they found a market selling nickel to the United States Navy for warship armor. It wasn’t long before they figured out how to separate the two metals and the mines were turning a profit.
After the war demand for nickel plummeted - until somebody figured out that you could alloy nickel with iron and make a steel that would not corrode. Stainless steel brought back the demand for nickel but the mining economy was not without it’s problems. Early methods of processing ore nearly wrecked the town. Metal was smelted out of the ore by a process known as ‘roasting’. Huge pits were filled with firewood, two feet of crushed ore was spread on top of it, the wood was ignited and for two or three months the pit would smoke and smolder and choke the town and the surrounding countryside.
Sulphur in the ore ignited from the heat of the fire. The smoke it created was acid. Grass died off on Sudbury lawns, trees died and lakes became so acidic that no fish could live. By 1970 Sudbury was an urban wasteland - compared in the press to a ‘moonscape’. At this point several things changed. The first was construction of the ‘Superstack’ one of the tallest smokestacks in the world. This filtered out as much sulphur dioxide from the smelting smoke as possible, and carried the rest high enough to be spread and thinned out by the prevailing winds.
Open pit ‘roasting’ was ended and the community turned out to fertilize and start replanting the denuded hills. Today the town is green and beautiful again. Slag piles still dominate the landscape around the mine and smelters, but the air is clean and the sky is clear. Demand for nickel fell off for a while due to international competition, and the companies have had some recent labor problems, but the mines operate today and the Sudbury economy seems good.
A side benefit of mining is a growing tourist industry. People come to visit Dynamic Earth, a community and company sponsored center where the mining story is told through creative exhibits and an hour long tour of an underground mine. The tour covers the history of mining from the 19th century to modern times. There are shows and movies about how ore is processed and a good show, Nickel City Stories, about the town of Sudbury.
Mining operations produce copper as well as nickel, and also lesser quantities of cobalt, gold, platinum and palladium. The center has a gold panning ‘creek’ where you have a chance of actually finding flecks of gold in the sand. The flecks are valued at about 18 cents and you can keep whatever you find. You soon discover that gold panning is really hard work.
Back outside we took a last look at the BIG NICKEL, a giant replica of a Canadian nickel that towers over the hilltop and can be seen from across the valley. It is dated 1751—1951 and it commemorates the 200th anniversary of the discovery of the element nickel. Nickel is number 28 on the periodic table, and it’s an elegant metal with many uses. Too elegant to be wasted on the coin that bears it’s name. For that reason less than 2% of a nickel is really nickel.
In 24 hours Sudbury has gone from a meaningless dot on the map, to a place we will always remember. It joins a lot of other dots we’d never heard of four years ago, dots all over the United States and Canada with names that are now familiar. Every name brings back memories, and sometimes the ones we’d never heard of bring back the richest memories.
We got on the road and drove 90 miles toward Sault Ste Marie, stopping in the little town of Spragge for the night. Ontario is rewarding us every day, and reminding us why we came here in the first place.