A copper mining town of 10m hearty souls was located on the “Tree Line” near the 50th parallel. In plain English- frigid, windy and isolated. From St. Felicien it was 149 miles of rough, gravel road through two Provincial Parks. It was where the road ended.
Ah, Chibougamau was the best!
Almost everyone was employed by Campbell Mines or Copper Rand or their smaller satellite properties. Campbell had a few staff houses at Campbell Point and a bunkhouse a stone’s throw from the mine which was 8 miles from the town of Chibougamau. Copper Rand was about 3 miles from the town. The houses in town were largely owned by the mining companies and rented to their employees at very reasonable rates. The houses were comfortable and non-descript. No “keeping up with the Joneses” in Chibougamau!
One of the most important places in any mining town was the curling rink, but I also remember 2 churches, 2 schools, a Hudson’s Bay store, and 5 hotels. Yes, I said five hotels! 2 clothing stores, and a few restaurants, hairdressers, depanneurs and grocers, a bank and 2 movie theaters. We went to movies every Tuesday night and sometimes on Thursday. There were very few cars, so we walked everywhere and only occasionally took a taxi.
Imagine not having a television in 1959! We listened to a Buffalo, N.Y. radio station late at night and we all had German made stereos and a record collection. With 5 hotels we had a place to meet our friends and dance even when we were underage. The local Rock & Roll band would take turns playing at a different hotel each weekend, so the hotels had a full house at least one night a month and subject to one of the Saturday night rituals- around 1 am, at the sound of breaking glass, we would grab our drink off the table and press up against the nearest wall. Tables & chairs flew, a fight was on! The band kept on playing and the patrons hardly watched. The police would come in, arrest the drunken brawlers, then the bartenders/bouncers would set the tables right, wipe them off and the party would go on. Bail money was $18.50, and I don’t recall any serious crimes.
We worked together, partied together, we even wept together. Miners were superstitious about accidents happening in 3’s. Sometimes their theories played out.
The winter of 1960 was especially hard. The snow banks in front of our two storey house, reached up to the 2nd floor windows. It was icy and temperatures registered at -52F (-46c), the air like frozen mist, it hurt to breathe. The power failed. It was an emergency. We moved into neighbourhood homes that had propane cook stoves and made the best of it. The smell of propane made us feel sick so we went to work and kept our coats and boots on trying to pass the miserable time. The men who worked underground, were happy to be in their “world” with steady generated heat and light.
No matter what our education or experience, we were able to find good paying jobs and eventually get a company house. The mine sites at that time had a Crawley McCracken cafeteria and a commissary. We could eat lunch for .50 cents and all of our purchases, like cigarettes, would be deducted from our pay checks once a month.
Summers were short lived. I think the temperatures may have reached 90F (32c) at least once, but by evening we had to wear a jacket. We didn’t plant flowers and we didn’t sit outdoors day or night. It was just better to keep moving- black flies & mosquito’s loved this land of crystal clear lakes, bogs and sand!
1961 brought the U.S. Air-force to town. They did the installation of a radar base which when completed was manned by Canadian forces. The Air force didn’t like their employees to fraternize with the miners but there was the occasional “leak”. Our best friends were musicians from the air base, who played in the R&R band on the weekends. They were forever having “war games” at the base, simulating a Russian invasion. Guess what? The Russians almost always won!
In 1962 a Chinese restaurant opened. Could life get any better?
Lifelong friendships were forged in those years. Some of us moved on to live in cities and small towns farther south, some followed the mining game to places like Thompson, Wabush, and Esterhazy. We understood each other and came to appreciate the unique lifestyle we had the privilege of growing up in.
PS, Read more on Chibougamau- May 12, June 4, June 17, August 29, 2007