Lake Superior is fabulously rich in silver. Unfortunately, mining this precious metal is a nightmare. The Silver Island Mine, known as the world’s richest silver mine, sits beneath the icy waters of Lake Superior.
Hired workers often overlooked this critical detail. Most of the miners, upon arrival, agreed to do this work. Others left incessantly, thinking that such a trip to the bowels of the earth, under billions of litres of water, was too dangerous, and they were right.
Most of the silver is found under the surface of Lake Superior. Anyone who has ever lived on the shores of this great lake knows that it is entirely unpredictable and hazardous. It can be completely calm instantly, and in a few minutes, it turns into a raging sea.
Under such conditions, mining the precious metal at a depth of almost four hundred meters was a challenging task. In addition, for the mine to work, this small island had to be protected. It was necessary to constantly work pumps for pumping out water constantly accumulating at the bottom of the mine.
The Montreal mining company, which initially owned the mine, found this task impractical. In 1870, management decided to sell it to Alexander Sibley, president of Silver Islet Mining. The Montreal company hardly knew that they had just lost the chance to operate one of the most successful silver mines in the world.
In search of the best solution to protect the mine from the violent storms of Lake Superior, it was essential to consider all options. One engineer suggested building a nine-meter wall around the island. In 1870 it would have cost a whopping two million dollars, and today it is nearly thirty-seven million dollars.
Another engineer suggested building a complex system of smaller walls and pumps that would cost as little as $1 million. However, both of these options were rejected by the company due to their unexpected high cost. Among other things, none of them could guarantee that the island would be safe.
Deciding on such a complex issue has become an overwhelming task for the Silver Islet Mining Company. Only after William Frue became the lead engineer did the plan begin to take on a sharper outline. Frue’s idea was to build a baffle to protect the island and use a pump to keep water out of the mine.
The project cost only about fifty thousand dollars and required the labour of only 34 workers. They were needed to build everything and run the mine. Such a plan sounded absurd to anyone new to the mining industry! To mine silver under the waters of the lake with such a budget and the number of workers ?!
William Frue and his men worked 18 hours a day. They tirelessly erected breakwaters, poured foundations, and erected lintels around the silver vein. It cost Sibley only fifty thousand dollars and was done by 34 workers. They were able to build and commission a mine.
Then the mining company brought in vast quantities of rubble. With its help, it was possible to expand the Silver Isle more than ten times compared to its original size. Then a tiny mining town was built there. There were hundreds of houses, two churches, a salon, and even a prison at its peak.
Not for weaklings
Imagine only that vast distance, four hundred meters, going straight into the depths of the Upper Lake. The miners had to descend to such a depth every day.
Even today, a mine of this depth is considered to be quite large. Developing it requires careful planning and advanced technology to ensure the safety of miners. Frue was incredibly resourceful in this regard. Instead of loading the barrel with wooden supports, the engineer left a thick silver vein that ran throughout the shaft. Thus, the load was removed from the top. It was a brilliant move because they ultimately chose this vein of silver entirely. The profit was colossal!
Struggle with the elements
Situated on a 90 square meter island, Silver Islet Mining Company employees fought a relentless battle against Lake Superior. The raging elements at any moment threatened to wipe out everything that was built with such difficulty.
The shaft was so deep that, in the end, the wooden supports used could not support the weight of the overhanging rock mass. In October 1870, waves from Lake Superior destroyed half of the original breakwater. The miners restored it. But it continued to be eroded. By Christmas 1870, more than 3,000 tons of stone had been washed away.
The importance of communication
Another additional obstacle for the mining company was the lack of communication with Silver Island. Today, sending a message is a matter of seconds, which does not require much thought and effort. At the same time, regular mail was the only way of communication for miners and their families. Only in this way could they let their relatives know that they were still alive.
No roads were leading to the community on the shore. It was only possible to get there by boat or dog sledging (when the lake froze). As a result, mail delivery was very irregular and inconvenient. On the other hand, Frue needed to keep in touch with Alexander Sibley to manage the mine successfully. There were enormous difficulties with this. This ultimately led to a critical lack of communication between Frue and Sibley.
Working in the mine was extremely dangerous, and all of it was deep under the waters of the Upper Lake. Only a fragile wall of wood and stone separated the miners from certain death. Over time, water began to flow into the trunk. The pumps began to work around the clock, pumping out water.
In 1873, the mine, which had grown in different directions, no longer gave the great profit that it had before. The wealthiest deposits have already been cut down. In the end, after thirteen years of mining silver from the icy waters of Lake Superior, the mine came to an end. A consignment of coal was not delivered to Silver Island on time to keep the water pumps running. The mine was flooded, and the supports could not stand it and collapse.
The lake safely stores its wealth
This mine was once one of the richest silver mines in the world. The silver nuggets mined there were so pure that they did not need to be melted down. Over the years, silver has been mined here for about $3.25 million.
Many believe that the Silver Isle still holds unlimited wealth. Only no one dares to fight the Upper Lake again.
Even though the mine has been closed for over 100 years, the coastal community on Silver Island has survived. Some of the mining houses are still standing. Some of these historic buildings have been renovated, and summer camps are located on the shore, in the shadow of a sleeping giant that lies protecting a flooded mine. The trails and campsites scattered around the island are now filled with noisy talk and laughter. It echoes the days when life raged in the mining town.