Maggie Wilson Author

Historical Non-Fiction in Northern Ontario

In Defense of Mining

I live in a mining town. Technically, a former mining town. From 1903 to the late 1980’s, silver mining was the name of the game in the Town of Cobalt and Coleman Township. Our house sits on the Nipissing 404 Mine property – one of the largest producers in the area. The view from any window reveals evidence of the former industry. Bare slopes of rocky hills, gaping gouges on the landscape, rusting and ragged ruins. These are all good things, by the way. I need to make that clear. I love this place and the story that contributes to the post-mining state.

However, I have to admit it: I’m torn when it comes to debating the pros and cons of mining. First and foremost, how can we live without it? You are reading this post on an instrument that is the product of mining. The industry has certainly improved in terms of the health and well-being of the “stakeholders,” that is, those who will benefit or suffer directly or indirectly from the extraction of mineral resources. Let’s not forget the fact that before retirement, Reiner worked as a mine geologist. I planned to work as a mine technologist. Our bread was buttered thanks to mining.

Hydraulicking the overburden on Nipissing Hill ca 1906

Historically, mining practices were notorious in terms of the complete disregard for the environment and for the health and welfare of the workers. As was the case, here in Cobalt. For example, the Nipissing 404 Hill was cleared hydraulically. That is, under high pressure, water was sprayed on the hill to wash away the overburden, thereby revealing the silver veins. Tailings laden with heavy metals, including arsenic, were conveniently deposited into the nearest body of water.

As for the welfare of the mine employee, only after considerable pressure did the organization of Cobalt mine owners erect a mine hospital. For the miner only, mind you. Not for the town,  not even for the miner’s family.  The governments of the day issued laws to protect the workers, in theory. Application and enforcement of those laws was another matter entirely.  The majority of the mine companies were owned by absentee landlords, a great many of them from the United States, and all of them interested only in the bottom line.

Click for full text of de re Metallica. translated from the Latin by Herbert Hoover. Yes, THAT Herbert Hoover.

During my mining study, I learned about Georg Buar, the mid-16th century author who wrote On the Nature of Minerals, or de re Metallica.

In the first book of the series, Baur discusses the social impact of mining in the context of culture, economics, the environment, and mining practice. He defends mining, and its value to humanity. As he argues his points we get a hint of what it was like to work and live in that time period.

Centuries later, advancements in science and technology have led to improvements in the mining industry. But as far as the social impact of mining, have things changed all that much?

***   ***   ***



During Agricola’s time, the age of enlightenment was in its infancy. Most people were unaware of scientific development and for these folk, it was the age of the witch hunt. There were very few schools and those that did exist were religious institutions.

People did not trust mining. They believed that the minerals were hidden underground for good reason. It was wicked to dig them up. Minerals and metals caused trouble. Mining, they said, leads to weapons and thievery. Agricola’s response was “we ought not to blame the metals but transfer all blame to avarice.” In other words, “iron-tipped spears don’t kill people, people kill people.”

Agricola’s frustration is evident on page after page as he tries to convince his readers about the importance of mining. “Look around you!” he seems to say, “How could you live without the these items that are made from metal?

Which is a reasonable question to ask. If you examine the engravings from the period, it is clear that the citizens made good use of metal in their lives.

Regarding environmental impact of mining, Agricola reports that people protested the widespread and unchecked damage. Farm fields and forests were destroyed. Rivers and groundwater were contaminated.

Agricola dismissed the concerns. He claimed that miners dig in remote or unproductive areas. Besides, forests will grow back and people can buy the food and timber they need from the proceeds of mining. He did not explain how the profits of mining would be transferred from the mine owner to the country folk.

Perhaps it was Agricola who first suggested the “trickle down” theory.

In his writing, Agricola details the essential duties of a mine owner. Medicine and the care of mine workers is high on the list. While miners understood the requirement for ventilation, and fire and water safety, mine technology was primitive. Relative to today’s standards, little or no consideration was given to the health and safety of the workers.

In the 21st century, I suppose somewhere on the planet we could find people with superstitious beliefs similar to those who opposed mining in Agricola’s day. For the most part, we are more educated and the gods of our worship are somewhat more benevolent.

To replace those iron-tipped spears, we have bigger, longer-range, and deadlier weapons to deal with the same issues of greed and avarice. Perhaps we haven’t moved away from fear and irrational thought as much as we like to think.

You have likely heard the contemporary phrase used in defense of mining: “If it can’t be grown, it has to be mined.” Resistance to mining is as prevalent today as it was in Agricola’s time. Not because people are afraid of what comes out of the ground, but how it is removed. Today some consider mining a necessary evil and many protests focus on the environmental damage caused by mining.

Working conditions are much improved and machines do the work. As well, governing bodies oversee and regulate mining and employment practice more effectively. All which provide a safer work environment. However, the same risks exist now as then – mine collapse, gas explosions, and careless accidents.

At the end of Book One, Agricola discusses fraud and deceit in mining. “It is complained that some sellers and buyers of the shares in mines are fraudulent. I concede it. But can they deceive anyone except a stupid, careless man, unskilled in mining matters?”

While I agree that investing in the stock market and especially in mines requires due diligence beforehand, I hardly think it fair to blame the victim of a fraud. Many of the people who were deceived by the 1997 Bre-Ex scam were intelligent and understood mining well enough. However, Agricola illustrates yet another mining related issue that prevails today, the same as it did almost 500 years ago.

Have things changed?

Not so much. Improvements in technology, and health and safety, have led to better working conditions for the workers. However, as for the perception of mining, the social issues that were present in Agricola’s day are still present, only on a larger scale.

At the end of Book One, Agricola emphatically states that mining is an honourable profession, but not without its undesirable element, the people who lie, cheat, and steal. However, he notes that it is a human element that is found across all professions.

And, I would suggest, across all time.

Categories: Mining Heritage

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30 replies

  1. Ah, and unfortunately, even mineral dealers – selling the artful spoils of mining – can be guilty of “It is complained that some sellers and buyers of the shares in mines are fraudulent. I concede it. But can they deceive anyone except a stupid, careless man, unskilled in mining matters?” 90% of the mineral dealers I know are incredibly honest and passionate. Unfortunately, the 10% are the sellers of many of the highest valued specimens, and I remain amazed at the deceit – changing localities, etc. Baur’s words really reflect all society, not just miners. Nice blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a thoughtful overview of the industry and its history. I admit, I’m one of those people who use products and eat animals whose origins I’d rather not think about. I fear that we have done great damage to our earth (not to mention its inhabitants) that we will probably not recover from.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great read on the issues of mining. I think mining needed some controls to protect how the land and workers were treated, but with all things regulatory, people tend to go overboard with restrictions.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Good piece on it all, Maggie. If I take a God’s eye view of it, I presume it was okay for us to someday mine “whatever couldn’t be grown.” However, it should’ve gone without saying that we mustn’t overmine, and especially not at the cost of human beings’ welfare in any way, not at the cost of all common good, and of course, not at the cost of the earth, air, water, etc. Otherwise, I’ll take any marcasite anyone wants to get rid of 😉 though I have no idea where the poor-girl’s diamond comes from!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Exactly! Stewardship and compassion were generally overlooked in mining practice. It’s getting better, I will give the industry that.

      Wait. You said marcasite! You know marcasite? Did I know that you know this?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I have marcasite jewelry — I just love it, and no, I had not mentioned it until today. Why, whatcha got?? lol


        • I learned something – I did not realize that marcasite was used in jewellery! Here’s a sample of crystals of marcasite that we collected.

          Liked by 1 person

          • That’s a really pretty sample! It’s amazing to me how anyone ever realized that rocks and minerals, crystals and quartzes and such could be made into permanently shiny things! (That’s as baffling as how anyone might’ve known — what could’ve suggested it? — that cyrstalized whale barf or ambergris would make a great perfume additive!) A confession: We’re more a mill/fishing area than mining in this part of the Northeast, but we have shops, museum sections, mall stores and county fair and festival tents that host beautiful rocks and minerals for purchase even affordably enough for kids, and I’d always thought the near-epitome of wealth was to buy a $30 (now $75!) slab of pink or blue quartz for display on the mantel. 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

  5. I grew up in coal and steel country. Coal mining had left the creek behind our house an sulfur laden mess, but so many had made their living in those mines that no one complained. Steel mills blackened our skies, fouled out rivers and the waste filled our environment but there are still people who talk about “the good old days” including the person sitting in the Oval office. Mining is essential. Figuring out better ways to do it should be as well.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. An interesting and thought-provoking post. But you start out by saying something that really puzzles me: “Bare slopes of rocky hills, gaping gouges on the landscape, rusting and ragged ruins. These are all good things, by the way. I need to make that clear. I love this place and the story that contributes to the post-mining state.” I understand loving a place, warts and all. But … really? You see the aftermath of the destruction as good in itself??? HOW?

    Liked by 1 person

    • “HOW?” An understandable and fair question. And I thank you. 🙂

      I’ll start my answer by repeating what I tell everyone about my move up here. When my husband first suggested that we retire here, I resisted long and loud about the looks and feel of the place. Then, to my eye, the place was tired, worn, mean, and ugly. Not to mention I’d be beyond the range of conveniently visiting the people “back home.”

      But once we landed here and I’ve become acquainted with the people, the landscape, and the history of the place… I see those scars as beauty marks. To me, they represent the gargantuan energies devoted by men and women who toiled 7 days a week in severe weather and working conditions to survive. Because, you see, Cobalt should be a ghost town by now. It has been hanging on by a finger-hold for decades. I admire that determination and grit.

      Right now, along the gravel roadways, delicate lady-slipper orchids are in bloom. A fragile, bright beauty that defies the harsh surroundings. That is Cobalt to me.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. One of the great social triumphs of our age was providing women with the opportunity to work in any field they desire – and this is as it should be. But let us not forget that the great triumph of 19th century social reform was to get (most) women (and children) out of mines and heavy industry.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hmm. Very thought provoking. Which fits with question I asked yesterday after finding an image of the mine workers at a Cobalt mine – several were women. Were they employees or family members? As far as I know, during the initial silver rush here in Cobalt, women worked in the home, school, hospital – as well as the bordellos. I’m going to have to look into this!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. What a fascinating look into the mining industry!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Interesting, bit controversial.
    It reminds me of conversations I’ve had with assorted people from various areas, which I always find enlightening. I like a broader view, as you’ve presented here.
    I suppose I’m pro-mining overall, as I do enjoy metal implements, the comfort of my electricity, and pretty sparkly things. I’m not particularly distanced from miners, strip mines, people who work at the power plant, and the coal train runs local. All that does put dinners on tables, mmhm. Of course, I’m not a fan of the ruin of mountains, the endangerment of human health through the conditions of mining or through water pollution…
    But it’s one of those things where in order to criticize or appreciate, one must acknowledge the good and the bad fully.
    Part of my family hails from a tiny mine called Bonnie Blue, Virginia — a true coal town, where the mine owned everything, and people lived inside the mine’s perimeter in homes they rented from the mine, shopped in stores owned by the mine, ate in the mine’s diner, drank in the mine’s tavern — sorta all-inclusive. It seems to me the apex of greed.
    The mine is a ghost town now, and it’s one of what surely must be hundreds, thousands? of those across North America. The people of Bonnie Blue, they moved to another mine or they uprooted and relocated, as my kin did, to far away places to learn new skills. The drawback from coal started a long time ago, and I don’t understand the hold, the appeal, the downright refusal to adapt. This has happened over and over since the industrial revolution.
    For instance, only sixty years ago, a large portion of Indianapolis’s working population worked on the railroad as they had for about 100 years.
    As to other mines, I have no more knowledge than what you’ve provided here.
    I think where you live is beautiful, even the more bittersweet aspects. Histories are important, because they teach us.
    I enjoyed this post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, indeed a controversial subject. As you point out, many are familiar with parts of the story, not the entire account.

      When you delve into the history of ghost towns, or once thriving communities such as Cobalt and Bonnie Blue, you can fill in some of the missing pieces.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I cannot support the damage mining, or any other industry that pollutes, has done to the environment or any other business that destroys the landscape and pollutes the air and water. I am sure there have to be methods that can extract metals and not destroy everything. Unfortunately, we can not rely on human beings to be good stewards and self regulating because as you say the bottom line and greed get in the way. Many businesses/people will not do the right thing out of the goodness of their hearts.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. The aftereffects of mining do need to be seen…and often…as a reminder to our species that we need to care for the earth, instead of exploit it.

    If we learn to live in harmony with this planet, we’ll survive as a species. If we don’t…then Mother Earth will indeed shrug us off and rebuild.

    Will humans learn to live above greed? Our history suggests not…but I remain hopeful.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Would you be OK if I cross-posted this article to I’ll be sure to give you complete credit as the author. There is no fee; I’m simply trying to add mbore content diversity for our community and I liked what you wrote. If “OK” please let me know via email.


    Liked by 1 person

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