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June 13, 2003

Mica Mining in Mattawa

Purdy family founders of mine

There has never been much successful mining in the area around North Bay with the exception of the area north of Eau Claire on the north side of the Mattawa River in Mattawa Township. North Bay is, however, one of Canada's leading locations for mining equipment and mining related activity. The Mattawa Township mining area is usually referred to as the Purdy Mine after the founders of mines, who sold their interest and moved on leaving later reincarnations to others. Bill Steer in his book North Woods (1990) in a chapter on mining states that the mine was "the most significant of all the mineral occurances in the North Bay area": A brief history of the mine may be of interest.

The Purdy mica mine in Mattawa Township in the 1940's (Northern Development and mines photo)

Andrew Ryan, lumberman William Mackey's manager at Eau Claire had nine children including Florence, the youngest. Florence married George Purdy and they had three children. Florence became a well-known artist and son Justin became interested in mining. Mica was in demand in those days and there were dozens of mines and many back 40 operations digging to make some cash. George Purdy according to the Calvin Remembers had tried to mine in Calvin Township, as had several others. George Purdy had noticed some Spar about 4 miles north of Eau Claire in SW Mattawa Township near Grassy Lake (now Purdy Lake). His son Justin who had a miners license became interested in developing it.

In the early 1940's Justin Purdy and his partner Huntley McDonald began a small operation and explored further finding other excellent outcroppings among the granite terrain. Mica comes from geological formations millions of years old. It is found in thin flexible sheets packed together in what are often called books. It comes in different colours and qualities and has a wide variety of uses. It is extremely heat resistant and is used as an insulation especially in war equipment. It is well known as the cover in the windows in wood stoves. It is now used in plastics and has been used on roofing and as a filler in paint, rubber goods and wallpaper. It is currently used as the sparkle in some cosmetics. The Mattawan mica was primarily white "muscovite" classification.

Justin Purdy took a few loads to dealers and began to make some money. In 1941 he died in a truck crash and the property went back to his father who soon sold it to larger concerns and production accelerated. Bill Steer notes that in the 2 active production intervals 1941-1945 and 1949-53 three million pounds of mica were mined at a value of $1,577,000.

The Purdy mica mine in Mattawa Township in the 1940's (Northern Development and mines photo)

During peak periods upwards of 50 men were employed at the mine and worked 6 days a week. Dozens of women worked in the sorting plant in Mattawa and later in a second plant in North Bay. The mica was taken from the mine to the CPR station in Eau Claire for shipping. The mine had its own bunk house, dining room, office, etc.

Several pieces of mica were of museum quality and brought high prices. Mattawa mica is on display in New York, the royal Ontario Museum and the Mattawa Museum. John Laframboise, a miner who worked at the mattawan site is featured as a part of the display. He identified the people in the photo of the mine shown here.

Bill Steer interviewed mine manager Jim Norrie who confirmed that the mine was the largest in North America. Bill also interviewed miner George Blanchette who recalled working overtime at Christmas in 1949 to remove one of the museum quality pieces for the company. George talked about the cramped conditions in the pits and shafts and the extensive ladder system into dark places lit only by the headlamps on their head. A narrow guage railway with hopper cars was built to haul the mica to the transportation depot in Eau Claire.

Map of depot at Purdy Mine in Mattawa Township

I had the pleasure of meeting Alice Savage, the wife of the Leo savage who was the mine foreman for 4 years in the 1949-53 era. She remembered James Kemney the geologist owner who played an important part of the operation. In our conversation sh recalled an incident when one new worker froze in fear on the ladder into the mine shaft on his first trip down and had to be talked back into daylight. Alice showed me the beautiful white quality fireplace in her livingroom made from rock rejected at the mine.

I became interested in the Mattawa operation while researching a mica mine at Brent and found there was a McDonald connection there, possibly the same Mcdonald from the Mattawa operation. If anyone has any information on the Brent operation I would appreciate hearing from you. The mine was near the Brent Road and near the observation deck for the Brent Crater.

Bill Steer, now Education Director at the Canadian Ecology Centre at Samuel de Champlain Provincial Park near the mica mines has taken groups there with permission of the current owners.

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