On August 7, 2012, the Ontario Heritage Trust and the City of Timmins unveiled a provincial plaque at Hollinger Park in Timmins, Ontario, to commemorate Timmins.

The plaque reads as follows:


    Ojibway and Cree communities were among the early inhabitants of the region. They were drawn to the area’s abundant natural resources, and participated in vast trading networks with other First Nations. Europeans arrived in the late 1600s and in the centuries that followed, local French, English and First Nations communities were largely reliant on the fur trade. In the early 1900s, the Ontario government promoted further settlement in the region, and infrastructure – such as the Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Railway – made the area more accessible. In 1909, a substantial gold discovery in the region initiated a gold rush and led to the creation of mines, including Hollinger, Dome and McIntyre. A fire destroyed the mining settlement Porcupine Camp in 1911 and soon after Timmins developed as a “company town” of Noah Timmins’s Hollinger Mines. Settlers from diverse backgrounds – including French-Canadian, Finnish, Ukrainian, Italian and Chinese – were drawn to Timmins, making it a vibrant community and an important cultural and economic centre for the region.

Historical background

The setting

Developments that occurred several billion years ago, during the earth’s earliest history, were integral to the formation of the community that would eventually become Timmins, Ontario. The Canadian Shield that defines much of northern Ontario was formed during this period, and contains some of the planet’s oldest rock.

The earth’s nascent phase was marked by enormous geological upheaval. Magma rose from the earth’s interior to feed volcanic flows beneath vast oceans on what is now the northern part of the Canadian Shield; geologists have termed these volcanic formations greenstone belts. Within these long and narrow swaths were major faults that formed wrench basins, which contained unusual assemblages of rocks. The boundaries of these basins have been found to contain most of the gold that has been discovered on the Canadian Shield.1

During the next few billion years, successive waves of change produced the physiographical version of Timmins that we recognize today. The end of the last ice age (roughly 10,000 years ago) left the area with myriad waterways – everything from major rivers to kettle lakes. This permitted the vegetation that resembles Timmins’ contemporary flora to begin setting down roots.2

The pre-contact and pre-industrial periods

It is estimated that humans came to the region about 4,000 years ago. Like those who followed, these original inhabitants, known as the Shield Archaic culture, survived by drawing from the area’s natural resources. Beginning roughly several millennia ago, the local Aboriginal population began adapting and trading for technology that improved their ability to fish, hunt and gather, and also to express themselves through artwork. The First Nations in this area were given the general name Cree and the cultural name Algonkian. Their legacy can be found in many of the names given to the district’s geographic features, including the Mattagami River that flows through Timmins.3

The first Europeans began arriving in the region in the late 1600s, and for more than two centuries, the Aboriginals and Euro-Canadians coexisted through periods of calm and conflict. Control over the area around Timmins was coveted by the French, British and Cree in order to harvest its bountiful beaver furs and occupy territory that was strategic in terms of this trade. Each European power periodically raided its rival’s local settlements until the British Conquest of 1760. Thereafter, competing British commercial interests battled to dominate the region’s fur trade, erecting various posts throughout the area to support their campaigns. For instance, The Hudson’s Bay Company established a base at Frederick House Lake (northeast of Timmins) in 1785. The local Cree were active agents in the fur trade, which brought both advantages and disadvantages to their communities.4

The advent of industry

By the late-19th century, the provincial government had become interested in the economic potential of “new” or northern Ontario. The government organized surveying parties that travelled through northern Ontario, identifying natural resources and mapping the region. Hoping primarily to encourage agricultural settlement, the government promoted the area both domestically and abroad, and began investing in infrastructure, such as the building of the Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Railway (TNOR) in 1902. During construction of the TNOR, valuable minerals were discovered about 62 kilometres (100 miles) north of Lake Nipissing at a site that would be named Cobalt after the rock that was common in the area. The discovery would turn out to be one of the richest silver strikes the world had ever seen, and it drew international interest and thousands of prospectors to the area. This boon was crucial to dispelling the prevailing notion that mining in northern Ontario was merely a temporary enterprise and generated capital that could support further exploration in the region.5

A few of those who had struck it rich at Cobalt – and others who had not – were eager to investigate first-hand government reports of gold-bearing rock 62 kilometres (100 miles) to the north in the Porcupine region (the name reputedly derived from the shape of one of the lakes found amid the many mining claims that were about to be staked). The first gold-producing mine opened in 1906 on Golden Island in Night Hawk Lake, but it closed within a few years. More substantial finds just north of Porcupine Lake in 1909, however, are credited with having started the area’s gold rush. Prospector Jack Wilson laid claim to large gold veins found southwest of Porcupine Lake in masses of quartz that resembled domes; this discovery would become the foundation for the Dome Mines. Benny Hollinger and Alex Gillies, backed by funds generated in Cobalt’s silver boom, staked claims in the Porcupine area, but they soon sold them to another group of investors, which included the Timmins brothers (Noah and Henry) and M.J. O’Brien. Noah and his nephew – mining engineer Alphonse Pare – were particularly keen about the potential of developing the claims and they vigorously pushed the Hollinger Mine project ahead. It was allegedly Pare who nailed a board, on which he had scratched his uncle’s surname, to a tree in the environs of their operations, thereby marking the first time the community was called Timmins. Finally, Sandy McIntyre and Hans Buttner staked claims that eventually ended up in the hands of iconic Toronto financiers Henry Pellatt and J.P. Bickell. While McIntyre apparently squandered his proceeds from this sale, his importance would be eternally preserved in the name given to the enterprise. A seemingly endless string of other smaller mines were strong producers and important employers in the area, but Dome, Hollinger and McIntyre would dominate the region and become the continent’s largest gold producers.6

The extraordinary activity in the Porcupine camp compelled the provincial government to improve the area’s accessibility. In order to do so, the government built a spur to South Porcupine from the TNOR’s trunk line by 1911 and later provided prison labour for the construction of road access into the camp. A post office opened and a telephone line was strung into the camp. Two Roman Catholic priests, an Anglican minister and two Methodist theological students arrived to tend to the community’s spiritual needs. Carpenters, teamsters, general labourers and skilled miners flocked to the Porcupine camp – many of them Americans with experience mining in Cobalt. Local 145 of the Western Federation of Miners was formed to protect the interests of workers and the Porcupine Board of Trade was formed in March 1910. When the first passenger rail car steamed into town on July 1, 1911, it seemed to be another promising sign for this already bustling community.7

Many local Cree responded to the new economic opportunities emerging in the region in the early part of the 20th century. They often worked as guides, seasonal workers on railway maintenance crews or in labour camps. They also played an instrumental role in providing information about minerals and other resources in the region.

Razed, reborn and resilient

As Noah Timmins supervised the development of the Hollinger Mine, he realized that it would soon be necessary to provide his workers with a place to live that was closer to the mine than the settlements around Porcupine Lake. Furthermore, exceedingly dry conditions over the winter of 1910-11 and the following spring had caused several serious blazes by mid-1911, one of which had destroyed the Hollinger Mine. The first few weeks of summer saw record hot temperatures, and the crisis culminated on July 11 when gale-force winds brought together several small fires into a blaze that caused massive destruction to the community. The fires killed 73 inhabitants, destroyed 11 mines, demolished the town of Porcupine and wiped out over 200,000 hectares (nearly 500,000 acres) of the surrounding forest.8

From the ashes, many would see a silver – in fact, a literal gold – lining and a bright future for the community, despite the challenges posed by the local environment. The fire had destroyed the trees and organic layer of debris that had covered the rock that contained the precious mineral they sought. In the fire’s wake, the district’s three large mining firms quickly discovered new ore bodies. Additionally, the original settlements along Porcupine Lake had been established in random fashion and their location had forced workers at the district’s most dynamic mine, Hollinger, to trek a great distance to work each day. After the fire scorched many of the original dwellings around the lake, Noah Timmins proceeded to lay out a planned townsite atop a well-drained ridge just to the northwest of his mine. The Timmins Townsite Company was incorporated to manage the business. A slight rise, which became known as The Hill, was reserved for salaried managers and professionals. To the west of The Hill, a grid of a half-dozen streets was laid out with numbered avenues running east-west and streets named after coniferous trees running north-south.

While some lots were offered for sale by public auction to commercial and individual owners, the Timmins Townsite Company reserved ownership of a portion of the land. Several purchasers were also advanced personal loans by Noah Timmins as start-up capital. The new town rose rapidly. Construction of three large bunk houses was commissioned by Hollinger Mines to provide accommodation for single workers. A row of houses for married employees was also built. Noah Timmins commissioned the construction of a hospital and arranged for the development of electrical and water supplies capable of serving a population of 10,000.

The construction of churches was also an early priority in Timmins. The construction of a small frame church was commissioned by the manager of the mine in proximity to the residences of senior staff. It was turned over to the Anglican congregation and became St. Matthew’s Anglican Church. Noah Timmins provided the funds for the erection of a Roman Catholic Church, dedicated to St. Antoine-de-Padoue, and, in 1915, Hollinger donated two townsite lots to the Presbyterian congregation for construction of their own church. In the years that followed, Hollinger continued to build employee housing and other community facilities including a hockey rink, baseball diamond, golf course, employee’s library and recreation hall.

The inhabitants of Timmins

During this period of growth and development in northeastern Ontario, the provincial government actively encouraged the immigration of Germans, Scandinavians and southern Ontarians to the region. Forestry, mining and railway construction attracted immigrants to the region from varied locations, including Finland, Italy, Ukraine, China, the Balkans and Quebec. While many English- and French-speaking Canadians and Finns brought their families with them to settle in the region, many other immigrants were single men who came for work; they had no intention of settling permanently in the region.

By the 1920s, the Italian population in Timmins was growing steadily, settling predominantly in the district called Moneta, south of the business section. French-speaking Canadians constituted one-third of the population of Timmins by 1921. Although French-speaking Canadians were mainly employed as labourers or skilled craftsmen, they also formed a part of Timmins’ small middle class as teachers, businessmen, office workers and lawyers. Osias Sauvé, a lawyer originally from Ottawa, founded a newspaper that served the French-speaking community called Le Nord Ontarien. By 1921, people of Finnish origin comprised 6.2 per cent of the population of Timmins, and 3.8 per cent of the population was Ukrainian. A number of Finns were engaged in mining and ran boarding houses and hotels. Like many of the Italian immigrants to the region, newcomers from Ukraine often came as part of railway work gangs and general construction crews. They also often found work in the mines.

A rich variety of inhabitants helped this community overcome its early adversity as well as its later challenges. The character of Timmins has always been determined by its diverse and determined inhabitants and by its natural landscape and resources. Nature would deliver both boons and banes over the years, but the inhabitants of Timmins have always persevered through bad times and have embraced the good.

The Ontario Heritage Trust gratefully acknowledges the research of Mark Kuhlberg in preparing this paper.

© Ontario Heritage Trust, 2012

1 P.C. Thurston, Geology of Ontario (Toronto: Ontario Ministry of Northern Development and Mines, 1992), pps. 4-5, 77 and 405-428; Rock ONtario, Ontario GEOservices Centre and Ministry of Northern Development and Mines (Toronto: Queen’s Printer for Ontario, 1994), Chs. 4-10; Interview with Dr. Harold Gibson, Geology Department, Laurentian University.

2 Ken Armson, Ontario Forests: A Historical Perspective (Toronto: Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 2001), 33-38 and Ch. IV.

3 Kerry M. Abel, Changing Places: History, Community and Identity in Northeastern Ontario (Kingston/Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006), Ch. 2.

4 Although the fur trade brought goods and resources to Cree communities, it also brought exposure to foreign pathogens against which the Cree had no immunity, and which led to the extinction of many local fur-bearing species.

5 A. Tucker, Steam into Wilderness: Ontario Northland Railway, 1902-1962 (Toronto: Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 1978); R. Surtees, The Northern Connection: Ontario Northland since 1902 (Toronto: Ontario Northland and Captus Press Inc., 1992), Chs. 1-2; I.M. Drummond, Progress Without Planning: The Economic History of Ontario from Confederation to the Second World War (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987), 58-60.

6 Barnes, Chs. 3-4; K. Bachmann, Porcupine Goldfields, 1909-1919 (St. Catharines, ON: Looking Back Press, 2003), Chs. 1-2.

7 Bachmann, Ch. 4; Tucker, Ch. 6; The Toronto Globe, 20 August 1910.

8 R.S. Lambert and P. Pross, Renewing Nature’s Wealth (Toronto: Department of Lands and Forests, 1967), 205-211; Bachmann, Ch. 4.