“Three years ago, Wabush was bush: a rough, scraggly, nearly lifeless wilderness. The hills in summer echoed only with the whir of the black fly. The only way for a man foolish enough to want to go there was to do so by seaplane. The bush, like so many of the parts of Canada that have yet to be opened, had to be broken and tamed, and the men who broke it — the last frontiersmen — are a breed apart.” Macleans Magazine
In November, 1963, Peter Gzowski, the young managing editor of Macleans, wrote an article for his magazine entitled “The New Soft Life on the Last Frontier.”
The journalist – now legendary – had worked ‘like a serf’ as a student on the Labrador railway that was needed before they could start work at the iron ore mines at the Quebec/Labrador border.
Apparently, he was amazed at the advances made in just a few years in the embryonic mining town of Wabush, 1248 kilometers from Montreal.
A rough, scraggly nearly lifeless wilderness is how Gzowski described Wabush back in 1960, and, yes, that is certainly how I remember it – if only from photographs we took on our little Brownie camera.
My family moved to Wabush in the spring of 1960 when the only family quarters there were a log cabin owned by the American Foreman and, just up the hill, a few well-equipped house trailers for the families of other supervisors.
The other mostly young unmarried male workers lived in crude canvas tents. They included an athletic young prospector who would go on to win Canada’s only gold medal – in the four man bobsled – at the 1964 Innsbruck Olympics.
Our long, green trailer was state-of-the-art with its own washer-dryer, but it was still a trailer and during the short black-fly infested summers of 1960 and 61 all five of us packed into it. I think my parents slept in a Murphy bed that made room for the kitchenette table when not in use. My twin brother, Phil, and I slept in bunk beds.
I don’t remember feeling crowded but my father, Peter Nixon, certainly did. He spent most of his time at work or outside fly-fishing in summer and taking me and my twin brother for walks ‘across the lake’ in winter.
It helped that outside the summer months my older brother, Mark, attended prep school in England. He missed out on the Wabush winters where the annual snowfall is twice that of Montreal, the days one hour shorter, and the average daily temperature what a Montrealer would consider part of a mercifully short-term deep freeze.
I do remember visiting the Foreman’s log cabin as a friend of his daughter who was a few years older and a full head taller. (Well, I remember the memory of the memory of the memory.)
She confidently made a pie, plopping peaches out of a can onto a pre-prepared pastry impressing me no end. Apparently, we played together a lot because I am in a few of the family pictures she still has in a box at her home in the U.S.
I may remember the Foreman’s daughter, but she doesn’t remember me. She attended school in Sept Iles and had other older, more intriguing friends to play with.
There were 21 children living in Wabush in summer. The many boys contented themselves with mischief, such as chasing behind the D D T truck! I mostly pushed my beige doll carriage around the small trailer camp, sometimes talking to the lonely mothers there. One of these women made me a beautiful doll’s quilt, the highlight of my entire Wabush adventure!
Generally, I lived a rather feral life with no TV and no colourful picture books to keep me amused.
My most vivid memories are not of other children but of animals: a frightened snarling fox in a cage that men were poking with a stick; a dead baby bear shot while trying to get at someone’s larder; oh, and the owl that flew down and lit upon Mark’s shoulder.
A newsclipping from 1960: “Wabush presently has crude wooden buildings, tent bunkhouses and a few housetrailers and about 125 workmen. But it boasts a fine 4,600 foot airstrip, and a daily schedule air service to Sept Isles, plus a twice weekly shuttle service to Shefferville operated by Quebecair. The Foreman says it will take five years to build a town site, a grinding and concentrating plant and a loading facility.”
We arrived at Wabush in April or May of 1960, taking a very noisy and cold DC 3? plane, I remember, with our young dog, Spotty, the coonhound wailing in a cage at the back of the plane.
A brilliant 1990 history of Wabush using first-person testimony, written by Dana Hines and available at their Town Hall has a telling quote:
“Some of these early residents recall stepping off the plane or train and sinking up to their knees in mud. This was to be their first taste of what initially appears to be a very barren place indeed, for Wabush at that time was nothing but wilderness. “(Page 12)
So, I am not imagining things: my family arrived in the Labrador bush at the very beginning. My father’s job was to oversee the money being used to create this model family mining community, for two years on-site (1960-61) and for another four years (1961-1965) out of the Canadian offices of the Wabush Mines Company on Dominion Square in Montreal.
In late 1961, he moved my Mom, my twin brother and me back to the big city, into a relatively spacious upper duplex apartment in Snowdon. I started the first grade, an over-due November arrival who still couldn’t read. How embarrassing!
The change of work locale for my dad, from a crude wooden structure in the deep bush to a storied edifice at the ‘cross-roads of Canada,’ also must have been truly head-spinning.
Mark returned to live with us a year later, a British schoolboy in every respect. So pudgy, polite and bookish he was, I hardly recognized him.
The town of Wabush was designed by the same architects who created the Expo 67 islands. ( It is no surprise, then, that my father went on to work in 1965 as an auditor for the Fair Commission instead of taking a transfer to Cleveland, Ohio, the seat of the US head office of Wabush Mines.)
And those architects did a very good job designing the mining town judging from the many happy, nostalgic postings on the Memories of Wabush Facebook page.
There were 293 families in Wabush by 1967 and the many children living there had lots of things to do. By then the town had a school, a library, a recreation centre with television and movies and a bowling alley, as well as a swimming pool with sauna and sundeck – and even a small shopping mall.1.
(Of course, in Montreal I had Expo 67 with its endless wonders to keep me amused, so it was no contest.)
My older brother summed things up upon reading the town’s history: “We left before things got good.”
1. Hynes, Dana. Untitled History of Wabush. 1990. Available at the Wabush City Hall.
Click here for the Gzowski article: https://archive.macleans.ca/article/1963/11/2/the-new-soft-life-on-the-last-frotier Gzowski’s main point: The workers still had it very hard and the prices were scandalous!