Home Canada Visit Cobalt Ontario – A Canadian National Historic Site

Visit Cobalt Ontario – A Canadian National Historic Site

by Valerie Vanr

Explore Cobalt, the northern Ontario town at the centre of the largest silver rush in Canadian history. Born in the first decade of the 20th century, Cobalt still thrives today.

Learn about mining in Cobalt, the life of a Cobalt miner and the town after the boom.

Cobalt Mining National Historic Site

The Cobalt Mining District is a National Historic Site, encompassing much of the town of Cobalt and the surrounding countryside.  The Cobalt Camp is recognized as the birthplace of the Canadian mining industry.

These experiences are perfect for a half-day visit to Cobalt, Ontario.

Cobalt Map

Cobalt Points of Interest Map
Click on map for an interactive version.

Cobalt History

Silver was accidentally discovered by two railway workers in 1903. Word quickly spread and the rush was on to mine one of the world’s richest deposits of native silver.  Headframes popped up everywhere.  With this frenzy of development, Cobalt became known as the Silver Capital of the World.

By 1910 the town was home to over 10,000 people. There were up to 100 mines within 13 square kilometres.  The town grew haphazardly around the mines that were at the edge of Cobalt Lake, with homes and mine shafts tightly packed, up and down the hills.

After 1920, the prosperity died off as the price of silver dropped along with the quality of the remaining ore. There was a small bit of activity after 1960 as prices had increased and new recovery methods produced better yields. Over 60 years of activity, the Cobalt Camp produced over 420 million ounces of silver.

Historic Photos of Town of Cobalt
These historic photos show how Cobalt changed over the years.
sign with map of Cobalt National Historic site
The historic plaque opposite the Cobalt Mining Museum shows the extent of the Cobalt National Historic Site.

But why is the town called Cobalt, if silver made it famous? It’s a matter of timing. The metal cobalt was found in the area before silver was known to exist in such great quantities. Cobalt was used to add the colour blue to ceramics and glassware. 

Cobalt and silver are typically found together in the local ores. The cobalt made processing and refining more difficult and expensive as the metals had to be separated.

Maybe in the future Cobalt’s mines will open again as 21st century prospectors search for cobalt. It is important in high performance batteries for electric vehicles.

Cobalt Mining Museum

The museum has one of the world’s largest displays of native silver ore.  Mineral samples shown under black light glisten in a magnificent and beautiful array of colours.  There are also exhibits about the history of the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) and tributes to the first professional Northern Ontario hockey teams. Cobalt’s early boom town years affected the formation of the OPP and the National Hockey League.

The Cobalt Mining Museum is in downtown Cobalt opposite the Pan Silver Headframe Monument. The headframe was moved to the downtown site and is the home of the Cobalt Historical Society. Wander the grounds to see mining artifacts. Signs explain how each artifact was used.

On the one-hour Colonial Adit Tour, interpretive guides take visitors underground to the Colonial Mine (Heritage Silver Trail Site #16) to show what early silver mining was like. For tour times visit the Colonial Adit Tour webpage.

mine ore cart headframe
Site #14 on the Heritage Silver Trail is the Pan Silver Headframe Monument. It is in downtown Cobalt directly across from the Cobalt Mining Museum. The headframe was moved to the location and erected as a monument to Cobalt’s mining history.
4 pieces mining equipment on rail track
Check out the mining equipment in the park across from the Cobalt Mining Museum. Signs explain the equipment’s function.

Heritage Silver Trail

Explore the Heritage Silver Trail, a self-guided, driving tour which visits some of the original mine sites. There are stops with interpretive plaques along the 6-kilometre tour. The Heritage Trail was established to preserve and halt the decay of these mining sites from over a century ago. 

Each site gives a unique view of the mining practices of the past. See evidence of the earliest surface mining operations including mine shafts, headframes, massive rock piles, audits and foundations of processing plants.

Pick up a trail guide and map at the Cobalt Mining Museum. Stop number 1 is just to the west of downtown Cobalt. The route is noted on our interactive Cobalt map.

We recommend visiting at least these seven unique sites, for an overall perspective of the silver industry in Cobalt.

Cobalt Townsite Mine Headframe – Site#1

This historic headframe covers a shaft that was sunk into the ground in 1907, to a depth of 95 metres.  The building was called a “rockhouse” as it had crushing and sorting facilities within the same building.

Aerial view Townsite Mine Headframe Cobalt
The Townsite Mine Headframe is Site #1 on the Heritage Silver Trail. The hole beside the building is the result of collapsed underground tunnels.

Glory Hole – Site #2

The Glory Hole is an open pit which is now full of water. When the mine was operating, the pit was dry and the sides of the pit were mined. Some of the mine openings are visible today above the level of the water.  The ore was pushed from the mines to the bottom of the pit where it was loaded onto ore cars.  The cars went through an underground tunnel to the nearby Townsite shaft, where the ore was raised to the surface for processing.

McKinley Darragh Mill Site – Site #3

This is the site of the first silver discovery. The first mill was built on site in 1907.  Built into the hillside, this “gravity mill” passed the crushed ore downward, by gravity, through several stages of ore processing.  When the mill finally closed in 1927, it had produced over 13 million ounces of silver. The mill burned to the ground the following year. On our visit we were surprised by how much of the mill is still visible over 100 years after it burned and how large it is.

Cement foundation ruins on hillside
The ruins of the McKinley-Darragh Mill are Site #3 on the Heritage Silver Trail. The initial silver discovery was made here in August 1903. The McKinley-Darragh Mill was the first to produce ore in the Cobalt Camp in 1907.

Little Silver Vein – Site #4

The vein was discovered in 1903. Much of the silver at Cobalt was found in veins of white calcite. This calcite vein was about 20 centimetres wide and held native silver, cobalt, nickel and arsenic. Mining of the vein stopped in 1932. This vein yielded over 700,000 ounces of silver which today would have a value of in excess of $15 million (USD).

The vein was mined from the top of the cliff down 10 metres toward the base. At the base, a tunnel or adit, was cut into the hill along the vein and mining continued upward. The vein was also accessed from further below, up and up to the adit.

Rock cliff with opening up middle
Site #4 on the Heritage Silver Trail is the Little Silver Vein. This is the hole left from the mining of the vertical vein which was about 20 centimetres wide.
Historic picture mining vein in rock cliff
This photograph of the Little Silver Vein mine was taken in 1906. Mining of the vein started from the top of the hill down about 10 metres. A tunnel was dug at the base of the hill and the vein worked up to meet the first dig.

Walk about 250 metres along the trail to the west to the Nipissing 96 adit. Ice and snow accumulated in the open cut of the vein above it and produced a cool draft from the adit all summer.

Nipissing Hill Lookout – Site #7

In 1921, a Nipissing Company mill stood on this site.  It was also a gravity mill that produced massive amounts of silver.  Much of the ore processed was brought to the mine by an aerial tramway. The tramway was built across Cobalt Lake allowing processing of ore from as far away as the Meyer Shaft (Site #12).  All that remains are massive piles of rock left over from the ore processing. Climb the stairs for a great view over the lake and town.

Foundation ruins rock outcrop woods background
Nipissing Hill Lookout is Site #7 on the Heritage Silver Trail. From the blue platform of the lookout on top of the ruins of the Nipissing Mill, see the town of Cobalt. The mill received ore from the opposite side of town by an aerial tramway.

Right of Way Mine – Site #9

Originally the property which the headframe sits on was part of the railway’s right of way. They owned the mineral rights for 15 metres on either side of the railway line. In 1906 a consortium leased the land from Mile 101 to 105. They agreed to pay the railway an annual royalty of 25%. The Right of Way Mining Company produced over 3 million ounces of silver.

Aerial view railline foreground mine headframe outbuildings behind
The Right of Way Mine is Site #9 on the Heritage Silver Trail. The land and mineral rights on the railway right of way were leased from the railway. The mine produced over 3 million ounces of silver.

Jack Koza Memorial Park – Site #20

This is the final stop on the Heritage Silver Trail.  The site was the location of Jack Koza’s used metal facility. He was involved in setting up the Cobalt Mining Museum.  The park has a number of mining equipment displays.

Mining equipment in Jack Koza Memorial Park
Jack Koza Memorial Park is Site #20 on the Heritage Silver Trail. We learned a lot about the machinery used in the mines as we walked through this area.

Downtown Cobalt

Enjoy a short walk around downtown Cobalt to several buildings which remain from the once thriving town.  Unfortunately many of the town’s original buildings were destroyed in a huge fire in 1977. The fire destroyed almost a third of the town. Many of the destroyed buildings, including homes, were not rebuilt.

Access our Cobalt interactive map to see the downtown walking route.

The downtown historic buildings include:

  • the Nugget Office, now home to the Mining Museum;
  • the Classic Theatre (30 Silver Street), a 1926 vaudeville house.  Fully renovated, it is used for all types of performances;
  • the Bunker Military Museum, at the corner of Silver Street and Prospect Avenue, in the former and infamous, Fraser Hotel. The hotel was one of a number of tenants in the huge Royal Exchange Building.  The military museum is a private collection of memorabilia from wars of the last 100 years.  Interesting displays include artifacts from the Boer War, showing conditions of daily life from a soldier’s perspective;
  • the former Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce building at 8 Lang Street; and
  • the Cobalt Railway Station.  The Ontario Northland Railway ceased rail service to Cobalt in 2012. While the station is not open to the public, take a walk around and admire this beautiful building. Built in 1905, it was expanded three times before 1910 due the silver boom.  Thousands of people arrived by train. The train station needed to expand to handle the massive amount of supplies needed to service the people and the mines. Peak silver production was 1910/11. Close to 60 million troy ounces of silver were refined into silver bars and shipped south by rail.
Red brick Cobalt Railway Station
The Cobalt Railway Station was built in 1905 and expanded three times to handle the huge volume of people and supplies coming in and the silver being shipped out.

Watch for murals scattered throughout town showing glimpses of the past. 

Building wall painted streetscape
Find beautiful murals depicting Cobalt’s early years on a walk around town.

Cobalt is just one great stop on a northern Ontario Road Trip. For more destinations, check out our article, Places to Visit on a Road Trip from North Bay to Thunder Bay.

Road lake through pine forest

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