The basement in Perry Wuest's restaurant is 350 feet deep. The Silver Street Cafe, the restaurant he operates in this northern town with his co-vivant Rochelle Schwartz, is built into a head frame that sits above an abandoned silver mine. That's not unusual in this town. There are more than 100 abandoned mines in Cobalt, which recently celebrated 100 years of headline-making history on the Civic Holiday weekend.
A panel of historians gathered by TV Ontario selected Cobalt as the most historical town in the province - and not merely because the local hockey team beat the Montreal Canadiens in a pro game. It was the NHA (National Hockey Association) in those days (1910) and Art Ross was the star goal getter for the Cobalt Silver Kings. The top scorer in today's NHL wins the Art Ross Trophy.
This town also gave birth to mother's allowance, workmen's compensation, Canada's first labour union, the 1906 Mining Act and, yes, even the NHL. That's why Parks Canada has designated the entire town as a National Historic District.
It was silver that generated all of this history for Cobalt, a town that didn't exist in 1903 when railway blacksmith, Albert Larose, threw his hammer at a pesky fox, missed and struck a rock outcropping instead. When he went to fetch his hammer, he noticed the sparkling spot on the rock where the hammer had hit. Larose knew his rocks and believed he had discovered something special. He quickly staked a claim, as did his foreman, Tom Hebert, whom Larose had told about the sparkling rock.
Hebert soon sold his claim to Nipissing Mining Company for $5,000; equivalent to several years railway pay in those days. But he missed a bigger pay day. Nipissing pulled 92 million ounces of silver out of that claim at an average 53 cents an ounce. Today, silver is worth more than $17 an ounce.
Those 100 or so mines in Cobalt surrendered $300 million worth of silver between 1906 and 1928. That's $100 million more than the total take from the famous Klondike Gold Rush in the Yukon from 1898 to 1907. The silver strike attracted fortune-seekers from around the world. Cobalt quickly grew from a handful of railway men laying tracks to a population of 30,000 by 1908 and this town, now with about 1,500 residents, had everything you can imagine in a wealthy frontier town.
If you missed the Cobalt centennial celebration, relax. Much of what makes this place unique can be seen and experienced any time that you drive into town. But if you did miss Cobalt's celebrations, you will have to drive to The Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto to see one of Canada's most historic trophies. The O'Brien Cup is what everyone played for in the NHL until it was replaced by the Stanley Cup in 1926, donated by railway builder and silver miner M. J. O'Brien and normally, it resides in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
The Heritage Silver Trail is a walking tour that will steer you around to the many mine shafts and processing mills within the town's core and it tells the story of the interesting characters that found and developed the claims. The shaft that Sir Henry Pellet owned, supplied the money to build his dream home - Casa Loma in Toronto.
Some sites are just a gouge in the rock because some silver veins ran right along the surface of the earth. They're called "glory holes," and one sits beside Highway 11B, the town's main street.
The Silver Street Cafe is site No. 13 on the walking tour. More than 32 million ounces of silver came out of the restaurant's basement. Wuest and Schwartz didn't know that when they bought the building nearly four years ago. "We lived in downtown Toronto and took a camping trip to photograph the majestic beauty of the north," said Wuest. "We ended up in Kirkland Lake and wanted to photograph mine sites. They told us there that if we wanted to shoot mine sites, we gotta head for Cobalt. "We fell in love with this area and when we discovered the price to buy a home and business combined, we decided to stay."
Cool air is all that comes out of Wuest's deep basement these days and the couple use that natural cooling to keep the fruits and veggies fresh that they serve in their vegetarian restaurant.
In 1907, this town once had 10 restaurants that were open 24/7 and 39 hotels. One of the few hotels remaining in town is the Silverland. It sits across the street from Wuest's cafe. In 1913, it was the Bank of Ottawa and today is owned by Mario Chitarroni, who is there when he isn't playing for Italy's Olympic hockey team.
Patrick Brennan is a veteran travel, business writer/photographer based in Guelph. His credits include writing for a chain of 60 newspapers with 1.6 million readers. He was a staff writer/photographer at the Toronto Star for 32 years.
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