The Underwater Mine of Silver Islet

May 17, 2021 0 comments

The small rocky reef at the tip of the Sibley Peninsula in northwestern Ontario, Canada, is rich in silver, but mining this precious metal is a nightmare. Much of the silver is located below the surface of Lake Superior, and anybody who has ever lived on the shores of this great lake knows that it is incredibly unpredictable and extremely dangerous. Extracting silver from beneath the lake would require building a wall to keep water away and pumps would have to be kept running continuously to clear water that would constantly collect at the bottom of the mine shaft.

Silver Islet

Silver Islet in 1911. Photo: James Fraser Paige/Wikimedia Commons

Faced with this ominous prospect, the Montreal Mining Company, who originally owned the land, sold it to Alexander H. Sibley’s Silver Islet Mining Company in 1870. Alexander H. Sibley was fully aware of the difficulties that lay ahead, but he had faith in his partner William. B. Frue, who was also the lead engineer.

William Frue and his men worked 18 hours a day building timber breakwaters, foundations, and a cofferdam around the vein of silver. It cost Sibley only fifty thousand dollars and with only 34 workers they had a mine set up and operational. The mining company then used crushed rock to expand the Silver Islet to over ten times its original size and built a small mining town on the nearby shore. At its peak the town had hundreds of houses, two churches, a saloon, and a jailhouse.

Perched on a 90 square meter islet, the men of Silver Islet Mining Company waged an unrelenting battle against Lake Superior that threatened to wipe away at any moment everything they had built. In October 1870, Lake Superior waves shredded half the original breakwater and the miners rebuilt it to twice its original width. By Christmas 1870, more than 3,000 tons of rock were washed away.

Silver Islet

Silver Islet in 1902. Photo: Thunder Bay Public Library

Working in the mines was extremely dangerous. The entire mine was located under the level of Lake Superior, with only a flimsy stone and wood wall separating the miners from certain death. Water began to enter the mines once the shaft had sunk below 300 feet. From then on, pumps worked all round the clock to remove water from the shafts.

In 1873, the mine was 1,300 feet deep with scattered levels leading away from the main shaft. But production had fallen by then as the richer deposits had already been hacked away. The final blow came when a shipment of coal did not arrive before the winter set in. The pumps holding back the waters of the lake stopped and in early 1884 the islet's mine shafts fell back beneath the waves.

The Silver Islet mine had been one of the richest silver mines in the world. Many chunks of silver nuggets that had come from Silver Islet mine, were so pure they didn’t need smelting and in over thirteen years of operation, it had yielded approximately 3.25 million dollars worth of silver, $1,300,000 in its first three years alone.

People believe that Silver Islet still holds unlimited riches, but nobody has dared to fight Lake Superior again.

Silver Islet

Photo: Jonathan Wilson/Thunder Bay Memories

Silver Islet

Photo: Jeff Robinson/Ontario Parks

Silver Islet


Silver Islet

Photo: Viv Lynch/Flickr

Silver Islet

Photo: P199/Wikimedia Commons

# Silver Islet - Mining Silver Under Lake Superior, Magic Masts And Sturdy Ships
# The surprising, shocking, startling, astonishing story of Silver Islet, Ontario Parks


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