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Residents of Greenstone, Ont., mourn as decades-old landmark is set to give way to a gold mine

The 700-kilometre stretch of Highway 11 snaking through a vast expanse of northern Ontario is home to many unique roadside attractions, from the “world’s largest snowman” to polar bears, to lumberjacks.

But after this week, the landmark that welcomed residents and tourists alike to Greenstone will be gone.

The headframe of the old Macleod-Cockshutt mine, which was constructed in the 1930s at the junction of Highways 11 and 584, is being dismantled by Greenstone Gold to make way for a new open-pit gold mine set to begin operations in mid-2024.

“It represents home, safety, love, and it also represents the legacy of our mining town and the history of it,” said Hilairy O’Brien-Walter, who was born and raised in Geraldton (now amalgamated into the municipality of Greenstone).

O’Brien-Walter grew up on the same street as the headframe, which is the structure that sits above the entrance to a mine shaft.

“When you’re driving on that highway, heading towards Geraldton, it’s the one thing that tells you, ‘Yes, you’ve made it home, you’re just a few minutes away.'”

‘Demolished in the name of progress’

Northern Ontario experienced a major gold rush in the early 1900s, bringing miners and their families from all over to settle in the region. At the height of the gold boom in the mid-1930s, the Little Long Lac area — now known as the Greenstone region — in northwestern Ontario became renowned for its deposits, said Edgar Lavoie, a writer and historian in the Greenstone area.

It was in 1934 that the original shaft was sunk at the Macleod-Cockshutt mine, although not much happened for the next couple of years, Lavoie said. In ’36, tragedy nearly struck when a “great fire” threatened to wipe out all the mines and towns in the region, he added.

Disaster for the burgeoning mining community was avoided, but the headframe for the No. 1 shaft at the Macleod-Cockshutt mine burned down. It was rebuilt in 1937 and stood tall outside Geraldton for decades, guiding people home and helping to extract $1.5 million worth of gold from its mining shafts, according to Lavoie.

“Now we have an 85-year-old structure which is being demolished in the name of progress,” Lavoie added.

LISTEN | Greenstone, Ont., residents share what it means to lose this landmark:

Superior Morning7:54The Macleod-Cockshutt mining headframe in Greenstone, Ont., is coming down

A major landmark is coming down in the northwestern Ontario, and it’s leaving a big hole in the hearts of many in Greenstone. Logan Turner brings that story. 7:54

Greenstone’s municipal council agreed to sell the landmark to Greenstone Gold in 2017 for $1.4 million, Lavoie said, paving the way for the company to remove the headframe — in addition to relocating parts of the provincial highway and demolishing a neighbourhood — and clearing space for the new mine.

Still, seeing workers actually begin dismantling the headframe surprised many in the community.

“It’s really heartbreaking. It’s a sad, sad day here,” said Tim Milne, who has lived most of his 48 years in the community. “Many generations view that as something that should always be there.”

residents of greenstone ont mourn as decades old landmark is set to give way to a gold mine
The headframe for the No. 1 shaft at the old Macleod-Cockshutt mine has stood outside Geraldton, Ont., for more than eight decades, marking the way home for community residents. (Submitted by Greenstone Gold)

Milne said he brought his family to say goodbye to the landmark, before deconstruction began. His kids already knew most of his stories about the headframe, but Milne wanted to share them one more time.

One stood out in particular. The headframe caught on fire in May 2000, but he and other community firefighters were able to stop the fire’s spread.

“We were able to save it at that time, but we can’t save it anymore,” said Milne, fighting to hold back tears.

Landmark to be commemorated

Milne said he and others in Greenstone wanted to see the relocation of the landmark, but that wasn’t possible, according to Christine Petch, deputy project manager for Greenstone Gold.

The company commissioned a study in 2016 to determine if it was possible to relocate the entire headframe, but Petch said the engineering report came back saying that wasn’t an option due to the structure’s age and condition.

Instead, she said, the company will consult with community members over the next several months to determine how to commemorate the history of the structure.

“We do recognize that it is near and dear to many of the residents … and we do plan to honour the Macleod headframe,” Petch added.

What shape that will take, remains to be seen.

residents of greenstone ont mourn as decades old landmark is set to give way to a gold mine 1
Workers with mining company Greenstone Gold began dismantling the Macleod-Cockshutt headframe in April, but the company says it is salvaging as much material as possible and plans to commemorate the landmark. (Submitted by Greenstone Gold)

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