Historical Walking Tour of Flin Flon

Welcoming visitors to Flin Flon is our 8 metre (24 foot) high statue of Professor Josiah Flintabbatey Flonatin, designed by Al Capp, creator of the L'il Abner comic strip. "Flin Flon" is the central figure in a turn-of-the-century dime novel by J.E. Preston-Muddock entitled The Sunless City. A tattered copy was found by the prospectors who staked the first claims here in 1915. It's the story of Josiah Flintabbatey Flonatin who set out in his home-made submarine to explore a bottomless lake, and end up journeying to the centre of the earth. During the descent, Flin Flon describes all kinds of precious metals on the sides of the lake. When the prospectors saw their orebody went under a lake, they named the lake and their camp "Flin Flon". In 1929 the Canadian National Railway telegraphed the newly created Hudson Bay Mining and Smelting Company (H.B.M.&S.) stating that unless it heard differently, the name "Flin Flon" would be on the new station. Nobody bothered to reply and Flin Flon became the only city in the world named after a science fiction character.

THE TOURIST PARK

The statue of Flin Flon, or "Flinty", is a good place to start your tour.

Visitors can stock up on brochures and maps in the tourist bureau. Right outside you can see the "Radisson", the huge freighter canoe paddled to first place by the Manitoba team in the 1967 cross-Canada Centennial Canoe Race. Most of the crew was from Flin Flon. In Fact most of the Saskatchewan crew was also from this area.

Nearby, you might stop and appreciate the incredible Linn tractor. A Linn could haul more than 100 tons across frozen lakes and up over portages at an average speed of 5 kilometers per hour (3 miles per hour). Linn tractor trains moved 24 hours a day, and were manned by two crews. One slept in the bunkhouse "caboose" while the other worked. In 1929, 210 men were involved in hauling materials some 120 km (75 mi.) from Flin Flon to construct the hydroelectric dam at Island Falls on the Churchill River. This was the first hydroelectric generating system in Saskatchewan. It is still the largest.

Don't miss the opportunity to visit the Flin Flon Station Museum. Built in the early 1930's, this station, originally located downtown, was the hub of the community - the scene of countless emotional partings and reunions. Now it houses many artifacts that remind us of our colourful past. For example, check out the Flin Flon curling trophy. We like to think it is the world's largest, a 290 kilogram (640 lb.) Replica of the HBM&S plant. Or the diver's suit originally used during the building of the Panama Canal. Or the suitcase-size organ used by early missionaries in this area.

ROSS LAKE

Enjoy the most beautiful panoramic view of our community by taking a stroll on the Ross Lake Boardwalk. Access is from Third Avenue adjacent to Stittco Energy Ltd., or off Manitoba Avenue near East Street, just across from the tracks.

The rock you see around you was deposited almost two billion years ago. Much of it was deposited under water, as a series of submarine volcanoes. Later, these rocks were faulted and folded as part of a huge mountain range. All that is left now are the rounded hills on which the community has been built.

As you gaze across the lake at our magnificent cliffs, imagine that 60 years ago there was a two-story ski jump on top and the jumpers used to finish their run-out on the frozen lake. Or consider the enterprise of a gentleman by the name of Paddy Faubert who built a floating dance hall on the lake near the bottom of those cliffs.

The famous Flin Flon Trout Festival starts the beginning of June with the final awards being presented the beginning of July. If you come the last weekend in January you might see the Flin Flon Friendship Centre Annual Sled Dog Races starting out on the lake.

Spectacular views of Ross Lake and the surrounding area can be had from Bellevue Avenue and the top of the cliffs. Other places that provide outstanding views of our community are the at the end of Grandview Street, and the corner of Fifth Avenue and Harrison Street, overlooking Hapnot Lake.

When you've had enough of looking at Ross Lake from Bellevue, come down on First Avenue. Just after you go by Second Avenue, pay particular attention to the wooden boxes on your left.

SEWER BOXES

One of the problems with building a community on top of rock is supplying water and disposing of sewage, especially when the ground is frozen half the year.

Sewer boxes are not quite unique. In northern communities above-ground sewage disposal systems are probably fairly common, but Flin Flon's was likely the first, and the way ours works is certainly unique. It was designed by University of Manitoba Engineering Professor, Dr. Norman Hall, in the early 1930's. The only other community with a similar system is Inuvik, Northwest Territories.

Modern materials and technology have modified the system only a little. The original boxes were quite a lot bigger, measuring about 1 metre by 1 1/2 metres. The pipe inside used to be corrugated metal culvert and today we use PVC (plastic). The insulation, however, is still wood shavings!

The original sewage system was built by HBM&S to service just the uptown area from Creighton Street to Hill Street. The key to the above-ground system not freezing up in winter is that heated water is constantly being pumped through. In the early days, the water was warmed by mixing process water (water used by HBM&S) with fresh water in the company reservoir. Today the water is kept at approximately 6C by oil-fired boilers at the corner of Third Avenue and Ross Street, and behind the Aqua Centre.

What makes our system different is that it isn't just the main lines that have warm water constantly flushing them. Two pipes connect every home and business to the main pipes and water is constantly pumped through them as well.

To fully appreciate Flin Flon's ingenious sewage system, one must only consider how sewage was disposed of prior to its construction. Many of the homes in the uptown area had to have their sewage carried out in five gallon buckets. Never an easy task, this became down right tricky when stairs became icy in winter. An additional occupational hazard for men driving the "honey wagon" was the Traditional Christmas drink insisted upon by every satisfied customer during the Yuletide.

There is an interesting walk along the "lane" between Hill Street and Hapnot Street from Third Avenue to First Avenue. You'll be walking on a sewer box!

THE HILL

From the early 1930's until the early 1940's, North Avenue was Flin Flon's red light district. Known simply as "The Hill", it was certainly this communities most colourful neighborhood.

In the Great Depression (1929-39), Flin Flon was one of the few places offering employment. Its population jumped from 270 in 1928 to 2000 in 1930, 3500 in 1931 and 5000 by 1934. The vast majority were men. Their work was hard and often dangerous. Getting out of town for a little relaxation and recreation was pretty much out of question for men who took lunch buckets to work, so establishment like Dorothy's Place (44 North Avenue), Rita's Place and Miss Molly's did thriving business offering companionship, bootleg booze and gambling. Many of the young women working on "The Hill" were young farm women girls determined not to remain a burden for their poverty-stricken parents. No doubt there were mixed feelings about these girls from the other women in town. While there was disapproval, envy of their stylish clothes and hairdos was inevitable. It is said that when Blonde Annie walked down Main Street in her 3 inch heals, black leather suit and fox fur, everyone stopped and gawked.

"The Hill" was basically regarded as a necessary evil. The police raided the houses on regular basis, but it was more a form of tax collection than law enforcement. However, there was the time when our police chief, incensed over being turned by the city for a pay raise, vindictively raided a certain establishment on "The Hill", knowing full well he'd catch the mayor and his council in a compromising situation.

As the community grew and acquired respectability, "The Hill" gradually transformed into a residential neighborhood. Many of the girls married and settled here. Their pioneering role was unknown to those who arrived later.

FLIN FLON'S BOMB SHELTER

At the bottom of the 100 Stairs, there is a large wooden door in the base of the rock face. Though locals have dubbed this Flin Flon's "bomb shelter", it is actually all that is visible of what would have been a remarkable project if completed.

In 1947, a 140m (467 feet) tunnel connecting Third Avenue at the bottom of the ridge to Main Street at Third Avenue was undertaken. The idea was to provide a storm sewer for Main Street and a pedestrian walkway. For $32,000.00 in 1947 they got within 4m (12 feet) of completion. Unfortunately, enthusiasm waned, the dimensions of the tunnel shrank correspondingly, and today it is just a storm sewer outlet. The walkway is no more than a crawlspace for about a quarter of it's length.

During the Cold War, when our neighbours further south were building bomb shelters in their basement, we figured, if worse came to worst, we could all hide in the tunnel - our "bomb shelter".

Make your way over to the visitors' parking area in front of the main gate at HBM&S. If you're fit, count to see if there are 100 steps in the 100 stairs.

The Stack

Our stack, at 251m (825 feet) tall, is the tallest free-standing structure in Western Canada. By comparison, the Eiffel Tower is about 305m (1000 feet) tall, Sudbury's stack is 366m (1200 feet) and the CN Tower in Toronto is 506m (1660 feet). Built in 1973, it tapers from a 20m (65 feet) diameter at the base to 7.6m (25 feet) at the top. It has a 5.2m (17feet) diameter steel liner. The wall thickness tapers from 66cm (26 inches) of concrete at the base to 25.4 (10 inches) at the top. It has enough steel in it to build 100 cars and enough concrete to pour 150 basements.

If you look carefully at the top 15 m (50 feet) from the south side, you shouldn't have any trouble noticing our stack has a flaw. The taper doesn't carry up evenly to the top. The stack was created with a continuous pour using a slip form. The last day of the pour there was a strong wind and the contractor over compensated for it.

OUR MINE

The Flin Flon orebody was discovered by David Collins, a local trapper, and shown to Tom Creighton, a prospector in 1914. The first clams were registered the following year, but despite heroic efforts by the legendary mining promoter, Jack Hamell, it took more than a dozen years to bring the mine into production. There were a variety of reasons for the delay. It was a huge orebody, but of relatively low grad, so it would require a smelter to make it economically viable. It was very isolated and required a railway link with the CNR line at The Pas. To supply electric power required construction of a dam and generating station at Island Falls on the Churchill River. The Price tag for all these, including the smelter, was about 90 million dollars. It was no small gamble, especially during a worldwide recession.

In 1927, the Whitney family of New York created HBM&S, which took over controlling interest in the Flin Flon property. By 1930 the mine, smelter, hydroelectic dam and railroad were in full operation. Up until 1936 the ore was mined by the open pit method and then by two shafts. North main went down 670m (2200 feet) and South Main 1280 (4200 feet). The last ore from the main deposit came out in 1992 after some 62 million tons had been excavated.

Today the smelter and the rest of the plant depend upon ore hauled from a variety of mines around Flin Flon, Snow Lake, and Leaf Rapids. The North Main shaft is closed, but South Main is used to hoist ore to the surface from the Callinan deposit, some three kilometres away by tunnel. There is an experimental greenhouse at the 360m (1170 foot) level that has received international publicity for its success in growing a variety of plants, including the Pacific yew tree, used to make the cancer-fighting drug Taxol.

THE PILOT MILL

The pilot mill is the unpainted, blackish-looking building just south of North Main. A good place to see it is from behind the chain link fence at the top of the HBM&S parking lot, just west of the Whitney Forum. If you're a hockey fan, you'll want to visit our Hockey Hall of fame in the forum. You'll see photos of Bobby Clarke, Ken Baumgartener and many other stars of the NHL.

In 1927, the Whitney family took out a one year option on the Flin Flon property. This means that they had one year to site test the processes worked out in their Denver, Colorado laboratories. On top of all the other complications, a process for economically extracting copper and zinc from such complex ore had to be invented. For most of the year, all the energy and all the dreams of everyone involved were focused on this little building that housed a scaled-down version of the plant that would eventually be built. On December 27, 1937 HBM&S was incorporated after a year of what everyone agreed was an emotional rollercoaster.

As you look out past the old mill and over the open pit, you may be able to reconstruct the way it looked the day David Collins showed a mineralized outcrop to Tom Creighton. There was a pretty little lake called by the prospectors Flin Flon Lake, which covered much of what you wee. The tailing pond, the area that looks like a big dam, has displace the lake water. The discovery outcrop would have been just down in front of the mill, more or less at the north end of the open pit.

Until 1930, Flin Flon was basically just a camp. Shacks and tents clustered as close to the mill as possible. Most of the community would have been scattered down along the hill in front of you and along the old lake shore to your right and left. In 1930 the company ordered all residence and business up the hill behind you and east of Creighton Street. Blasting in the open pit was doing so much damage to the roofs of the nearby buildings that it kept a crew of carpenters busy making repairs. In 1931, on blast used 150 tons of dynamite to move 1 000 000 tons of ore.

You might find it interesting to know that for 20 years, from 1931-1951, there was a golf course down there on the other side of the open pit. HBM&S drained more lake than it needed and, relatively flat ground being rare, we built the world's only lake-bottom golf course. To make it even more unique, a golfer could tee of on number one and easily hit his or her ball into Saskatchewan. The border makes one of its corrections right here.

The mine workings and smelter complex straddle the provincial border. As a consequence a suspiciously high percentage of accidents were reported to Saskatchewan's Workman's Compensation. For many years Saskatchewan's Workman's Compensation paid 100% while Manitoba's only paid 60% of wages lost.

MAIN STREET

The Flin Flon townsite should have never been built where it is. As early as 1924, Scott Turner, an engineer for Mining Corporation of Canada, had foreseen that the townsite should be north of the smelter. However everyone wanted to live as close to work as possible, and by the time HBM&S had got tired of repairing roofs, there were several hundred buildings to move. Basically, town planning consisted of making the best of a bad situation. Main Street ended up crossing a bog, which took a few years to fill in with rock and slag. Sam Swick, who owned the building at 81 Main Street, claimed that he came home from work one day and found a huge hole in the street out in front of his establishment. Thirteen loads of rock had been piled there the day before. When the owners of 74 Main Street put in a basement, they discovered the remains of a beaver dam.

Pedestrians went from store to store on a crude boardwalk, but go in the habit of wearing rubber boots all the time. For one thing, you never knew when you were going to meet a drunk and somehow it would always result in you having to step off the boardwalk. Although according to oldtimers, a few men who went missing in those days were last seen staggering down Main Street. There is some conjecture that they disappeared into the bog. We know that, when the bog was wet enough, it could swallow a wagon. According to local legend, a wagon loaded with beer barrels sank out of sight in front of the Royal Hotel, but this is kind of hard to believe. Flin Flonnians would never allow good beer to go to waste.

As you walk along Main street notice the false fronts on the old buildings. Our pioneer merchants wanted their humble shops to look as impressive as possible. You'll also notice fire walls at intervals. Fear of fire was a great concern with all those little wood frame businesses crowded together.

THE CEMETERY

On your right as you travel south down Main Street a short distance into Saskatchewan, you'll find our original cemetery. It is located up the hill from the original townsite. Only 10 of the 34 people buried here were adults, so it has often been called the Childrens' Cemetery. It has also been said there was an epidemic that killed the children, but this isn't true either. They died of a variety of causes: thirteen were stillborn. And the reason there are so few adults? if an adult died in those early years, their body generally was sent home for burial.

THE HOMES

Nothing about Flin Flon more clearly demonstrates the enterprise and resourcefulness of its pioneers than their homes. From a distance, from across Ross Lake for example, they look like so many little matchboxes scattered over the rocks. On the outside they are unimposing. They are small because materials were scarce, expensive and, for men used to living in tents, houses of any dimension seemed like mansions. (Flin Flonners like to joke that, if HBM&S could invent a magnet that would pull back all the nails that went home in lunch buckets, the town would collapse.) If you could visit inside these homes, you'd be impressed with the energy that has been put into making them comfortable and pleasant. If you look across the street from 22 Mainwaring, you'll discover tons of rock rubble. Frank Stewart, like many others, just chipped away over the years until he had a basement, hauling everything out in 5 gallon buckets. Others were content to have a basement enclosing a big boulder or two. More than a few do-it-yourselfers did their wiring using blasting wire. The houses at 112 and 114 First Avenue East, like many of our older homes, started out as log dwellings. If the roof of 47 Hapnot looks like a coffin lid, it might be because it use to be the funeral home.

Perhaps the most amazing house is 26 Church. The original dwelling was a tent that gradually became a one-room shack. Then the old Bank of Commerce building, itself not much more than a one-room shack, was purchased, hauled over and attached. Finally a railway car completed the structure! As if that isn't incredible enough, the house became a teacherage. At one time the upstairs quarters were home to fourteen teachers upstairs while the family that owned it lived downstairs.

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