Cooking Up History
During the construction of a railway connecting North Bay to New Liskeard, two men discovered metallic flakes that would be the foundation of Cobalt, Ontario. Ernest Darragh and James McKinley were two Canadian contractors tasked with supplying the wooden ties needed for the railway’s construction. While gathering wood, they noticed the shimmering rocks and investigated further, finding more flakes in the gravel in the riverbeds. Samples were sent to Montreal where it was determined that the metal was, in fact, silver. Word spread quickly, sparking the interest of a surveyor named Willet G. Miller. After investigating the area, he discovered large veins of iron and cobalt running through the rock. The area was officially given the name "Cobalt" by Miller after he discovered a vein of metal by the same name. Following this discovery in 1903, prospectors began arriving in the area, filling it with personal campsites and mining operations. The railroad was finished in 1905 and men from around the world travelled to Cobalt in order to profit off its rich silver deposits. A general store was built first, followed by a post office and living arrangements for the miners. By year's end, the population had grown to 1500 residents and the town was filled with numerous services, including doctor’s offices, hotels, restaurants, and boarding houses, the addresses for which are provided in the Cobalt Souvenir and Cook Book. However, it was well known that Cobalt’s silver supply was limited. As such, these buildings were not built with longevity in mind, and were often just crude wooden boxes with tin roofs.
It was in 1907 that the Ladies' Aid of the Presbyterian Church purchased land in Cobalt to erect their church. Services were held for the people of Cobalt and one year after its creation, the church released the Cobalt Souvenir and Cook Book. As news continued to spread about the riches to be made in Cobalt and more people were drawn to the area, the Presbyterian Church considered this an opportunity to make a profit. The decision was made to create a fundraising cookbook, composed of favoured recipes from members of the Ladies' Aid. Spare pages were filled with advertisements for local businesses and claims about Cobalt’s prosperity. It was hoped that this would draw even more people to the area, and businessmen or tourists traveling to the town would purchase the book as a souvenir of their visit to Cobalt. The profits from selling the cookbook were then directly funneled back into the church and for the town’s upkeep. Likely, the businesses that appeared in the book paid for their advertisement space, further increasing profit for the church. Community cookbooks that acted as fundraisers were quite common in the early 20th century, and like the Cobalt Souvenir and Cook Book, these books were made by and for a collective of people – often churches – as a form of charity to raise money for a shared goal.
Looking at the history of Cobalt and its rapid decline, likely the money was raised to help keep the church in business. To this day, Cobalt remains Canada’s largest producer of silver, but as was predicted during its initial development, the mining operations would decrease due to overextraction of profitable resources. As determined by Willet G. Miller during his initial survey, the silver was only surface deep. As well, in 1909, a fire devastated the town, leaving many homeless although most were rebuilt shortly thereafter and mining operations resumed. The sale of the Cobalt Souvenir and Cook Book likely aided in this rebuilding with money going towards businesses that needed help rebuilding. By 1930, the majority of the local land had been dug up and most of the silver extracted. This resulted in many prospectors moving on to more profitable lands and the population of Cobalt steadily declined. Silver mining operations continued, but a second fire in 1977 helped to seal the town’s fate. By 1980, most of the silver mining had ceased and the population declined. Despite the town's quick rise and fall, the Cobalt Souvenir and Cook Book preserves the rich history of this region and offers a window into daily life in one of Canada’s first mining boomtowns.