The Nisto Find: "By God, That's Uranium!"
|From "The Hunt for the Singing Atom," by C. Fred Bodsworth in Macleans, August 15, 1948.|
By 1948, John Albrecht was living in Stony Rapids, trapping from a base camp on Selwyn Lake which straddles the Saskatchewan-Northwest Territories border. In June of that year John became the prospecting partner of Leroy (Roy) Tobey (1905-1985), a prospector and former civil service engineer from Meota, Saskatchewan.
|StarPhoenix, Sept. 10, 1948.|
"The year 1948 saw the lifting of the veil of secrecy from uranium and prospecting was thrown open to sourdoughs," the Regina Leader-Post reported on February 18, 1950. The United States government's desire to acquire as much uranium as possible from Canada drove the development of uranium mines in northern Saskatchewan. By 1948, Canada had entered into large contracts with the US Atomic Energy Commission. Eldorado Mining and Refining Limited, a federal crown corporation, the only legal purchaser of uranium ore and prior to 1948, had full control over the development of Saskatchewan's uranium deposits.
In March of 1948, Joe Phelps, Minister of Natural Resources for the Government of Saskatchewan announced that 40 individuals would be assisted in carrying out prospecting activities in the province's north. The Prospector's Assistance Plan (PAP) provided prospectors with free mining licenses, free air transportation from La Ronge or Flin Flon, the loan of supplies and equipment for two months in the bush (not including pack sacks and bedroll), cash awards for new finds, and assistance from qualified geologists in the assaying and recording of claims. (Source: Saskatoon StarPhoenix, March 11, 1948; Feb. 25, 1949.) The goal of the PAP was to open up the mineral potential of the north.
Tobey was working under the PAP when he and Albrecht became prospecting partners. In August of 1948, after about three months of fruitless prospecting for uranium - their clothes in rags, their food provisions almost gone - John decided to give up and head back to his cabin to look after his traplines. Before leaving Tobey, John suggested they pick up his bear trap at Black Lake. Within hours after making camp at Black Lake, Tobey's Geiger counter started acting up. The partners eagerly dug into the moss and discovered pitchblende (now known as uraninite), a radioactive, uranium-rich, iron-red rock veined in black.
|Geiger counter, no date. Western Development Museum, WDM.-2012-S-28.|
"We were [camped] about five miles away from Black River. And so, along the ridge I was going towards home," John recalls in an interview with Berry Richards. (Source: Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan, audio recording R-A873. Berry Richards' interview with John Albrecht, La Ronge, Saskatchewan, July 14, 1975.) "So I hear crashing. What the devil, I said, that must be Tobey. Hello! Hollering ,... By god, he got the first kicks [from the Geiger counter], you know. Excited! ... So by god, that's uranium. So, you know, by 11:00 o'clock in the night we had the whole Nisto shoal discovered." ("Nisto" is the Cree word for "three" but it is not clear why it was applied to the Nisto mine.)
|The Nisto find received national media coverage. Ottawa Journal, Feb. 15, 1949.|
The twosome traced out a 2,400-foot zone of radioactive activity before splitting up. Tobey, the only one of the two who was working under the PAP, headed to Regina to register their claim. Albrecht headed back up north to check his traps, taking Tobey's Geiger counter with him.
Tobey took out a concession over a 25-square-mile area for both himself and Albrecht to give their claim some protection. Initially, they received no offers for their claim, but eventually Tobey's and Albrecht's discovery of the Nisto uranium find "set the mining world right back on its heels." [Source: StarPhoenix, March 20, 1951.] It was followed by a rush for the government's adjacent concessions. Trans-Continental Resources (TR) from Toronto recognized the potential of the find and offered Tobey and Albrecht each $15,000 for their claim. Subsequently, TR created Nisto Mines Ltd. for the purpose of developing the property.
John Strikes It Rich
"My god, I was there, you know, in the cabin. I had some fox or something," Albrecht told Berry Richards (1975). "There comes a Hudson's Bay man, sends a wire with and Indian. ... Tobey had the contract already sent out, you know, for me to sign. So, we read with the Hudson's Bay man the contract. Sounded good. $30,000 - $15,000 for me, $15,000 for him. 300,000 shares. $3 million share company firm. $150,000 each. I thought, 'This is the first clear money.' I signed! No other way!"
|Albrecht and Tobey signed an agreement with Transcontinental Resources transferring Nisto prospecting rights. Albrecht's partner Roy Tobey on right. Source: Regina Leader-Post, Dec. 2, 1948.|
John and his partner Roy Tobey made a considerable amount of money on the Nisto find. However, Nisto Mines Ltd. was not large enough to be profitable. As for John's riches, he later chuckled when he told his friend Bob Lee, "I put most of the money back in the ground!" He was always searching for another mine.
Hints of Government Scandal
There were allegations made by members of the Liberal opposition that underhanded deals had been made by employees of the Saskatchewan CCF-NDP government in the development of uranium during the early 1950s. For example, it was suggested that Dr. M. C. Schumiatcher, while still serving as the executive assistant to Premier Tommy Douglas as well as legal advisor to the provincial cabinet, profited from the incorporation a company called Search Corporation shortly after Tobey and Albrecht discovered the Nisto find. The Search Corporation received some of the uranium concessions in the Black Lake area adjacent to Nisto before Schumiatcher resigned from government service.
The leader of the opposition, Walter Tucker, asserted that other former
civil servants had taken advantage of their positions in government to
obtain mineral claims for themselves. Alex Cameron, Liberal MLA for Maple Creek, called this a "scandalous undertaking" and demanded that the government conduct an investigation. [Source: Hansard, Legislative Assembly of Saskatchewan, Budget Debate, March 21, 1951.]
On March 13, 1952, Premier Tommy Douglas responded in the Saskatchewan legislature to the accusations about Schumiatcher, stating that Schumiatcher had indeed formed the Search Corporation and taken out uranium concessions in the area where Albrecht and Tobey discovered the Nisto find. "These concessions could have been procured by any other person willing to make application for them," Douglas asserted, not addressing the fact that Schumiatcher - while still employed by the government - had the inside scoop. He went on to say that, because Search Corporation had been unable to do the necessary exploration work, the company was "virtually insolvent." [Source: Hansard, Legislative Assembly of Saskatchewan, Budget Debate, March 13, 1952.]
Hubert Staines, a member of the Liberal opposition, declared at a public meeting in Kennedy, Saskatchewan, on May 31, 1952 that Schumiatcher and the Search Corporation "had no intention whatever of developing these concessions but merely obtained them to make a very quick cash profit." Staines went on to say that Schumiatcher had obtained blocks of shares entitling his corporation to further profits once the uranium concessions were developed by other companies. [Source: Regina Leader-Post, May 31, 1952.]
(I still have more research to do on this topic and will add any further findings to this post.).
Uranium in Popular Culture
"The Great Rush for Uranium" - prospecting for uranium in Saskatchewan. British Pathe, 1952.
Here's a recording by Warren Smith called "Uranium Rock" (1958).
"I got a big Geiger counter, it's a pretty good rig When the needle starts clickin' it's where I'm gonna dig Money-money honey, the kind you fold Money-money honey, rock 'n' roll Rake it in, bale it up like hay Have a rockin' good time and throw it all away."
Here's another called "Uranium Fever" by Elton Britt (1955):
"Uranium fever has done and got me down Uranium fever is spreadin' all around With a Geiger counter in my hand I'm a-goin' out to stake me some government land Uranium fever has done and got me down."
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