Key Harbour


Photo of fishing camp
A fishing camp in the 1940s or 50s
Private collector

When the Moose Mountain mine first opened in early 1900, there was no rail link or proper harbour. Mackenzie and Mann, owners of the Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR) anticipated a highly profitable operation in the ore refining business.

In 1905, they secured exclusive shipping rights and began making plans for their harbour. The location they chose was at the mouth of the Key River. In the meantime, the Moose Mountain Mine stockpiled all their ore until 1909, following completion of the railway and harbour.

The nearest site for a decent harbour was about 110 kilometres (80 miles) south of the mine. Other than the harbour, Mackenzie and Mann hoped to establish a Canadian version of Pittsburgh, with refineries, and smelters that would produce great quantities of steel. With this in mind, they applied for and received Grant #7, giving them no less than 111,217 acres of land. On May 8, 1907, they began construction of the seven-mile spur line from the harbour to the junction. Following completion on November 6 of that same year, they linked the harbour to the Canadian Northern Railway (CNoR).

They built the harbour with all its facilities in 1908. Unfortunately for Mackenzie and Mann, their plans for a vast industrial centre died when they quickly learned the real facts on smelting iron. It took three tons of coal for every ton of iron processed. After finding out the closest coal field was in Pittsburgh, they scrapped plans for the smelter.

Nonetheless the harbour commenced shipping ore pellets in 1909. Trains arrived from Sellwood and dumped the ore in a bin. They in turn transferred the ore to the docks by way of a large conveyor called an incline which they used to fill the ships.

In 1912, a sabotage plot was spoiled, but the associated fire caused damage to the loading docks and trestle. Following prompt repair, operations resumed the following spring. In almost no time, tragedy struck again. On Good Friday in the spring of 1913, a wind storm blew down the incline, situated above an ore storage building, and trimmed more than half the train shed off. Later that fall, a violent snow store gave early notice of winter. The vast amount of snow melted but quickly froze again, forcing the harbour to close for the season.

In 1916, they transferred ore shipping to Depot Harbor, which had better facilities to service the larger vessels. The harbour closed for good in October 1920, although the mine continued producing throughout November of that same year, transhipping through Depot Harbor. During the 1920s and 30s, they gradually dismanteled the ore docks and ore facilities.

The harbour rebounded between 1929 and 38 when the Canadian National Railway (CN formerly CNoR) shipped in coal from its mine in West Virginia. The railway added a coal dock, constructed of simple wood pilings measuring 1,200 feet long, and added the width of three tracks. For a short six weeks a year between June and July, employees would operate around the clock, with two 12-hour shift rotations. It took 43 to 48 hours to unload a 7,000-ton per coal ship, one ship at the time. There were no actual dwellings at Key Harbour. Most people lived in rail cars, parked at a siding.

Every summer, during Key Harbour’s short existence, they unloaded anywhere from 125,000 to 150,000 tons of coal which in turn they shipped to the Suez coal yards in Hanmer, north of Sudbury. They sold some coal to the Temiskaming & Northern Ontario Railway (now CNR). After 1938, they abandoned the docks and used the tracks mainly for jitneys, used for bringing in cottages and sending out frozen packed fish from Gauthier’s fishing station also located at Key Harbour.

Over the next 10 years business decreased to the point where it was no longer economically justifiable to maintain the line. CN officially abandoned Key Harbour in 1950. They valued the rusting tracks at between $50 and $60 thousand. In 1960, they tore up the spur and sold it for scrap. Other than the remains of the wharves and assorted debris, nothing remains of the original town site.

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