History News

Tale of a tungsten town: Children of a former NWT mine reunite

The best part,” says Mike Chemerys, “was having a mountain for my backyard.”

Fifty-two year old Chemerys lives in Dawson Creek, B.C. where he runs a U-Haul business, but for five years of his youth he was one of fewer than a hundred people who lived in the mining town of Tungsten, NWT.

Tungsten sprouted up to house the workers and families of the Cantung mine, located in the isolated and beautiful Nahanni region of the Northwest Territories, a few hours north east of Watson Lake, Yukon. Population counts vary, but at its peak the 1980s town housed between 70 and 100 people.

From 1977 to 1981, the Chemerys family lived where his mother worked at the post office. His father started out as an above ground mechanic at the mine, then became a below ground mechanic and finally a blaster.

“Imagine getting to the end of a dirt road and living there – out there in the mountains in the middle of nowhere.”

“You know,” Chemerys says, “lots of explosives, blowing things up!”

As its name suggests, the mine produced tungsten, an elemental metal used for various industrial purposes, such as the filaments in incandescent light bulbs, machine gun parts, and radiation machines. The mine, owned and operated by Canada Tungsten at the time, was at one point one of the highest paying mines in North America, according to Ingrid Isaac, another ex-Tungstenite and childhood friend of Chemerys. Isaac moved to Tungsten with her family when she was six years old and lived there from 1977 to 1984.

“Everything was subsidized…Rent was $19 a month. Sunday night was meat order night and on Mondays they would deliver our groceries to us – who the hell has that? It was all subsidized – our cat ate shrimp! When we moved she had to switch to Tender Vittles [cat food] – it was the hardest thing on that old cat!”

Beyond the economic benefits, Isaac recalls a happy childhood, nestled amid Mount Dutchman and Mount Baldy.

“There was such intense freedom, being a kid there…We were aware of bears and wolves, of course, but it was safe. When we were teenagers there was all kinds of fun stuff…First kiss, first party, stuff like that,” she says.

Isaac says one of the wonderful things about growing up in Tungsten was the sense of camaraderie and friendship it incubated; although, she notes, it also left her and others somewhat removed from the harsher realities of the rest of the world.

“Imagine getting to the end of a dirt road and living there – out there in the mountains in the middle of nowhere,” she says, gesturing expansively with her hands to demonstrate the vastness of it all. “It was the best time of our lives. The town was so small, out in the middle of nowhere. You have to get along (with each other). There was no bullying or making fun of people. It was only when I left that I found out that some people thought me being Indian was a bad thing…We were so sheltered.”

Isaac is a member of both the Kwanlin Dun and Liard First Nations. She now lives in Whitehorse, where she works with residential school survivors.

In the mid-‘80s, market forces began to make the Tungsten mine unsustainable. It closed down completely in 1986, and the town shut down with it.

“The mine depended on stocks, what was happening at a higher level. As children, we had no idea. My father was wise enough to see [the end] coming and took an early buyout in 1984,” Isaac says.

The Isaacs moved to Hope, B.C., where her father found work as a carpenter, but eventually went back to mining.

“Mining life – miners have a hard time leaving it. Like a fisherman can’t leave the ocean,” Isaac tells.

Many families, she says, wound up in British Columbia, although the Tungstenites have since been scattered all over the world.

Despite the fact that the town they considered home as children is no longer inhabited, the residents of Tungsten have a lasting bond and fond memories of each other. Isaac recalls how Chemerys, several years her senior, gave her her first snow machine ride.

“I don’t even remember it,” Chemerys laughs. “But if that’s her story, I must have. I took a lot of the younger kids out on the snow machine…I pulled them around on an inner tube.”

Isaac and Chemerys, along with another Tungsten childhood friend, Mike McConnell, have arranged a reunion this year at Mount Robson Provincial Park near Valemont, B.C. from June 24 to 28. There will be camping, games, and time to catch up with old friends.

This isn’t the first time the group has gotten back together; in 2012, North American Tungsten, which currently owns the mine (that has changed hands, resumed and ceased operation many times since its initial closure in 1986), allowed a group of 25 people into the abandoned town and mine site.

The event was a rare one and a happy one because, as Isaac points out, mines “almost never do that, let people in like that.” She credits McConnell for making it happen. Although the town was empty and the houses and school condemned, Isaac says it was a wonderful experience for her.

“That was the first time I got to go home since I left,” she says. “When you go home to where you left, it’s the strangest feeling. The place where I grew up isn’t even on a lot of maps anymore…To see everything and smell everything from your childhood – it’s so surreal. There are no words to describe it.”

Although he is an organizer of the Valemount, B.C. event, Chemerys isn’t certain he will be able to go; he has bladder cancer, and just had surgery. He will be able to drive, but not to fly, and still hopes he can attend the gathering.

“I want to be able to connect with folks from my past. Those people are family. A special bond (exists) between people who lived in Tungsten – something I can’t quite put my finger on,” he says.

Isaac agrees heartily with this sentiment.

“Everyday you heard the count down for the mine blast, and when you heard it go off, you remembered why you were there,” she says. “You were doing something special, and you knew it.”

North American Tungsten (NATCL) was contacted but did not reply to requests for comment. Its Cantung mine recently shut down operations, laying off staff last October. While NATCL is currently under court-ordered creditor protection, the company indicated to regulators last year that it is “hopeful that the operations will be able to resume in the summer of 2016, if economic and market conditions improve sufficiently.”◉

Photo: The view through the pass 15 minutes from Tungsten. Credit: Mike Chemerys

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