“In the interests of national security”: The role played by a United States Air Force Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcar cargo plane in the development of the Knob Lake region’s iron ore deposits

The United States Air Force Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcar cargo plane borrowed by Iron Ore Company of Canada Incorporated. Anon., “Fret aérien – L’opération Ungava – Le fret aérien accélère l’application d’un projet. » Interavia, December 1951, 672.

Greetings, my reading friend, and grab a seat. I will be right with you. Creating a philosopher’s stone is no easy matter, especially when people keep interrupting. Just ask Nicolas Flamel, the Potterian one, not the real one who was a public writer, copyist and sworn bookseller. Not an alchemist.

Once upon a time, in November 1949, several (5 or 6?) American steelmakers incorporated Iron Ore Company of Canada Incorporated (IOCC), an American firm in spite of its name. At the time, the operations of IOCC were seemingly directed by a firm formed that same year, Hollinger-Hanna Company of St. John’s, Newfoundland, a Canadian province since March 1949.

And no, neither the United Kingdom nor Canada conspired to railroad Newfoundlanders into joining the latter by fudging / fixing / faking the results of the July 1948 referendum, but I digress.

The goal of the American firms was to exploit the rich iron deposits near a Québec body of water, Knob Lake, in an area which straddled the border of Québec and the part of the Labradorian territory of Québec transferred in 1927 to Newfoundland, which was then a dominion, by one of the highest British courts, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council – a decision rejected by every government of Québec since that date, but back to our story.

Why were American steelmakers interested in Canadian iron ore, you ask, my reading friend? Well, you see, there was some concerns among various American business and government circles that the United States was depleting or, worse still, had depleted its own iron ore deposits. Given the deteriorating relationship between said United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, these people thought that an effort should be made to create new iron mines in countries that were friendly to the United States. Canada was of course one such country. Canadian businessmen and provincial politicians were more than happy to oblige.

The presence of sizeable iron ore deposits near Knob Lake had in fact been known for quite some time. Louis Babel, a Swiss oblate priest and missionary ordained in Bytown, now Ottawa, Ontario, came across at least one deposit around 1867-68 but few people paid notice. At the time, the area belonged in part to an aging British giant, Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) of London, England. The British government transferred HBC’s lands to Canada in 1870, by the way.

And yes, the Congregatio Missionariorum Oblatorum Beatae Mariae Virginis Immaculatae, in other words the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, were heavily involved in Canada’s infamous Indian residential school system, a mandatory network of boarding schools funded by the federal government but run by various Christian churches, including especially the roman catholic church.

Albert Peter Low, an explorer / geologist / surveyor with the Canadian Geological Survey (CGS), was a rather more important figure in this story of the Knob Lake region deposits. His opinions regarding the possible presence of large iron deposits in the District of Ungava of the Northwest Territories were detailed in a CGS annual report published in 1897. Low may well have drawn the first map of the Knob Lake region.

And yes, Babel and Low had to use canoes to get around, with bad insects (black flies and mosquitoes) and worse insects (moose / horse / deer / caribou flies) galore. Oh, happy days.

A digression if I may. Would you believe that a species of horseflies may well be the fastest invertebrate lifeform on planet Earth? To paraphrase a 1983 hit song of the American rock band ZZ Top, a sharp-dressed male lookin’ for love was allegedly clocked at a mind blowing 145 kilometres/hour (90 miles/hour) – an unpublished and unconfirmed result, mind you. End of digression.

The actual discovery of high-grade iron ore deposits had to wait until 1929 or so and the early days of bush flying in that neck of the wood, thanks to the work done by the Canadian geologists James Edward Gill and William Fleming James for New Quebec Company of Toronto, Ontario.

In 1938, the government of Newfoundland granted an exploration / prospecting licence to Labrador Mining and Exploration Company of Montréal, Québec, which covered an area of about 50 000 square kilometres (about 20 000 square miles). In 1942, Hollinger North Shore Company Limited of Montréal, a subsidiary of Hollinger Consolidated Gold Mines Limited of Toronto founded in July of that year, obtained a similar licence on the Québec side which covered an area of about 10 000 square kilometres (about 3 900 square miles). That same year, Hollinger Consolidated Gold Mines acquired control of Labrador Mining and Exploration.

At the time, Hollinger Consolidated Gold Mines might have been interested in locating deposits of gold and / or base metal (copper, lead, nickel and zinc), not iron.

Interestingly, the people who founded Hollinger North Shore were an accountant, a stenographer (female) and two students, all of them francophones from Québec, Québec. Not the sort of people one would expect to see at the heart of a 3-million-dollar firm. Yours truly must admit I cannot fathom why the real backer(s) of Hollinger North Shore resorted to such figureheads / puppets / strawpeople.

While it is true that drilling in the area began in 1943, the main program only began in 1947, after the end of the Second World War. As Hollinger Consolidated Gold Mines realised the importance of the iron deposits, its interest gradually shifted in that direction. That shift may have become permanent around 1945. A temporary camp set up at Burnt Creek in 1946 became a permanent camp the following year. The town of Schefferville was created nearby in 1954. And yes, a local road network (240 or so kilometres / 150 or so miles as of 1951) was gradually carved out.

The gentleman who managed operations at Knob Lake was one William H. “Bill” Durrell, the individual who had supervised the construction of the airport at Goose Bay, Labrador, during the Second World War.

And yes, the only practical way to get people and stuff in and out of that region was by air, more precisely by floatplane operated mainly by Canadian Pacific Airlines Limited, at least until 1944 when a firm, possibly Labrador Mining and Exploration, bought a flying boat – possibly, and I do mean possibly an ex-United States Navy Consolidated PBY Catalina.

An ice runway completed during the winter of 1946-47, I think, made it possible to use aircraft the size of a Douglas DC-3 – the favourite aircraft of a former colleague (Hello, EG!) and a type found in the blisteringly good collection of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa. Mind you, the Catalina is another aircraft type found in that collection, in the form of a Consolidated Canso.

Canadian Pacific Airlines, a subsidiary of a Canadian transportation giant, Canadian Pacific Railway Company, as we both know, has been mentioned several / many times in our blog / bulletin / thingee since May 2019. The latter yadda yadda April 2019.

In any event, Hollinger-Ungava Transport Company Limited of Mont-Joli, Québec, was set up in 1948. This subsidiary of IOCC, I think, played a crucial role in the development of the Knob Lake region deposits.

The pair of DC-3 it acquired, ex-military aircraft converted by Canadair Limited of Cartierville, Québec, a firm mentioned many times in our you know what since February 2018, allowed Hollinger-Ungava Transport to bring down just a wee bit the cost of moving stuff to the Knob Lake region, from $ 1.61 a kilogramme (73 cents a pound) in the days of Canadian Pacific Airlines, to about 22 cents a kilogramme (10 cents a pound).

Mind you, this was not how the iron ore (up to 10 million tonnes a year in 1957), could be delivered to the gaping mouths of American blast furnaces which were working full tilt to fulfil the never-ending needs of the military-industrial complex of the United States. Nay. The 580 or so kilometre (360 or so miles) railroad of Quebec North Shore and Labrador Railway Company, a firm formed in 1947, between Schefferville and the frontier port and airport city of Sept-Îles, Québec, on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River, was paid for by its parent firm, Hollinger North Shore, I think. It was inaugurated in August 1954. The Premiers of Newfoundland and Québec, Joseph Roberts “Joey” Smallwood and Maurice Le Noblet Duplessis, were on hand to welcome the arrival of the first train loaded with iron ore.

Would you believe that Ontario mining baron Jules Robert Timmins, president of Hollinger Consolidated Gold Mines and vice-president of IOCC, allegedly drove the last spike of the Quebec North Shore and Labrador Railway?

And yes, “le chef / cheuf,” as Duplessis was often called, was mentioned many times in our blog / bulletin / thingee since January 2018, and…

You have a question, my reading friend? When will the aircraft portrayed at the beginning of this article of our incomparable blog / bulletin / thingee make an appearance, you ask? Fear not, we are there. Almost.

Was the development of the iron ore of Québec a good deal for the people of Québec, you ask? You troublemaker you. I like your new you. To answer your question, the sad truth was / is that said development was not a good deal. It was, however, a typical Duplessian deal. Taking into account all taxes and royalties, the Duplessis government got approximately 30 cents a ton whereas the good people of Minnesota got $ 1.25 a ton. Worse still, as you already know, the ore was refined in the United States, not in Québec, although it must be noted that said ore was pelletised and concentrated in Québec in later years.

Mind you, one could argue that the Smallwood government did not get that great a deal either.

And now for what you have been clamouring about, my reading friend. Yes, yes, clamouring. Do not deny it.

As you may well imagine, developing a mining complex in a faraway location like the Knob Lake region required heavy equipment. It might, perhaps, have been possible to dismantle some of that equipment and transport the pieces aboard the dozen or so aircraft that IOCC could count on. Such dismantling did indeed take place. Certain types of heavy equipment could not be taken apart, however. They might also have been too heavy anyway. Bulldozers, power shovels and scrapers would fall within that category.

This being said (typed?), it looks as if a single bulldozer was flown in several pieces to the Knob Lake region around 1947-48, to help create the local landing strip.

Very much aware that bulldozers, power shovels and scrapers would prove essential, IOCC, an American firm you will remember, contacted the United States State Department with a somewhat unusual request. It wanted to lease or borrow a Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcar, a very successful aircraft more or less often referred to as a Packett at the time, which happened to be the newest and most modern flying truck of the United States Air Force (USAF).

“In the interests of national security,” the USAF agreed to help – or was told to do so. A contract was duly prepared and signed.

Fairchild Engine and Airplane Corporation hand picked a 10-human civilian team from its test flying department. At its head was Elvin Relvin “Dutch” Gelvin, the firm’s chief test pilot. A brief digression if I may. What were the parents of this fine gentleman thinking when they give him a name like that?

In any event, Gelvin and his people went into action in late May 1951. They split in 2 teams of 5. Each of these worked an 8-hour shift, to take full advantage of the long hours of daylight found up north. Would you believe that that Denmark is as far north, but not as cold, as Knob Lake? Well, it is and is not. I kid you not.

The Flying Boxcar made the 515-kilometre (320 miles) trip between Sept-Îles and Knob Lake area as often as possible. It carried bulldozers, power shovels and scrapers. It carried trucks. It carried compressors, conveyors, generators and winches. It carried 7.6 metre (25 feet) long pipes and beams. It also carried tonnes and tonnes of groceries – and 23 000 sacks of cement.

Trucks could be carried 2 at a time and bulldozers, 1 at a time. A power shovel, on the other hand, required 3 trips.

And yes, the landing strip at Knob Lake, 13 or so kilometres (8 or so miles) from Burnt Creek, consisted of sand and gravel. When the Flying Boxcar made its first landing there, its crew reversed the pitch of the engines’ propellers to reduce the landing distance – a common practice and a fine one, on a paved runway. As you may well imagine, at Knob Lake, the aircraft was immediately enveloped by a cloud of sand and gravel.

From then on, the crews of the Flying Boxcar relied on the aircraft’s brakes to bring it to a stop. They had no intention of submitting their machine to a daily sandblasting, not to mention the possibility of damaging the engines and / or propellers. Besides, the good folks of the USAF might have been a tad upset to receive a seriously beat-up aircraft.

Even so, brake linings were soon eaten away by the sand and had to be replaced at least once. Seriously damaged by the gravel, tires had to be replaced more than once. Both brake linings and tires had to be checked regularly. Losing one or the other on landing or take off might have had serious consequences.

Adding to the tension aboard the Flying Boxcar was the fact that, even in July, there might have been snow flurries. Low clouds were frequent companions. The aircraft could even run into icing conditions above 800 or so metres (2 600 or so feet), Knob Lake being 500 or so metres (1 650 or so feet) above sea level. And yes, the presence of large iron deposits scattered all over the place meant that the compass often proved useless. In certain parts of the route, the Flying Boxcar’s crews had to resort to keeping an eye out for very distinctive lakes to know where they were – an approach used by Canadian bush pilots of the 1920s and 1930s.

With the exception of a sand and gravel landing strip 140 or so kilometres (85 or so miles) north of Sept-Îles, there was no place the Flying Boxcar could land in relative safety if anything bad happened. Do you feel safe, my reading friend?

The cement, by the way, was for the hydro dam that Ungava Power Company of Montréal, a firm founded in November 1947, wanted to build. The hydroelectric generating station at Lake Menihek, in Labrador, was completed in 1954.

By the way, it proved quite difficult to find sand and gravel to mix with the cement. You see, there was so much iron in much of these locally-available materials that they quickly rusted and damaged any concrete made with them. I kid you not, but I do digress.

The Flying Boxcar made its final delivery in late August 1951, thus completing what many described as the largest civilian airlift operation of its time, and the first civilian airlift operation of its type ever. Following in the footsteps of the Canadian bush pilots of the 1920s and 1930s, its crews had proven that aircraft could be used to deliver all sorts of things to faraway places that could not be accessed by land or water.

Their work up north completed, Gelvin and his people returned to their daily routine. The Flying Boxcar presumably did the same.

Incidentally, Royal Canadian Air Force crews flew about 35 Flying Boxcars between 1952 and 1967. The cockpit of one of these machines delighted, for many years, many young visitors of the National Aviation Museum, today’s Canada Aviation and Space Museum.

Have fun but be careful, my reading friend.

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Rénald Fortier