(From 'Island Memories' the 50th Anniversary of MRL Mine in 1983)
Fifty years ago, the McKenzie Red Lake Gold Mines Ltd. was incorporated and the shaft sunk. This is the historical event that has been designated the official beginning of McKenzie Island, although its history naturally commenced prior to that date of 1933.
In fact, McKenzie Island can trace its beginnings back to Donald McKenzie of the North West Company, who had an outpost on the Island in July, 1804.
The story goes that he was warned of an oncoming Sioux war party and, consequently, he cached 80 kegs of rum in his possession in a small lake on the island
and fled. Although the lakes have been searched for the cache, nothing has turned up. However, rum was not the only thing cached on the island. There was also gold,
and this gave the Island communities of Finntown, Gold Eagle, and Mckenzie Island their reason for being and their unique personalities.
McKenzie Island - Hub of the Red Lake District
McKenzie Island, as is typical of this area, traces the roots of community history to the opening of the gold mines. McKenzie Red Lake Mines Ltd. was incorporated
in 1933, with actual mining starting in May of that year. The mill was completed in March, 1935 and the first gold brick was poured the following month.
It was under the direction of John Shaw that McKenzie Red Lake's ore was developed prior to production.
The Gold Eagle gold mines started up in 1937 and together the two mines enticed hundreds of men and some women from all walks of life and from all over Canada
- a country still hurting from the lean Depression years. Those who came were glad to find work and many came with little in their pockets but hope.
Bert Crawford, born in Sudbury, Ontario, was one of those who "came C.O.D.", owing the pilot $10 for his fare in. Those who came were not to be disappointed.
Although the Gold Eagle Gold Mines had a short life- (it closed in 1942 after producing $1,496,000 worth of gold) - the McKenzie Red Lake Gold Mine was open until
1966, producing a total of $23,724,000 worth of gold.
Soon after the opening of the mines, two thriving island communities were established, Finntown and McKenzie Island/Gold Eagle townsite.
Finntown had a population of about 90 families or 200 people in the late 1930's. They had a dance hall, a pool hall and a large store.
The McKenzie townsite boasted two stores - the Bay and Kollman's, a movie theatre (Roluf's) with 20 cents entrance, 5 cents for a treat),a drug store (Art Clark's)
with a real old-fashioned soda fountain, a bank, a bakery, a butcher's, a barber shop, a post office, a school with 8 grades, and 3 airlines.
There was no road to Red Lake and Cochenour (which was just being built in 1939) depended on the Island for its social life and commercial transactions.
Everything and everyone arrived by air, water or over the ice in winter. It was a near self-sufficient island community which was the centre of all activities in the area. Two cows provided some of the milk and meat, two horses provided the means of hauling timber to the mines and transporting the garbage, and chickens ensured a steady supply of fresh eggs.
Independence from the "outside" meant a healthy dependence on one's neighbours. A newcomer, especially a woman, was treated royally.Her arrival meant a gathering of 10 neighbours, who welcomed her with a tea party, at which time the best china and linen were brought out or a card game was set up when everyone had a chance to meet and chat.
With two producing mines, there were plenty of single men vying for the attention of the few women who worked in the area'srestaurants and shops. Many a romance bloomed in those early years and resulted in marriage.
Mrs. Vera Hodgson came by herself to the small community of Pipestone in 1935 and was one of those women who met and married her prospector husband, Joe Hodgson.
She was born in Morden, Manitoba and lived for a time in Winnipeg. When the opportunity came up to secure a job in her friend's small Pipestone restaurant, she couldn't resist the promise of adventure and promptly flew up. (Those were the days when you were advised by the pilot to hang onto the door of the plane until it was successfully airborne.)
Joe and Vera Hodgson's move to McKenzie Island in 1941 was considered a move to civilization.And from all accounts, it seems that, indeed, the communities were a picture of neatness and order (except when the horses wandered about grazing in someone's yard or rolling in a garden). Everyone strived to grow the most beautiful flowers, the best vegetables, and kept their houses in neat repair. One of the McKenzie Mine managers, J. R. Ramsell, encouraged these activities by awarding prizes for the best garden, flowers, etc. With all due respect, I'm glad Mr. Ramsell is not here today.... I know who would be awarded "the worst-kept lawn" award.
In the early days, there were few vehicles on the island and the hard-packed sand roads were kept in top condition by the mines. One means of transportation used for on and off the island travel was Henry Franchuk's taxi Bombardier. He used these giant metal beetles with skis on the front end and tracks on the back to transport people and goods around. There was a special Bombardier used for fall freeze-up travel. It sported a hatch door in its roof, just in case the ice protested a premature crossing. Once winter set in, the danger of going through the ice was gone, but the danger of frostbite in the unheated Bombardier was not.
By 1940, there was a vehicle on the island, but many people kept a team of dogs to haul groceries to and from the store in the winter.
Being both a commercial and a social centre, McKenzie Island was never a dull place in the old days. Snowshoeing and sliding in the winter, fishing and boating in
the summer were some of the unorganized activities people did. Fish were plentiful and so the children did not have to go far to fillup a metal tub with good-size
walleye and whitefish.
is fondly remembered as the resident swimming instructor and there always seemed to be an adult around who took the time to teach the
children something new.
Playing Tarzan in the northern bush was another enjoyable pastime for young boys and girls...enjoyable until a brittle poplar branch was swung from, instead of
the more flexible spruce boughs. In those days, too, I'm told, there were plenty of white-tailed deer and moose which made the island bush their home.
There was never a lack of fresh game or fish to eat and supplement the store-bought food that was flown in.
Hockey, curling, baseball, bowling and playing pool were all sports that children and adults alike could join in. Without television to distract them, everyone
participated in these activities enthusiastically. Baseball was so keenly followed that it was not uncommon to lash two scows together (pulled by another boat)
and transport 250 - 300 people over from Red Lake for an afternoon game.
Finntown, by the late 1930's, had a population of 200 people. Those were the days when a man grabbed himself some land and built a house, sometimes, as did
Bill Kennedy, who paddled from Beresford, Manitoba to Red Lake in 1936, in preparation for a wife who was waiting in Winnipeg. A house could be built in 3 to 4 days
,as all the neighbours pitched in to help. Mr. Kennedy recalls paying $27.00 per thousand square feet for lumber in those early days and he also recalls earning
$5.50 a shift as a driller in 1937 and 1938.
Bill Kennedy, who was born on the Orkney Islands in Scotland, was one of many immigrants that formed the mining labour force that developed this area. Finntown was named, in fact, for the many Finnish miners who lived there. One always worked with a crew who were mixed in their nationalities, but it was a factor that did not stand in
the way of friendship.
There were as many different reactions to the Red Lake area as there were people. Because of the lack of work all over the country, there were many city people
who were unprepared for the lack of modern conveniences. Mr. Kennedy realized that he had a real greenhorn on his hands when his wife, Grace, upon landing here,
exclaimed, "My, I've never seen so many Christmas trees in my life".
Although, in many ways, the area did not have many services, the islanders were in at least one way better serviced than they are today. The Island had a very well equipped hospital with operating room.
which was operated in the early years by Doctor 'Bud' Galway who arrived by dog team in the fall of 1932 to not only become the local MD but also was the first Post Master. He hired the best nurses and
was later joined by Doctor George Wolfe, accompanied by his beautiful bride from Minnesota, 'Hjordis'.
No story would be complete without mention of the less visible side of those early days. Due to the expense of bringing in alcoholic beverages from the outside,
home brew making abounded. At $2 a 40-ounce bottle, one could purchase an 80 to 90 percent proof liquor. (I think I understand where the wild stories of the old days
originate.) And of course there was a speakeasy known as 'Dixies' built on the bay just west of Finntown-a "hook shop" on the island, but I'll leave that tale to
be told by others. It was rumored that a man worked a shift in order to participate in this 'after hours' activity.
Listening to the stories of early Island living, it seemed a bountiful life and the home of many good friendships. However, the main occupation, mining, undoubtedly took its toll. Mining accidents, dry drilling and arsenic poisoning affected many of the miners, and those who still have their health consider themselves the lucky few.
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