A new book takes readers back to the early days of Elliot Lake’s uranium mines, the people who worked at them, the rough roads and the pristine Northern Ontario scenery.
‘ Elliot Lake Love Story’ was written by Korean War veteran and journalist Vincent Courtenay who spent a good portion of two years working in Elliot Lake at a uranium mine beginning in 1957.
Courtenay told The Standard that while the book is based on some real life events, the story is fictional.
The war vet went to Elliot Lake in 1957 and worked at one of the mines on the bull gang for a construction company before transferring to the mine’s security police force.
Now 86 and living near Windsor, Ont., Courtenay said he started writing passages of what he saw during his time in Northern Ontario while working at the mine.
“I saw the strong unique people of the area and all the new people. There were 15,000 construction workers there at the time from all over Europe and a lot of people from the poor parts of Canada where there was no work,” said Courtenay about the resilient people he got to know during his brief time in Elliot Lake.
Courtenay has vivid memories of the road conditions during the 1950’s.
“The TransCanada Highway was abominable,” he said about the road, which was made up of different kinds of asphalt and concrete while being full of potholes and cracks.
The author said the road leading into Elliot Lake was even worse.
“I turned off onto this horrible muddy road with a ditch about four feet deep on each side. It was very hard to control your car,” said Courtenay, adding that there would be cars in the ditches every so often from drivers getting too close to the edge of the road that had no shoulders so they would slide into the ditch.
Courtney described Elliot Lake as being made up of plywood buildings with fake facades and joined together by catwalks set upon the mud.
“There were a couple of mobile homes for senior mine staff and that was Elliot Lake at the time.”
By 1958, there were a few houses.
“The people there thought this was never going to end. This was the atomic boom,” said Courtenay about the area’s uranium oxide that was being sold to the Atomic Energy Commission in the United States to build atomic bombs during the Cold War.
Courtenay described Quirke Lake as totally poisoned when he worked at the mine.
“All the mines used sulphuric acid to process the uranium ore and dumped the processed fluids directly into the lake. The tailings were dumped on the side of the road and filled up inland lakes. It was horrible what happened.”
Aside from the environmental ravages caused by the mining, the author was taken with the topography of the area with its lush greenery and many lakes.
“I guess I remember… the very beautiful land and lakes.”
Courtenay was amazed when he returned to the area in the mid-1970s to find a beautiful asphalt highway and a thriving community.
“It was a marvelous change.”
At that time, the mine where he had worked, which he purposely did not name, was closed and chained off. But Courtenay recently found pictures on the Internet showing the mine site had been totally reclaimed back to nature.
“There is no trace of it. All the trees have come back. It’s just forest again,” he said about the site that used to house a huge mill and 600 people.
The author has led a life that is as colourful as his book.
Courtenay, who was born in England to a Canadian First World War veteran and a British war bride, moved to Canada in 1940 to escape the Battle of Britain during the Second World War.
At 16 years old, Courtenay enlisted to fight in the Korean War with Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, but found it hard to readjust to civilian life after nearly three years of service.
“I couldn’t go into a bar. I looked very young still and you had to be 21 to go into a bar back than,” he said about having to use a fake ID.
Courtenay had originally wanted to go to medical school, but did not have the finances so he decided to major in counselling psychology. This proved to be difficult due to his combat history.
His time in Elliot Lake was during his university years when he studied at the University of Windsor and Wayne State University in Detroit.
“At one point I finally thought, the only thing I know how to do is write and I went into journalism and started to write right out of school.”
Courtenay has worked for several newspapers and CBC television in Canada as well as several publications in New York, Detroit and Washington. He also worked in Korea, China and Vietnam.
Beginning in the late 1990’s, Courtenay spent three years in Korea designing, raising funds for and assisting a local artist to sculpt and cast the Monuments to Canadian Fallen. One stands in the United Nations Memorial Cemetery in Busan, Korea, while the other has its own park in Ottawa. Though it was privately funded, it is considered to be Canada’s National Korean War Memorial and is now owned and cared for by the National Capital Commission.
In recent years, Korea has presented him with the Order of Civic Merit, and made him an honorary citizen of Busan. Canada has presented him with numerous medals including the Meritorious Service Medal and the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Medal.
As for his book, Courtenay’s original version was a 1,200-page saga. When he first looked at publishing it, a literary agent warned him that the publishing industry was economizing and looking for government bailouts so he did not pursue it energetically.
“About a year or so ago I found I could put it together as a small book and still get a lot of the interesting elements out of it,” said Courtenay about the book, which now focuses primarily on Elliot Lake.
The author, who decided to published the book himself, said he doesn’t intend on making money from his publication.
“That was never the reason for writing it in the first place.
“I thought I would just send the book to the Elliot Lake area where people might have some interest so that’s what I did,” said Courtenay, who provided eight copies to the Elliot Lake library.
The book is also available on Amazon and other media platforms.