The half-life of Uranium City


Photograph by Eamon Mac Mahon
Old photographs found in a shoebox at an abandoned bar show life in Uranium City during its heyday. When the mines closed, most of the people moved to other parts of Canada, the United States, and some as far away as Scotland. In August, a “Friends of Uranium City” reunion was held in Cypress Hills, Saskatchewan. More than 300 former residents turned out for the event.

Our little plane rattles, pushed by a stiff tailwind toward Uranium City, in the farthest reaches of northwestern Saskatchewan. Hundreds of metres below us, buried in the Canadian Shield under vast forests of black spruce and icy lakes, lie deep pockets of uranium ore, which feed nuclear reactors around the world. But Uranium City now exists as a contradiction: a town of 100 called a “city.” Its namesake, uranium, is one of the most valuable commodities on the planet, though the first place in Canada where the ore was mined is now a near-ghost town, out of range from the giant mining operations that have followed the ore deposits hundreds of kilometres to the south. Uranium promised the world a clean, high-powered future, but in a harbinger of what other mining communities may face, this town has been left with a legacy of radioactive dust blowing out from its abandoned mines.

At twilight, we land on a crumbling airstrip, with no answer to our radio calls. In 1946, at the dawn of the Cold War, when large deposits of uranium were unearthed nearby, dozens of mines sprouted downward, pulling in hundreds of workers from across Canada. By 1952, the “city” was booming, a Jetson-like symbol of the world of tomorrow. Streets were optimistically christened Fission Avenue and Nuclear Road, and the school, Candu High, paid homage to the first Canadian-designed nuclear reactor. The town’s population peaked at 5,500. But over the next thirty years the precious ore slowly ran out, and by 1982 the last mine closed. Entire neighbourhoods were abandoned. Cars were left to rust where they were last parked. The movie theatre closed. The police left. Last year the hospital shut down.

That night, as I walked the weakly lit gravel roads, the sky glowed with the curling, green waves of the northern lights. I heard a door slam, and in the distance what sounded like drunken laughter. An old pickup truck crunched along the road, then roared off into the darkness. Yet strangely, there was a sense of occasion in the air. As I soon discovered, it was the fiftieth wedding anniversary of Billy and Regina Shott, one of the few couples still living in this unlikely place. They were renewing their vows, and friends and family had been trickling in from all across the north. The town’s population would double, or even triple, with the arrivals. A few locals said it was the last big bash the town would likely ever see. But who knows, the ground still yields surprising gifts. Recently, so-called rare-earth minerals were dug up north of the city. Essential in the manufacturing of television screens, rechargeable batteries, and hydrogen-powered cars, the discovery of these minerals raises the possibility of another mining boom. But anyone who has ever lived in Uranium City knows that predicting the future is like digging blindly in the dirt.

Photograph by Eamon Mac Mahon
With cracked sidewalks and barren roads, Fission Avenue is like a movie set from an old Western. The post office has been relocated to the town jail, there is one gas station, and a clinic is attended by a doctor once a month. Dixie Knox runs the general store. She was born here and says she prefers the more sedate Uranium City of today.
Photograph by Eamon Mac Mahon
Twenty-five kilometres outside Uranium City, Gunnar Mine was one of the largest of more than two dozen mines that surrounded the city. This room was part of an on-site school for the children of miners. Gunnar’s management discouraged workers and their families from travelling to Uranium City to foster a “dry” social environment. When Gunnar closed, most of the furniture, supplies, and machinery were simply left to rot.
Photograph by Eamon Mac Mahon
Drug deals take place in broad daylight and marijuana sells for about twice the usual price. (An eighth of an ounce costs $60.) Uranium City no longer has a police force. Everyone knows each other and violent crime is rare. “You can do whatever the hell you want up here, and nobody cares,” says “Murph,” in the black cowboy hat.
Photograph by Eamon Mac Mahon
There are now about twenty kids growing up in Uranium City. Some are home-schooled. Others take advantage of the town’s only teacher who presides over one class—kindergarten to Grade nine. For high school, teenagers migrate to larger centres such as Prince Albert in Saskatchewan or Fort Smith in the Northwest Territories.
Photograph by Eamon Mac Mahon
Rusted barrels at Gunnar Mine. Environmental regulations in Saskatchewan were not imposed on mines until 1986, four years after the last mine shut down in Uranium City. Gunnar Mine closed in 1964 and was never cleaned up. Since then, it has leaked 4.4 million tonnes of radioactive waste into Lake Athabasca.
Photograph by Eamon Mac Mahon
The water tower at Gunnar Mine. Kids used to boat over from town to leave their mark. Marilyn Mercredi was seventeen when she scrawled her name here (bottom left corner). Mercredi was born and raised in Uranium City, but moved to Prince Albert in August 1983, where she is now a teacher. “I still want to go home every spring,” says Mercredi. “But we really don’t have that option.”

Eamon Mac Mahon is a frequent contributor to The Walrus. He is working on a book about the invisible relationships between humans and nature.

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