Community Memories from Hugh S. Fraser

Dad beside bush plane undated

Hugh S. Fraser was a true Thompson pioneer!

"The axemen and trainees-—and later most of the geophysical foremen-—came from the local reservations and communities such as Thicket Portage, Nelson House, Cross Lake, Norway House, and Oxford House. They were excellent men, and I don't think we could have done without them. They showed us how to get around in the wilderness.”

Although INCO had been in the area since 1946, Hugh first came to the present-day Thompson region in 1950 when he worked for the company as a summer student and for part of each winter while attending the University of Manitoba. Before that, he had gained experience with the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC).  In 1953, after receiving a BSc degree, Hugh was permanently hired by INCO, Sudbury Division, and was sent back to Northern Manitoba where he worked out of exploration base camps for six years. In February, 1956, he and his geophysical crew discovered the nickel “motherlode — the ore body — that led to the development at Thompson. 

Besides the Thompson find in 1956, Hugh was also involved in discoveries at Ferguson Lake, NWT in 1950, Moak Lake, MB in 1952 and Birchtree, MB in 1962. Hugh recalled that the first main INCO exploration base camp he worked out of was located at Bowden Lake (Wabowden), then Grass River, Mystery Lake and Moak Lake respectively.

He described a typical day in the field: ”We would get up about six in the morning, and we'd usually have to make our own meals if we were out in the field and away from the base camp. After breakfast, you'd wash your dishes, and we'd be out in the bush by 8:00 a.m. On an anomaly crew of three men, we'd walk anywhere from one to five miles with gear on our backs weighing as much as 80 pounds to do geophysical work. Half way to the anomaly, it might rain so hard that you had to turn back and dry your clothes out. In the winter, we faced weather that could be -60.

During those early exploration days, Hugh describes how crews got around by aircraft generally and by canoe and on foot in order to access specific areas. "You had to be a good bushman to be able to handle a canoe and an axe, to be able to find your way around with a compass, and not be afraid of cold weather and wilderness. So to be hired on in the first place, you had to be a bushman.”

Hugh says that local Cree workers were routinely hired by INCO. "The core of the technical men would be geologists and geophysicists who were hired by INCO, mostly from Sudbury. The axemen and trainees-—and later most of the geophysical foremen-—came from the local reservations and communities such as Thicket Portage, Nelson House, Cross Lake, Norway House, and Oxford House. They were excellent men, and I don't think we could have done without them. They showed us how to get around in the wilderness.

From 1950 to ’53, Hugh’s family remained in Copper Cliff and Sudbury while he spent most of his time in and around the future Thompson site. Working “seven days a week” as he describes, Hugh travelled back and forth from Northern Manitoba to Ontario to visit his family only during freeze-ups and break-ups because work could not continue during those times. 

In June of 1953, Hugh’s wife Doreen and son Hugh John were moved by the company from Ontario to Thicket Portage where they lived for approximately six months in a canvas tent on a wood frame. Because of its rail acess to the South, INCO had set up facilities there, including an assay lab.

In about December of 1953, Hugh’s wife and eldest son moved back to the Sudbury area where second son, Stuart, was born in May of ’54. Doreen and the two children returned to Northern Manitoba in July, only this time to Mystery Lake base camp where they lived in a framed house until 1956. There was one other family living there with them at the time. 

The family was again relocated by the company in early spring of 1956 to a larger exploration base camp at Moak Lake. Here, the family eventually lived in a well appointed modular prefab home manufactured by Butler Buildings of the USA and transporetd in pieces by Cat-train over ice road. There was electricity supplied by the camps Diesel generator, but there was no plumbing, no running water and no phone. The house had a living room, dining room, kitchen, bedrooms, a bathroom and a screened-in veranda overlooking the lake. At its peak, there were generally six other families in the community as well.

INCO had visions for Moak Lake. Even after discovery of the Thompson orebody, the company seriously considered continuing with the development of an open pit and underground mine, mill, refinery, railroad, power plant and town for nearly 2,000 employees at Moak Lake. Those plans were jettisoned, however, in favour of the development of the Thompson site only.

It was during that time when he worked out of the Mystery Lake/Moak Lake base camps that Hugh was often away from home for long periods while engaged in field exploration that eventually resulted in the discovery in 1956 of a significant ore body that led to the development of the present-day Thompson mine and townsite a year later.

In November of 1959, the Fraser family moved from Moak Lake to one of the first housing developments in the Juniper Drive area within the new “planned community” of Thompson. The townsite was efficiently designed with an outer ring-road that encircled neighbourhoods consisting of cul-de-sacs, crescents and bays—a design that maximized use of space. For the first time in the family’s history, Hugh was home most of the time, employed as a senior geologist in an office at the Thompson plant site. And for the first time, eldest son Hugh John attended a real school in December—grade 5 at Juniper School.

Having just come out of a bush camp, Hugh describes the family’s first two-storey house on Cypress Crescent. “Our youngest son had rarely seen a flush toilet before, so he kept flushing it time and again when we first moved in. The telephone was another fascination that he couldn’t get enough of. Stairs—one set to the second level and one to the basement—were something we werent used to.” 

The house itself, he recalls, was surrounded by mud. “But we had plumbing, water and sewer services, and a driveway for our car—things we had not enjoyed up until then.” Previously, Hugh recalled, the family car was kept in The Pas. “We would travel by train to The Pas, pick up the car, and then take the highway south to the Winnipeg area to visit family and to vacation. 

Hugh was inducted into INCO’s Quarter Century Club in 1975 and, after a long career with the company, he retired in 1982. It was during this time that he researched and wrote his book A Journey North: The Great Thompson Nickel Discovery, published by INCO in 1985. He moved to Winnipeg where he passed away on January 6, 1996 after a lengthy battle with cancer. He was predeceased by his wife, Doreen, in 1977.

Hugh S. Fraser’s eldest son, Hugh John and his wife Penny still reside in the Thompson area. Hugh junior’s son Chris, daughter Megan, and his two grandchildren all live in Thompson. Hugh senior’s youngest son, Stuart, resides in Ottawa.

>History of Mining in Thompson & Area

>Manitoba Historical Society "Memorable Manitobans: Hugh Stewart Fraser (1921-1996)"

Interview: CBC Radio Thompson

Interview (audio only): CKY TV Winnipeg

Interview: CHTM Radio Thompson

>More Community Memories