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Then and Now: In 1923, Ernest Hemingway called Sudbury’s moonscape ‘the weirdest country I have ever seen’

The famed writer came north on assignment for The Toronto Star, hoping to get the scoop on a coal deposit
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Ernest Hemingway wrote "Search for Sudbury Coal a Gamble, Driller Tells of What He Has Found" for The Toronto Star in 1923.

Ernest Hemingway is a towering figure of 20th century American literature and his celebrated life is the subject of a recent excellent three-part Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary series on PBS

Before his first novel was published, Hemingway was a reporter and it is often noted by biographers that he perfected his simple, unadorned style of writing during his days at The Toronto Star from 1920 to 1924.

Hemingway was just 20 when he started to freelance for The Star. In 1921, he went to Paris as the paper's foreign correspondent. Between August and December 1923, he returned to Toronto and worked out of the King Street newsroom. 

He visited Sudbury in September 1923 to research his article "Search for Sudbury Coal a Gamble, Driller Tells of What He Has Found." 

The discovery of coal in northeastern Ontario near rich nickel resources would have created an estimated 35,000 jobs and would have been a transformative event for the province. 

It would have been a big scoop. But as Hemingway had already surmised, it turned out be just wishful thinking by a shady promoter. 

When the journalist's wife, Hadley, was in the last trimester of her pregnancy, Hemingway asked for assignments close to home. Instead, his boss, city editor Harry Hindmarsh, who didn't like the boastful American, sent him to Sudbury to follow-up on a report that a Toronto geologist, Alfred Coyne, had found coal deposits north of Chelmsford.

Just a few months after drinking sangria in sunny Pamplona, Spain, and watching the running of the bulls, Hemingway, then 24, found himself on a train bound for Sudbury. 

He arrived at night and noted there were many "girls" on the street, numerous Chinese restaurants, "an abundance of red brick buildings and plenty of street lights." He heard French spoken in the bars where "real" beer was on tap. (Although Prohibition lasted until 1927, Ontario allowed the sale of light beer in 1923.)

Hemingway stayed at the Nickel Range Hotel on Elm Street. (The hotel was demolished in 1976.) How do we know this? In an October 1924 article for The Transatlantic Review  about the death of novelist Joseph Conrad, Hemingway noted, "In Sudbury, Ontario, I bought three back numbers of the Pictorial Review (a women's magazine) and read (Conrad's) The Rover sitting up in bed in the Nickle (sic) Range Hotel."*

The reporter contacted the offices of the Ontario Diamond Drilling Company and arranged to be driven out to the Larchwood site to observe the drilling operation. 

On route he described the blackened landscape as the "weirdest country I have ever seen" with all vegetation destroyed by sulphur smoke from the roasting beds. 

Thomas Watson, a Scot, in charge of the drilling operation for the British Colonial Coal Mine, told Hemingway that drilling in the area had only found "humph coal," a useless black substance.

A geologist at the Royal Ontario Museum who examined samples confirmed the Larchwood rock was anthraxolite, which looks like anthracite hard coal, but does not have the high carbon content to create fuel. 

Hemingway's story was published Sept. 25, 1923, in The Star. Further drilling efforts in 1926 were unsuccessful and efforts to develop a coal mine were abandoned in 1927. There was no coal to be found in Sudbury.

A few weeks after his trip to the Nickel City, Hemingway was sent to New York City to cover a visit by British prime minister David Lloyd George. He was on the train returning to Toronto when his son was born Oct. 10. 

The Hemingways had planned to stay in Toronto a year to ensure Hadley and baby Jack would have access to good medical care. After four months in Toronto, Hemingway had enough of Hindmarsh and the city he considered a cultural wilderness.

He and his young family returned to Paris in January 1924. Hemingway continued to file stories occasionally to The Star. Two years later, he published the acclaimed novel, The Sun Also Rises, set in Spain.

During his life Hemingway would complain about Toronto as staid and conservative and he blamed Hindmarsh, who would eventually become publisher of The Star, for causing him to miss the birth of his son.

In an unpublished letter written in 1952, Hemingway wrote, "I would like to propose that Harry Hindmarsh should burn in hell.”  **

Hemingway kept his Star clippings until his death by suicide in 1961 and they are preserved in his archives at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, Mass. Researchers can read them but they are not allowed to touch them.

Vicki Gilhula is a freelance writer. She is a former editor of Northern Life and Sudbury Living, and has a special interest in local history. Then and Now is made possible by our Community Leaders Program

Sources
Ernest Hemingway, Dateline Toronto, edited by William White, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1985
* Conrad, Optimist and Moralist  Transatlantic Review, October 1924, republished in By-line Ernest Hemingway, Selected Articles and Dispatches of Four Decades, edited by William White, Scribner, 1967
** The Hemingway Papers, The Toronto Star, 2012