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Then & Now: That time Thomas Edison came to Sudbury and other famous visitors

VIP visitors include pioneering female journalist Kit Coleman, writer Ernest Hemingway, physicist Stephen Hawking and actor Ethan Hawke

In the fall of 1982, the city's unemployment rate was close to 30 per cent. Macleans contributor Ian Austen visited Sudbury to cover its economic woes for the national news magazine. Sudbury residents will get a giggle out of what he wrote.

"While it might seem strange to southern outsiders, who often assume life in Sudbury is the next best thing to a stint in prison, many of the laid-off workers maintain a striking loyalty to their city."

What do southerners know?

Despite Sudbury's rough mining town reputation — a reputation that that has been almost impossible to shake — many celebrated people have visited the Nickel City. They are interested in the unique geology and rich mineral resources, and since the 1980s, the efforts to repair the environment destroyed by industry.

The list of distinguished visitors, at least in the first part of the 20th century, is noteworthy because Sudbury was a small town in the middle of nowhere and accessible only by train. Regular commercial air service did not start until 1954. Highway 69 was not completed until 1960.

Kit Coleman, a Canadian newspaper columnist and pioneering female journalist, lived in Copper Cliff in 1900 when her husband, Theobald Coleman, was employed as a company doctor for the Canadian Copper Company. It is safe to say she was not delighted by life in the frontier mining town. In 1901, the Colemans moved to Hamilton.

Coleman was the world's first accredited female war correspondent, covering the Spanish-American War in Cuba for The Toronto Mail and was the first president of the Canadian Women's Press Club.

American inventor Thomas Edison had an office in Sudbury from 1901 to 1903 while he prospected in the Falconbridge area hoping to find a supply of nickel for the alkaline battery he developed for an electric car engine. Discouraged by quicksand and financial losses, he shut down his operations and returned to his home in New Jersey.

A street in Falconbridge, as well as the Edison Building, formerly Falconbridge Ltd.'s head office, which now houses the city's archives, are named for the famous inventor.

Ernest Hemingway, the American novelist, visited Sudbury in September 1923 when he worked for The Toronto Star. He was investigating rumours coal had been discovered north of Chelmsford. If true, a coal mine would have created 35,000 jobs.

His story, headlined ‘Search for Sudbury Coal’, was published in the Sept. 25, 1923 edition of the Star. With the help of a geologist, he concluded the black coal-like material was anthraxolite and not suitable for fuel.

The most notable guests after Royalty are the Apollo 16 and 17 astronauts who trained here in the early 1970s. The astronauts visited the area to observe shatter cones and breccia formations formed from the meteorite that created the Sudbury Basin some 1.85 billion years ago.

In 2009, representatives of NASA and the Canadian Space Agency tested unmanned moon mining vehicles at NORCAT.

Science North has had many visits from VIPs, including Everest mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary (1987), and world-famous chimpanzee researcher Jane Goodall (2002).

Renowned physicist Stephen Hawking visited the city twice. Hawking attended the grand opening of SNOLAB, Sudbury's neutrino observatory underground at Creighton Mine in April 1998 and returned for a SNOLAB tour in September 2012.

Actors Andy Garcia, Paul Gross, Forest Whitaker, Eva Longoria, Ryan Reynolds and Ethan Hawke have been spotted while they were shooting movies here.

Hawke, who stayed in Sudbury for four weeks in October and November 2014 shooting "Born to be Blue" told the Toronto Star in 2016, "Sudbury's 'not a great place to be in the winter,' although he said it had one big thing over locations like Paris: “No distractions." 

What do New Yorkers know? Also, Hawke was not here in the winter.

The number of A-list entertainers who have performed here is impressive for a mid-sized Canadian city and include AC/DC, Celine Dion, Elton John, Bob Dylan, Michael Bublé, Shania Twain, Dire Straits and KISS.

There's an urban legend that rocker Bryan Adams vowed to never play in the city again after he was hit with a beer bottle tossed on stage when he performed at Sudbury Arena in January 1984, about 10 months before the release of "Reckless", his breakthrough album that made him a global star.

A former Sudbury journalist who attended the concert says this is not true. Kennedy Gordon, in an April 4, 2012, article for the Peterborough Examiner wrote Adams tripped and fell, cracking his head on a huge speaker. A roadie cleaned up the gash while Adams continued to sing. During the encore, people threw things at the stage, but no beer bottles. A coin hit Adams in the face and he walked off the stage saying "I don't appreciate being thrown things at." Adams returned to play Sudbury Arena in 2009 and 2012.

The Dave Clark Five, once as big as The Beatles, flopped in Sudbury in 1965 and might be forgiven for leaving town with a negative impression. 

The British band issued 23 singles in Canada between 1964 and 1968 and had several No. 1 hits. Only 1,500 tickets were sold for the DC5 performance at Sudbury Arena July 23, 1965. 

The band cost $10,000 to book. Organizers told the media poor attendance was the result of the steep ticket price. There’s no record of what that ticket price was. (The cost of tickets to see The Beatles at Maple Leaf Gardens that same year was $5.50.)

And as for Ian Austen, he is now a correspondent for The New York Times. Most recently, he reported from Sudbury in January 2019 about the city's Francophone population. The headline: “Ontario Has Francophones? Oui, Beaucoup, and They’re Angry.” No mention of prison stints this time. 

Vicki Gilhula is a freelance writer in Greater Sudbury. She writes mostly about history for Sudbury.com. Then & Now is made possible by our Community Leaders Program