Asbestos We Can: Thetford Mines

April 16, 2014 — You know those stories where we dig too deep into the ground and unleash some unholy ancient terror on the populace? Those are all based on a true story…the story of asbestos.

Scared just hearing the word, right? Well, when asbestos was discovered, it was a miracle substance. Could stop fire, rust, sound, rot, teenage entertainers. But every time you get a Superman, you get a Lex Luthor. The extremely useful building material that was so popular in the mid-1900s also graciously gave people cancer. And it did so in a nightmare-inducing way.

The stuff only gets dangerous when it particlizes. So, dust from mining operations, construction work on the house next door, a crumbling ceiling tile above a Kindergarten class. The microscopic filaments drift in the air, get inhaled into some poor soul’s respiratory system, and then gestates for a couple of decades until, ding, you’ve got lung cancer. Maybe mesothelioma.

A lot of it was Canada’s fault. That’s right…nice, inoffensive, friendly neighbor Canada. It was the number one producer of asbestos in the world, and most of it came from the province of Quebec. Heck, there’s even a town called Asbestos there, the residents of which, I assume, hate it when people say, “Asbestos gives you cancer.” Or maybe it’s on their welcome sign, I don’t know. I wasn’t going to Asbestos. I was going 60 miles northeast of that town, to see the majestic, unnatural wonder of the open pit mines of the town of Thetford Mines.

As its name and the above paragraphs suggest, Thetford Mines was built around large deposits of asbestos way back in 1876. Here I’d like to say, “Before we even identified that class of diseases that is cancer,” but cancer’s been called out since the B.C. era.

Cancer is literally ancient history, even if we can’t yet make it ancient history.

Anyway, this area of Quebec is a bit out of the way and very French-language, so I wasn’t extremely confident about finding my way close to its mines. We were coming from the north, as we’d been visiting the old walled city of Quebec. The quickest route from there to the U.S. border doesn’t go past Thetford Mines, but it wasn’t too hard to adjust our course. I just had to promise my family that we’d see really cool things…and, man, did I accidentally deliver.

I’d heard that Highway 112 featured an overlook of one of the pit mines just south of town, and judging by Google Satellite View, once we passed the town, we’d have a decent chance of driving right over the edge of a mine without really even trying. However, as we got to that area, Highway 112 ended at a chain-link fence and lots of signs in French that seemed to be telling us the road was shut down. One of the signs depicted an avalanche. That kinda sucked.

We swung a left onto Rue Du Lac-Noir, which took us into a residential area. Almost immediately, we noticed on one side of the rue a set of steps heading up a hill and a banner in French that seemed to be labeling something for the attention of passersby.

Well, we were passersby, so we parked in an adjacent lot and self-consciously headed toward the stairs. I say self-consciously because directly across the street a group of locals were sitting in plastic chairs and drinking beer in their undershirts just outside the doorway of a nondescript building like they were in a makeshift pub. I kept waiting for one of them to yell the French equivalent of, “What do you think you’re doing going over there.” But nobody said anything as we ascended the stairs…where we found ourselves at the edge of Black Lake. At least, those were the two words I could read on the banner.

Suddenly the name of the road made a lot more sense, although I’m still not quite sure what Black Lake is. We were at a lookout point that looked in two opposite direction. In one direction was a wet pit mine, very lake-like, not black. On the other side, the town spread below us, a town that had at one point been called Black Lake before Thetford Mines subsumed it.

Either way, whether the pit was called Black Lake or the town or both, no less than five placards told its history. All in French, of course, so that’s why I still don’t know the story.

The pit had sloping gray, striated walls that ended at the bottom in water of an almost teal color, completely still. It was like the sky rained bleach in that town or God had lost the brown, green, and blue crayons, and this is how the landscape ended up. It was strange, perhaps beautiful, but it wasn’t much to look at for very long. Also, because we were basically at a level with it, it didn’t give me that vertiginous feeling I had been looking for from peering down into a pit more than a thousand feet deep.

From there, we just drove around, finding ourselves traversing a no-man’s land of what looked like abandoned mining buildings and chutes and less identifiable equipment and structures. In fact, they were abandoned—although I did see some cars parked on some of the properties—shut down just like the asbestos trade in Canada itself. Oddly, that’s only really happened in the past couple of years, and only after a long, contentious fight by the country and region to preserve an industry that has been the sole reason for the surrounding towns and, I assume, an unnatural number of ailments per capita.

While driving around, I achieved a life milestone…seeing my first moose in the wild, which seems like it’d be more of an integral part of this story than the sentence I’m giving it, but I gave the encounter its own post soon after it happened. Honestly, the moose was more awe-inspiring than the mesothelioma mines. It’s also not as bummer of a topic, so I suggest reading the after you finish the next few paragraphs.

We eventually found our way back to the section of closed-off highway. Looking through the fence we actually spotted the lookout point that we had been originally looking out for, but there was no way to get there without being stupid. However, once I knew about where the mine was, I was able to find a turnoff close by and see the pit from a lower and, since it wasn’t set up for tourists, probably a more dangerous vantage. Basically, no fence between us and the edge.

The pit was similar to the other in that it had gray striated walls and a bottom covered in weird water, but it was much, much wider and much, much deeper. And the remnants of dirt roads spiraling down into its depths were more prominent. My photos are doing my impression no justice on this one. I’ve seen pictures of it from the higher viewpoint and when it was dry, and the pit looks terrifying and seems to be exactly the place where you want to chain apocalypse demons until show time.

In the end, between the pits and the moose and the French signs and the isolation and emptiness, it was one of my more interesting northeast jaunts, although probably not worth all the cancer cases.

And speaking of tragedies, our visit happened on the exact same day of the terrible Lac-Mégantic derailment, which went down just forty minutes from our route. We didn’t learn about the disaster until we arrived home later that night.

Now go read about that moose.