Ghosts of the past in the present

Updated below.

In 1972 I ferried CF-ZVU, a Bell 47G-4a, to Nachikapau Lake in northern Québec, not far from the Ungava. It was a mostly uneventful job, with the usual minor mechanical problems encountered during slightly over 300 hours of flight time. I was accompanied by another Bell 47 on that job. It was flown by Gerry Duykers, who was also the engineer for both machines. A young Marcel Payant was our apprentice.

We were there to fly a gravity survey of the region for the Geological Survey of Canada – nothing unusual in itself. It was just another summer contract in a long list over the years. For the most part, these summer flying  jobs were uneventful. Viking’s well-maintained fleet of helicopters and the engineers that kept them that way ensured the safety of the pilots that flew them and the passengers that rode in them.

The job began as usual, with the day-long up-and-down series of flights required for the gravity survey. We went from one area to others within the Labrador Trough, eventually settling in a location that would hold some interest for me – although I didn’t realize it at the time.

While reviewing the topological charts for this new survey region with the party chief, I recognized what appeared to be the first names of family members used on elevation markings. There were more than a few that appeared familiar to me. When I asked the obvious question, I was told that when the area was originally surveyed (in the 1920s and ’30s), some geologists did in fact use the names of family members to identify their elevation/reference points. Remarkably to me, we were using those same points during this part of our survey.

Crossing paths with history

Later, when I got back to Ottawa and did some research, I discovered that the geologist Dr. Joseph A. Retty [1], a relative, had previously surveyed the region during the ‘20s and ‘30s. As was the custom of surveyors at the time, he gave many of his elevation points the first names of his family members – which much later turned out to be my family also.

Dr. Joseph A. Retty, known as "Père Ungava"

Dr. Joseph A. Retty, known as "Père Ungava". Photo from the Canadian Mining Hall of Fame.

Joe Retty, known as “Père Ungava” for the mineral exploration he did in the Ungava region, was prominently associated with the advent of large-scale mining developments in the Labrador wilderness south of the Ungava. During the period of 1936 to 1938, with the assistance of an Indian trapper known as Mathieu André, Retty proved the existence of at least 100 million tons of high-grade iron ore in the region, centered on a find at Burnt Creek. Later, while employed by the Québec Bureau of Mines, he wrote several published geological reports concerning the area.

The February, 1954 Popular Mechanics magazine has an article on the construction of the railway from Sept. Isles to Knob Lake, entitled The Iron Road to Labrador. A picture of the Burnt Creek campsite is on page 124.

In 1936 Retty joined the Labrador Mining and Exploration Company as a consultant. He described the Labrador Trough, in which the richest and most extensive deposits of iron ore occur. By 1942 Hollinger had acquired effective control of the mining rights to the region reported on by Retty. Seven years later, the Iron Ore Company of Canada was formed.[2]

[1] Note that Dr. Retty’s dates (1904-1961) as formerly presented in the Canadian Mining Hall of Fame were incorrect. Many of the geological reports subsequently written referencing the results of Dr. Retty’s own geological surveys make mention of the incorrect dates. For years, report authors have unwittingly referenced the incorrect entry in the Hall of Fame database. I have written to correct the error and have received assurance that the edit will be made.

Updated February 22, 2010: Joe Retty’s Canadian Mining Hall of Fame entry has been corrected.

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[2] Some information from Thomson, Donald Walter Men and Meridians – The History of Surveying and Mapping in Canada. Ottawa, Queen’s Printer. 1966-1969. 3 volumes.

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