Silver Islet, thirty kilometres east of Thunder Bay, Ontario, where I was born and raised, was one of the richest silver mines in the world during 1870−1884. Bill MacDonald’s most recent work of creative non-fiction, Happy-Go-Lucky: Silver Islet Shenanigans (Borealis Press, 2013), offers a fantastic new account of the brief but spectacular fourteen years during which silver was mined from deep beneath the waters of northern Lake Superior.
A great deal has been written about the historical and cultural significance of Silver Islet—some true, some legend. MacDonald brings us a new voice, that of the islet’s most surprising historian, resident and employee of Happy-Go-Lucky, a young prostitute named Lucy Bessemer, whose diary was “discovered” after renovations to an old dwelling.
On August 12, 1872, Lucy begins her candid diary, recording the mine’s and miners’ intimate secrets, which she learns from men of varying ranks during their visits to the “house of joy.” We meet her co-workers and confidants, who, along with most of the town’s other residents, depart for greener pastures when the mine begins to decline. Unlike her friends, Lucy decides to stay at Silver Islet long after the mine’s steam engine has ceased pumping and the mine is left to flood.
In her final entry on July 10, 1884, Lucy recalls the prophetic words of William B. Frue, a mining superintendent who predicted that Silver Islet would one day become a ghost town. Lucy would be delighted to know that the only ghosts there are the ones we invented as children, playing hide-and-seek in the old cemetery and telling spooky stories around campfires— and perhaps the odd spirit of one of the silver mine’s dearly departed.