The Day Albert Zeemel Shot an Elephant

This 1950s ad from the Toronto Star Weekly for Red Strap overalls featured Lee River’s Albert Zeemel, known widely at the time for his uranium discovery in Saskatchewan. The ad used a photo of Zeemel that originally ran in the Financial Post. Artwork courtesy Levi Strauss

Not many of us can claim to have immortalized an entire city, but a late member of the Lac du Bonnet community went down in history as having done just that.

While working as a prospector and geologist, Lee River’s Albert Zeemel made an important mineral discovery in 1952 that led to the economic boom of Saskatchewan’s famed Uranium City. It’s quite a story, and one that Albert’s widow Olive Zeemel — now 101 years old and living in Winnipeg — tells with much zeal.

The setting is Lee River, 1940. Olive, who was working as a schoolteacher, married Albert that year. They soon moved to Beresford Lake (a couple hours northeast of Lac du Bonnet) after Albert got a job at the gold mine there owned by Gunnar Mines. “I didn’t want him to be a prospector because they’re away from home so much,” Olive says. “That’s why we moved to Beresford Lake the year we got married, so he could work underground and be close to home.”

When the gold mine closed, the company (owned by legendary Toronto mining magnate Gilbert LaBine) asked Albert if he would stay on board with Gunnar Mines as a prospector. He and Olive soon moved to northern Ontario, and Albert was away a lot living the life of a prospector. In fact, he was away on business in 1952 on their 12th anniversary when he literally hit pay dirt.

Canadian history picks up the story from there. Macleans magazine writer Ronald Schiller reported in the early 1950s that one day in the summer of 1952, LaBine received a radiogram in Toronto from Albert, who was at Lake Athabaska in northern Saskatchewan looking for uranium deposits. “Come quick,” the message read. “I’ve shot an elephant.”

The word “elephant” was LaBine’s code word for a uranium strike. The claim, which was registered in the name of Gunnar Gold Mines, was at the time the richest uranium find made anywhere. News of the discovery set off reactions around the world, Schiller reported.

“In Toronto, Gunnar stock jumped from 40 cents to $12 a share. In many parts of Canada and the United States, and as far away as Saudi Arabia and South Africa, mining men dropped what they were doing and bought plane tickets north. In Washington, atomic energy commissioners, faced with a serious shortage of uranium, breathed a sigh of relief. And in Ottawa officials of Canada’s government-owned Eldorado Mining & Refining Ltd. shook their heads in chagrin.”

Albert’s discovery was a stunning blow to Eldorado, Schiller writes. “The Gunnar claim lay only 24 miles from theirs. Its ore was not only cleaner and richer, but more plentiful. Moreover, it lay so close to the surface that most of it could he mined by open-pit methods at a fraction of the cost of underground mining.”

Albert Zeemel was originally from Lee River and worked as a prospector. He became so knowledgeable and respected that he was often referred to as a geologist. Zeemel family collection

A community named Uranium City was located here, approximately 760 km northeast of Edmonton. As a result of Albert’s find, the community boomed. Its population would grow to over 5,000, the threshold required to achieve city status in the province. Albert was rewarded well for his hard work in discovering the deposit — he got $5,000 cash (the equivalent of $46,000 today) and 45,000 shares of Gunnar Mines.

Albert sold his shares a few years later when the share price rose and the couple moved to Winnipeg to be near family. What made Albert’s find even more amazing was the fact that he never actually received his accreditation as a geologist, despite often being referred to as one.

“He often said he graduated from the school of hard knocks,” Olive says. “There was one time Gilbert LaBine sent Albert out to appraise a potential mining property, and the property owner got angry and asked Gilbert, ‘Why did you send an ordinary prospector and not a geologist?’ Gilbert said, ‘Albert knows as much as any geologist you’ll ever meet.’ It was a real feather in Albert’s cap for him to be considered that way.”

Of course, history added some dramatic flair to the whole story, according to Olive. “He always denied having said that bit about having ‘shot an elephant,’ she says with a laugh. “As far as Albert could remember, he didn’t say those words, but it became part of the story nonetheless.”

Albert passed away in 1980 at the age of 69, but his story lives on and is well-known by many Lac du Bonnet residents who remember Albert. “Albert always had a lot of stories about his prospecting days,” Olive says. “A prospector lives on dreams, and I guess Albert’s came true that day in 1952.”

Uranium City was a thriving community until 1982. The closure of the mines that year led to most residents of the community leaving. Uranium City now has a population of only 73, according to the 2016 census.

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