Born in Brewer, Maine in 1856, Francis Hector Clergue was a dynamic man with boundless energy, imagination and vision. Representing a group of Philadelphia financiers, Clergue was initially attracted to Sault Ste. Marie for its hydro-generating potential. After obtaining power generation rights on both sides of the St. Mary’s River and constructing a 20,000 horsepower facility, Clergue set his sights on seeking out and creating his own industries to consume this electricity.
In 1898, prospectors Alois Goetz and Ben Boyer unearthed a rich iron vein on the mountain north of Wawa Lake. A sample of ore from this vein was placed on Clergue’s desk. He immediately purchased the claims and began developing the Helen Mine (named after one of his sisters). Clergue recognized that Wawa’s resource rich wilderness was the fuel to feed his industrial empire in Sault Ste. Marie.
By 1901, trains on the Algoma Central and Hudson’s Bay Railway were carrying ore, freight and people on the 12 mile line from Wawa to Michipicoten Harbour. That same year, the inaugural fleet of the Algoma Central Steamship Lines was carrying ore, pulpwood and supplies to Sault Ste. Marie and across the Great Lakes. In 1903 the newly constructed Algoma Steel plant on the north bank of the St. Mary’s River was receiving haematite iron ore from the open pit operations at the Helen Mine. With the assistance of his brothers Ernest Victor and Bertrand Joseph, F.H. Clergue opened the Josephine iron mine near Hawk Junction, and the Grace and Gertrude gold mines south of Wawa Lake (all named after the Clergue sisters).
Clergue’s greatest desire was not so much to build a profitable empire, but more the satisfaction of taming a wilderness and hearing it hum with the sound of industry. Within 5 years of the Wawa iron discovery, construction crews were busy laying tracks north of Sault Ste. Marie for a main line of the AC&HB Railway optimistically setting its sites on the shores of the Hudson’s Bay. Bush workers combed the Algoma forests cutting railway ties, lumber, and pulpwood to fuel railroad construction and the St. Mary’s Pulp & Paper Mill. The Algoma wilderness attracted waves of ambitious prospectors staking every rock outcrop and mountain that had potential for gold, iron, silver, copper and lead.
F.H. Clergue and his siblings frequently visited the Michipicoten area. His brother Ernest Victor was a partner in the Lake Superior Power Corporation which was responsible for construction of the High Falls power generating station on the Michipicoten River in 1904. Ernest was also one of the first managing supervisors at the Helen Mine until a heart attack on a particularly rugged Wawa portage sent him back to the U.S. for medical treatment and his untimely death. While in Wawa, the Clergue family would stay in the Factor’s grand home at the Michipicoten Hudson’s Bay Co. Post or at Francis’ 2-storey home on a tiny island in Michipicoten Harbour named Wigwam Island.
F.H.Clergue’s visions were not always supported by sound financial principal. Although history records his poor administrative skills, his unprecedented legacy to the growth and development of Algoma has never been denied. Clergue died in 1939 in Montreal. His summer home in Michipicoten Harbour was washed off the Island during a violent November gale the next year. Remnants of the lilacs, rose bushes and hawthorns planted at the H.B.Co. post by the Clergue sisters can still be found at the abandoned post site and scattered throughout gardens in Wawa. Much like Clergue’s industrial empire, these hardy stems continue to survive the test of time and have adapted themselves to thrive in our rugged northern Algoma landscape.