But even after writing his biography, I've just gained a new comprehension of what it took to be that maverick in a little book that I just finished reading. It describes the lesser known side of his life, his life as a miner in northern Ontario.
Walter and his brother Jack were able to retire comfortably in their later years because they owned a gold mine. Jack prospected for ten years with financial backing from Walter, before he staked that fortuitous claim in the North Shining Tree Lake district north of Sudbury, the place he found loose gold nuggets on the ground.
This little book, Free Gold, by Arnold Hoffman, written in 1947, describes the story of the mining boom between 1906 and 1945 across the two long faults bridging Ontario and Quebec that made fortunes for many men, but also wore many more out, leaving them broken and penniless.
Walter and Jack's mine was at the far western fringe of that fault line.
What struck me was the hardship, both physically and emotionally, that the prospectors endured.
Prospectors routinely trudged 15 miles a day on snowshoes in minus 40 degree weather, for days on end, carrying just enough food to survive. One bad decision and you were done. Most prospectors went in pairs or small groups for mutual support. Jack, though, was a loner, never mentioning a partner other than Walter, who was busy making money hustling runners to support him. Jack earned the hard way every single thing he eventually enjoyed.
Jack would have agreed with Jack Munroe, one of the great success stories in the camps, when he said, "The world belongs to the energetic!"
But the story really hit home with Walter's personality when it talked about what you did after you staked your rich claim. That's where the hustler thrived.
When word got out that you struck it rich, the world came to you, offers to partner, schemes to snatch up neighbouring claims and the inevitable offers to buy your claim. For many a poor miner the offer of $50,000 or $300,000 was irresistible. As Hoffman says, "We took the cash... the people who came along later, when we had made things easy, they were the buzzards who made the big money".
It was all a gamble for these humble men. Who knows what you were really sitting on. It was going to take a big investment just to find out, an investment you couldn't cover. Most prospectors had to take on investors, partners with money, just to get some cores drilled and assays done. And there were con men and shysters everywhere knocking on your door. The worst were the big money men out of the States, the financiers who knew how to make money. They were hesitant to dip their toes into this free-for-all, but when they did, they took over.
Hoffman describes the situation: "The multiparity of camps, the 'wild' methods of finance, and the fierce independence of the Canadians seemed too much for the American companies, accustomed as they were to dominating their respective bailiwicks."
Walter and Jack were shrewd enough and tough enough to negotiate their path through these pitfalls. They were the quintessential mavericks. They took on no silent partners, they dug the ground themselves and learned the mining business as they went. They dug 25 feet down into the granite rock with pickaxes and a crew of men, using the easy surface gold to finance their operation as they investigated what they actually owned. The vein got thicker the deeper they went.
Again Hoffman speaks right to the situation the Knox brothers faced. "It takes a silver mine to make a gold mine." Silver was easy to scrape out of the ground, gold requires prolonged surface and underground development. The Knox's may have owned a rich gold mine, but they couldn't afford to get the gold out of the ground.
The Knox brothers invested 10 long years of their lives getting a handle on the value of their holdings. All the while the seven neighbouring mines in this gold deposit constantly harassed them, badgering them to sell out or partner up to consolidate and benefit from the economies of scale. One big mine is more profitable than two little ones.
The boys took 10 years to make their move, and when they did they did it right. They sold two thirds of their mine to a New York investment company who promptly made the capital infusion needed to exploit the deeper gold. Walter and Jack by then knew the value of the mine. They were in a strong bargaining position. They were also smart enough to keep a third interest for themselves and had themselves named company executives.
These were two men with sixth grade educations. Their intelligence was more shrewd business sense than academic training. After growing up in the rural horse-trading working man's world, they were now veterans of the gold fields and had seen where other greenhorns had ended up. It must have taken some fortitude to see their project through to the end, to grind through 10 years of hardship with huge financial offers dangling in front of them.
Walter Knox was a fascinating man, a man who was hard to get to know. This little book I read gave me a rare insight into his maverick world, a world he thrived in.
I found my copy at a used book store in Toronto.
Arnold Hoffman, 1947. Free Gold. Rinehart Press, Toronto.