Since I had taught public school, Victoria College recommended me for a student mission field. I was very pleased with the opportunity to get some experience as well as to earn a little money toward tuition and board. My salary would be $8.00 per week and hopefully, my board.
Atikokan was a divisional point on the railroad 140 miles between Port Arthur and Fort Frances. Engines were serviced, repairs made, and supplies of coal and water provided for the trip on to Fort Frances and Winnipeg. Most of the men worked at the service shops for the engines. One small general store served the community of about twenty families. At Mine Centre some 15 miles west, a few men cut pulp wood, others served on the railroad section gangs repairing and maintaining the railroad tracks for passenger as well as freight trains.
When I arrived on a Friday night at Atikokan from Toronto at the end of April, I was pleased to see the large crowd at the station. I hardly expected such a reception. I soon learned this happened whenever a passenger train was due. Most of the inhabitants showed up to see the passengers who usually detrained for 15 minutes or so to exercise, walking on the platform while the train was cooled up and watered. Further, it was disappointing to find no one knew a student minister was coming for the summer. I met the station agent, a very stout, friendly person who informed me there was one hotel in the town used mostly by the C.N.R. train men. A room for overnight was $1.50 and breakfast was extra. After a good sleep on this my first wilderness experience alone, and a light breakfast, I went back to have a talk with the agent. As soon as he caught up on his work, sending telegrams, etc., he took time to tell me about the rather sordid state of the community. It had never had a student minister and he did not think that time had come. Therefore he strongly recommended I leave my trunk with my worldly possessions, some books and clothes, in the express office until Monday morning when I could catch the train back to Toronto.
My reply was simply, "I have been sent here by the United Church of Canada through the Toronto Conference to fulfil certain responsibilities, such as organizing and conducting worship services, Sunday schools, friendly gatherings of the people, sharing and trying to help meet their needs. I intend to stay until the first week of September unless I am carried out feet first before then." And his response, "If that is the way you feel you can come and live with me for a week. My wife and daughter are shopping in Winnipeg for a week. All the houses here are small family size, but perhaps the women's group will be able to find some accommodation for you." That sounded encouraging. So I moved in with him, asked for the names and addresses of a few of the ladies and began my visiting and looking for a place to live for the summer.
After a meeting with the ladies, all members of the Women's Institute, I was taken to see their meeting place at the end of the ball field on the undeveloped side of the town. This plain frame building about 20 feet wide and 50 feet long was at first sight not uninviting. A large kitchen at one end with enough dishes to feed a large gathering, a very polished wooden floor in the centre of the building for meetings, and a small enclosure at the far end that might serve as my bedroom. I accepted with thanks the opportunity for living accommodation. I moved in.
In about two weeks time countless hundreds of mosquitoes and black flies moved in through the spaces between the warped siding boards. I went for help. The ladies said they would make mosquito bars to fit over my bed, and that I could get in under the mosquito bar and undress, and dress before I got out in the morning. That was the survival plan. And I followed it to a "t". Twice a month on Saturday evening the community dance was held from about 10:30 p.m. to 4 or 5 a.m. Sunday morning. Of course they would borrow my bedroom for the orchestra.
I could arrange every other Saturday to be at Mine Centre where I was invited to live with Mr. & Mrs. Hoover and son Kenneth in a frame cottage-style house with wooden stove and water carried by buckets from a nearby small lake. It was comfortable and very quiet, a week-end to write home about. I travelled from Atikokan to Mine Centre by C.N.R. train on student tickets supplied by the Home Mission Board. It was a pleasant trip through bush, rocky terrain and a few small lakes. And I always knew at the end of the summer that train would take me back to Toronto.
A young doctor came from Fort Frances once a month. I would walk with him over rocks and bush trails to a geological survey camp at Atikokan's Steep Rock Lake.
Drilling operations were under way to assess the iron ore body showing on all the high rocks around the lake, and hopefully beneath Steep Rock Lake. Sometimes the geology team walked in to Atikokan to attend the Sunday morning service and to meet some of the congregation, and perhaps to cheer me up. It was good to have them there.
In two years' time it was decided to bring very large pumps from Holland to pump the lake dry, but first to change the course of the Atikokan River to empty into another lake. When that was completed in four or five years' time, the lake was gone and open pit mining was begun. The iron ore was of very high grade, next to the iron mines in Minnesota, U.S.A.
I remember having a boys' summer camp for a week on Steep (Rock) Lake up near a few cottages. Parents transported the boys by boats. The iron mining was in operation for some 25 years and was a very profitable venture, increasing the population of Atikokan by several hundred.
That summer proved a very important part of my training under rather difficult situations. It was greatly appreciated by the families who made some profession of the Christian faith. Only a few men were enthusiastic about the church work and witness. The station agent, wife and daughter were among our strong supporters. In September back to Port Arthur where six of my class were able to make arrangements to return by grain freighter from Port Arthur to Sarnia, then back to College -- no time for a visit at home.
Rev. James Carder.