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The fate of an old mine shaft in Yellowknife, the Robertson Headframe, is in limbo since the mine closed in 2003. The mayor is now hoping to save the building. (Patrick Kane/The Globe and Mail)
The fate of an old mine shaft in Yellowknife, the Robertson Headframe, is in limbo since the mine closed in 2003. The mayor is now hoping to save the building. (Patrick Kane/The Globe and Mail)


Yellowknife mining landmark threatened with demolition Add to ...

It's raining, so the fishing's good. And Joe Bailey isn't wasting time.

His boat skims the waters of Great Slave Lake, a dash-mounted GPS charting everything: the shape and depth of the lake, Mr. Bailey's speed and position, his past routes, even the fish below.

Off his starboard gunwale, however, is a navigational tool from an analog era, one without buttons or a screen.

At about 25 storeys high, the Robertson Headframe is, by far, the tallest building in the Northwest Territories, half again as tall as its nearest rival. The disused mine-shaft tower looks like a cigarette protruding from the permafrost, its bright-red top visible from much of the lake and the surrounding Yellowknife area.

"It's a sight for sore eyes, to see the top of the headframe," said Mr. Bailey, 46, a Dene guide and owner of a local tourism company, North Star Adventures. After a long day on the water, for his customers, the headframe means they're close to home. "It's a relief [for guests] I can say, 'Oh, there's the mine shaft,' and you can see the relief on their faces."

The fate of the headframe, however, is in the air. It has been unused for eight years and is facing demolition. The mayor, Gordon Van Tighem, wants to save it, but only if doing so doesn't leave the city on the hook for soaring maintenance costs.

The tower, he said, is a staple of the skyline.

"You know, if you live in the same place for years, you'll hit a certain intersection or something where you know you're almost home, and it's a good feeling," Mr. Van Tighem said. "It's the same thing."

The sturdy headframe was built in the mid-1970s, near the edge of the lake, when gold was driving the Northwest Territories' economy. The building was used to haul gold up to ground level. Those golden boom days are gone.

The mine closed in 2003. It's being redeveloped, but there's no need for the tower, which will be taken down if the city doesn't intervene. "As we see it, it's kind of in the city's hands," said Ron Connell, environmental manager for the Miramar Con Mine, which owns the tower. The company has allocated money to demolish the tower, but has offered to give it to the city to help maintain or eventually tear it down.

Mr. Van Tighem, a recreational pilot who has filled his office with miniature replica airplanes, lists the suggestions for the tower that a public relations firm gathered from residents: a climbing wall, an indoor bungee jumping centre, a condo project and a rooftop restaurant. "Just a whole, quarter-inch-thick report of trivia," he said.

Few, if any, would be viable, and Mr. Van Tighem said there's another option for a sturdy tower built to withstand heavy loads: Leave it just as it is.

A landmark, and nothing more.

"You could just weld up the doors and let it stand there as the beacon to the North. It's the tallest building in the Northwest Territories. It's the most overbuilt building in the Northwest Territories," he said. "It's an excellent navigational beacon if you're a boater out on the lake. It's an excellent navigational beacon if you're an air pilot coming in here."

Mr. Connell believes the structure could stay standing, and poses no environmental risk. "There's no real urgency. It's not hurting anything," he said.

But it's not up to just the city and the mine. The McKenzie Valley Land and Water Board, an arms-length federal environmental agency created as part of a land claims settlement, has to approve whatever they decide. A deadline it set to determine the headframe's fate came and went. A decision could be needed by January, Mr. Connell said.

"Somebody has to take responsibility for watching it," he said.

In Yellowknife, sentiments are mixed. Some don't want the city to risk having to pay the cost of repairs or demolition, initially estimated at $1.2-million.

"Personally, I'd just as soon see it taken down. I think the cost of it, the upkeep of it, is going to be a lot of money. And I think the city has lots of other things to spend money on," said Bruce Hewlko, president of the Greater Slave Snowmobile Association.

All his fellow riders now use GPS systems, and don't rely on the headframe to find their way home.

"It is the highest building in the territories," Mr. Hewlko said, "but I don't think it's that big a deal."

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