When Ernest Hemingway Came to Town
Hemingway Ben Turpin Movie Poster

The movie mentioned by Hemingway was “The Shreik of Araby” which starred Ben Turpin. It was playing at the Princess Theatre located on Lisgar Street near Durham Street and was showing Thursday to Saturday of that week.

“I arrived in Sudbury at night. In the dark it was impossible to tell much about the town except there were plenty of red-brick buildings, plenty of streetlights, plenty of Chinese Restaurants, and many girls on the streets. There was a movie showing Ben Turpin, French Canadian spoken in bars, and real beer being sold on draft. I saw only three men drunk. In Cobalt there had been two men drunk at one bar before eleven o’clock in the morning.”

So wrote Ernest Hemingway when he came to Sudbury in 1923 at the age of 24. There were fewer than 10,000 people living here at the time but he came in search of a story he was writing about a purported coal deposit found northwest of the city at Larchwood. At the time he was a reporter for The Toronto Daily Star and had been since 1920 eventually becoming the newspaper’s European correspondent living in Paris with his wife. He lived briefly in Toronto in 1920 before going to Europe and came back to Toronto in September 1923 for the birth of his first child with his first wife Hadley Richardson.

Ernest Hemingway 1923

There are no photos of Ernest Hemingway in Toronto but this one was his passport photo he had taken a couple of months after he’d been in Sudbury.

Before coming to Sudbury to write about the Sudbury coal deposit he wrote a story about the company after visiting their Toronto offices from where the company was selling shares in the Sudbury coal venture. He found one of the principals of the company had already been involved in stock fraud out west and was calling himself a petroleum geologist and wasn’t. The editor of The Toronto Daily Star refused to print the story, which angered Hemingway, and sent Hemingway to Sudbury to find out more about the coal deposit. It has to be noted that Hemingway did not get along with editor, Harry Hindmarsh, who was the son-in-law of the owner of the paper. Hindmarsh, who had been given the job while Hemingway was in Europe, thought Hemingway was an “arrogant hothead” and sent him out of town for many trivial stories regardless that Hemingway’s wife was soon to give birth to their first child. Incidentally, when Hemingway quit working for The Toronto Daily Star in December of 1923 and moved back to Paris, he made a list which he called “Stories to Write”. One story on the list was to be “The Story of the Sudbury Coal Co.” and the other was to be called “The Son-in-law.” He never ended up writing them.

Nickel Range Hotel Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway stayed at the Nickel Range Hotel, which was located on Elm St. across from Querney’s, when he was in Sudbury. Greater Sudbury Public Library MK4711

Hemingway left Toronto on Wednesday, September 19, 1923 on a Pullman train pulling into Sudbury’s downtown train station late at night. He stayed at the Nickel Range Hotel on Elm Street and visited the area of the coal deposit with local Sudburian Frank Pickard who was employed to do the drilling at the deposit for the Toronto company.

Hemingway wrote, “Mr Pickard was going back to the job out near Larchwood, and we started out together in a car, with a fat French-Canadian chauffeur, who almost completely filled the front seat. Going west up and out of Sudbury, the road runs through the weirdest country I have ever seen. It is a jumble of great rolling hills – of absolutely bald, purple black rock, sulphur-stained, and looking like a lava-scorched volcanic slope immediately after an eruption. Occasionally, thin black-charred stumps stood in a dip in the bare burnt hills. But mostly there was no sign of vegetation.” Hemingway was describing one of the old roast beds that were used to smelt ore mined at Inco as explained by Mr. Pickard.

“Driving through it was like going through some desolate early illustration of “Pilgrim’s Progress”. I thought I might see a lion on the way almost anywhere. Then we came up out of the valley, passed the big gray buildings of the Murray Mine on our right, and the tall stacks of the smelters way off on our left and dipped down a hill into an open, flat, green farming country. It was the Sudbury basin, a clear tract of farming country, flat as Illinois or Holland, and held in by a horseshoe of blue mountains, the Nickel Range, that bound it in a dull, gray, irregular line all around the horizon.”

The article that appeared in The Toronto Daily Star on September 25, 1923 was called “Search for Sudbury Coal” and in addition to Hemingway’s descriptions of Sudbury also explained the whole process that drillers used to take core samples at the coal deposit as well as conversations he had with various people including Dr. A. P. Coleman, a geologist who wrote numerous reports on Sudbury’s ores, and who emphatically told Hemingway that there was no way that the product they were trying to pass off as coal was coal but rather anthraxolite. (You can read part of the article here just search for “Sudbury” and it’s available on microfiche at Greater Sudbury Public Library)

Hemingway’s story raised the ire of some residents who wrote letters to the editor which were published in The Sudbury Star.

An anonymous letter to the editor called Toronto Throws Stones read, “There’s an old saying that no one living in glass houses should throw stones. There were more drunks on the down town streets of Toronto on Labor Day afternoon than can be found in “wet” Montreal on a holiday or any other day. The downtown section of ‘Toronto the Good’ in the area bounded by Church, King, Spadina and Dundas streets is infected with girl “street-walkers” any night. Yet The Toronto Star sends a staff reporter to Sudbury and he sent the following to the paper. Don’t overlook the reference to the bars. Evidently the Toronto scribe was looking for them.”

Another letter stated “The Toronto Star’s ‘investigators’ are regular Sherlocks at discovering opportunities in other towns. It’s strange that they never find them in Toronto. At least, if they do they never talk about it.”

Since they were anonymous one would have to wonder if they were sent on behalf of the company that was trying to sell shares in the Sudbury coal deposit which never amounted to anything as Hemingway wanted to write by wasn’t allowed to by his editor.

This was not the first time Hemingway wrote about Sudbury. When he first began writing for the The Toronto Daily Star and The Toronto Star Weekly he wrote a story called “Fashion Graveyards” which was published on April 24, 1920.

“In some towns like Sudbury a furnishing house advertises that all their goods are direct from Toronto. They are, too, but the Sudburian or Cobaltese who imagines he is buying the latest Toronto models is really purchasing all the unsalable clothes of one of our furnishing houses. In towns as near as Sudbury clothes would be only a little way out of style… Far back in the wilds is where the real old-timers will be vended.” (You can read the whole story online here or through microfiche at Greater Sudbury Public Library.)

His family owned, and still does, a summer home on Walloon Lake in northern Michigan, where Hemingway loved going to fish, so it may be that he travelled by train from his cottage through Sault Ste. Marie and stopped in Sudbury, where he would have switched trains to get to Toronto, which may have given him a chance to take a look downtown at the shops here for his story or he could have just read advertisements in newspapers from Sudbury.

Nickel Range Hotel Room Hemingway

A room inside the Nickel Range Hotel where Hemingway read “The Rover”. Greater Sudbury Public Library MK6214

A year after coming to Sudbury he recalled his trip here in a letter he wrote about the death of author Joseph Conrad on August 3, 1924. “In Sudbury, Ontario, I bought three back numbers of the “Pictorial Review” and read “The Rover”, sitting up in bed in the Nickel Range Hotel. When morning came I had used up all my Conrad like a drunkard, I had hoped it would last me the trip, and felt like a young man who has blown his patrimony. But, I thought, he will write more stories. He has lots of time.”

It seems that that the Sudbury coal story stayed with him for a while. Hemingway was the owner of more than 50 cats throughout his lifetime and it seemed one he named after Sudbury was a favourite. In an apology he wrote to his wife Martha, his third wife, in 1942, after one of their cats died, he wrote, “I loved her as much as you did but I had loved F. Puss (Feather Puss) and Sudbury Coal cat.”

All in all, Hemingway wrote 172 stories for The Toronto Daily Star and The Toronto Star Weekly getting paid from $75-$90 per week. Hemingway published his first book “Three Stories & Ten Poems” shortly after leaving Sudbury and though he continued to write articles for various newspapers and literary magazines from time to time, once he published “The Sun Also Rises”, which was his first successful novel, he concentrated on writing his books and short stories and left the newspaper business behind. The Toronto Star has created a website called, “The Hemingway Papers” which features 80 of Hemingway’s articles (although not the “Search for Sudbury Coal”) which you can visit here.

The Inco smokestack is the second largest freestanding structure in Canada, and the sixth biggest in North America, only 220 feet smaller than the Empire State Building.

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