Roadside-attraction showdown: Sudbury’s Big Nickel

The giant coin is now a northeastern mainstay and tourist attraction — but it almost didn’t get built
By Nick Dunne - Published on Jul 14, 2021
The nickel is on the grounds of Sudbury’s Dynamic Earth science museum. (Nick Dunne)



Maybe you’ve already been to Niagara Falls or up to the top of the CN Tower. But have you made a pit stop near a giant goose? Or snapped a selfie next to a giant wheel of cheese?

Those are just a couple of the roadside attractions on offer in towns and cities across Ontario, which have devised unusual and eye-catching ways of setting their communities apart.

If you’re looking for summertime fun close to home, you can hit the road and check out these local legends. If you’re looking for summertime fun even closer to home, you can check in with over the next two months — each week, we’ll be bringing you profiles of the weirdest, wackiest, and largest objects gracing Ontario’s roadways.

At the end of August, you’ll get the chance to pick your favourites when we open up the voting brackets. So travel Ontario with us, and get ready for a showdown.

Check out the other contestants here.

Standing nine metres tall, weighing 13,000 kilograms, and featuring a smokestack on one side and the face of King George on the other, the Big Nickel is an unmistakable Sudbury landmark. But if not for the determination of Ted Szilva, who financed its construction and challenged city hall, the 65 million-time-size replica of a 1951 five-cent coin wouldn’t exist. 

“So many people just don't know how many times the Big Nickel could not have been built,” says Ted’s son, Jim, who co-authored The Big Nickel: The Untold Story with his father.

a park with giant coins
A few other coins, including a Lincoln penny, were initially installed at the numismatic park.
(Courtesy of Science North )

The plan for an attraction first came to Ted, a firefighter born in Sudbury to Hungarian immigrants, in 1963, when the CBC’s John Fisher visited to discuss local ideas for the country’s upcoming centennial celebrations. Fisher suggested that the mining town create something to commemorate nickel, its economic lifeblood. Inspired in part by the Wawa Goose, Ted, a lifelong entrepreneur, devised a park dotted with huge coins and dedicated to the study of coins and currency. However,  Sudbury’s centennial committee rejected the idea, as “it did not have sufficient use for the citizens of Sudbury,” Szilva recalls in his book; some on city council even deemed it a “Mickey Mouse operation.”

So Szilva decided he’d build it himself. 

a smiling man in front of a giant nickel
The author in front of the Big Nickel.
​​​​​​​(Nick Dunne)

He purchased land on a hill overlooking Inco’s Copper Cliff smelter for $1,000 and raised funds by selling miniature medallions of the nickel, which he advertised in coin-collecting magazines. After the city refused to issue a building permit, Inco agreed to give him a 99-year lease on an adjacent property for a dollar a year. On July 22, 1964, the $35,000 Big Nickel was unveiled — four feet outside the city limits. (A few other coins, including a Lincoln penny, were installed at the numismatic park but later dismantled.)

Szilva’s vision didn’t stop there: in 1965, he introduced the Big Nickel Mine, a non-active mine for visitor tours, complete with a shaft and underground tunnels. 

Having bought the property from Inco, he sold the attraction in 1980 to the Regional Municipality of Sudbury for $525,000. Science North, an interactive science museum, opened in 1984 — the nickel now forms part of its Dynamic Earth museum.  

"We came from massively impacted mining damage to now, 40 years later, when you can see this beautiful, healthy reclaimed green landscape,” says Julie Moskalyk, science director for Science North. “So you can stand there, you look at this gigantic nickel, and you reflect on how far we've come since the turn of the century.” 

two smiling men holding a book in front of a giant nickel
Jim (left) and Ted Szilva witht their co-authored book, The Big Nickel: The Untold Story. (Facebook)

Szilva later went on to serve on the board of the Sudbury General Hospital and do work with local charities and non-profits. He died on March 9, 2016, having seen his nickel turn into a landmark that, Dynamic Earth estimates, draws 100,000 tourists a year. “This was his town,” says Jim. “He loved the people; he loved helping people.” To this day, Jim says, he remains inspired by his dad’s passion and belief in himself: “He was just such an incredible man. He was my hero.”

The previous instalment: The Wawa Goose.

Next up: Campbellford’s Giant Toonie.

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northeastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Laurentian University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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