Friday, July 24, 2009

Wilbur mine located!

Tonight I rode out to Wilbur to look--for about the fifth time--for evidence of the former Boyd Caldwell mine. As I passed the old house on the Wilbur Road I noticed a man sitting on the porch, so I stopped for a chat. John "Bud" Thomas and his wife Brenda are probably the only two people living in what's left of Wilbur. Bud is 75, friendly, and full of stories. He's agreed to let me record a conversation with him about his experiences growing up in the area.

Bud's mother and grandfather worked in the mine, so he was able to describe some good details of the mine operation and its location. The old train station was at the end of Bud's property along the K&P. There were another 22 houses at one time, but they weren't located where the map or remaining buildings would suggest. It seems that the village was actually a bit further south along the K&P. Thanks to Bud's instructions I found the rail spur bed. It comes in at a Y as I suspected, but near a flooded area south of Bud's house that doesn't look like where there should be anything of interest. I'm planning to do some better data collection on all these locations so there's a better record for posterity.

As for the mine itself, a beaver pond has long since covered some of the more important remains and the bush has all but reclaimed the rest. The landscape is now quite different from what it was, so it's really not obvious where to look and you're unlikely to stumble across the remains by accident. Bud told me there may still be foundations of the houses and some ore piles visible in the woods.

One footnote about placenames: Bud said that Lavant Station was of course called "Iron City" originally, but when Bud grew up it was known as "South Lavant". I think he said Lavant was called "North Lavant" or "Robertson" (same as the lake it sits on). He shook his head in disgust when I showed him my map, and said he doesn't understand why all the names were changed when the modern maps were made.

If it ever stops raining (the bush is soggy and the deer flies are many and merciless) I'll be back in a heartbeat to follow up on these findings.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Some sleuthing uncovers intriguing details about the old iron mines in the Wilbur/Lavant Station area along the abandoned K&P railway. Here's an excerpt from an Ontario government annual report dated 1884:

"Boyd Caldwell Mine -- The Boyd Caldwell Mine is at Wilbur Station, in the south western part of the township of Lavant, close to the Kingston and Pembroke road, and a siding is laid from the track to the mouth of the shaft. The machinery consists of a twenty horse-power boiler, a steam hoist, and other plant. The shaft has been sunk about 75 feet, and 6,000 tons of ore have been taken out, but the mine had been closed for some time previous to my visit. It is owned by Mr. Boyd Caldwell, of Lanark.

"Wilbur Mine -- This one is near the Boyd Caldwell mine, and is owned by the Wilbur Iron Mining and Manufacturing Company, the stock of which is controlled at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Its machinery consists of an air compressor for driving six drills, a double hoist, a fifty horse-power boiler and other plant. The quantity of ore shipped from it in 1882 was 8,000 tons; in 1883, 17,000 tons; and in 1884, 9,200 tons. the hamlet of Wilbur has a population of about 250 souls, nearly all of whom are miners."

I haven't found the mine sites yet, but I'm looking. It's challenging because the mines were abandonded 100+ years ago and the bush has reclaimed its sovereignty. As you can see in the pictures there's not much left of even Wilbur. It's hard to imagine that here in the 1880s there was once two boarding houses, a blacksmith shop, shoemaker, shingle mill, and carpentry shop, and probably a scattering of rough shanties that housed some 250 hard-drinking miners.

The old rail spur to the Caldwell mine head should still be visible. It sure wasn't obvious when I went looking last weekend, thanks to the undergrowth and incredible clouds of deer flies (I was saved by my motorbike helmet). I explored one promising, rutted side trail along a ridge on the east side of the main K&P line, but it seemed too steep for rail and at too sharp an angle to be a practical spur. Then it got too dark to explore further. It did look like a good accessible spot for a mine though, so I'm going to look again and compare on Google Earth with some GPS readings I took. One map I have shows a mine just north east of Wilbur, in the saddle between the long north ridge from Wilbur and small bump just north of town. There's another mine indicated along the north ridge. Both locations seem logical because you'd need fairly flat rail access from the main line, and you don't want to be below water level in such a swampy area or you'd need a substantial pump. (Yet no such pumps are listed in the Government report.)

The general swampiness of the area suggests that ridges like ones near Wilbur would be the most likely spots to discover and extract valuable ore. The Government report describes much valuable ore found all along the K&P up to and past Calabogie. Ridges like these are the most accessible features to survey and exploit in the area, given the technology and practical considerations of the day. The locals almost certainly know exactly where it is. Some more bushwhacking is in order!

One other thing: It was Lavant Station (not Wilbur) that was originally registered with the name "Iron City" when it was founded (and owned by) Boyd Caldwell in 1881. This point wasn't clear in the "Whisky and Wickedness" book I mentioned in an earlier post. Google Maps shows the K&P trail as "Iron City Road" at Lavant Station (highest magnification).

So why did these mines close? The market for iron collapsed and these far-flung sites simply couldn't be profitable given competition from mines and refineries in Pennsylvania, where there was also abundant coal for smelting.

Margot Hallam at the Lanark Archives has graciously offered to help me dig up information about the Caldwell mines. I'm also going to see what I can find from locals in the area. It would be neat to see what became of this bit of history and I'll post pics of what I find.

Historic tours of Lanark County

Lanark Highlands Historical Tours has posted some...well, historic tours that make interesting motorbike day trips in the countryside west of Ottawa. All of these are fine for street tires, although some gravel roads may be involved. Check out the old photos and compare them with how things look today!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Epic singletrack, France

I saw this pic of two riders in SingleTrack magazine (one of the best mountain biking mags by far) and immediately contacted the photographer, Seb Rogers, to find out where it is. This is on my list of must-do trips.

"Getting there involves riding the cable car to the top station and then a bit of riding / hike-a-bike... but from the point of the photo on there's an absolutely incredible singletrack descent that goes on and on and on. It's super-technical (but all rideable) and with quite a bit of exposure. One of the best trails in the Alps, for sure."

Seb Rogers

Tatlock quarry and New Road

West of Almonte is the hamlet of Tatlock, where there's massive marble quarry that's really worth a trip on a sunny day. The rock formation is gleaming hill of white crumbly rock that OMYA is gradually stripping away for use as filler in things like paint, plastics, and toothpaste. (See my other post for more information on the geology.)

Access is well marked on the gravel road leaving Tatlock to the west. You'll see a sign to the quarry lookout where the gravel road makes a sharp left turn. In fact, the overlook road used to be the road out to highway 511 until OMYA rerouted it so they could strip off more of the marble formation. The original road passed to the left of the main quarry operation today. Note that as of July 2009, Google Maps showed the original road passing through the quarry, not around the north of the quarry as it is now.

You can probably still drive in a car to the quarry overlook. The road is deteriorating quickly since it's no longer maintained, so beware of deep ruts on the steep sections and blind corners.

If you're heading from the quarry to Highway 511, an interesting sideroute is as follows. Go back to the overlook entrance and continue along the new gravel road (County Rd. 9) as if you're going to 511. About 500m along the road takes a sharp left. Turn off here at the bend and continue straight along Concession 6. It winds along for a kilometre or so, devolving into a rough dirt road. About 2km from the turnoff there's a narrow dirt track up to your left. This is "New Road" and is indicated by a hard-to-spot sign in the trees across from the T intersection. Follow New Road all the way to Highway 511, about 3km. It's twisty, steep, and loose. Not recommended for street tires unless you go slowly. Worth the sidetrip though--it's a really pretty and rugged up there.

Update Aug 25, 2014: The quarry has recently been closed to public access. According to the large sign barricading the road, some people didn't respect the fencing around the viewing area and trespassed into the quarry proper.

Update Nov 22, 2015: Closed again when I visited two weekends ago. Not sure if seasonal or permanent. 

Stony Swamp trails, Ottawa

Many mountain bikers in the Ottawa area are surprised to learn that the Stony Swamp in Bells Corners offers some great trail riding. I only really discovered the area myself a couple of years ago, despite driving by it almost daily. Sure, you can see some trailheads from the road--but from that perspective it really doesn't look inspiring. Why bother bringing out the bike when the Kanata Lakes technical trail system is only a few minutes away?

It wasn't until I got really desperate for some new trail options that didn't guarantee bloodied shins and bent derailleur hangers that I finally caved and rode into the swamp. Wow! It's amazing back there! Turns out there's a few thousand acres riddled with trails through red pine forest, limestone outcrops, and--yes--swamp. The riding is mostly flat, but fast and flowy in many places. There are some moderate technical sections for fun, and best of all the mud and bugs are far less an issue than at Kanata Lakes. In fact, Stony Swamp tends to dry out really fast in the spring (except for a few stubborn spots) and the mud, perhaps because it's mainly on limestone instead of granite, isn't the sucking sticky clay stuff that can make riding and bike maintenance a chore elsewhere in the Ottawa area.

Stony is a great area for long training rides where you want to stay in your Zone 1 or Zone 2 exertion level for 2-3 hours. Technical difficulty is mainly a 1 on a 5-point scale, and the technical sections are about a 2. It's perfect for introducing someone to trailriding, or if you have a hardtail and just want to go fast.

I've found that one of the best places to start is the small NCC parking lot on Timm Road. There always seems to be a few cars parked here with middle-aged men sitting by themselves. I don't know if it's a pick-up spot or something, but I'm less concerned about getting my car broken into while they're hanging around. By contrast, the large lot across from Hazeldean mall seems to get a lot of break-ins. There are many other places to start from, but I like the drama and solitude of the Timm start.

The attached riding route looks a little wacky because I've tried to minimize retracing the same section in the same direction. Despite all the trail options getting lost is hard. A good baseline route through the area is the Rideau Trail, indicated by red arrow trail markers. Other than that, just explore. It'll probably take you a few long sessions to really find everything.

For an official trail map and other info about the Swamp, here's the NCC page.

Update (2014): Stoney Swamp fell victim to an extensive bush fire several years ago, To reach the fire, crews cut a number of roads into the heart of some of the best mountain biking trails in the swamp. The remaining trails are still pretty good--especially for beginners. But the hardest stuff is gone.