Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Lost Mines of Lanark County - Part 3: Why mine?

Examining the historical context of mining in Canada—and in particular in Lanark County in the late 1800s—can give us a better understanding of how sites like the Wilbur iron mine came to be developed.

There are many interesting economic parallels between the respective technology booms of the Victorian era and our modern era. The late 1800s represented the peak of Victorian industrialization, with bull markets for machinery and the commodities needed to make those machines and then produce goods with them.  This was especially so in North America, where population expansion westwards and the rapid growth of cities and railroads following the US Civil War created a high demand for iron. If you were an engineer wanting to develop cutting-edge technology, this was a great time to be an entrepreneur. From trains to the evolution of high-rise buildings, every industry was pushing the limits of technology at the time—much like how the dot-com era pushed limits a century later. At the same time, with the rise of powerful steamships, there was both a capability and appetite for global trade in raw commodities.

For a young nation like Canada at the time, the period after Confederation in 1867 saw the confluence of economic boom, waves of skilled and unskilled immigrants arriving from Europe, and strong interest from emerging joint stock companies looking to invest in and develop the relatively uncharted riches of Canada’s virgin territory. There was a lot of money to be made. An obvious opportunity was to enhance the value chain from ore to manufactured goods. In Eastern Ontario and especially in Kingston, this was probably seen to be the “next big thing” for a young nation to pursue as the longstanding square timber trade began to wane following a hundred years of depleting the region’s virgin stands.

In Eastern Ontario in the 1880s, Ottawa was still very much a lumber town transitioning into its new role as the nation’s capital where fun would be forgotten. Kingston was the de facto industrial, military, and political centre of the region, being well situated on the shore of Lake Ontario where it served as an important nexus of lake, road and rail traffic between Upper and Lower Canada and the U.S. It was also home to the KingstonLocomotive Works.

Kingston Locomotive Works, 1880:

Kingston’s appetite for iron foretold demand for a local iron smelter. There was already good lake access to U.S. coal needed to fire the blast furnaces, and preliminary surveys of the area north of Kingston revealed indications of iron ore along the north-south interface between the predominate limestone formations to the east, and the Canadian Shield rising up to the west. However, up to 1870, local iron mining was an intermittent activity conducted in small, mostly hand-worked operations. Ore was generally mined and taken away in the winter, when hauling was cheap and frozen lakes and rivers facilitated access. While many questions remained about the actual extent of iron deposits north of Kingston and whether they would be adequate to supply local industry, the combination of railway expansion in general and the need to facilitate the exploration and extraction of timber and minerals proved irresistible to investors. Construction of the K&P (itself an epic tale) started in 1871, optimistically aiming for Pembroke.

Here's a K&P locomotive in 1885:

Skipping ahead to the early 1890s, there was finally serious talk of building an iron smelter in Kingston. This would be a significant industrial undertaking, probably similar to the Cambria Iron and Steels blast furnace shown below in Pennsylvania in 1906.  

Although the K&P had reached Renfrew by 1884, ten years later there was still no definitive survey of the iron ore potential along the rail line. Finally, in 1895 and then again in 1900, E. D. Ingall of the Geological Survey conducted detailed field surveys to ascertain the extent of iron ore along the K&P. His work included visits to mines and interviews with mine owners, including cousins W. C. Caldwell and Boyd Caldwell of the mines at Flower Station and Wilbur, respectively. Ingall’s 93-page report [Report on the Iron Ore Deposits along the Kingston and Pembroke Railway in Eastern Ontario; Geological Survey of Canada, 1901] is an entertaining and rich source of first-hand information about the state of mining in Lanark County. The survey map included with this report also forms an important basis for interpreting the Wilbur site, as I’ll show in a future post.

In the next post, we’ll examine the geographical context of the lost mines and provide some orientation for more detailed discussion. 

Monday, May 30, 2016

Lost Mines of Lanark County - Part 2: Wilbur Teaser

This is one of the few, tantalizing images of the Wilbur mine site from a postcard in a private collection. I was lucky to get a high-resolution scan from the collector. This image really sparked my interest in trying to understand the Wilbur mine site and has provided several valuable clues, which I’ll cover here briefly then come back to in much more detail in a future post. Hopefully this teaser-trailer hooks you as much as it hooked me!

The front of the postcard says “Wilbur, Ontario, Canada” and shows a building labeled “Shaft no 1”.  The Ontario Bureau of Mines report for 1907 contains a similar photo from the same perspective, but clearly shows an expansion to one of the buildings (the rock house). Based on the photo in the Report and other information about the mine activity, I believe the postcard photo probably dates to 1900. The collector told me that the postcard itself can be dated by the stamp box. AZO paper with the four diamonds in the corner was produced from 1905-1909. 

From the Bureau of Mines report for 1901 (which reports on observations about mining activity made in the prior year, 1900), we can ascertain that the building in the postcard marked “Shaft no 1” is the engine house with several boilers to provide steam power to the main shaft hoist. The tall building behind is the shaft hoist, with inclined track down into the shaft. In the photo you can just see the blurred image of an ore skip at the top of the incline, where it enters the hoist tower and dumps ore into a jaw crusher. From there the crushed rock is conveyed to the rock house on the right, where a number of boys picked through the ore as it moved past them on a conveyor, to remove gangue (waste rock that doesn’t contains little or no ore) and other debris. The conveyor then dumped into ore bins mounted below the rock house. A rail spur runs under the ore bins (not visible). The covered chute visible in the end of the rock house appears to empty onto a skip bed, which took the picked-out waste rock to a dump pile off to the right.

According to the Bureau description for 1900, the separate building on the far right is possibly a thawing house or dry house where the miners would dress for a shift and warm up after. There is a foundation visible today in this approximate location, but it contains vertical iron tie rods which suggests the presence of large machinery or some other structural reinforcement. It might have been the base of a tower for an elevated skip track leading out to a dump. As I’ll explain later, it can be maddening trying to interpret some of these details because the present-day site bears no obvious resemblance to the photos of more than 100 years ago: re-forestation, flooding from beaver dams, and the relocation of dump piles has dramatically changed the landscape. Nevertheless, some mapping techniques with GPS plotting of significant features has enabled some reconstruction which, along with the Bureau reports, provides some striking insights into what the site was all about.

Here's what the site looks like now, from where I think is the exact same location that the postcard photo was taken. Note the hydro lines passing directly through. The construction of the lines resulted in considerable disturbance of the site, including removal of several large dump piles in this area and probably any remains of buildings.

 Here’s the back of the post card.

It says “Wilbur by night. That’s how the mines look when we are on night work only. We are about 830 feet down below this engine and compressor house. What a contrast to dear old London Town. Take me back to London Town.”

Again, more tantalizing details. Who was the former Londoner who wrote this? I do not recall finding any solid clues in a review of census records from this period, but that’s an avenue to explore further. The penmanship is good and suggests an educated person, almost certainly a man (although women  and children did assist with ore processing) and probably a mining engineer or miner who actually entered the workings. In future posts I’ll discuss Wilbur demographics.

It’s not clear what the “830 feet down below” refers to. The shaft at this location was not known to go past 350 feet on the incline, although there was extensive stoping that could extend the underground distance further. The phrasing might also refer to the location of some dwellings which were located about 830 feet away, near the site of the Wilbur station on the K&P line.

The Bureau reports from which I drew these details are fascinating reading and I've read over 1000 pages of them. In the late 1800s to early 1900s, young men seeking wilderness adventure would be hard-pressed to find a better gig than working for the Bureau of Mines or Geological Survey Canada (which, interestingly, was formed after the Ontario Bureau).  Teams traveled to the most remote parts of Canada to survey the land and identify its riches, living off the land and engaging with the many First Nations groups living in their traditional lands. Most of these reports are available for free download here.   

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Lame adventure in water crossing

Hard to believe that as a noob DS rider seven years ago, this puddle posed a better-think-twice obstacle to cross on my KLR (a.k.a. the "Warthog").

Today the crossing seems to have been improved with crushed stone--or maybe it's just natural fracture. Together with less water and a lighter bike, it's a piece of cake to whizz across without even getting my feet wet.

Great day to be out riding. 

Lost Mines of Lanark County - Part 1: Introduction


If you visit the Lanark Highlands area just west of Ottawa, you'd be forgiven for thinking it has always been a sparsely populated, rugged wilderness. But if you scratch beneath the surface, you'll find another story that's all but forgotten. 

In the late 1800s, Lanark County was transformed by discoveries of rich deposits of iron ore and other minerals. Demand in Kingston for local iron sources to feed the booming industry there led to the creation of the Kingston and Pembroke Railway. As the rails pushed north, mines and towns sprung up along the way and helped turn eastern Ontario into one of the most active mining regions in Canada. But the boom was short-lived. By the early 1900s the ore deposits proved uneconomical. The mines closed, communities became ghost towns, and finally the rails were pulled up. Dense overgrowth now hides the few remaining clues to this history. 

I've created this section of my blog (click the tab above) to share, in one convenient narrative, my ongoing research into lost mines in Eastern Ontario--and in particular in Lanark County because it's where I live. Most of my research has focused on the Wilbur iron mine in Lavant Township. For a brief time, Wilbur was the largest iron mine in Ontario and one of the largest in Canada. If you've poked around my blog before, some of this story will be familiar. However, I'm adding lots more material drawn from a lecture I've given on the subject which is in turn based on archival research combined with site explorations (any excuse to explore by motorbike!). It would be great to have the time and resources to expand this work into a book. Until then, enjoy reading and stay tuned for updates.


Mines are dangerous and usually located on private land. So don't go poking around without taking proper precautions and getting permission. I'm providing details that can get you into trouble because I believe it's important to study and add to our understanding of history. For my work on the Wilbur Mine, I'm indebted to the landowners, and in particular Marc Chiarelli, who have generously shown me the site and provided other historic information.


While I've made a concerted effort to find primary or contemporary sources of historical information, the fact is there is little information about these mines in the archival record. There are several reasons for this:
  • Mining was a dangerous, remote business conducted by desperate men, women, and children who were mostly illiterate immigrants from the British Islands and countries in Europe. In the late 1800's it was a serious undertaking to reach a mine site by foot or by horse, over bush trails and rough roads. Even today it can be an adventure on an ATV or dual-sport motorcycle. So at a time when large-format, glass-negative cameras were state-of-the-art technology, few photographers reached the interior of Eastern Ontario to chronicle life there. The best contemporary sources are annual reports by the Ontario Bureau of Mines, prepared by field engineers and scientists who visited the mines in person to inspect progress. 
  • The lands and mines changed ownership and names frequently, with frequent loss of records. For instance, according to Christopher Baer, Assistant Curator at the Hagley Musem and Library, the Bethlehem Steel Corporation (which at one time held an interest in the Wilbur Mine) was "particularly ruthless" in destroying records that did not hold any public relations value. 
  • At the time, the mines themselves were relatively small-scale, novelty industries compared to the booming industry elsewhere in North America. They were frequently side-activities funded and/or conducted by businessmen and politicians already made rich through other pursuits. Unfortunately these mines never really amounted to much, and just like the failed dot-coms of our present era, they were quickly forgotten. Key details that would help in understanding the historical record were probably well-known by the public at the time, and thus not recorded because they would've been self-evident at the time. 
Any useful interpretation of the evidence requires judgement and no small amount of sleuthing, deduction, and reasonable supposition. I've found errors in the available records and no shortage of gaps and contradictions. Where practical I've noted these and given what seem to be reliable sources. I'm open to correction and will gladly share and discuss my work with others.

My sources include:
  • Contemporary reports (in particular from the Ontario Department of Mines, and Geological Survey Canada)
  • Local oral history
  • Site visits
  • Mapping studies
  • General research
As noted, very little information about these mines exists in the Ontario or Library and Archives Canada repositories. Moreover, funding cuts to archives across Canada during the Harper Conservative era resulted in many historical and scientific records being lost (through transfers which are not fully documented) or just plain destroyed. For instance, I was fortunate to access the National Aerial Photography Library in Ottawa before it was permanently shut down, with much of our photographic archives probably lost for good. 

Friday, May 20, 2016

Respects to Rob Harris and his family

It's been a sad week in the Canadian motorcycle community this week. Rob passed away on a beautiful and remote backroad that was on last year's Roaming Rally. I didn't get the chance to meet him, but we exchanged a few emails and I've very much enjoyed following Canada Moto Guide over the years.

Rob, I'll miss you and your contributions to motorcycling. My thoughts are with your family.