Sunday, May 29, 2016

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. 

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