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.

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