Monday, September 2, 2013

Wilbur mine update - fieldwork photos

A rare window of good weather on Sunday was all the reason I needed to get out to the Wilbur Mine and start mapping the features in more details than has previously been possible. If you haven't read my previous updates on this project, documenting the history of the Wilbur Iron Mine near Lavant Station (which faded into the bush a century ago) has been a pet research project of mine for the past few years.

Last week I went to the National Aerial Photography Library (NAPL) in Ottawa and scoured the archives for old photos of the mine site. The earliest photo they had of the site was from 1934. It shows a completely different view of the area. Although the mine closed around 1912, by 1934 some key reference points remained uncovered by vegetation or flooded by beaver dams. In Illustrator I was able to scale superimpose the photo onto a map of the mine workings that I traced from a scan of a 1901 original, to create a home-brew GIS with multiple layers of detail. It was fascinating when the two pictures finally aligned and revealed insights I hadn't expected.

Armed with this new map, on Sunday I met up with Marc, one of the property owners at the mine site, to scout through the bush and locate key mine features. Some of these I'd seen before thanks to Bud Thomas (whose mother was a housekeeper at the mine), but Marc's enthusiasm for the subject and knowledge of his property were invaluable help. Below are some of the points of interest. A century of neglect has left many of these ruins unrecognizable to the uninformed eye.

There were 8 workings at the mine site, with #3 and #7 the main points of ore extraction with permanent mechanical installations. The first sign of #7 is a large tailings dump that is clearly out of place in the local features.

On a little ridge near the dump can be seen random iron fixed into the bedrock. This eyelet was probably used to attach a rope or guy-wire to the system for lifting ore out of the working face. 

Just over the ridge is a pond. Closer inspection reveals the rails which led down to the working face of #7 where ore was extracted. These rails were likely supported by a square timber structure which has long since collapsed. Some of the longer timbers could be seen poking up out of the water. 

Past the tailings dump of workings 7 is the K&P rail spur which branched off the main K&P line at nearby Wilbur. The spur follows a long arc around the main mine site, with a second dedicated siding coming back to Workings 3, the largest of the mine operations. The rail bed has severely eroded in many places, especially where it passes near a stream, but clean rock cuts along the sides give it away.

Just past the end of the ridge at workings 7 is the remains of a stone building which the old map suggests was a smithy. Tools for drilling the rock would need to be sharpened and reforged frequently, making a nearby smithy essential. In line with the rails emerging from the flooded face were also some concrete pier bases, likely to supported a system for removing tailings to the dump and ore to cars waiting on the nearby spur.

One of the smaller workings (not numbered on the 1901 map) is this tunnel near workings 7. Bud told me a neighbour used it to store venison. The original tunnel was about 50' long and ended in a shaft which is now just a sunken pit. A series of narrow open cuts zigzag around the area, suggesting the workings were created to determine the location and orientation of the ore strike.  

A fair distance away is workings 3. this was the largest at the Wilbur mine and had extensive tailings dumps which are now completely overgrown. Only the occasional loose rock on the ground, conspicuously fractured and missing moss, hinted at what once happened here. The face of workings 3 is at the treeline and extends underground for about 300' with several tunnels and shafts. It's all flooded now, thanks to the beavers and lack of pumping. Unflooding it would be quite an undertaking. 

Here's an shaft above workings 7. Marc thinks it was a ventilation shaft and that makes sense. There was very little ruble around it, suggesting it was first drilled then blasted with waste material removed from below. 

The K&P spur off the main line passed by this weigh scale now well hidden by brush and blow-down. This was located near workings 7, across a large beaver pond. A squared timber that may have been used in the weigh scale lay nearby.

Here's where the old road to Lavant disappears into the bush. Bud used to plow this road in the winter many years ago. Now the road tends to flood in one section in the spring, and it has been made redundant by a newer road higher up.

Finally, this appears to be the foundation of an old rooming house for mine workers, located where the old Lavant Rd. heads into the bush. This may have been where Bud's mother worked; I'll have to ask him.

This is just a sample of some of the features we saw at the old site. I'll be returning soon to take more pictures and GPS points of these features. These will be overlaid on my map to see how they align with the records. Comparing notes with Marc, it's clear that not all the features are shown on my 1901 maps, suggesting that new buildings were erected and the mine workings were extended after 1901.

If you want to learn more, I'll be giving a lecture on the project in February.


  1. I've been following your post about the Wilbur mines as I also have an interest in the history of the old villages along the K & P.
    I have a geological survey map of the Wilbur minesite from 1901, which may be the same one you have. It shows the railway spurs, building locations, and mining operations. A friend and I rode (atv's) down the access road to the site hoping to find some of the features on the map, but as we got close and saw the "No Tresspassing" signs, we respected them and turned around.
    However, if you're going there again some time and could use some help, I'd be glad to join you.

  2. Thank you so much for looking into this! Marc is my uncle, and I went to my family's hunt camp in this area many times growing up. Knowing the history of the area only makes it more special, and having someone look into it is spectacular! Thank you!

  3. Thanks for your comments! I'm working on a presentation of my work to give at the Almonte Lecture Series in February.

    The site is private property and I have permission of the owners to visit. The features on the map are not obvious even if you know where to look. I've spent several days scouring the bush meter by meter for minute details. There are many features on the site that are not shown on the 1901 map, including some significant stone/concrete ruins near Working 6 that probably relate to the last round of effort at the site. Lots more to show and tell than can be put in the blog, including some footage from inside one of the old underground workings (yes, this particular location was safe).

  4. I'd like to attend your information session in February. Do you have details on the event as to where and when?

    1. Hi Ed: My presentation is on Friday Feb 21 at 7:30 p.m. at the Almonte United Church, as part of the Almonte Lectures.