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.   


  1. Interesting for sure. I'm wondering if they were drilling to explore, hence the 850 feet?

  2. Interesting for sure. I'm wondering if they were drilling to explore, hence the 850 feet?