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.