The Mines of Gatineau Park

The Mines of Gatineau Park – (S. Graham – appeared in Gatineau Park Chronicle v2, 2009 v4-5)

The same geology that makes Gatineau Park a stunning panorama, from the Eardley  Escarpment to the rolling landscape of the Meech Creek Valley, also made the area  attractive to miners in the 19th and early 20th centuries. There is a certain romance in mines named “Eva” or “Pink,” and their ruins and tailings can be spotted underneath the dense underbrush which has, for the most part, reclaimed them. The names recall some of the earliest landowners and entrepreneurs: Forsythe, Baldwin, Lawless, Pink, Morris, Headley, Eva, Fortin-Gravelle, Laurentide, Wallingford, Cliff, Fleury, Chaput-Payne and McCloskey.

The most commonly mined mineral was mica. In the 19th century, mica was valuable for its use as a heatproof window material and, later, as an electrical insulator. Mica mined in the park was transported to Hull, where it was cut and processed. However, only a few of the more than 14 known mines in the park were actually exploited on what can be considered an industrial scale. Many were little more than surface scratchings by farmers looking to create another source of income. The Fleury mine, opened in 1898 by M.C. Brown of Cantley, was one of the larger mica operations. Twenty tons (18 metric tons) of mica were removed from two pits over 30feet (9 metres) deep; one crystal of mica was removed from this mine that reportedly weighed more than 500 pounds (about 227 kilograms).

Today, the most easily accessed mica mine in the area is the Pink Lake Mica Mine. This mine was first prospected by the Kent Brothers of Kingston in 1903. By 1904, the mine was producing mica, which was being shipped along the Rideau Canal to Kingston,  here it was cut and readied for market. This mine consists mostly of surface cuts, most of which were opened (using steam powered machinery) by 1905. By the mid-1910s, the mine had closed down, only to be reopened by the Pink’s Lake Mining Company at the end of 1945. This company even ran a tunnel from the edge of the lake to the earlier surface pits, but this was the last gasp for the mine. It was closed by 1946, all the equipment was removed, and now only a keen eye can spot the earlier diggings.

In terms of economic value, the more important and longest-lived mines in the park were the iron mines in the Pink Lake sector, and the Moss Mine in the Onslow/La Pêche Lake area. (here for Pontiac County; here for the townships split from Pontiac County into ‘Municipality’ of Pontiac)

The Iron of Gatineau Park

The discovery of iron in the Gatineau Hills is connected with the first surveys and  settlement of the area. In 1801, John MacTaggart, who was surveying the area for Philemon Wright, noticed the needle in his compass swinging wildly about as he traversed a certain portion of lot 11 range 7, in what was later known as West Hull Township. The reason, of course, was that the high iron content in the rock was interfering with the Earth’s magnetic field. MacTaggart and Wright were not able to exploit this discovery until 1826, when they formed the Hull Mining Company, and dispatched a colonist to occupy the lot. This was little more than a claim-staking exercise, and the mining that did take place was small scale at that time. Tiberius Wright sold the rights to this Hull Iron Mine to Forsyth and Company of Pennsylvania in 1854 (thus renaming the mine as the Forsyth Mine).The ore was of such quality that the company exhibited a ton of ore from this mine at the 1855 Paris International Exposition.

Production increased dramatically. Between 1954 and 1860, about 15,000 tons (13,600 metric tons) were shipped, and 13 men worked at the mine. Ore was taken out of the hillside (near where the modern hydroelectric pylons cross through the park from Hull to Aylmer) to the little village of Ironside, where they were loaded onto barges for the journey along the Rideau Canal to Kingston. In Kingston, the ore was transshipped onto lakers, which transported it to Cleveland and the iron mills.

A fire in 1870 destroyed the village of Ironside and the infrastructure there for preprocessing the ore. At this time, Alanson Baldwin purchased the mine, as well as some neighbouring properties which also had promise for iron mining. The Baldwin mine produced roughly 3,000 tons (2,721 metric tons) of ore during the 1870s.Various legal difficulties beset Baldwin, and the ownership of the various mines in the area (the Forsyth, the Baldwin, and the Lawless) passed through a succession of hands over the next 50 years. Production continued, intermittently, during that time too, but never again at the same pace or with the same economic impact as during those 20 years in the mid-19th century.

The Moss Mine: Biggest in theWorld!

In the far western corner of Gatineau Park, there are several mine pits, underground tunnels, building foundations and crumbling structures standing as silent witnesses to an important episode of our industrial heritage. Nearly 100 years ago, this area of North Onslow Township was the epicentre for one of the biggest mines of its type in the world. Well over 100 men worked and toiled in the pits of the Wood Molybdenite Mine, with their families living above the underground shafts. At the time, the mining camp was one of the largest towns west of Aylmer. There were over 40 buildings, and more than 300 people living at the mine site during the First World War, the mine’s greatest period of prosperity.

Molybdenite comes from the Greek word meaning “lead.” Indeed, the first owner of the land thought that he had found lead while target shooting at cans on an outcrop of rock behind the family farm. The odd stray bullet would chip flakes off the rock. Examining these chips, the owner noticed a bluish coloured metal. A nearby mine on the Ontario side of the Ottawa River was mining lead, so he thought he might have found a lead deposit. The chips were sent to the Dominion government for testing, and were found to contain 15 percent molybdenum disulfide (MoS2). The men from the Galetta mine (the nearby mine in Ontario) tried to stake a claim, but discovered that the farmer had the mineral rights. Negotiations ensued, and soon a new company was formed. Henry Wood of Denver, Colorado, a pioneer in developing economical ways of extracting molybdenum from ore (achieving 80 percent efficiency), was brought in to develop this mine site. It was soon producing at full capacity.

Molybdenite has a high melting temperature, so it was used in alloys with steel to strengthen armaments. The miners processed 150 tons (136 metric tons) of ore daily. Over the lifetime of the mine, nearly 250,000 tons (226,795metric tons) of ore were milled, 1,000,000 pounds (453,600 kilograms) of concentrates were created, and 25,000 tons (22,680 metric tons) of waste rock were mined. All of this was transported by horse power to the PPJ Railroad, several kilometres to the south. The value of molybdenum during the First World War was over $2,000/ton, and the mine earned back the cost of opening it within the first few months.

With the worldwide depression following the end of the war, the price for the commodity dropped, and the mine closed. The mine changed hands—and names—several times over the next 20 years. It was reopened with a skeleton staff during the boom times of the 1920s, but closed with the onset of the  Great Depression. The Second World War saw a resumption of production at nearly the same level of intensity as during the previous war. However, once the United States joined the war effort in 1942, cheaper sources of molybdenum could be exploited via open-pit mining, and the mine in Onslow closed down.

The mine was never known officially as the “Moss Mine,” but perhaps the origin of that name comes from the procession of crates of mineral, drawn by horses down the long road to the train station, each one with the chemical formula “MoS2” written on it. Even as recently as the 1960s, there still stood some structures on the site but, after the mine was closed, most of the buildings were sold and dismantled (much of modern Quyon’s  building stock has its origins in the mine buildings), the equipment was shipped away, and the forest was allowed to reclaim the site. The ruins stand in mute testimony to the men who worked in the deeps, making their own contributions to the Allied war effort.

Moonshine and the Moss Mine

The Second World War touched everyone in countless ways. On the home front, a daily reminder was the need for rationing. Ration books contained coupons for a variety of  daily goods. One of these was alcohol; it was not unheard-of for teetotallers to sell their alcohol coupons on the black market, or trade them for other goods. Some workers at the mine had other ways of meeting this demand for alcohol. Every mine needed a chemist to test the ore and, during the war, some enterprising workers drew the chemist into a scheme to distill alcohol in a secure room in the laboratory. They coloured the alcohol with tea and flavoured it with essences that could be had from the ration books. The alcohol was strictly for the coterie’s private consumption, as there would be enormous trouble with the police if the alcohol was sold.

Nevertheless, word got around and soon “the Provincials” were in the area, asking if any bootleggers were about. They visited the mine, and were directed to speak to a man who “knew a thing or two” about life in the area. He in turn directed them to an old man, whom they questioned as follows.

“Who is making the moonshine around here?” they asked.

“What’s it worth t’ye?” said he.

“Ten dollars.” (A good sum in those days!)

“Give it t’me and I’ll tell ye alright,” said the old man.

They gave him the money, and the old man said,

“God makes the moon shine, and I’ll give ye a tip: He makes the sun shine too!”

(Story recounted by Edward Mulligan in the Shawville Equity, December 10, 1986.)

(with files from the Gatineau Park Heritage Inventory)


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