Dec '07/Jan '08

The ghost of Ontario’s iron

By D. Zlotnikov

 

If you drive down Ontario’s Hwy 7 today, you will find little to mark the old site of the Blairton mine and village. But less than 150 years back, the western shore of Crowe Lake was home to a lively village of 500, and trains regularly hauled ore from Ontario’s first, and for a few years at least, largest iron mine.

The original discovery of the deposit was made in 1816, and the mine was completed on the site in 1820. An iron works project began in 1821 in nearby Marmora, finishing construction two years later. The iron works was built to smelt the ore produced by the mine, but both mine and iron works were severely hampered by the lack of infrastructure; there was simply no way to economically transport ore or pig iron out of the area and to the potential buyers.

The transportation challenges proved more damaging to the iron works than the mine. The original builder, Charles Hayes, soon surrendered the reigns to his principal creditor, Peter McGill, who continued operating the iron works until 1826. Two further attempts to revive the project — a plan to use convict labour, rejected by the government in 1837, and Joseph Van Norman’s attempt to restart the enterprise in 1848 — failed, and the iron works fell to ruin. The mine continued to languish in a state of financial loss for an additional 18 years, until finally, a way appeared to cheaply move the ore.

The Cobourg, Peterborough, and Marmora Rail and Mining Company was formed in August 1866 from the remains of the bankrupt Cobourg & Peterborough Rail Co. The first project of the new company was to construct 14 kilometres of track from the Blairton Mine to the nearest navigable point on Trent River. From there, small steamers moved the mined ore to Trenton. Despite the railway company going bankrupt again in 1877, the track linking mine and river remained in operation until the mine was shut down in 1883.

The rail meant that the Blairton Mine could finally come into its own. By 1870, a scant 50 years after the mine’s construction, the mine was the largest iron mine in Ontario. The May 29, 1869 issue of the Hamilton Spectator listed a number of schooners departing Cobourg harbour with loads of ore:

“The ore from the Blairton Mine is being brought forward and shipped in considerable quantities. The following vessels have already cleared from Cobourg: ORION, 253 tons, TWO BROTHERS, 195 tons, JESSIE, 315 tons, HERCULES, 318 tons, PERSIA, 294 tons, ANNIE FALCONER, 303 tons, SWEET HOME, 218 tons, H. P. MURRAY, 255 tons, WOODARD, 277 tons, UNDINE, 300 tons, NORTHUMBERLAND, 300 tons and TRADE WIND, 300 tons.”

The total ore produced by the mine that year is estimated at some 15,000 tons, with virtually all of the production being shipped to smelters in Cleveland and Pittsburgh.

By this time, the village of Blairton had been built to provide the labour. At its peak, with the mine employing between 300 and 400 workers, the village had grown to 500 residents, with seven general stores, four hotels, two bakeshops, a school, a railway station, a post office, a church and numerous liveries and blacksmith shops. The mining company had also constructed numerous boarding houses for the single workers, as well as approximately 40 company houses.

The prosperity of both mine and village lasted for over a decade, until the winter of 1883, when ice flows caused severe damage to the railroad trestle and water began seeping into the mine itself. The track was repaired, but the mine was never reopened.

The end of the mine meant the end of the village of Blairton as well. By 1900, only 25 of the 500 residents remained, and Blairton became a ghost town. Today, a single two-storey company house is all that remains of Ontario’s first iron mine.

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