An unseasonably warm day – early March found JC and I visiting Southern Ontario on a search for abandoned gypsum mines.
Where both the Grand River and the Nith River meet there is the quaint though somewhat aged town of Paris. It has the appearance of having been passed by progress, there are brick and barn board sided buildings in the downtown – somewhat neglected, but full of character. Large mills had once tapped the water power and the mining of plaster of Paris leaves a fascinating terrain of forgotten rail embankments, inexplicable hollows and gullies along the river bank, weirs and beaches where barges once loaded up the chalky material from underground and of course decayed and vine choked foundations.
I was inspired to photograph this backstreet business, ‘The Grand River Experience’ it appears that they offer canoe and kayak rental as well as tours down the river; I believe it was on their website that I had my first glimpse of a riverside gypsum mine – supposedly one of many that are around there. As you might have guessed, there is a connection between ‘plaster of Paris’ and the coincidence of this calcium sulfate material being mined from a conglomerate that underlies the area. It is said that the gypsum comes from Silurian age lenticular deposits on the south east flank of the Algonquin Arch.
Devil’s Cave is one example of a local feature where running water has dissolved away the gypsum and having washed the conglomerate out, there are small cavities lived in by a colony of beavers and decorated by spectacular white speleothems and flowstone.
Having now visited this area several times and followed apparently sure leads, both JC and I are somewhat disillusioned as to the prospects of finding open gypsum adits – though a cave is far preferred. Everything seems blocked up real well (with the exception of a single adit along the river bank downriver from the town). Crossed shovel and pick symbols on a map (available on the internet) generally leads you to a spot where you’ll find an undercut that is pretty much buried in countless tons of soil.
Having long been fascinated by industrial archeology, urban exploration and various forgotten tunnel explorations I’d like to know of where there are old gypsum mines around Paris where an interested person can visit and actually go underground?
Leaded paint rock art circa 1970. Do you suppose the artist was trying to express his inner soul? will this still be here a thousand years from now and what will they surmise of primitive Ontarions?
I found this unique piece of primitive graffiti in an abandoned Mine near Niagara Falls – this at the edge of a pool of water that stretched on into cavernous darkness. All through the water there are great hand-cut wooden beams and remnants of the previous mining operation and a deflated plastic raft that had once been used to venture deeper in. From past experience this would be the best way to do it as the mud is really treacherous.
As you might guess by my post I did not go to P-Lake today. I woke up At around 03:30 with a terrible headache (I always get one when the clouds are moving in and I hear we are in for a severe rainstorm tonight) and I thought – “I’m on holiday, why do I want to do this to myself.” It’s a 5 hour drive either way, lots of hacking through the bush and then I’m not even sure of where the cave is. Last time almost killed me. So instead I switched the alarm off and slept in till about 10 and then I went south for 2 hours instead of north for 5 – to the Queenstone Sandstone Mine. It was relatively easy to find and just as big and mazy as I remembered from that trip with Dan about 10 years ago. Only thing that has changes was the path to get there.
See that pillar in the middle of the room – go ahead kick it – I dare you.
There’s a crevice that cuts under a cliff face. It leads to an underground lake that just goes on and on. Dan and I spent about two hours underground wandering waist deep in water. I am thinking that the mine is somewhere between 100 and 170 years old.
Back in the 1820′s and 30′s there was a serious demand for building stone in Southern Ontario; Whirlpool Sandstone was one of the most valued materials. It was extracted from a layer just above the Queenstone shale.
Near Belfountain you can see this rock at the base of Church’s Falls. See the chapter on Belfountain on page 69 of my book “Rockwatching; Adventures Above and Below Ontario” The rock that came from there was a maroon color and was used to build Queen’s Park and various buildings at University of Toronto. Down here in the more southerly areas of the escarpment the Whirlpool Sandstone seems a lot higher on the escarpment than it is further to the north. It is also more varied in color and I am told that it is possible to find azurite and malachite in chert pockets in that rock.
Anyway the construction of the Welland Canal generated a great deal of demand for building stone as did the increasing size of the urban structures around the “Golden Horseshoe.” Finally around 1900 the skyscraper came into being. The strength of the modern skyscraper comes not from its rigid outer shell but from its internal steel girder skeleton. This change in design meant that standard construction stones suddenly lost their market and materials such as Italian and Indian marbles started showing up. They formed a thin veneer as did materials like glass, labradorite and granite. they were in no way responsible for the buildings structural integrity. Sandstone had seen its day and the mines closed shortly thereafter.
Some years back year Jeff Mirza and I traveled up to Belfountain to see if we could find our way into one of these underground tunnel systems. Apparently there are several deep passages above the hairpin bend as you wind down from Belfountain into the Credit Valley. Jeff had even seen a picture of a shaft in the forest with a ladder leading down into the mines. After a day of trudging along the hillsides we came to the conclusion that the entrances had all been blasted shut. It was not the case here. The tunnels lie wide open. It was as much a historical exploration as it was a geological one. The rooms were quite low though generally very wide and initially lit by small shafts that cut up to a brambly plateau above. The vegetation was so thick that it was almost impossible to progress on the surface, nevertheless, the shafts of light on the underground lake were really picturesque.
At times high banks of rubble rose out of the water and it was necessary to slither along on our bellies. In places deeper into the mine calcite deposition had made a hard, translucent shell across the top of these banks and we had to be careful so as not to damage the profuse clusters of soda straws that were forming on the roof. The bats seemed quite perturbed by our arrival in their world and somebody was cheeping angrily from up a crack in the roof. On several occasions they fluttered by and I could just catch glimpses of their chaotic flight. I was surprised by the extent of speleothem formation in the mine. I had believed that under good conditions soda straws could grow at about an inch every hundred years though in remembrance of a winter excursion Jeff and I had done up a storm sewer in Hamilton a few years back, that one inch can be quite drastically stretched.
As we waded through the lake there were tunnels that branched off in every direction, the air seemed dead and the steam that rose from our coveralls clung to us. it made photography quite difficult.
The water was so still and clear in one spot that I was surprised by the ripples when I crawled right into a pool. We continued on along a mound that was just beneath the surface. Dan wandered off to the side into the deeper water and suddenly found himself hip high in really treacherous mud. I had a similar experience moments later and we decided that further exploration would have to be done with an air matress. Up ahead it sounded like a heavy rainstorm and I think that there must have been a spot where the water was pouring in.
I paid my $2 at the house of the landowner whose property I had to cross and then headed off into the woods. I’d heard that the path to the mine was about 4 miles long (it was not), but possibly longer, and the route was signposted (it was not- or should I say, it was in places).
The attraction at the Silver Crater Mine is a pit and adit that are rich in Betafite crystals. I found a lump of calcite with the top of one such crystal sticking out. It looks like the dull grey top of an octahedron. The adit burrows through a granular calcite which in my opinion does not make for a well-supported roof. So my advice about the adit is to stay out. I went in about 10 feet before coming to this decision.
Aside from radioactive betafite, there is also apatite (turned red by radiation), large books of biotite and horneblende.
Craigmont is about as distant from the reach of the modern world as you are likely to get in the “near north”. Indeed it appears on the map as a substantial settlement but as you cruise up Boulter road you become aware of how far you really are, both geographically and culturally from the bustle of Southern Ontario.
Coasting over hills that stretch off greenish-blue into the summer haze it seems as though you are crossing into a time warp. Meadows are saturated with intense colour and high pastoral fields line the road, strewn with orange and yellow flowers. Beyond this lies the valley of the “Little Mississippi River”. Spike-topped conifers wander unbroken to the horizon and in hillside fields lazy cows watch disinterestedly at the crumbling demise of old log barns.
As a collecting locale, Craigmont is remarkable. Not only is the beauty unsurpassed but its minerals are spectacular. Corundum here is found in large euhedral (perfectly formed) specimens; lapidaries have been known to cut them into cabochons. In their book, “Rocks and Minerals of Ontario” the Ontario Department of Mines say that there are unusual curved mica crystals. Garnets, molybdenite, allanite, uranite, euxenite, magnetite, pyrite and hornblende also appear from time to time.
Blink and you just might glide past Craigmont. The inhabited part is now a private town. It exists as a cluster of houses, barns and sheds and around it the vegetables flourish in earthy rows.
Robillard Mountain is situated within sight of the present habitation; an impressive upheaval of rugged red rock. Some twenty separate excavations scar its slopes.
As a general rule most corundum is found in pegmatites and structures associated with nepheline syenites. In this area north of Bancroft the most abundant deposits (corundum) are said to be sandwiched between scapolite, nepheline andesine and a band of alkaline syenite.
I took a hike beneath the mountain to see the syenite from below.
My purpose for visiting the Croft Mine had been was to photograph the fabled head frame – Ralph Schroetter, my guide at Coe Hill had said that it was one of the last such relics in the area. I soon came to realize that finding the abandoned structure would be no easy task. The forest was so thick that I could barely see twenty feet ahead.
I attempted to piece together the most likely location for a mining structure from the location of the dumps, adit, and the many overgrown tracks. Along one old bramble covered path I found a shelf system that had held the drill cores, along another track I found a collection of rusty old barrels. I spent some brief amount of time on the dumps looking for traces of the garnet bearing pegmatite. Mysterious, moss-covered beams were strewn everywhere. Might one of these heaps be the head frame that Ralph had spoken of?
Climbing the hill above the adit, I hoped to sight my goal, but I soon realized that I was out of luck. A yellow carpet stretched off bewilderingly in every direction. Breaking through the canopy was impossible. It was like I was drowning in an endless rain of sticky wet leaves. If it were not for the contour of the hillside, a factor that helped maintain my orientation, I doubt that I would have found my way back to the access track.
The water in the adit was knee-deep and crystal clear. I could see corrugations in the sand from big knobby tires. It seemed that somebody had driven an ATV into tunnel. Touching the wall I got an immediate whiff of the earth – it was that moldering fungus smell you get when you dig in rotting leaves. Unlike the Richardson adit, there is no air movement here; it is absolutely still – like a mausoleum. Knowing the dangers of such an exploration I only stood in the entrance and though I had to fight my curiosity, I turned back for the fresher air of the forest outside.
Check out this rare earth mine near Bancroft – the shaft drops down to a depth of over 400 feet …. Here We found it in the bush by following the surface clues – a mine dump and old beams and tin.
Between 1953 and 1955 Croft Uranium Mines worked the area for radioactive minerals. They found betafite, uranite, uranothorite, allanite and pyrochlore. Their appearance is flagged in the pegmatite by a dark red color and quartz that has darkened to a grayish-black. There are also said to be small pink garnets in the gneiss and larger specimens in the pegmatite – some reaching up to 3 centimeters in diameter.
A couple of hundred meters along the mine road I got Maggie to pull over in a little clearing and I continued on foot, leaving her there with the understanding that I would be back as soon as I had found the mine and explored the dumps. She had Shaka with her for company and I had my whistle that I tooted on intermittently so as not to walk unexpectedly into a hunter’s ambush. The whistle also served the dual purpose of letting bears know of my presence as the bush was thick and close to the path and I had no wish to meet the “mother of all bears” in a circumstance of mutual surprise.
The road dropped steeply down into a valley and I soon realized that leaving the car above was a wise move. There was nowhere to turn around, the ruts got deeper, and the track was soon entirely underwater. Beavers had built a stick and mud palisade that held back a stinking organic tidal wave that would one day inundate the swamp below. As for the road, forget it. I climbed across on logs and waded knee-deep in mud, thinking what it might be like during bug season (What looks like a stream in front of the beaver dam is actually the mine road).
On the other side of the beaver dam the track began a slow and steady climb upward. I noticed the appearance of crushed granite where I walked and of course the telltale patches of eastern hemlock. These trees tend to grow in clusters wherever the natural forest has been disturbed. They tell you where to look for hidden human habitation.
I soon discovered the mine dumps on my left and in a marshy gully I unexpectedly found the adit.
See another abandoned uranium mine in Ontario … here or my trip to the Sarnac Zircon Mines … here (where we were again terrorized by the possibility of being eaten by bears
My mother worked at Christ Church (Oxford University) and she was the first to bring the Trill Mill Stream to my attention. Pictured here the stream appears deep and slow – coming from under the University into Christ Church Meadow.
At one time the stream actually flowed on the surface, but it was eventually buried. The high walls within which the stream is channeled (just before it reaches the Thames – or the Isis as they call it in Oxford) is because in the 1800s the vapors coming off the water were blamed for causing a cholera epidemic- hence the idea to contain it. Initial exploration of the stream in the 1920s revealed a rotting Victorian punt wedged somewhere within and populated by 3 human skeletons.
Numerous people have traversed this underground waterway, Lawrence of Arabia did it in a canoe and one enterprising adventurer used a sea plane float. Modern urban explorers record their adventure and reveal an arched roof of bricks, the undersides of numerous manhole covers and a passage that makes at least 6 90 degree turns – finally ending in an iron gate – as seen from the outside it is this incredibly archaic industrial age contraption – a plate of metal that is raised and lowered by a wheel.
In Ronald Knox’s book, “The Hidden Stream; the Mysteries of the Christian Faith” he mentions Trill Mill Stream in his introduction in saying that, “if you know the right turning close by the gas works you may thrust your canoe up to the mill-pool under the castle walls where an entrance hardly more dignified than that of a sewer invites you to leave the noise of Oxford behind, and float down through the darkness.”
If I still lived in Oxford, I would certainly have been one of the explorers. I had at one time entertained the idea of using an air mattress. Now that I live in Canada the gloomy tunnels under Guelph will have to suffice – sadly they do not have the history of the Trill mill stream.
I can’t remember what I’ve blogged about this trip so far – so here is the full story (as I remember).
There is this incredible storm drain that is very spectacular (as storm drains go). Many years ago SNFU and I resolved to follow it up as far as we could – this in place of the especially old drains in Niagara falls that I still intend to visit.
Well you enter in a rather public place – at the edge of a highway and the noise from within is quite intimidating. As a caver that sound of water suggested that we were about to be swamped by a flash flood, but it never came so we waded in and soon found ourselves at the bottom of a stairway down which flowed a gush of very cold water.
It was midwinter and though you might not be able to tell, I am wearing a wet suit beneath my coat.
The stairs slope toward their center and with the algae build-up and the coldness it was not exactly easy, but we were very pleased to have done it and we rose from about the water level at the lake to the height just at the base of the cliffs. Along the way we had the fortune to observe some rather spectacular rust stalactites which were growing from cracks in the roof from which water poured. We resolved in the spring when the water was higher and warmer to inner-tube the drain from infall to outlet (wearing helmets) but in retrospect, its probably better that we didn’t.
Following the release some time ago of my book "Rockwatching; Adventures above and below Ontario", I am pleased to announce the release of my new book "Tamarindo; Crooked Times in Costa Rica". It is a story of opportunity. Edgehill Press is the publisher. (www.edgehillpress.com)