Friday, August 31, 2007

Digging Dumps in Downtown Toronto, again.

On Sunday, August 26th 2007 Timbit the Treasure Hunter took me dumpdigging in downtown Toronto. The dig master had a few spots lined up, and he let me choose a new situation in a dump he calls ‘Cherry Street.’ We had an immediate discussion (disagreement) about the concept of gentrification, which was just defined here on this week. Tim denied the area around this dump is improving, but I contend that this region of Toronto is rapidly ‘gentrifying’ and that the contaminated grounds are being removed one by one as each properties’ market value escalates.

Tim is a veteran adventure conductor; he reasoned that the amount of digging required to hit pay dirt in this spot was just about equal to the amount of daylight remaining and the amount of bottled water in our bags.

Obscured from the curious glances of cyclists and passing automobiles in the thin shade of some soft maple trees, we sunk a new shaft beside an older hole.

Timbit had dug in this particular spot before, about ten years earlier, and now there were small trees growing up through the top of his old dirt piles. Tim noticed with mild amusement that the hole he had created in 1997 was now square in one end, where, no doubt, one of Toronto’s many homeless people had sheltered. I always find it ironice that if they had the time or the inclination they too could burrow for treasure in this sleepy hollow…

As Tim described his earlier escapade I listened carefully to the details… he had found a few crocks here and some whiskeys. I opened my ears as he related the history of the area, and I nodded in agreement when it felt appropriate - when he proposed the exact position in which we should expend our energies, I started digging,

Tim Braithwaite is a professional dumpdigger; he is a fulltime treasure hunter and an avid bottle collector. When other dumpdiggers share their stories he listens with patience and understanding; he has already seen everything once and dug everywhere twice.

I am a faithful servant, a documentarian who details his adventures, a soldier with a shovel who moves a lot of dirt.


More than a little superstitious, I marveled at a bent horseshoe I uncovered in my first shovel full of dump. This object was our dig’s first omen – was it good or bad? A bent horseshoe must signify something… “What would cause a horseshoe to bend like this?’ I wondered aloud.

“One hell of a traffic accident’ Tim replied and of course I then imagined a cart horse going too fast, cornering too hard, and upsetting his cargo… but that was nonsense – this horseshoe had been crushed by a machine. ‘That horse was eaten… ’ Tim said with conviction ‘and a glue factory worker removed that shoe after it was bent in some machine or plow or sledge.’ Anything was possible - we dumpdiggers could only speculate.


Early on our August 26th dig in the Cherry St dump Timbits uncovered many broken jam crocks. The small white stoneware is an enduring icon to the pioneer age. This was locally manufactured kitchenware that allowed settlers to preserve native fruits and berries throughout the winter. In the summer months a 1800’s family might enjoy home baked bread, butter and jam, cucumber sandwiches and cold pork.

I’m sure the aboriginals taught the European settlers a thing or two about making jam in Canada. Both the Iroquois and the Huron peoples had been making some of North America’s best pemmican for ages, and had evolved a very sophisticated trade network – depending on the season and the territory, blueberries, cranberries, and wild currents were combined with dried deer meat, sunflower seeds and other nuts; all was thoroughly mixed in animal fats, and pounded into a mash before being dehydrated in the hot August sun. Timbits laughed when I suggested that blueberry pemmican and strawberry pemmican were no doubt crowd favorites.


In the next goody vein we hit Timbits dredged out some small medicines, blanks and a T Eaton Drug Company bottle. A small cobalt blue Bromo Seltzer bottle which, when recovered in absolute mint condition is only worth about five dollars.


Dumpdiggers are not wont to walk away without a fight and the rebar in the hole that prevented us from getting a good swing was really annoying.


Three feet beyond those finds there appeared in the hole a sheer top OT sauce bottle, this clear glass specimen featured a sharp embossing of a hot pepper. Imported sauce bottles were common in the early 1900’s. Timbits incidentally dismissed all of his discoveries so far as junk, and in his opinion nothing yet recovered was worth ‘cleaning time’- he is right of course. I found this LINK on Ebay to a Seller in Australia trying to merchandise a beautiful green antique OT sauce bottle that’s older than mine and better embossed with the words ‘Granny Sauce’ for five bucks and getting no buyers.


A pair of LT Kirkland pop bottles came up next – the two units appeared intact, they had been sitting beside each other for ninety five years. The aqua glass was stained and a little ‘sick’ but the embossing on the sides of each bottle was quite sharp. If cleaned and polished the units might fetch two dollars each – but I doubt anyone would buy them. Toronto soda pop collectors probably already have enough L.T Kirkland bottles.

One of the more interesting conversations that erupted that day was ‘when was the golden age of bottle collecting?’. I tendered the notion that perhaps the golden age was still in the future, and I pointed to all the new information resources and sales portals on the internet feeding a future collecting frenzy. Tim however shook his head - negative. In his mind the golden age was twenty years ago when many bottles were more common. People who found the bottles back then were more apt to try and collect more specimens – and they were more apt to go digging for them too…


At the end of the dig Timbit recovered only one item worth keeping. I suppose this object, an amber crown top quart SANFORD INK & LIBRARY PASTE will be vended down in the USA among ink collectors as soon as Tim tumbles it clean...

In this photo the amber Sanford Ink and Library Paste bottle is on its side in front of the Kirkland sodas and the small medicines.

Click on the photos -- they expand.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Haunted Gold Mine

The smell of fresh cooked pork sausages filled the air as we loaded our provisions into two canoes alongside the long wooden pier at Bare Point Marina. The four of us had already drove half an hour west from Kenora, through an unkempt Indian reservation named Rat Portage, to the north east corner of the Lake of the Woods - it would be another hour or more before we stopped for anything to eat.
On this particular Saturday afternoon the world was bright and alive with the sound of children’s voices, dogs barking, and the ubiquitous hum of motor boat engines. None of us could fathom that our adventure would leave the land of living and descend into the darkness of the dead. There's no cell service on Lake of the Woods, and we travelled back in time as we paddled across Bald Indian Bay 

This is a true account of how we came to hear the ghostly voices of four dead miners at the bottom of the Number Two shaft on Sultana Island.

I'm Rob Campbell and I led the August 4th 2007 expedition to uncover the history, and search for valuable relics in the bowels of Sultana Island. This is the story of a forgotten gold mine, and one that’s not completely abandoned. Accompanied by Trixie Blasé, Jasmine Edu and Chester Huff (and two four legged friends, Theo and Poncho) my intrepid crew or fortune hunters set out with the best intentions.
The plan was simple – by canoes it would take us forty minutes to cross the bay. We planned to explore Sultana Island all afternoon and then return before sunset. It was our objective to find the lost gold mine and rummage around through the remains of some of the original buildings. Trixie and I have been trained by the very best dumpdiggers on how to dig century old foundations to find important relics… It’s important to remember, this mission started as a treasure hunt, not a séance.
Sultana is one of the most famous gold mines on the Lake of the Woods. The original claim was staked in November 1888 by Henry Bulmer, who sold the 27 acre property to a group of fifteen men who called themselves the Ontario Mining Company. This group, who did not even bother to register the claim, hired a prospector and a mining engineer from New York to assay their purchase. Unfortunately this ‘expert’ wrote an adverse report in the summer of 1889 and because of this document a third party named John F. Caldwell of Winnipeg managed to pick up the claim for a very reasonable price. He ignored the expert. He had visited the site himself and truly believed there was gold in the greenbelt quartz - he was right.
Mining operations commenced in the summer of 1892 when three small veins were discovered in the rock. Caldwell must have found enormous profit in his first six months as he soon spent $30,000 erecting a five stamp mill on the island. This was a steam powered machine that crushed quartz to release gold nuggets from the ore. The machinery was imported from Chicago and its assembly was completed just before Christmas. The stamps weighed 850 lbs each and were dropped eight inches 92 times a minute in the standard order, namely 1,5,2,4,3.
When we arrived at Sultana we found the sandy beach deserted of all life and the shore absolutely full of driftwood. It was a Beachcomber’s paradise. Beyond the dunes there was long grass and a dense forest that obscured all signs of any previous development. Just beyond the trees we encountered a crumbling rock wall holding back a mass of rusty barrels that was bisected by a narrow trail that snaked its way up a steep incline. A set of stairs had been cut right into the rock.
Chester found a small chunk of dark red ore buried in the soil here – a crumb of some really heavy metallic mineral. When I dug down into the rocky soil I dredged up barrel hoops and bucket handles, thick square nails, and rusty hinges… There was corrugated steel roofing lying in the grass beside the trail - this was all that remained of some structure no doubt integral to the operation of the mine.
As we continued walking up the rise the rest of the island came into view. At the top of the hill we each stared open mouthed at a century old rock cut that was the throat of the number two shaft. In the jaws of this stone cavity we could see moss covered timbers set right into the rock. At one time these tree trunks had supported a sturdy platform on which miners might have worked the hoists. At one point I threw a stone down into the darkness and we listened as it ricocheted off the sides of the passage - we waited almost fifteen seconds to hear the splash.
Unaware of any danger I climbed down the rock wall to stand on the bed of timbers. Immediately I felt a blast of very cold air rising from the cave – although it was the heat of the summer there was still plenty of ice down there in the darkness. Trixie was the first to hear it – dripping water echoed up the shaft and between each drip there were other sounds, less natural.
In December 1899 Caldwell sold the mine – he’d made his fortune and was probably aware that further mining would not produce more bullion than he’d already liberated from the island. The new owners kept the staff; 12 miners, 1 blacksmith, 5 mill men, and 2 cooks were each employed at $3.00 day. The Sultana mine had been very profitable for many years and the new management was eager to maintain production – too eager.
When the gold seams faded away into the rock a few months later the organization hired explosive experts and ferried a mass of low grade dynamite to the site. As the TNT was lowered down into the pit there was an accident. History doesn’t record exactly what happened, but it does detail the deaths of four miners in 1901. Two men were buried in the rock at the bottom of the tunnel - it took a week’s digging to recover the bodies. Those are the two spirits who cries forever resonate in the darkness of the mine.
Trixie bade us all to shut up and listen. Just for a moment, as I peered into the darkness of the abyss I could hear the rope squeaking and then I too heard the faint echo of human voices… it sounded like two men whispering soft warnings to each other… The air grew even colder as their voices grew louder and every member of the expedition was paralyzed with fear – we slowly backed away from the rock cut and then quickly ran down the hill and back to the boats. It was seriously scary stuff – fear pervaded our very beings and it wasn’t until we were back in our canoes and well away from shore that we could discuss the experience. We laughed about it then, but I think it’s safe to say that each of us was overcome with fear.
When I researched the mine at the Lake of the Woods Museum in Kenora, I learned that although the Sultana property was worked off and on for another thirty years it was never as productive as it was before the accident. And it was riff with very spooky incidents that speak of supernatural phenomenon; on two occasions there were dynamite boxes mysteriously emptied of all explosive material before they could be deployed. Equipment was found broken at the bottom of the pit and many new miners reported hearing voices calling out to them, begging for help. When I read that a cold shiver climbed up my spine; I had been there and had heard those voices myself.