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Muskoka's Gold - Still Waiting to be Found

Article by J. Patrick Boyer

It was only a matter of perseverance, and time, until somebody struck gold in Muskoka.

There’d been a definite pattern. Somebody in a remote region found placer gold shining in a gravelly mountain stream or his pick chipped a rocky outcropping’s secret. Then word of his claim trickled out. Then the riveting news became page one headlines in big city dailies everywhere.

As grapevine rumours spread, men rushed from their bank offices and foundry floors, left off selling farm machinery or arguing with their wives, quit quiescent universities and grizzly slaughterhouses, hurriedly joining the pilgrimage flocking to distance places they’d never heard about, dollar signs in their eyes, each panicky over discovering a share before others got it all.

On January 24, 1848, carpenter Jim Marshall found flakes of gold in the American River at the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California while building a sawmill. That triggered a rush of some 300,000 people to the “Golden State.” By 1855, the rush had garnered untold riches for some, producing over ten billion dollars worth of gold in today’s values. But most were no richer than when they’d arrived, and Indigenous people who’d not lost their lives had lost their lands.

Several years later, in 1860, public land surveyor J.O. Browne reached south Muskoka to survey Morrison Township, north of the Severn River, for the government. First, he discovered squatters who’d already made simple homes in the pristine wilderness. Then, he found evidence of mineral presence as well.

“On the more exposed ridges, in several parts of the township,” recorded Browne, “there appear strong indications of iron and copper ore of much purity.”

 It wasn’t gold, to be sure, but demand for both metals could lead a homesteader to think he might profit more from what he’d harvest below grade than from surface crops. However, apart from the odd settler following copper prices on the minerals market, his report was intended for the government’s benefit. Browne noted, as a tip for the government land agent: “The spots on which I more particularly observed the iron and copper are on lot 16 in concession A, lot 5 in concession 6, and to the north of concession lines 1 and 2, about lots 30 and 31.”

Elsewhere in Morrison, gold was found in early June 1867. Public land surveyor Albert Fowlie told the editor of his hometown village Orillia newspaper that he’d “discovered excellent indications of the auriferous deposit on the north side of Sparrow Lake.” The Expositor added, on June 14, “Fowlie is of the opinion the precious ore will be found in paying quantities and has purchased the property, intending to commence operations next week.” By mid-September, the Expositor’s update in gold fever news reported “on reliable authority that gold has been discovered at the mine of Hatch, Blain and Skinner of Sparrow Lake.” Assayed specimens had been “pronounced so rich, both in quality and quantity, that the fortunate possessors anticipate their mine will yield at least $500 worth of gold per day. A crushing mill will be in operation shortly.”

The government, mindful of the recent California gold rush, required its surveyors in these northern districts to include mineral reports so that land with precious or semi-precious metals could be transferred to homesteaders subject to a Crown reserve on minerals. News of Sparrow Lake gold brought a number of Simcoe County hopefuls to Morrison Township, but that gold play petered out.

 The first big rush to Muskoka was driven by the same reliable mixture of greed and grandiose visions that gold could spark – but the lure was even more promising, in a reliable sort of way. Rather than possibly finding gold, mere arrival in the District seemed about all it took to stake a claim for 100 acres, even 200, of free land.

 But, as with finding gold, you couldn’t just sit while others speed to the best “free grant lands” ahead of you. Settlers flocked to Muskoka. Quite a few were encouraged by pioneer entrepreneur Thomas McMurray’s prophesies. Publisher of the Northern Advocate, he ambitiously promoted settlement, fuelling a land boom. Along with practical tips about travel, land clearance and crops best suited to local conditions, McMurray’s newspaper touted promising mineral reports.

 In 1869, within a year of Ontario’s government beginning to give free land in the northern districts, the legislature passed the General Mining Act. Any transfer of title where the government’s land agent believed there was mineral potential would now be subject to the Act – specifically, a reserve for such minerals as gold.

Elsewhere in Muskoka, gold-bearing pyrites had been identified. The government was expecting mineral wealth. It was only a matter of time. Discoveries just took persistence, competitiveness and luck. Homesteaders got either a straight Crown patent from the Province or a “mining act deed” that reserved the land’s mineral rights for the Crown. Such title deeds became scattered throughout Muskoka’s land grants, wherever Crown royalties were anticipated from future mining based on the surveyors’ reports. In 1872, George Parlett, claiming his free land at Walker’s Point/Barlochan, got such a deed for lot 18 in concession 1. When he sold out and moved to Bracebridge, his transferred land remained subject to the Mining Act’s conditions. Others acquiring Mining Act deeds in that locale included Henrietta Bristen (1889) and George Baker (1891). Clearly the government envisaged mining opportunities, a potential Lake Muskoka Millionaires Row.

In 1871, Thomas McMurray published Free Grant Lands of Muskoka and Parry Sound in which he unfolded a tapestry of the fortunes awaiting settlers. His section “The Advantages of Muskoka” framed the future of a place “which nature designed to be an important manufacturing country, and one day may be the very workshop of Canada, itself.” Among the advantages were “minerals found in sufficient quantities to satisfy even the most incredulous,” and estimation that “this whole section abounds with the richest treasures which will be developed at no very distant date.”

Just six years later, in the spring of 1877, McMurray’s prediction seemed to come true.

Muskoka’s most mem-orable gold rush, so far, erupted after Neil Livingstone began moving earth he’d excavated for a new well in Gravenhurst. From the debris, he excitedly extracted a small gold nugget. These were days when California’s spectacular gold rush still tantalized people across the continent. Most everyone had sharp eyes for destiny waiting at their own feet.

W.E. Hamilton of Bracebridge, then researching and writing his Guide Book & Atlas of Muskoka and Parry Sound, keenly examined Livingstone’s discovery, a presumed harbinger of a Muskoka Township mother lode. The erudite and eloquent world-travelling graduate of Trinity College Dublin, though not an assayist, found the nugget “to be, undoubtedly the royal metal, in considerable purity.”

Hamilton dwelt in those days over the Bracebridge Gazette offices, being an assistant editor. When he published word of Muskoka gold in the paper, the Toronto press quickly scooped up the news. Ardent gold-diggers flocked north in droves. Extra coaches were added to trains, bringing urban wealth trackers to Muskoka’s primordial treasure chest. Neil Livingstone’s accidental find had sparked the Gravenhurst gold quest of 1877, a rush unlike most any other, anywhere in the world.

Participants in the Great Gravenhurst Gold Rush did not have to bounce starving in covered wagons across hostile territory or endure harrowing sea passages around the Cape of Horn, like those rushing to lawless California. They arrived, excited but comfortable, aboard Northern Railway passenger trains that slowed to a smooth stop at Gravenhurst Station, direct from Toronto. They stepped down into a thriving, law-abiding, established community. They booked clean accommodation at quality local hotels like the Fraser and the Royal. They purchased whatever was needed from well-stocked stores. They enjoyed the fine weather.

Neither the men, nor the women who find wealth accompanying all-male enterprises into wilderness locales, ever did discover “more nuggets just lying on the ground” as anticipated. “None of them found gold in paying quantity,” reminisced Redmond Thomas, a next generation Gazette editor, “and the great majority found no gold at all.” However, they enjoyed the easiest, shortest, most comfortable gold rush in world history.

It was harder in Yukon. In mid-August 1896 three prospectors, Keish Goox, Káa Goox and George Carmack, an American who’d married into their Tagish First Nation family, discovered gold on Rabbit Creek, a small tributary of the Klondike River which soon became world famous as “Bonanza Creek.” Word reached the outside world in July 1897, sparking a stampede as tens of thousands, including Muskokans, urgently joined the rush. Flats along the Klondike River became overpopulated boomtown Dawson City, where men fought for a place even to sit down, or sort through mail, some of it from Muskoka. The Great Rush of ‘98 caused Yukon Territory to be severed from the NWT for governing. It catapulted the RCMP to legendary status – imposing lawful order, forcing prospectors to lift a ton of gear on their backs in repeated lifts over the impossibly steep Chilkoot Pass, and relentlessly searching out criminals, “getting their man.” 

 Over in Alaska’s wild and lawless gold play, Frank G. Horner was one of the successful ones. By the 1920s, this gold field veteran was living in Bracebridge, driving a fine automobile, enjoying the good life, accompanied by a stunning beauty. He and Redmond Thomas were chatting behind the Bracebridge Wharf while waiting to meet a Muskoka Navigation Co. steamship returning from its summer afternoon cruise when, as Thomas recalled, “Horner’s keen eyesight detected a familiar sign in the crushed stone of the road.” He strolled over, picked the piece up, and examined it. Pointing to some markings, he handed it to Thomas, announcing, “Gold!”

“Does this mean there’s gold to be found in Muskoka?”

 Horner began recounting he’d found gold in Muskoka rocks various times, but his intriguing revelation was ended by the steamer’s shrill whistle as she entered the bay. Refocusing on their immediate mission, Frank embraced his gorgeous wife, bachelor Redmond greeted his mother. As they left the wharf, Horner managed to add, “But never in anything approaching commercial value.”

But it’s hard to prove a negative. Just because he’d not made a big strike didn’t mean Muskoka was barren of gold. Gold in solid rock had been worked at Rosseau, between Muskoka and Parry Sound districts.

Two decades later in the summer of 1944, Frank Brown, operating a sawmill on the former Thomson homestead along Macaulay Township’s Kirk Line, wondered if the rocks that confounded Thomson’s farming might reward him differently. He went to North Bay to see Professor Peter Christopher McKenna, often tapped for his sixth sense knowledge about places distant. Clairvoyant McKenna had never been in Muskoka, except passing through by train. However, in their “consultation,” McKenna not only accurately described the old Thomson place but saw a valuable deposit of gold on it. Three weeks later, he came down to Bracebridge, on Brown’s dime, and drove a stake into the ground indicating where the gold would be found.

Brown next contracted a Kirkland Lake diamond drill expert. In March 1945, the crew drilled directly down at McKenna’s stake and struck gold. An assay of the rock samples revealed gold in excellent commercial quantity. Brown told Redmond Thomas, the ever-circulating Gazette editor, his riveting news, which made the front page of the paper’s March 29th edition.

Professor McKenna never learned about Brown’s rewarding experience; he’d died that winter, before drilling proved again his all-seeing powers. That’s something clairvoyants relish hearing, but are never surprised about. The bigger mystery is why Frank Brown’s Macaulay Township gold mine, apparently, never proceeded.

Elsewhere in Muskoka, the astonishing discovery of a single gold nugget on a Monck Township farm east of Ziska sparked at least a localized rush. The gold was above the surface, and, well, in the farmhouse actually.

In the kitchen, dressing a turkey for roasting began by scooping out its guts. The farmwife’s “Eureka!” moment came upon discovering in the stomach’s contents a rounded stone of gold. She excitedly showed around her sudden wealth. Because the bird had been born and raised on their farm, it was a reliable harbinger. The family, with such proof that great wealth was at hand, never did eat roast turkey that night. The priorities of avarice kept them outdoors, searching every gravelly zone where turkeys dined, or might have.

 Several days’ intensive ground scratching failed to produce further gold, though just pecking the surface showed this family resembled their turkeys more than serious prospectors. They settled for a lame quip. “We didn’t have the goose that laid the golden egg, but the turkey that swallowed the gold mine.”

 Which is why there’s gold still waiting, just east of Ziska.

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